On October 28, 1918, the independence of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed by the Czechoslovak National Council in Prague, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War.
After its defeat at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, the Kingdom of Bohemia was gradually integrated into the Habsburg monarchy as one of its three principal parts, alongside the Archduchy of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary.
But throughout the 19th century, the rise of nationalist movements, mounting ethnic tensions and repressive religious and ethnic policies, such as the forced Magyarization of Slovaks, pushed the cohesion of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire to its breaking point.
Despite cultural differences, the Slovaks shared similar aspirations with the Czechs for independence from the Habsburg state, and by the start of the 20th century, the idea of a “Czecho-Slovak” entity, advocated by Czech and Slovak intellectuals began to emerge.
During the First World War, Tomáš Masaryk, Edvard Beneš and Slovak astronomer Milan Štefánik founded the Czechoslovak National Council who worked to secure Allied recognition. During that time, more than 90,000 Czech and Slovak volunteers formed the Czechoslovak Legions in Russia, France and Italy, where they fought against the Central Powers.
Following the Pittsburgh Agreement of May 1918, which prescribed the intent to create an independent Czechoslovakia, the Czechoslovak declaration of independence was signed by Masaryk, Štefánik and Beneš on October 18, 1918 in Paris.
The independence of Czechoslovakia was officially proclaimed ten days later in Prague in the Smetana Hall of the Municipal House. A temporary constitution was adopted, and in November 1918, Masaryk was declared president of the First Czechoslovak Republic.
Several ethnic groups and territories with different historical, political, and economic traditions were blended into the new state structure when the full boundaries of the country, encompassing Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and a small part of Silesia, were finally established in the Czechoslovak Constitution of 1920. Carpathian Ruthenia was later added by the Treaty of Trianon in June 1920.
Edvard Beneš served as foreign minister and relied heavily on the League of Nations as guarantor of the post war status quo and the security of newly formed states. He negotiated the Little Entente with Yugoslavia and Romania in 1921 to counter Hungarian revanchism and Habsburg restoration.
Consisting mostly of territories inhabited by Czechs and Slovaks, the new state also included areas containing majority populations of other nationalities, particularly Germans (22.95%), but also Hungarians (5.47%) and Ruthenians (3.39%).
Due to the country’s centralized political structure, nationalism arose in the non-Czech nationalities, and several parties and movements were formed with the aim of broader political autonomy, with ethnic Germans and Hungarians openly agitating against the territorial settlements.
Encouraged by the newly founded Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei – SdP), led by Konrad Henlein and financed by Nazi Germany, the particularly large German minority living in the Sudetenland region started demanding autonomy from Czechoslovakia, claiming they were oppressed by the national government.
After meeting with Konrad Henlein in Berlin in 1938, Adolf Hitler established the Sudetendeutsches Freikorps, a paramilitary organization composed mainly of ethnic German citizens of Czechoslovakia with pro-Nazi sympathies, who was sheltered, trained and equipped by the German army to conduct cross border terrorist operations into Czechoslovak territory.
With the prospect of war looming over Central Europe, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy held an emergency meeting in Munich where Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier signed the Munich Agreement, which gave Germany the Sudetenland and de facto control over the rest of Czechoslovakia as long as Hitler promised to go no further.
The Czechoslovak government led by Beneš, who had succeeded to Masaryk, was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to the prescribed annexations. Finding itself abandoned by the Western powers and realizing the hopelessness of resisting Nazi Germany alone, the Czechoslovak government capitulated and Beneš resigned.
The Agreement, celebrated in most of Europe for preventing the war threatened by Adolf Hitler, was soon followed by the First Vienna Award, in which Hungary regained the largely Magyar-populated territories in southern Slovakia and southern Carpathian Ruthenia it had lost in the Treaty of Trianon.
In effect, the “Munich Betrayal” marked the end of the First Czechoslovak Republic. The Second Czechoslovak Republic lasted less than half a year before Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and the Slovak State declared its independence as a client state of Nazi Germany under Jozef Tiso, in March 1939.
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