The Czechoslovak Republic, 1918-39
The independence of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed on October 28, 1918, by the Czechoslovak National Council in Prague. Only several years before, an independent Czechoslovakia had been a dream of a small number of intellectuals. The transformation of the dream into reality was a formidable task. While the creation of Czechoslovakia was based on certain historical precedents, it was, nevertheless, a new country carved out of disparate parts of the old Hapsburg Empire. Several ethnic groups and territories with different historical, political, and economic traditions had to be blended into a new state structure. In the face of such obstacles, the creation of Czechoslovak democracy was indeed a triumph. But the Czechoslovak Republic (which also came to be known as the First Republic) suffered internal constrictions, which, when coupled with foreign aggression, destroyed it.
Initial authority within Czechoslovakia was assumed by the newly created National Assembly on November 14, 1918. Because territorial demarcations were uncertain and elections impossible, the provisional National Assembly was constituted on the basis of the 1911 elections to the Austrian parliament with the addition of fifty-four representatives from Slovakia. National minorities were not represented; Sudeten Germans harbored secessionist aspirations, and Hungarians remained loyal to Hungary. The National Assembly elected Masaryk as its first president, chose a provisional government headed by Karel Kramar, and drafted a provisional constitution.
The Paris Peace Conference convened in January 1919. The Czech delegation was led by Kramar and Benes, premier and foreign minister respectively, of the Czechoslovak provisional government. The conference approved the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic, to encompass the historic Bohemian Kingdom (including Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia), Slovakia, and Ruthenia. The Czechs requested the inclusion of Ruthenia to provide a common frontier with Romania. Tesin, an industrial area also claimed by Poland, was divided between Czechoslovakia (Cesky Tesin) and Poland (Cieszyn). The Czech claim to Lusatia, which had been part of the Bohemian Kingdom until the Thirty Years' War, was rejected. On September 10, 1919, Czechoslovakia signed a "minorities" treaty, placing its ethnic minorities under the protection of the League of Nations (see fig. 7).
The new nation had a population of over 13.5 million. It had inherited 70 to 80 percent of all the industry of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the china and glass industries and thesugar refineries; more than 40 percent of all its distilleries and breweries; the Skoda works of Plzen (Pilsen), which produced armaments, locomotives, automobiles, and machinery; and the chemical industry of northern Bohemia. The 17 percent of all Hungarian industry that had developed in Slovakia during the late nineteenth century also fell to the republic. Czechoslovakia was one of the world's ten most industrialized states.
The Czech lands were far more industrialized than Slovakia. In Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, 39 percent of the population was employed in industry and 31 percent in agriculture and forestry. Most light and heavy industry was located in the Sudetenland and was owned by Germans and controlled by German-owned banks. Czechs controlled only 20 to 30 percent of all industry. In Slovakia 17.1 percent of the population was employed in industry, and 60.4 percent worked in agriculture and forestry. Only 5 percent of all industry in Slovakia was in Slovak hands. Subcarpathian Ruthenia was essentially without industry.
In the agricultural sector, a program of reform introduced soon after the establishment of the republic was intended to rectify the unequal distribution of land. One-third of all agricultural land and forests belonged to a few aristocratic landowners--mostly Germans and Hungarians--and the Roman Catholic Church. Half of all holdings were under two hectares. The Land Control Act of April 1919 called for the expropriation of all estates exceeding 150 hectares of arable land or 250 hectares of land in general (500 hectares to be the absolute maximum). Redistribution was to proceed on a gradual basis; owners would continue in possession in the interim, and compensation was offered.
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