Czechoslovakia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Czechoslovakia, former republic in Central Europe, in existence from 1918 until 1993. On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and the Czech Republic and Slovakia emerged as independent nations. In terms of land, population, and economy, the Czech Republic absorbed two-thirds and Slovakia one-third of the former Czechoslovakia.


A president, premier, and cabinet of ministers formed Czechoslovakia’s executive branch of government; a bicameral Federal Assembly performed all legislative functions; and a supreme court and a series of lower courts together functioned as the judicial authority. Once ruled solely by the Communist Party, the republic admitted more parties into the governmental system in 1990.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) controlled the country’s military structure as stated in the Warsaw Pact. In 1991 all Soviet troops withdrew from Czechoslovakia. Prague served as the federal capital of Czechoslovakia and is now the capital of the Czech Republic.


Czechoslovakia’s main cultural achievements took place primarily in the Middle Ages and after the 18th century. In the intervening three centuries, control by Germans resulted in the suppression of native achievement and forced many artists, musicians, and philosophers to live abroad. The 14th century laid the basis for a national style in painting, made famous by the unknown Master of Vyšší Brod and a distinctive style in architecture called the Vladislav Gothic. The 19th century witnessed a revival and further development of painting, music, and sculpture. The 1960s saw a return to prominence of Czechoslovakian films. The Shop on Main Street (1966), directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, and Loves of a Blonde (1965), directed by Miloš Forman, won general acclaim in the West.

Traditional painting in Czechoslovakia during the 19th century was best exemplified by the works of Josef Mánes. The portrait painter Max Švabinský and the sculptor Josef Myslbek gained recognition around the turn of the 20th century. Josef Drahoňovský, who sculpted in various media, including glass, achieved prominence after World War I (1914-1918). Later in the 20th century František Kupka achieved a posthumous reputation as one of the pioneers of abstract painting, and Jiří Kilář established an international reputation for his witty collages.

Czech contribution to music has been of notable international importance. The composer Bedřich Smetana is known as the father of Bohemian national music; Antonín Dvořák, who was born in Bohemia, lived and worked in the United States for several years; Leoš Janáček is noted for his operas and songs, some of which were based on folk themes; and Bohuslav Martinů, whose symphonic music bears ethnic traces of its Czech origin, also lived and composed in the United States.

While the Communists ruled Czechoslovakia, the film, radio, television, telephone, and telegraph services were all state-owned. The ministry of information oversaw the editorial operations of all newspapers, and the ministry of communications was in charge of distribution. Besides the major Communist newspaper, Rudé Právo (Red Justice), nationally distributed daily newspapers included the organs of two parties allied with the Communist Party.

In the late 1980s the Central Council of Trade Unions, the governing body of the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement, encompassed 97 percent of the labor force. It was charged specifically with encouraging productivity, informing the government about labor needs, and providing recreation for workers. Membership and monthly dues were generally compulsory.


For the early history of the former Czechoslovakia, see Czech Republic and Slovakia.

During World War I, Czech nationalist leaders Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš formed a provisional government for a Czecho-Slovak republic with the support of Slovak leaders, including Milan Štefánik, and Allied powers. The republic of Czechoslovakia was established at Prague immediately after the war, on October 28, 1918. The new republic included the former imperial provinces of Bohemia, Moravia, part of Silesia, Slovakia, and sub-Carpathian Ruthenia.

The New State

The new Czechoslovakia was a Western-style democratic republic, with a parliamentary form of government, universal suffrage, and firm guarantees for human rights. The First Republic (1918-1938) had only two presidents: the aged Masaryk and his younger colleague, Beneš. Although a wide variety of political parties vied for power, the country enjoyed stable government after World War I. Most of this time, a coalition of the five major parties, led by the Agrarians, ruled the state. Extremist groups of the right and left, including a small native Fascist movement and a Communist Party founded in 1921, never gained real political strength.

Granted generous territorial boundaries and inheriting a wealth of industrial resources from the defunct Austrian Empire, Czechoslovakia was also a comparatively prosperous country. A stable currency and a moderate program of land redistribution helped it weather successfully the postwar economic crisis and the worldwide depression that began in 1929.

Internal Dissension

The new state, however, had serious problems and implacable enemies. Like the Habsburg monarchy it had replaced, Czechoslovakia was a state of many nationalities. The two “state peoples,” the Czechs and Slovaks, totaled only 67 percent of the population, the dominant Czechs alone only 51 percent. The rest consisted of “national minorities,” and although they were generally well treated by the central government, these minorities had little or no desire to be part of the new state and felt little loyalty to it. Germans, concentrated mainly in the Sudety (Sudeten) mountains (see Sudetenland) of northern Bohemia, comprised 22 percent of the total inhabitants, Ruthenes (Ukrainians) 6 percent, and Hungarians 5 percent. Worse, relations between the Czechs and Slovaks themselves were not very amicable. In 1918, Masaryk had signed the so-called Pittsburgh Agreement with representatives of Slovak emigrants in the United States, promising the European Slovaks self-government in a joint postwar state. However, the constitution of 1920 declared Czechoslovakia to be a centralized, unitary state of a single “Czechoslovak people,” who spoke a “Czechoslovak language.” The Slovaks also resented the patronizing attitude of the more urbanized Czechs and their control of much of the administrative machinery, even in Slovakia. Their fervent Roman Catholicism was offended by the hostility that existed between the Czech-dominated government and the Vatican.

