Sense and sensibility: The case of Czechoslovakia

A provocative book by historian Mary Heimann that focuses on the troubled relationship of Czechoslovakia to its German and Hungarian populations after 1918 is titled Czechoslovakia – The State That Failed. This verdict – the state that failed – might seem harsh in light of all the emotions that surround the break-up of the state. Yet it invites us to rethink the origins of states and their dissolution and question, whether states are in fact something more than rationally chosen constructions in the realm of the possible.

Foto: Creative Commons/ old school paul


The miraculous year of 1989 caused a “geopolitical shock” to Central and Eastern Europe comparable to those shocks wrought by two world wars. But it was neither the death toll, nor the wartime suffering but the intensity of the changes – the complete redesign of the political system, profound wealth transfers and foreign policy reorientation – that was the real shock.

The split up of Czechoslovakia was a consequence of that post-1989 process of adaptation to new conditions, yet it surprised and confused many. The first Czechoslovak break up in 1938 and 1939 was fully comprehensible when we take into account the enforced “insane” conditions of the Nazi domination and the impending world war. But why split in 1992 in a period of freshly gained freedom and “capitalist optimism”?

About Us, Without Us

The creators of Czechoslovakia were driven by a simple geopolitical and ethnocentric dictum – the bigger, the better. It was the same logic that was embedded in the roots of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. It could compete neither economically nor militarily with Germany or Russia, but it was too big to be subdued, occupied and defeated by them. Czech politicians of the 19th century were among the first to recognize this positive feature of the protective Austrian empire. If there was no Austrian empire, we would have to create it ourselves, said one of the most prominent Czech politicians and historians of the era – František Palacký. The process of the creation of Czechoslovakia somehow followed this idea and imitated previous experience. The inclusion of Slovakia and the Slovaks into the new state thus was not a manifestation of inherent Czech imperialism but a mixture of pan-Slavic sentiments, very strong at the time, and the fear of the German “sea” threatening to swallow up the independent Czech state from the outside as well as in. The unified state was a project constructed by elites and only after its proclamation it had to be given its new form, ideology and content.

Why not blame Masaryk and Beneš?

The political elites created it and they buried it as well. Then it is a bit ahistorical to blame Václav Klaus or Vladimír Mečiar for dissolving Czechoslovakia by themselves in 1992 when we do not blame Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk or Edvard Beneš for its creation. Under a lucky star of the postwar chaos and with empires collapsing nearby, the founders of Czechoslovakia merged four nationalities with different languages, histories, cultures and economies and created a little replica of the Austrian empire.

Masaryk’s statement that states emerge and fall with the ideas with which they have been created has often been quoted. In the case of Czechoslovakia, perhaps a paraphrase fits better: states rise and fall the same way they have been created. The spirit of the secretive, “behind-the-curtain” politics in which politicians ask people for their opinion only when elections come around and then everything important is decided between party secretariats, was a significant feature of the interwar political culture and climaxed tragically during the Munich crisis in 1938.

President Beneš took all the responsibility for the decision to accept the Munich agreement without seeking approval or consulting with members of the government, parliament, or Czechoslovak citizens themselves. Yes, it was a highly pragmatic and rational decision that saved thousands of lives but caused dangerous disillusionment and a radical turn against the legacy of Masaryk´s interwar republic in people´s mind.

Similarly, Klaus and Mečiar pragmatically declined the possibility of a referendum in 1992 – it was comfortable for them, maybe for the future of both freshly nascent states, but not for the state of democracy and the feeling of citizens of being able to decide their future. What would have happened if the Czechs and Slovaks had refused to split? The political winners of the election would have had to negotiate again and again and Czechoslovakia would have probably been set on the Belgian path to political stalemate, being unable to make any strategic decisions during the ongoing post-communist transformation.

This pragmatic, yet highly disputable decision was a dangerous precedent implanted into the DNA of the freshly born states. Politicians learned to hide their decision-making processes in the shadows of party politics. In Slovakia it paved the way to the authoritative privatization of the state. In the Czech Republic it led to a political system where the right and the left concluded a non-aggression pact and opted for stability of the system instead of democratic competition.

In a Communist greenhouse

It was not just an accident that when the Soviet bloc as an ideological and economical system collapsed, the dissolution of three federations – the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia – followed. Formally, they were federations with all the national rights written into their constitutions. In reality, though, the states were governed exclusively by communist parties and held together by communist ideology.

When that ideology disappeared, nationalism rushed in to substitute itself – something the globalists and the “end-of-history” prophets prematurely buried as an old fashioned antiquarian ideology of the 20th century. No need to name all the reasons here why it happened but I would like to stress two points. Firstly, Communists dreamed of overcoming nationalism with socialist humanism and internationalism. Nationalism as a mobilization tool was artificially put to sleep, covered with a veil of internationalism and brotherhood.

Secondly, the expression of nationalist aspirations was closely connected with the permanent democratic deficit of the communist regimes and the limitations on the freedom of speech. How long would it have taken for the first frictions to erupt between the Czechs and Slovaks if Czechoslovakia had not turned red in 1948 and Slovak national aspirations had not been severely repressed by the Czechoslovak Communist Party? Similarly Yugoslavia most likely wouldn’t have been restored after 1945 had it not been ruled by Tito´s communists. The era between 1948 and 1989 thus conserved and repressed many problems that would naturally have been debated in the political arena or put on the agenda for free elections.

While the Czech political elite perceived the common state from the beginning as a fulfillment of an old Czech dream referring to the independent Czech kingdom from the 9th to the 17th century, the Slovak political representation viewed it rationally as a better shelter in the given historical conditions for the development of Slovak nationhood. It did not hesitate to exploit the crisis of the common state to strengthen its own position and power and shift further the national project within the given conditions – as can be seen in the proclamation of an independent Slovak state among the debris of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the finalizing of federalization at the dawn of normalization and the demolition of the Prague spring program in 1969.

Pragmatically understandable steps from contemporary perspectives however stirred emotions, enmities and long-term bitterness poisoning mutual Czech-Slovak relations that then transformed into real power struggles between political parties and also within the ruling Czechoslovak Communist Party after 1948. The communist regime did have some legitimacy among certain strata of society and this approval reached its peak during the Prague spring when the majority of people believed in the possibility of a fusion between socialism and democracy.

Sequence of rational choices

The fulfillment of Slovak aspirations to equal their position in Czechoslovakia was one of the pillars of the 1968 reformist program. When the Warsaw pact tanks crushed the reform, federalization was one of the few achievements that remained and was put into effect by January 1969. As the Czech historian Jan Rychlík put it, despite its weaknesses the federation helped Slovakia to build up its infrastructure for future independence. If the creation of interwar Czechoslovakia, based on the artificially created Czechoslovak nation, was a rational choice of the Czech elites to strengthen its position against the Germans; if the proclamation of the Slovak state was a rational choice of the Slovak elites to escape from the Czech and Moravian lands doomed to Germanization and Nazi domination; if the liquidation of Slovak political autonomy in the period 1945 – 1968 was a rational choice of the Czechoslovak communists to uproot nationalism as a dangerous competitor to their own communist internationalist ideology; if the willingness to push the federation project in the shadow of the Soviet-led occupation in 1968 was a rational choice of the Slovak elites to gain the most possible, applying the spirit of the Prague spring to the question of national self-determination and development; then it was perfectly rational for Czech politicians led by Klaus to reject the Slovak proposal of a loose confederation viewing Slovakia as an undesirable “burden” for rapid liberal transformation. It was all perfectly rational… but what to do with the enormous heritage of cultural capital, memories, and emotions that had piled up over the past 70 years?

Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.