Pre - World War I


German Occupation

Russian Occupation

Prague Spring

Warsaw Pact

1968: Summer of Tanks

Velvet Revolution

Velvet Divorce




History of Czechoslovakia

And Czech Republic


Pre - World War I (-1914)

The area today known as the Czech Republic and Slovakia were settled by many Slavic groups: the Boii (according to the ancient Romans) and Marcomans settled in Bohemia; the Cotini, settled in Moravia and parts of Slovakia. The area was at times influenced by the Romans, the Byzantines, and later the Ottoman Turks. The Premyslide dynasty ruled the region until the Habsburg Empire took control over it. Catholicism was the official religion, but a famous professor of theology who advocated reform in the Roman Catholic Church, Jan Hus, was from in Bohemia. Antonin Dvorak, a renown romantic composer who wrote the much admired Slavic Dances, concertos, and syphonies.

Independence of Czechoslovakia (1918)

Czechoslovakia became independent in 1918, subsequent to the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the World War I. It was a nation formed by three regions: Slovakia, Moravia and Bohemia. The government was a Parliamentary Republic, led by Tomas Masaryk. The bi-cameral parliament was called the National Assembly, which was secretly and freely elected. The President had appointing and dismissing government, and direct executive powers during emergencies. Although President Masaryk had great powers, he never abused them: the government of Czechoslovakia was the most democratic and constitutional in Eastern Europe at that time.

German Occupation (1939)

There were about 3 million people of German ancestry living in Czechoslovakia, near the Sudeten Mountains. When Hitler rose to power, nationalism rose in the German-speaking people throughout Europe. The Sudeten Germans claimed that they were treated badly by the Czech authorities, and in September of 1938, the meeting in Munich between Hitler, Mussolini, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and French Premier Eduoard Daladier (the Czech representatives were shut out of the room) reached an agreement that Czechoslovakia will cede Sudetenland to Germany to avoid war. But Hitler didn’t stop there: the Nazis stirred up hostile feelings between the Czechs and the Slovakians, and in March 1939, Slovakia claimed independence. German troops poured into Moravia and Bohemia to “protect” the newly independent Slovakia.

“Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist.”– Hitler

The people who resisted the Nazis were either executed or were sent to concentration camps. When Reinhard Heydrich, (the Nazi “protector” of Bohemia and Moravia, who took the crown jewels under his own personal protection; deported the Jewish population to concentration camps, and abolished public entertainment) was assassinated by Czech patriots, the Nazis killed 1331 men and women for revenge. The Nazi vengeance also fell on a village near Prague called Lidice, where all male above sixteen were shot, and the women and children were deported to concentration camps. The conditions were bad, and were getting worse by the day. The food, fuel and resources were used by the Nazis for war efforts. On April 25, 1945, the Russians and Americans gathered forces at Torgau, a city in Eastern Germany. Hitler, once the most powerful man in Europe, realized that his end was near. On April 30, Hitler committed suicide. On May 7, the Germans surrendered to the Allies. On May 9, Russian General Konev with his troops along with the American forces entered Prague and liberated it

Russian Occupation (1945)

Edvard Benes (who led a government-in-exile during the war in London) was made president, and Jan Masaryk (son of the former president) was made Foreign Minister. Seven out of twenty posts of the new government’s cabinet were rewarded to the Communist Party for underground struggle against the Nazis during the war. The winter between 1945 and 1946, there were food shortages as a result of the war, but the Communists blamed Benes’s government for acting too slow with dealing with the problems. The Communists gained control in the government by taking advantage of the people’s discontent, and in the election of 1946, the new communist leader Klement Gottwald was named the new Prime Minister, and he was charged with responsibility of forming a new government.

Wanting complete power, Gottwald announced a “fascist plot” that had been discovered to overthrow the republic, and forced the non-Communist member in the cabinet to resign. He also threatened Benes with the intervention of the Soviet army. Not wanting civil war, Benes named a new government completely sympathetic to the Communist party.

Klement Gottwald became president after the resignation and death of Benes and Masaryk, the foreign minister. The Communist government declared a “purification of Czech and Slovak literature: seven million books were destroyed, and it was forbidden to mention the names of Benes and Masaryk. Teachers were removed from their posts and were replaced by Communists, and all students were required to study Marxism-Leninism and Russian. The government took over 95% of the industries in Czechoslovakia as an act to eliminate capitalism.

Prague Spring (1968)

The Prague Spring was a liberal period in Czechoslovakia, under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek. Dubcek gained power in the Communist party in Slovakia, which was the poorer part of the country. Dubcek and his followers demanded drastic reforms in the country’s economy and more political freedom in the government.

Antonin Novotny was the President when Dubcek rose to power. Although he supported Dubcek’s reforms in his speeches, he, in reality, stuck to the old Stalinist ways of ruling. After the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev refused to back up Novotny, Dubcek and his followers confronted Novotny and stripped him of power. In March 22, 1968, Novotny gave in to popular demands and resigned as president. Ludvik Svobada, a close ally of Dubcek, was appointed president.

Dubcek dismissed the conservative officials from high office positions in the government, and he established a court system that did not depend on the Communist Party. Dubcek abolished censorships; trade Unions were given more rights to bargain on behalf of the workers; farmers were given the right to form independent co-operatives, and the newspapers were allowed to speak freely. The people rightly named the period of free expression the “Prague Spring.” Vaclav Havel was allowed to go abroad during this time period. He came to the United States to produce his play, The Memorandum, and admired the free and easy atmosphere in America.