Foreign Policy

Insecure at home and fearful of the revisionist aims of its neighbors—Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Poland—Czechoslovakia sought to ensure its survival through close cooperation with France, Britain, and the League of Nations and by signing a series of defensive military agreements. In 1920 and 1921, it joined Romania and the Yugoslav state in the Little Entente, and in 1925 it signed a treaty of mutual defense with France. Another such treaty—with the Soviet Union—was signed in 1935.

German Claims and the Munich Pact

The combination of inner weakness and external threat ultimately destroyed Czechoslovakia. Following the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in Germany in 1933, the three million Sudeten Germans rallied to the Sudeten German Party founded by Konrad Henlein, a former gymnastic instructor. With Hitler’s urging and support, Henlein made increasingly radical demands on the Czechoslovak government for self-rule for the German minority. Rejecting such proffered concessions as guarantees of equal opportunity in government service and equal unemployment benefits, he called for the complete restructuring of the country along nationality lines and demanded that the German minority be placed under Hitler’s direct protection.

After the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, all the German political parties in Czechoslovakia, except the Social Democrats, withdrew from participation in the government. In his Karlsbad Program (April 1938), Henlein repeated and escalated his demands, requiring a drastic alteration in the pattern of Czechoslovakia’s foreign alliances as well. Pressured by the British mediator, Lord Runciman, the Czechoslovak government offered even greater concessions, but Henlein broke off negotiations and fled to Germany. On September 12, 1938, Hitler officially declared himself in support of self-determination for the Sudeten Germans. Britain and France, anxious to avoid war, leaned heavily on Czechoslovakia to be conciliatory. Fearful of losing their support, the Czechoslovak government accepted British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s request that it cede all territories in which the population was at least 50 percent German. The terms were worked out by Britain, France, Germany, and Italy (but not Czechoslovakia) at a conference in Munich, Germany, on September 29-30, 1938. As a result of the Munich Pact, Czechoslovakia lost its western and northern borders and with them its best fortifications and natural defenses and vast economic resources. The USSR offered to come to Czechoslovakia’s aid if France also agreed to do so. Poland and Hungary took advantage of Czechoslovakia’s weakness to present ultimatums for the cession of long-disputed border territories. Altogether, Czechoslovakia lost 4.8 million people, of whom one-fourth were Czechs and Slovaks.

Dismemberment and War

The Second Czechoslovak Republic (1938-1939) lasted only six months. President Beneš resigned and left the country in October 1938. A new, right-wing government under Emil Hácha slavishly accommodated German wishes and granted autonomy to Slovakia and Ruthenia. On March 15, 1939, German troops simply occupied Bohemia and Moravia, making them a “protectorate” of the German Reich. Germany also prodded the Slovaks to declare their own independent republic, a clerico-fascist state headed by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jozef Tiso, that became a puppet and military ally of the Reich. Ruthenia was returned to Hungary.

Except for the assassination of a Gestapo official, Reinhard Heydrich, in 1942, and an armed uprising in Prague in May 1945, Czech resistance during World War II (1939-1945) was rather passive, emphasizing sabotage and the collection of intelligence. In the Slovak National Uprising of August 1944, a coalition of groups opposed to the Slovak regime tried, unsuccessfully, to topple it.

Abroad, having received Allied recognition as the head of a Czechoslovak government-in-exile, Beneš made plans for the postwar revival of his country. Disillusioned with the betrayal by the Western powers at Munich, he decided to reorient the future Czechoslovak state toward a reliance on the Soviet Union, to make it a “bridge between East and West.” In 1943, he signed a 20-year treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. When the government was reestablished on Czechoslovak soil in April 1945, it included a strong Communist contingent, as did the “action committees” that sprang up throughout the country and took over local administration.

The Communist Takeover

In the Third Czechoslovak Republic (1945-1948), the Communists, with Soviet backing, rapidly increased their political power. National elections in May 1946 gave them more than a third of the parliamentary seats. Beneš was restored to the presidency, but the Communist leader Klement Gottwald was called to form a new cabinet, and his partisans gained control of the ministries of education, interior, and communications. Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia was ceded to the Soviet Union, and the Sudeten Germans were expelled en masse from the country. Major industries were nationalized. The prewar conservative political parties, including the powerful Agrarians, were banned, and prominent anti-Communists were killed or exiled.

