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The First Czechoslovak Republic

The son of Emperor Francis Joseph I, the crown prince Rudolph, committed suicide with his lover, so the succession passed to the Emperor’s nephew, Francis Ferdinand d’Este (also often referred to as Franz Ferdinand in English). Nevertheless, because of the dynastic irregularity of his marriage to Sophie von Chotkova, who was only a countess, he had to relinquish the succession rights of his children. In 1914, he left with his wife for an Austro-Hungarian Army exercise in Sarajevo.

Austro-Hungary got involved in the Balkans after it was deprived of the possibility of influencing events in Germany and Italy. As early as 1878, it militarily occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina, and annexed it in 1908.

In Sarajevo June 28, 1914, the married couple both became victims of an assassination organized by a group of Bosnian Serbs (citizens of the Austro-Hungarian state) and the Serbian Black Hand organization. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, first hit Sophie, whom he hadn’t even wanted to kill, with a badly aimed shot (he didn’t know how to shoot). A second shot accidentally hit the successor to the throne. Both of them later died of their injuries. 

After giving an ultimatum, Austria attacked Serbia, where the trail of the secret Black Hand organization led. This started the First World War because Austria was backed by its ally Germany, along with Turkey and Bulgaria. On the other hand, the states of the so-called Triple Entente – Russia, France and Great Britain – as well as other countries – came to the aid of Serbia. Parliament was closed right at the start of the war and the army leadership gained an influence in decision-making within the state. At the same time, civil and political rights were restricted.

The commanding officers and ordinary people alike originally expected it to be a quick war. These hopes soon crumbled. No one was prepared either materially or psychologically for a protracted, exhausting and debilitating trench war. The Austro-Hungarian Army, in which Czechs naturally also served, fought primarily on the Eastern Front against Russia and at the front in Italy. It did not defeat Serbia (which was several times smaller than Austro-Hungary) until its second campaign, with the aid of Germany and Bulgaria.

In 1914, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the renowned sociologist and professor of philosophy at Prague’s Charles University, left Bohemia and went into exile. Together with his collaborators, the Czech Edvard Beneš and the Slovak Milan Rastislav Štefánik, T. G. Masaryk began to write the first chapters of the Czechoslovak foreign resistance. He established and led the Czechoslovak National Council abroad, which organized its own forces from compatriots living abroad and from military captives and deserters from the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian Army.

Czechoslovak troops were deployed at the fronts in France, Italy and above all in Russia. In this country (which was shaken by civil war after the Bolshevik seizure of power), Czechoslovak legions, numbering several tens of thousands of men, controlled the entire trans-Siberian arterial railway. It was primarily thanks to the legions and their successful military performance with the Czechoslovak National Council, which won international recognition for the Czechoslovak state. It was founded on the idea of Czechoslovakism – one nation with two branches, Czech and Slovak.

At home the situation was more difficult than it was abroad. Supply problems and economic difficulties increased. Initially, all the important Czech political parties maintained their loyalty toward the state. And when they didn’t, Austro-Hungary did not hesitate to resort to harsh punishments. The Czech politicians Karel Kramář and Alois Rašín were sentenced to death for treason. Their lives were saved at the last moment by the death of Emperor Francis Joseph I, who had not managed to confirm the sentence. The succeeding emperor, Charles I (also known as Karl I), granted them clemency and they could both participate in politics after parliament convened in 1917. 

In the war years, the Czech political representatives created a common political body – the National Committee. Individual parties were represented on this according to the election results of 1911. On October 28, 1918, after the publication of a note from Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Julius Andrássy on Austria’s willingness to negotiate an armistice, the National Committee declared an independent Czechoslovak Republic. A state holiday on October 28 serves as a reminder of the establishment of the Czechoslovak state.

The declaration of the establishment of the state did not mean the automatic assumption of power on the entire territory. Czech Germans living in the border areas of the state, known as the Sudetenland, did not want to lose their position as the ruling nation. Referring to the right of self-determination for nations, they declared several independent provinces, which were joined to the Austrian Republic. After negotiations between Czech and German politicians fell through, the borderlands were seized by incipient Czechoslovak armed forces.

At the peace conference in Versailles, the victors also decided Czechoslovakia’s borders. Defining the borders of all the succession states was complicated for historical, ethnic, economic and strategic military reasons. In the Czech lands, the historic borders with minor changes were applied in favor of Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovak state power was not established immediately in Slovakia, which had been part of the Hungarian kingdom for centuries. Hungary, the state succeeding the Hungarian kingdom, did not want to surrender part of its territory or population in favor of the new state. Czechoslovak military units were obliged to put down Hungarian resistance, including a communist attempt to set up a Hungarian Soviet Republic. The Slovak nation was able to develop incomparably better and to a greater extent in Czechoslovakia than it could have before 1918.

On February 29, 1920, the National Assembly adopted the Czechoslovak Constitution. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected president. The protection of minorities was already stipulated in the peace treaties of Versailles. In view of the multinational makeup of the population, this was confirmed in the Constitution of Czechoslovakia and in a language law, which was adopted along with the Constitution.

Czechoslovakia based its foreign policy on its ally France, the strongest European state after the First World War. Three neighboring states – Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania – responded to the last Austrian Emperor Charles I’s effort to assume power in Hungary by creating the so-called Little Entente defence alliance. Just like its main ally France, Czechoslovakia also concluded a treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union.

This happened in 1935, when Adolf Hitler had already been ruling in neighboring Germany for two years. A hostile Germany represented a deadly threat to Czechoslovakia. Consequently, it began preparing for its defense in the second half of the 1930s. It built border fortifications following France’s example. But an effective defense was made more difficult not only by the length of the common borders with Germany and the geographical shape of the state, but also by the large German minority, an overwhelming proportion of whom inclined toward Nazism. They were represented by the Nazi and totalitarian Sudeten German Party led by Konrad Heinlein.


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