Warsaw Pact (1955)

After World War II, Stalin tried to take Western Germany by blockading East Germany. He hoped that the Western powers would be scared and might cede Western Germany as well. But Stalin’s plan didn’t work – the Americans and British sent supplies by air, since the roads and water routes are closed. At last, Stalin gave in and ended the blockade. Western Europe was frightened by the Soviet Union. In 1949, the United States, Canada, and Western Europe joined forces in a defensive military alliance against the Soviet Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

The Warsaw Pact, or the Warsaw Treaty, was a military alliance formed in 1955 by the communist countries in response to NATO. The countries that joined the Pact were: Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia – all the communist countries in Eastern Europe with the exception of Yugoslavia. The countries that signed the Warsaw Pact pledged to defend each other if one of the members were attacked.

Click to see the Warsaw Pact.

1968: Summer of Tanks

The free and liberal atmosphere ushered in by Alexander Dubcek horrified Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union. He warned Dubcek to stop his “nonsense” and go back to the old Stalinist ways of governing. The people of Czechoslovakia thought that it was too late to abandon the reform and go back to the old ways.

In July of 1968, the Soviet Union had “evidence” of German plans of invading Sudetenland, but Dubcek declined Soviet Union’s offer of sending in the Red Army to protect Czechoslovakia. The members of Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968. The reason was stated in the Brezhnev Doctrine, “When forces that are hostile to socialism and try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.” The government ordered the citizens not to resist, in order to avoid bloodshed. Dubcek and Ludvik Svobada, the president, were taken to Moscow. The Soviet Union, after a “free comradely discussion”, announced that Czechoslovakia would abandon its reform programs.

After the fall of Dubcek (who for the next eighteen years worked as a clerk in a lumberyard in Slovakia), Gustav Husak was appointed as president. Husak had very conservative policies and was in close relations with the Soviet Union.

Velvet Revolution (1989)

The Czechoslovakia people did not intend to have a revolution in 1989, but one thing led to another, and the Communist government was overthrown. It all started when the people of Prague wanted to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the young martyr, Jan Opletal, a Czech-Jewish student killed by the Nazis during the German occupation. Masses gathered at Jan’s grave on November 7, 1989, and the ceremony became an anti-communist demonstration. The people started to protest on the streets, singing John Lennon’s (former member of the Beatles) “We Shall Overcome”, shouting slogans against the Communist government and “Svoboda!” Freedom!

The crowds gathered at Wenceslas Square, and the
government was already mobilized. Squads of policemen were organized into the “Red Berets”.

The students presented flowers to the police, and bared their hands to show that they didn’t have any weapons. After facing each other for a few minutes, one squad was ordered to not let any student escape. They started to beat students, then trampled over the fallen students. Many were injured, and there was a rumor that one protester was killed. Some people refer to this event to as the “Massacre of November 17.”

Next day, students voted to call a strike. The actor’s union was the first to openly side with the students. They agreed to have a strike nine days later – all the people in country would stand up against the inhumane actions of the police and government to support human rights. Vaclav Havel was made head of Civic Forum, a political organization that opposes the dictatorial regime of the Communist government.

More students and people (eventually up to half a million) gathered at Wenceslas Square over weekend. The atmosphere was filled with excitement, and almost celebratory. Banners were draped on the buildings, and groups of students climbed the statue of Saint Wenceslas. The workers left their factories for the demonstration; even a newscaster on national TV announced that he was joining the strike and walked off the set.

On November 24, 1989, the Communist government resigned. Husak didn’t want too much bloodshed. On November 26, negotiations between Ladislav Adamec, the Prime Minister and Havel released all of the political prisoners, but Havel refused to postpone the strike on the 27th. On December 7, 1989, Adamec resigned as Prime Minister. A communist member, Calfa, who favored reform, replaced Adamec. Calfa invited the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence to reopen negotiations with the government. The decisions reached during the negotiations were: Calfa would be prime minister until spring of 1990, and Civic Forum and Public Against Violence would dominate the new government.

On December 28, Alexander Dubcek was elected as chairman of the National Assembly, the votes were 298 to 0. Vaclav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia, and the votes were 323 to 0.

Velvet Divorce

Slovakia, eastern part of Czechoslovakia, differs both culturally and socially from the western part. The religions are different: Catholicism is mainly practiced in Slovakia, while Czech leans towards Protestantism. They spoke different languages and shared different cultures. Until after World War I, they were never a common state. After the Communist government was overthrown, Slovakia suffered unemployment because it wasn’t prepared for the new economy, which was different from the government - controlled one before the Velvet Revolution.

Also, the Slovakians felt that Czech representatives dominated politics. The tension increased in Slovakia when Havel replaced Slovakia’s very nationalistic Prime Minister Vladmir Mecair with his friend Carnogursky. When Havel went to Slovakia to give speeches, the people sometimes pelted him with tomatoes.

Finally, with Vladimir Meciar and the Czech politician Vaclav Klaus, an agreement was reached between the two states: on January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia became two states: the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. The split of Czechoslovakia was called the Velvet Divorce. But it is interesting to note that most people in the Czech Republic and Slovakia opposed the split.

Vaclav Havel resigned his presidency rather than signing the Declaration of Independence of Slovakia.

On January 26, 1993, the Czech Republic elected Vaclav Havel as the first president of the nation state.

See Political Life for more details on Vaclav Havel's Involvement in the Revolution and his Presidency.