The end of October marks the centenary of a state that ceased to exist 25 years ago. Is it a reason to celebrate? Ambassador of Slovakia Ľubomír Rehák says both Slovakia and the Czech Republic remember their common state with great respect and gratitude.
THE END OF World War I redrew the borders of many European states. The once great Central European Habsburg Empire failed to reflect on rising calls to wider autonomy for its nations, thus signing its own death sentence.
Historically, while the Lands of the Czech Crown struggled against continuous Germanisation, the Slovaks – the oldest of the nationalities settled in the upper part of the Kingdom of Hungary(now Slovakia) – were on the verge of national extinction, being exposed to brutal magyarisation and refusals to offer national rights for Slovaks. British historian Robert William Seton-Watson, (also known by his pseudonym Scotus Viator), was among the influential voices raising awareness on the oppression of the people of the Habsburg monarchy.
In the early 1910s, the Czech and Slovak diaspora in Europe and the USstarted to design plans for the future Czechoslovakia and its sovereignty. In 1915 in Cleveland and in 1918 in Pittsburgh, two Czecho-Slovak agreements were signed confirming the will of both nations to form a common state. Diplomatic efforts in Paris, London, Rome and Washington succeeded, and during the summer of 1918 the Czechoslovak National Council was recognised as a legitimate representative body of our nations, with over 100,000 legionaries in Western Europe and Russiaat its disposal.
Following the surrender of the Austro-Hungarian government, Czech representatives in Prague proclaimed the independence of a new state – Czechoslovak Republic on 28 October 1918. Two days later, representatives of Slovak political parties gathered independently at Turčiansky Svätý Martin in Central Slovakia expressing the will of the Slovak nation to quit its 1,000 year old alliance with the Hungarians, joining the Czech nation in a new country.
The Paris Peace Conference of 1919-20 confirmed the new borders of Central Europe, including those of Czechoslovakia, comprising of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia (now Transcarpathian Ukraine).
Czechoslovakia was the product of the common will of the intellectual and political elite of both nations. Founded by Professor of Philosophy Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in close cooperation with Dr Edvard Beneš and Slovak intellectual Dr Milan Rastislav Štefánik, it was widely supported in Slovakia. The first Plenipotentiary Envoy of Czechoslovakia to London was also Slovak: Dr Štefan Osuský. Joining the new state as an equal partner saved the Slovak nation from national annihilation and fostered the growth of Slovak culture, literature, education, and crucially, national self-confidence.
Between the two world wars, the Czechoslovak Republic was generally a unique, successful project, both politically and economically, remaining the only island of democracy in a radicalised Central Europe.
Like in every family, life also brought many tensions. The existence of a vast German-speaking minority changed the agreed union of two Slavic nations to a political concept of a ‘Czechoslovak nation,’ dominant in a new unitary state, governed from Prague. Such an artificial construction instigated further demands requesting governing autonomy for Slovakia. Further, we Slovaks strictly disagreed with the omission of a hyphen in the name of the country, later with frequent abbreviations of the adjective ‘Czechoslovak’ to ‘Czech.’
One harrowing point in history was the forceful separation of the two nations in 1939 as a result of the Munich Agreement of 1938. However, de iureCzechoslovakia continued to exist with a government in exile in the UK until 1945. Over 10,000 Czechoslovak legionaries were also stationed in Britain, contributing to a common victory. We continue to remember the 89 Czechoslovak pilots that fought within the RAF during the Battle of Britain and those trained in Britain and involved in special operations in the occupied territories. The Slovak National Uprising in 1944 was Slovakia’s most important antifascist uprising.
Post-war Czechoslovakia had restored sovereignty, but became a victim of the post-Yalta division of Europe. Yet another sad anniversary marked this year is 70 years from the Communist Party’s putsch in 1948, usurping power and establishing a totalitarian regime in our country.
The struggles for self-determination and a strong Slovak identity have been frequently protracted as expressions of nationalism in its negative sense. A Stalinist-driven judicial process against so called ‘Slovak bourgeois nationalists’ in Prague in 1952 was particularly painful, as was the execution of the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia Dr Vladimír Clementis and the jailing of various representatives of the Slovak elite, including Dr Gustáv Husák, the President of Czechoslovakia between 1975-1989. Husák, a victim of Stalinist repressions paradoxically played a very negative role since 1969. He replaced Alexander Dubček – another famous Slovak – in the Communist Party leadership and initiated the policy of ‘normalisation,’ resulting in 20 years of stagnation and full obedience of Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union.
Different views of Czech and Slovak political representations on economic development modalities after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 culminated in a constitutional and peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia, also called the ‘Velvet Divorce,’ as of 1 January 1993. Observers often comment that even our National Anthem was an object of division. Frankly, it was one of the easiest tasks, as the anthem of Czechoslovakia comprised of the Czech and Slovak Anthems in sequence.
The two nations split but then came back together around the EU table in 2004. However, political, economic, emotional and cultural connections between Slovaks and Czechs remain unprecedentedly high and complex. Our two governments are celebrating the centenary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia with a year of Czecho-Slovak mutuality. Our embassies in London are organising several joint events this year. Among them is a diplomatic reception, a festival for the Slovak and Czech communities, a week of Czech and Slovak films and a conference at the University of Cambridge remembering the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Treaty invasion to Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
The common state of Czechs and Slovaks (naturally, it was a state guaranteeing full rights also to national minorities living together with titular nations) hasn’t survived its centenary in its original design. Nevertheless, Czechoslovakia remains a proud and beloved trademark, widely inspiring both its successor states and their peoples.