An east-central European country marked by persistent tensions between its constituent nationalities, and domination by its overbearing neighbours.
The liberal period (1918–1939)
Following the collapse of the Austro‐Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia was proclaimed on 28 October 1918, and confirmed at the Paris Peace Conferences, on 10 September 1919. It consisted of the economically advanced historical regions of Moravia, Bohemia, and parts of Silesia, which made up the Czech lands, and the industrially backward Slovakia, including parts of the even poorer Karpathia. The new state was thus extremely heterogeneous, consisting of 66 per cent Czechs and Slovaks, 22 per cent Germans, 5 per cent Hungarians, and 0.7 per cent Poles. This fact alone obliged the new state to pursue an extremely liberal policy in order to reconcile its minorities. This trend was reinforced by its enlightened, intellectual leadership under Thomas Masaryk and Beneš, and supported by the well‐developed and stable middle classes of the Czech lands.
During the 1920s the country experienced a much greater degree of stability than all its neighbours. Through the Little Entente, and a friendship treaty with France, the country hoped to buttress its position in foreign affairs. Nevertheless, after the Great Depression it became even more difficult to insulate the country from the rise of Fascism and authoritarianism which developed among its neighbours. In particular, the German Nazi movement whipped up opposition amongst the Germans in the Sudetenland (in north‐western Bohemia), who came to demand more autonomy ever more aggressively. Grievances were also growing in the Slovak half of the country. Since the educated middle classes were overwhelmingly Czech, the Slovaks found themselves vastly under‐represented in the political and administrative system, so that there, too, demands for greater autonomy emerged.
World War II (1939–45)
Czechoslovakia was not overcome by internal collapse, but by the Munich Agreement, whereby the Sudetenland was annexed by Germany, and the lands inhabited by the Polish (i.e. Teschen) and Hungarian minorities were annexed by Poland and Hungary respectively. On 14–15 March 1939, Hitler's armies invaded the rest of the Czech lands and created the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which became relatively autonomous, with a puppet President (Hácha). The Germans brutally suppressed the Czech intelligentsia and middle classes. Following the murder of Heydrich, the German rule of terror climaxed in the retaliatory destruction of the village of Lidice. However, although German suppression and brutality were undoubtedly severe, they remained at a level comparable with Nazi rule in occupied Western Europe. They were not remotely as brutal as in Poland or the occupied Soviet Union, partly because of Nazi reliance on the Czech workforce in the armaments industry. After World War II, the government in exile under Beneš returned to the country.
Communist rule (1945–90)
The first break with the country's prewar traditions of liberalism and toleration came in June 1945, when it became the first Eastern European country outside Nazi Germany and the USSR to carry out ‘ethnic cleansing’, expelling the German and Hungarian minorities from the country. In the elections of May 1946, the Communist Party under Gottwald became the largest party, with 38 per cent of the vote. Amidst signs of Communist decline afterwards, Gottwald staged a coup in February 1948, and established a Communist one‐party state. This was accelerated through a series of Stalinist purges, culminating in the Slánski trial. The country had thus firmly come into the fold of Moscow, and adhered to the extremes of Stalinism even after Stalin's death. Human rights violations by the state and a dependent judiciary continued, while the economy, which had suffered comparatively little damage during the war, was disastrously mismanaged, leading to an economic crisis in the early 1960s.
Growing unrest and protests led to the appointment of the reform‐minded Dubček as First Party Secretary in January 1968. However, his attempts to strengthen Communism through political and economic liberalization went further than other Communist leaders such as Ulbricht and Brezhnev were willing to allow, thus threatening the status quo in Eastern Europe. The period of reform called the Prague Spring was violently ended on 20 August 1968, when the Warsaw Pact troops arrived in Czechoslovakia and entered Prague.
There followed two decades under Husák, in which Communist political orthodoxy was re‐established with a mixture of tight press censorship and an attempt to mollify opposition with economic benefits. The latter proved extremely difficult, as economic growth remained slow during the 1970s and 1980s, This was caused in part by the 1973 and 1979 oil price shocks, central economic planning, and the failure to invest in new technologies in a country reliant on its traditional heavy industry. Husák's inability to contain the opposition became apparent in the establishment of the Charter '77 movement, which provided an inspiration to dissident movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Charter '77 provided leadership once Communist regimes were tumbling in neighbouring countries. In the Velvet Revolution of December 1989, the Communist government collapsed, and a government under the leading Charter '77 dissident Havel was formed. However, the new political leadership was unable to prevent a growing sense of nationalism in Slovakia, which had already begun under the Communist leadership. Unable to reach an agreement on a federal or confederate link between the two parts, the country peacefully split into the independent Czech and Slovak Republics on 1 January 1993.