On March 29, 1990, the Great Hyphen Debate, also referred to as the “Hyphen war”, erupted in Czechoslovakia, leading to a heated dispute on one of the most fundamental aspects of the identity of the restored state: its name.
When Czecho-Slovakia was first established in 1918 in the aftermath of World War I, its name was spelled with a hyphen in the middle, a small but highly symbolic punctuation mark abandoned only three years later to become “Czechoslovakia”.
The country was dismembered in 1938 and 1939 after Nazi Germany annexed the Sudetenland, before invading and occupying the Czech territories of Bohemia and Moravia before the start of World War II.
Slovakia, for its part, declared its independence from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Third Reich’s invasion, and became a puppet state of Nazi Germany.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the country was known as the Czechoslovak Republic (from the end of World War II to 1960) and the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (from 1960 until the fall of communism nearly three decades later).
Following the Velvet Revolution and the collapse of communist rule at the end of 1989, the country initially moved towards reinstating its hyphen-less interwar name: “Czechoslovakia” or “the Czechoslovak Republic”. But Slovaks rejected the solution on the grounds it gave more importance to the Czechs and, calling for greater equality within the federation, demanded the hyphen be reinstated.
The “Great Hyphen Debate” erupted in Czechoslovakia’s Parliament on March 29, 1990. Czech and Slovak MPs passionately debated and negotiated for more than ten hours but failed to reach an agreement, to the dismay of President Vaclav Havel who warned lawmakers the country risked becoming a laughingstock.
The Hyphen War eventually came to an end with a crafty compromise agreed on the following day: the country’s name would become the Czechoslovak Federative Republic and be spelled without a hyphen in Czech (Československá federativní republika) but with one in Slovak (Česko-slovenská federatívna republika).
The fragile agreement was brushed away less than a month later, on April 20, with the Czechoslovak parliament renaming the country “the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic”.
Although seemingly trivial, the so-called “Hyphen War” exemplified long-lasting differences in how Czechs and Slovaks viewed the identity of their common state.
These would very soon come back to the surface, as Czech and Slovak leaders agreed – without referendum or popular consultation – to split the country in two separate states in what became known as the Velvet Divorce.
The breakup of the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic (Czechia and Slovakia in their official short geographical names) became effective on January 1, 1993.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.