Thursday, October 29, 2009

28 October 1918: Founding of the Czechoslovak Republic

On 28 October 1918, as the military power of the Central Powers began to fail and dissension within the Austro-Hungarian Empire grew, the Czechoslovak National Council in Prague acted on its Declaration of Independence of ten days earlier and brought the new state into existence.

After castigating at length the sins of the Habsburg Empire and citing "our historic and natural right" to a sovereign political existence dating back to the seventh century, the document concluded:
We, the nation of Comenius, cannot but accept these principles expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, the principles of Lincoln, and of the declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen. For these principles our nation shed its blood in the memorable Hussite Wars 500 years ago; for these same principles, beside her allies, our nation is shedding its blood today in Russia, Italy, and France.
. . . .
The Czecho-Slovak State shall be a republic. In constant endeavour for progress it will guarantee complete freedom of conscience, religion and science, literature and art, speech, the press, and the right of assembly and petition.

The Church shall be separated from the State. Our democracy shall rest on universal suffrage; women shall be placed on an equal footing with men, politically, socially, and culturally. The rights of the minority shall be safeguarded by proportional representation; national minorities shall enjoy equal rights. The government shall be parliamentary in form and shall recognize the principles of initiative and referendum. The standing army will be replaced by militia.

The Czecho-Slovak Nation will carry out far-reaching social and economic reforms; the large estates will be re-deemed for home colonization; patents of nobility will be abolished. Our nation will assume its part of the Austro-Hungarian pre-war public debt; the debts of this war we leave to those who incurred them.

In its foreign policy the Czecho-Slovak Nation will accept its full share of responsibility in the reorganization of eastern Europe. It accepts fully the democratic and social principle of nationality and subscribes to the doctrine that all covenants and treaties shall be entered into openly and frankly without secret diplomacy.

Our constitution shall provide an efficient, rational, and just government, which will exclude all special privileges and prohibit class legislation.

Democracy has defeated theocratic autocracy. Militarism is overcome - democracy is victorious; on the basis of democracy mankind will be recognized.

The forces of darkness have served the victory of light - the longed-for age of humanity is dawning.

We believe in democracy - we believe in liberty - and liberty evermore.

Given in Paris, on the eighteenth of October, 1918.

Professor Thomas G. Masaryk, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.
General Dr. Milan R. Stefanik, Minister of National Defence.
Dr. Edward Benes, Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Interior.
One man recalled his youthful escapades of 28 October:
When Austria collapsed and when Czechoslovakia was declared an independent state, there was big jubilation in the streets, and people were tearing down the Austrian eagle. One man lifted me on his shoulders and I removed one, from the police station.
Unfortunately, the "longed-for age of humanity" did not last long. The Nazis detested the new state, which they regarded as, if not quite a monstrosity, such as Poland, then nonetheless a usurper of German lands and rights. The betrayal at Munich on 30 September 1938, when erstwhile allies Britain and France forced Czechoslovakia to cede its western territories to Germany or face the blame for starting a world war, in effect marked the end of the state. Although the Nazis did not invade and occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia until 15 March 1939, the country had lost its morale, along with its eminently defensible borders.

The Nazis made their scorn, and their ultimate plans, all too clear when, already in October 1938—just 10 days after Munich and more than 5 months before the occupation of the rest of the country in 1939—they issued the following mock statement. In it, the "parents," "Ex-President Benesch" (the deliberately Germanized spelling of Beneš) and the League of Nations thank the world for the expressions of condolences sent in response to the passing of their "beloved child Czechoslovakia," which lived for only 20 years from its birth in the cradle of Versailles to its deathbed in Munich. Clear enough for anyone with eyes to see, one would think. And yet the world remained blind.

This photo is of my own copy of the document, but I also saw one on display in Prague last summer, in a wonderful exhibit on the history of the Republic at the National Museum. It was one of several shows marking the seventieth anniversary of the events of 1938-39. Another, at the Army Museum, commemorated the days of "Mobilization 1938," when the nation enthusiastically answered the call to arms before the tragedy of Munich. (I hope to write in more detail about them in this space at a later point.) It is virtually impossible for us, here and today, to imagine how the citizens loved that republic, and what its betrayal and destruction meant to them.

And after the War? The republic was of course reestablished, but under the communist regime established in 1948, 28 October was transformed from Independence Day into "Nationalization Day," commemorating the 1945 state takeover of banks, utilities, and major industries and businesses. The policy of the immediate postwar regime was a parallel assault on the ethnic German population and the propertied elements. By making this day a holiday, the communists sent the message of continuity and completion: the creation of the First Republic had achieved independence, a bourgeois political revolution, which necessarily had to be followed by a proletarian social revolution. Today, 28 October is once again the national holiday, though the irony that "it commemorates the founding of a state that no longer exists"—the Czechs and Slovaks, after all, parted company in 1992—has not escaped notice. Czech Radio addressed this issue in an interesting broadcast in 2006.

commemorative marker on Wencelas Square, Prague

[reinserted inadvertently deleted image and caption]

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