With the Czech Republic’s name being changed to Czechia for branding purposes, many have asked me how I feel about it. I simply reply: it isn’t the first time. If there was a person who had lived in Prague since October 1918 to now, and never moved, they could say that they’ve lived in 9 countries. So much has happened since the Czechs first obtained independence from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, that much has been written on the subject. This article serves as a basic understanding of the history from that period to the takeover of Germany in 1939.
1st Czechoslovak Republic
On May 31st, 1918, the Czechoslovak National Council held a meeting at the Moose Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, and created a document that declared the intent to create an independent European state to be known as Czechoslovakia, and is known as the Pittsburgh Agreement. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who was the primary author of the Pittsburgh Agreement published the declaration independence from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire on October 18, 1918. On the 28th of October the Czechs met in the Smetana Hall of the Municipal House in Prague to officially proclaim their independence. The Slovaks met in the city of Martin two days later to join, and the very next day the Austrian-Hungarian state was dissolved. On November 14th Masaryk became the first President of Czechoslovakia.
It wasn’t until 1920 when an official constitution was created. The country changed its name from the Republic of Czechoslovakia (RČS) to the Czechoslovak Republic (ČSR). Masaryk was also re-elected as the President. He would be elected two more times as the 1920 Constitution exempted him from the two-term limit since he was a key figure in holding the country together. However, in 1935 he had to step down because of poor health, and was succeeded by Edvard Beneš.
Although minority groups in Czechoslovakia were given several rights, and the ability to speak in their own language, because of the centralised government many groups felt as if their cultural identity would be lost and interests would not be properly represented. Autonomy from these groups, such as Slovak, German, and Polish, was causing a lot of political unrest in the new country. Political leaders like Andrej Hlinka, who had played a significant role in the creation of Czechoslovakia, had formed the Slovak People’s Party, which pushed for Slovak independence.
When Adolf Hitler came into power, there was fear that the large German minority would become more aggressive. At the time there was 3 million Germans living in Czechoslovakia, and the areas with the that they primarily inhabited were called the Sudetenlands. The Sudeten German Party (SdP) was formed by Pro-Nazi Sudeten German Konrad Henlein, and by 1935 the SdP was the second largest Party in Czechoslovakia. In 1938, Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin and was instructed for the party to raise demands that were unacceptable to the Czechoslovak government. The Czechoslovak government was willing to grant the ethnic German speaking citizens more rights, but did not heed their demands for autonomy. Hitler stirred things up more by accusing Czechs of hegemony at a Nazi rally, claiming that neither Germans, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Hungarians, nor the Poles wanted to for a union with the Czechs. The Separatist movement in Czechoslovakia continued to intensify.
In March 1938, Austria was annexed into Germany, known as Anschluß. Hitler had a plan to take over Central Europe, and the Sudetenlands were the next on his list. He had successfully turned the Sudeten Germans against the Czechoslovak government. British Prime Minister Chamberlain met with Hitler on September 13th to try and prevent a war from happening. Hitler insisted in their meeting that Sudeten Germans should be able to succeed from Czechoslovakia and join Germany. Chamberlain left the meeting on the note that he would think about it more and discuss it with his cabinet.
Tensions and violence in Czechoslovakia continued to escalate. French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier flew to London to meet with Chamberlain to discuss the issue further On September 16th. At the time Czechoslovakia had a close political relationship with France. The British and the French discussed whether or not to wage war with Germany, or to demand that Czechoslovakia allow the Sudetenlands to cede with Germany. After the long discussion, a French-British plan was made, and they demanded that Czechoslovakia to give Sudetenland to Germany.
Italy soon lended their support to Germany as well. Chamberlain returned to Germany on September 22nd with the hope to maintain peace in Europe. He told Hitler that the Allies supported the Sudetenland’s right for self-determination. Hitler said that that offer wasn’t sufficient enough. He said what Germany wanted was for the entire state of Czechoslovakia to dissolve and for its territories to be divided between Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Eventually Hitler agreed that the ceding of the Sudetenland to Germany was enough, and Chamberlain went home.
The Soviet Union said that they would intervene and help Czechoslovakia if the Germans were to invade, but President Beneš refused to go to war without the support of their western Allies. Hitler issued the Godesberg Memorandum on September 24th, which demanded that Czechoslovakia had to allow the Sudetenland to cede to Germany by no later than September 28th, or the Germans would take the Sudetenland by force. The Czechoslovak government initially agreed with the plan that was supported by France and Britain, but Hitler demanded also that Hungary and Poland also be satisfied as well, going back to his original demands earlier with Chamberlain.
On September 28th, with only four hours to spare and no agreement being made by Czechoslovakia, Britain decided to take things into their own hands. They convinced Mussolini to talk to Hitler to ask for a 24 hour delay. Hitler agreed, and on the 29th of September, a conference was held in Munich. On the 30th of September, an agreement was signed, known as the Munich Agreement, by Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Daladier. Britain and France then let Czechoslovakia know that they could either give up the Sudetenland, or face Germany on their own. Without much hope and feeling defeated, Czechoslovakia was forced to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland.
2nd Czechoslovak Republic
As a result of the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia significantly decreased in size and had to change it’s name to Czecho-Slovakia. Parts of Slovakia were also given to Hungary and Poland respectively. Although Britain and France seemed happy about the agreement, the Czechs knew that it was going to get worse. As a result of the Sudetenland being ceded to Germany, Czecho-Slovakia lost its defensible border with Germany and its fortifications.
Large portions of industry were also lost with the annexation of the Sudetenland, negatively affecting the economy. Several German and Czech refugees who fled from the Sudetenland when it ceded to Germany also became a burden to the government. The Soviets weren’t happy with the Munich settlement either. The Soviets had made military treaty agreements with Czecho-Slovakia, just as France had. Upon seeing the betrayal of France, the Soviet government began to distrust the western allies even more.
Czecho-Slovakia had to comply to make Germany happy in more ways than just giving up the Sudetenland. They diminished the Communist Party, and began to take away even more rights from the Jews.
As a result of the Munich Agreement, Beneš resigned as president and was succeeded by Emil Hácha. Beneš and the rest of the Czechoslavak government fled to London where they lived in exile (known as the Czechoslovak government-in-exile).
On March 12th, 1939, under the direction of Jozef Tiso, the Slovak State declared its independence from the Czechs. It became and independent state, but was a satellite state under Germany.
On March 14th, Hácha was summoned by Hitler to meet him in Berlin. There Hácha had to wait on Hitler while the Fuhrer watched a movie. When he finally spoke to the Czech president, he told him that as they speak Germany was getting read to invade Czechoslovakia. With not much choice left, Hácha was forced to give what remained of Bohemia and Moravia to the control of the Germans, which soon became established as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The 2nd Czechoslovak Republic only lasted 169 days until Germany took over and broke up their country.
More on the reign of Germany can be read here.