I came to Czechoslovakia in October 1990, enthusiastic about the country’s emergence from four decades of Communist Party rule, its playwright-president Vaclav Havel, and prospects for democratic development. Education for Democracy, an organization that placed U.S., Canadian and other native-English speakers in schools and universities there, sent me to Martin, a Slovak provincial town of fifty thousand in the mountains. I was a little disappointed not to be assigned to Prague, now bustling with new ideas and new-found freedom. And where I might just run into Havel enjoying an intellectual discussion over Pilsner in one of the city’s many pubs.
While that hope was a bit unrealistic, imagine my excitement when I learned Havel would be visiting Martin barely two weeks after I’d settled in there. The occasion was the ratification of Czechoslovak statehood there on 30 October 1918, two days after its declaration in Prague. Which may be surprising unless you know that Martin had been Slovakia’s unofficial cultural capital in the mid-19th century, and continues to house institutions dedicated to preserving Slovak heritage.
As much as Havel was there to celebrate the country’s birth, he also wanted to warn against division. He cited a short story by Slovak author Martin Kukucin, about two poor brothers who worked hard and overcame difficulty but finally prospered. Then, others became envious and tried to divide them, knowing that then they would be weaker.
The reference to nationalist Slovak politicians, cynically exploiting old resentments about hegemony from Prague, and ready to gain power at the expense of national unity, was clear. But it also became clear to me over the next two years that the original founding of Czechoslovakia was fraught with problems.
The Czechs, in 1918, had had understandable grievances against the Austrians, and the Slovaks had suffered much under Hungarian rule. But the new state, carved out of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy, inevitably contained sizeable German-speaking and Magyar minorities. Some observers held out hopes that the fledgling Central European republic would be a “new Switzerland.” But the treatment of these minorities was not necessarily the best. Once the Hungarian population of Bratislava fell below the 20-percent threshold necessary to guarantee certain rights, all the Magyar-language street names in the city were covered over in thick black paint.
But in many other ways, the democratic Czechoslovakia was an example to the rest of Central Europe. Unfortunately, ethnic tensions surround the German-speaking minority in Czech areas resulted in the Sudeten Crisis of 1938, the Munich Pact allowing Hitler to occupy those areas, and his takeover of all of Bohemia and Moravia the following March. Slovakia became a nominally independent Nazi puppet state.
The post-war years saw the expulsion of German populations and the communist takeover in the coup of February 1948. Then the experiment with “Socialism with a Human Face” in 1968, which ended in that August’s invasion of Warsaw Pact tanks. (Czech history has a habit of happening “on the 8’s.”) Finally, 1989’s Velvet Revolution ushered out the communists, and ushered in democracy.
Sort of. But then came the populist movements I’ve mentioned already. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they would become a harbinger of what we’re currently seeing now, even in the U.S., the UK, in Germany with it’s AfD, and elsewhere.
Czechoslovakia only had twenty years to blossom in the interwar period, and it never had a great chance due to the economic depression of those time. Then it had a breath of freedom after WWII, then the Prague Spring, then the Velvet Revolution.
So, over a period of roughly seventy years, with interruptions, the country enjoyed maybe twenty-five years of something reasonably approaching freedom and prosperity. Which is still more than the majority of the human race can say.
At any rate, let’s learn from this history, and try to imitate the best of Czechoslovakia. And hope that the peoples of Central Europe will have a better future.