From mid-1947, however, the Communists’ strength clearly began to weaken. They reacted by attempting to assassinate prominent opponents and by packing the police force with their own followers. In February 1948, 12 non-Communist ministers resigned from the government, in an attempt to force a showdown with the Communists. The attempt failed. The Communists still commanded a majority of the cabinet, and their control of the police and workers’ militia permitted them to mount armed demonstrations in the streets. President Beneš, ill and fearful of civil war, capitulated and appointed a new government dominated by Communists and their allies.

Soon afterward Beneš died, and Gottwald replaced him as president. Czechoslovakia was rapidly turned into a model Soviet satellite nation. Industry, commerce, and transport were nationalized, agriculture collectivized, churches attacked and restricted, and education and cultural-intellectual life revamped along Marxist lines. Anti-Communists, labeled subversives, were sent to prison and labor camps. In the early 1950s, in a series of public show trials, the Communist Party purged many of its own members, including its first secretary, Rudolf Slánský.

When Gottwald died in 1953, he was succeeded as president by Antonin Zápotocký. Responding to the general thaw in Eastern Europe following the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953, and to workers’ riots and open disaffection on the part of farmers, intellectuals, and students, the new regime permitted a mild liberalization of conditions. But when Antonin Novotný assumed the presidency in 1957 (he had been first secretary of the Communist Party since 1953), a traditional Stalinist system was reimposed. Grave economic shortages and difficulties finally forced de-Stalinization upon Novotný and party hard-liners from 1963 on.

The Prague Spring

At the beginning of 1968, a progressive faction of the Czechoslovak Communist Party decided that radical changes were necessary to forestall a major catastrophe. In January Novotný was replaced as first secretary of the party by Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, and in March as president by General Ludvik Svoboda, a hero of World War II. In the ensuing months, which became known as the “Prague Spring,” the new regime set about liberalizing and democratizing Czechoslovak life and loosening the country’s association with the USSR. Its “Action Program” guaranteed freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion; gave a greater role to non-Communist parties and groups; adopted economic reforms, including decentralized decision making and profit incentives; agreed to the rehabilitation of persons unjustly convicted in the period of 1949 to 1954; and promised federal status for Slovakia. The program won mass support in Czechoslovakia, as well as approval by Romania, Yugoslavia, and many West European Communist parties. It evoked only hostility, however, from the Soviet Union and the other East European socialist countries, which feared it would spread to them. Despite official warnings, sharp attacks in the Soviet press, and intimidating military maneuvers, the Czechoslovak reformers stood firm. In meetings with their assembled critics in July and August, they pledged to maintain the leading role of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia and to continue the country’s alliance with the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact states.

The Soviet Invasion and the Husák Regime

Unconvinced, the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies decided to end the Czechoslovak experiment. On August 20, allegedly responding to a plea from Czechoslovak Communist leaders to help put down a right-wing counterrevolution, about 600,000 Soviet, East German, Polish, Hungarian, and Bulgarian troops invaded and occupied the country. Some of the reform leaders, including Dubček, were abducted to the USSR. Although about 25 Czechs and Slovaks were killed, resistance was generally nonviolent. The intervention was broadly condemned throughout the world, by both Communists and non-Communists.

A treaty was signed allowing Soviet troops to remain in the country indefinitely, and they were soon joined by a host of Soviet military and civilian advisers. In April 1969 Dubček was ousted and replaced by another Slovak, Gustav Husák, who assumed the presidency of Czechoslovakia in 1975.

Under Husák, the reforms of the “Prague Spring” were almost entirely scrapped by the end of 1969. The federalization of the country, put into effect on January 1, 1969, was, however, maintained. The reformers themselves were purged and punished. Czechoslovakia again became a tightly controlled, orthodox Communist state and a loyal supporter of the USSR. Although initially there was little opposition to the new regime, a clandestine resistance developed during the 1970s. The most striking act of defiance came in 1977, with the Charter 77 movement, when several hundred individuals signed a document charging the Husák government with basic violations of human rights. The regime responded by imprisoning or exiling many of the movement’s leaders, provoking protests abroad. A dissident group, the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted, disseminated information in the West about conditions inside Czechoslovakia. The opposition was neutralized, but not eliminated.

In December 1987 Husák resigned as general secretary, but remained president; he was succeeded in the party post by another hard-liner, Miloš Jakeš.

Tide of Reform

As the pace of political change quickened in the USSR and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Jakeš was unable to hold back the tide of reform; in November 1989 he and other Communist Party leaders stepped down, and the government began negotiating with an opposition group, Civic Forum, led by the Czech writer Václav Havel. In December a new government took office with a Slovak, Marian Čalfa, as premier. Dubček was elected chairman of the Federal Assembly, which then chose Havel as president of Czechoslovakia. In the nation’s first free elections since 1946, voters in June 1990 gave Civic Forum and its allies large majorities in both houses of parliament. Havel was then reelected to a two-year term, and he asked Čalfa, a former Communist, to head a coalition government.

In the spring of 1992, economic disparity led to new negotiations between the Czechs and the Slovaks. These negotiations resulted in a decision to create two separate republics, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Havel resigned as president of Czechoslovakia in July 1992. On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.

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