The creation of Czechoslovakia and its identity politics

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“As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovakia, we can also be reminded of the fragile and unbalanced identity politics of the state.”  

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On 28 October 1918, a state was born. Czechoslovakia broke off the collapsing Habsburg Monarchy to create a union of provinces with no previous historic connections: Bohemia, Moravia, Czech-speaking Silesia, Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia. Despite this diversity, it soon built an image of a successful democracy, which was economically sustainable and catered for minorities that had shared the geopolitical space for centuries. Such was the image. The reality of the cohabitation was rather different.

The move to create an independent political unit was preceded by activities of a group of politically active figures (most of them Czech, a few Slovaks) who towards the end of the First World War formed a provisional exile government led by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk who would become Czechoslovakia’s first president. They composed the so-called Washington Declaration, a proclamation of independence from Austria Hungary, which was published on 18 October 1918 in Paris.The idea of a republic, however, was only one of the options discussed during WWI, alongside remaining an autonomous part of Austria turned into a federation; establishment of a kingdom with a potential ruler from Russia, installment of a centralized dictatorship backed by the military, or becoming a part of a new pan-Slavic superstate. 

Representatives of emigres from Central Europe, negotiating with the Allies, eventually settled on a new political union of Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Jews, Hungarians, Poles, and Rusyns, the inhabitants of Subcarpathean Ruthenia. The new Czechoslovak government felt that this assortment had to be justified in the construct of a Czechoslovak nation. In this, the two Slavic groups of Czechs and Slovaks could form a majority against the substantial minorities of especially Germans and Hungarians who had lived in the Czech and Slovak parts respectively. To illustrate the split, in the census of 1921, the “Czechoslovak” inhabitants consisted of nearly 7 million Czechs, over 3 million Germans, nearly 2 million Slovaks, three quarter of a million of Hungarians, and half a million of Rusyns.

The idea of the Czechoslovak people, language and culture was widely promoted by the press and politicians both for domestic and international consumption. To legitimise such a construct, it was also necessary to (re-)create a common cultural history according to which the Czechs and Slovaks consisted of a single entity. The Czechs and the Slovaks were treated as a single group. Within this setup, Czech identity prevailed as it was placed in a historically and economically advantageous position. Already within Austria Hungary, Bohemia was a prospering industrial province while more eastern regions tend to rely on agriculture. Slovakia, which in the Habsburg monarchy was a subject to Hungarian rule, was popularly and to an extent officially regarded as under-developed. 

There were further challenges the state’s identity faced. The little-known, easternmost region of Subcarpathean Ruthenia joined Czechoslovakia as a result of negotiations that started in 1917 in the USA between Masaryk, US President Wilson and Rusyn-Americans. The Rusyns did not fit the picture of a joint Czechoslovak historic heritage and remained the obscure inhabitants of a rural eastern province distant from the industrialised west; one might even say that they were the inhabitants of the Czechoslovak Orient. A comment from a Czech geographer from 1924 aptly describes this colonial attitude:

“The Czech who came here after the coup is a man with a Western European education, an honest and efficient official, who easily understands the Rusyn people; he is… a real democrat. In his relationship to the local people, he is not a master or a commander, but an honest and friendly fellow citizen and adviser. We bring order, discipline, Western European democracy, and culture to this land of former oriental chaos and disorder .”

The largely rural territory remained under direct Czechoslovak governance until 1924 when the Ruthenians gained representation (however small) in the national parliament, while the region did not become fully autonomous until 1938. 

The entire uneven union of the ethnic groups in Czechoslovakia was not meant to last. Slovak, German, Hungarian and Polish nationalism within the republic and outside of its territory intensified during the late 1920s and eventually caused weakening of the state’s internal and international position. The Second Czech-Slovak Republic, created after the Munich Agreement in September 1938 introduced a hyphen in the name of the state to indicate Slovak emancipation. Eventually, too, the German border regions of the Sudetenland inhabited mainly by Germans were ceased by the Reich in events leading up to WWII. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovakia, we can also be reminded of the fragile and unbalanced identity politics of the state. 

References:

  1. Karel Matoušek, Podkrapatská Rus, Prague, 1924, p. 89.

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