Czech It Out: A Shoddy History

The Czech Republic as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
The Czech Republic as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

It’s hard to pinpoint a geographical area with as turbulent and unpredictable a recent history as Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.

The Czech-Slovak experience of the twentieth century reads like an encyclopaedia of the various sadistic and deranged political projects humanity has been subjected to over the last 100 years.

The area roughly equivalent to today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia left the nineteenth century as a verdant strip in the north of the dysfunctional dual-monarchic state of Austro-Hungary, the Czechs and Slovaks just two of a plethora of ethnic groups contained within a relatively small but regionally influential empire.

It was as part of said empire that the region and its inhabitants were dragged into what was, at the time, the biggest, costliest, deadliest conflict in human history.

When Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, was offed by Serbian separatists in 1914, the result was a calamitous diplomatic chain-reaction.

Franz Ferdinand, the day he was assassinated
Franz Ferdinand, the day he was assassinated

Austro-Hungary threatened Serbia, Serbia appealed to Russia, Russia was militarily allied to Britain, and Britain had the same arrangement with France. A rampantly militaristic Germany, on the other hand, was not only allied with its Austrian neighbour, but was hungry for expansion. Thus began the First World War, in which over a million Czechs would fight, on the losing side.

Defeat effectively ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It quickly crumbled, and the Czechs and Slovaks declared their independence in October 1918, producing the First Czechoslovak Republic. Relatively peaceful parliamentary democracy then miraculously survived for almost twenty years. Hitler.

Unfortunately, in neighbouring Germany, the national psyche hadn’t taken humiliating defeat particularly well, a situation hardly helped by the degrading conditions the victors imposed on it with the Treaty of Versailles.

Bitterness and resentment were widespread. The unhappy result was the election, messianic rise then European predominance of one Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, or Nazis for short.

Hitler and some Nazis
Hitler and some Nazis

Around 22% of the population of the new Czechoslovak state was ethnically German – the areas they inhabited known as the Sudetenland. In 1938, Hitler demanded that they be turned over to the Nazi Germany, and, in one of the most divisive and bitterly lambasted foreign policy decisions in modern history, the major European powers decided to let him have them.

The hope was that by giving in to the Nazi state, they would satisfy its aggressive expansionism and prevent war – and, some would argue, give the Allies time to hastily rearm in case war was unavoidable.

On the first count, appeasement didn’t work. The following year, Nazi Germany invaded the western Czech part of the Czechoslovak Republic. More easterly Slovakia, meanwhile, made a flimsy declaration of independence. In reality, its new government was run by Nazi sympathisers, the fledgling Slovak Republic essentially a Nazi puppet state.

Soon the continent, and the globe, was embroiled in a conflict darker and deadlier than anything it has ever experienced – including World War One, which, prior to the Second, had been optimistically known as The War To End All Wars.

Terezin Concentration Camp
Terezin Concentration Camp

1939 to 1945 saw industrial-scale murder, obviously of millions of combatants on both sides, but also of the Jews, Marxists, socialists, homosexuals, gypsies and political dissidents systematically exterminated by a Nazi regime seeking to ‘purify’ the human race. Some of concentration the camps were in the Nazi-occupied Czech-zone.

Eventually, the war ended. The Third Reich went down in flames having drenched Central Europe in blood, and the Czechs and Slovaks could wearily add National Socialism to the list of warped political doctrines they’d been horrifically abused by.

Czechoslovakia reunited, and democracy was restored for all of two years. In 1946, parliamentary elections saw Slovakia swing to the Democratic Party, a group with its origins in its wartime anti-Nazi resistance, while a majority of Czechs voted for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

The results were fairly meaningless, because just two years later, in February 1948, the Communists seized power anyway, and kept it for the next four decades.  

Stalin and Klement Gottwald
Stalin and Klement Gottwald

Czech Communism self-consciously emulated its Soviet benefactors in the beginning. A heavily bureaucratic, smotheringly authoritarian one-party state pursued heavy industrialisation, and was enthusiastically Stalinist for years after Uncle Joe had been rejected across much of the rest of the Eastern bloc.

Heavy-headedness and unbending adherence to the Soviet model of development characterised Czechoslovakia’s first two decades under Communism. But this approach began to galvanise opposition, within the Communist Party and outside of it.

In 1968, the hard-line President, Party General Secretary and effective leader of Communist Czechoslovakia, Antonin Novotny, was replaced by the Slovakian reformer Alexander Dubcek.

Dubcek’s aims were radical and, within his party and the Eastern bloc more generally, deeply controversial. His self-declared objective was ‘socialism with a human face’, a more tolerant, permissive, democratic and characteristically Czechoslovakian form of communism, markedly different from brutal Stalinism.

Freedom of speech, of the press, and of movement was to be increased. Some elements of a mixed economy would be reintroduced. And, perhaps most radically of all, some democratic elections would be allowed in the long-term.

Left-wingers will likely agonise for decades over what might have been if the so-called Prague Spring had been allowed to run its course – whether, out of the unmitigated catastrophe of Soviet Communism, some kind of democratic socialist alternative to Stalinism and Western capitalism could have been salvaged.

Instead, Dubcek’s policies spooked the Brezhnev regime in Moscow. In August 1968, a Soviet-led force of Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, with no resistance. Reforms were stamped out, and Czechoslovakia was subjected to ‘normalisation’ – the forcible return to the Soviet model it had dared deviate from.

Soviet tanks in Prague
Soviet tanks in Prague

Popular protests at the unwelcome Soviet intervention culminated in a student, Jan Palach, setting himself alight in Prague, but to no avail. Dubcek was deposed, expelled from the Communist Party, and sent to work as a forestry official. His reforms were reversed, and Czechoslovakia was returned to Soviet deep-freeze for another two decades.

But, in proving itself inflexible and unable – or unwilling – to be reformed, Soviet-style Communism spelt its own doom in the long-run. Over the next twenty years its unpopularity grew and, in 1989, it eventually fell in what became known as the Velvet Revolution, a bloodless popular uprising.

In 1993, having had its Velvet Revolution, the country went through the Velvet Divorce. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in a decision made by political elites that had little discernible popular support.

The governments of both new states willingly embraced the neoliberal capitalism so in vogue in the developed West, and economies grew, consumption skyrocketed, and both personal freedom and relative standards of living greatly increased.

Typically, Western histories tend to stop there – as if by finally coming round to bountiful liberal democratic capitalism, all the former-Czechoslovakia’s problems were magically solved. Suffice to say, as the Bemolution was to discover, they weren’t.