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The Role Of Ethnic Nationalism In Czechoslovakia History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The separation of Czechoslovakia traverses a long time. As early as 1918, the two groups, the Czechs and the Slovaks seemed uncomfortable co-existing due to minor differences. Although various factors are responsible for the break-up of Czechoslovakia, ethic based nationalism played a critical role in the breakup of Czechoslovakia. This does not however negate the fact that other factors such as the surrounding environment facilitated the separation. As the paper develops, it is revealed that events in Eastern Europe, especially in Yugoslavia and in the USSR proved significant in terms of influencing the separation. Despite this realization, this paper solely focuses on how ethnic nationalism proved to be the main factor in the breakup of Czechoslovakia. In order to bring out the role of ethnic nationalism, the paper gives a chronology of events and then shows how such events were shaped by ethnic nationalism.

The inhabitants of the current Czech and Slovak originally came from the political entity under the Great Moravian Empire. At the peak of the empire, it was slightly bigger than Czechoslovakia. At the collapse of the empire, beginning the 10th century marked the point at which separation began. At this point, the Czech speaking people from the western part commenced a different historical development. On the other hand, the current day Slovakia became part of the Hungarian state. During this time, power rested with the Magyarized Slovaks and the Magyars. This was especially the case in the cities having Germans. Come 1918, the Czechoslovakia republic was established. However, one third of its population had different nationalities other than Slovaks and/or Czechs. Worse still, in 1930, there were more German-based nationals when compared to Slovaks. The republic’s German ethnic citizens were 3,306,099 as compared to 2,295,067 of the Slovaks (Skalnik 1997).

The constitution of 1920 gave the Slovak language legal status as Czech. However, the constitution failed to settle the question regarding whether the two languages were separate or equal. The constitution though indicated that Czechoslovakia was linguistically a unit. This is based on the idea that the republic rested on the idea that the Czechoslovak language being common among the people of the republic (Kamm 1992). Despite the presence of other ethnic groups surprisingly having larger numbers than the Slovaks, the preamble of the constitution clearly underscored the direction the republic was taking, that of recognizing the two groups, Czechs and Slovaks. This unity between the Slovaks and the Czechs formed the ideological basis upon which held the state together. The tragedy of this state of affairs however rested on the idea that the Czechoslovakian State was in part not cognizant with the ethnic identity of the Slovaks. Constitutionally, the Slovaks were at a disadvantage specifically prior to the Second World War. At this time, the Czechs failed to make any meaningful effort in concealing their conviction that they were superior to the Slovaks in reference to culture and literature. The relations between the two groups were further dented by the economic circumstances they found themselves (Mojmir 1999).

Unlike in other cases of nationalism where violence takes its toll, the case of Czechoslovakia reflects a stark contrast as the pursuit for independence ended peacefully, without bloodshed. The separation, coming up in 1992 has been seen as based on cultural differences between the two states, Czech and Slovakia. Although ethnicity played a key role in the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, other aspects were equally crucial. Specifically, the role of negotiations in seeking separation stands critically valuable in the separation process.

Referring to the Baltic States, no major disputes were reported between the two nations, a major reflection on why there was no violence witnessed. The other reason rests on the idea that the two states did not have mutually exclusive ethnic groups (Csergo 2001).

Before the first establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Slovaks had lived within the Hungarian kingdom for ten centuries, and the old territorial border remained a sub-state boundary in Czechoslovakia (Rothschild 1974). After decades of co-existence with the prospect of mobility within a common state-first in interwar Czechoslovakia, later in communist Czechoslovakia-no sizable Czech national minority developed on Slovak territory or Slovak historic minority in the Czech lands that would articulate a sub-state national challenge to either of the new states. Another important reason why the Czech and Slovak divorce lacked significant controversy was that the Hungarian minority in the Slovak part of the state, a historic minority with competing homeland claims in the southern region of Slovakia, did not challenge the Slovaks’ right to independence (Brubaker 1996).

Many Slovaks and Czechs had a desire to continue co-existing under the Czechoslovakia federal. However, a slender majority of the Slovaks were in favour of a loose co-existence whereby achieving full independence and sovereignty was the main goal. After 1990, political parties re-emerged in Czechoslovakia. The most noticeable issue centred on the absence or limited presence of Czech parties in Slovakia and corresponding scenario depicting a limited precedence of Slovak parties in Czech. The government, in a bid to have a functional state relied on Prague as a control centre while Slovaks were intent on achieving decentralization (Wolchik 1995).

Based on the views of the Czechs, the Sudeten German people played a significant role in the breakup of the state of Czechoslovakia. This happened at the Munich conference in 1938. At this point, around twenty-eight percent of the German population was in support of the pan-German nationalism. However, the collapse of the sovereignty of the Czechoslovakia republic is traceable to the minority Germans who were calling for annexation of Sudetenland into the 3rd Reich. As such, the German minorities found among the populations of the Czechs and the Slovaks were the primary reason behind the separation of Czechoslovakia into two states (Wightman 1991).

Referring to the Slovak economy, there was a slight growth and development at the onset years before slumping into a slow down during the interwar period. As at 1937, twenty-four percent of the country’s economy was under the control of the Slovaks. Of the twenty four percent, the Slovak population only contributed eight percent in reference to the industrial sector. The contribution based on the agricultural sector was not any favourable towards the overall economic capability of Czechoslovakia. This played a part in sowing the seeds of negative ethnicity in the state since the Czechs viewed the Slovaks’ contribution as minimal to deserve a special place in the Czechoslovakia configuration. Put in simplistic terms, the Czechs saw the Slovaks as appendages to the economy (Brubaker 1996).

It is not perplexing to note that voices calling for self-government by the Slovaks began early prior to the post first world war. The signing of treaties signalled the movement towards independence as this served as a platform used to launch a political party as early as 1919, Slovak People’s Party. Despite this development, the response by the central government from Prague turned out to be formal. In 1938, Nazi Germany forced Czechoslovakia to surrender the German-speaking segment. The Slovaks took advantage of this scenario to declare their autonomy given the ensuing paralysis. After a month, Hungary, took a large part of the southern part of Slovakia, which was home to a good number Magyar minority ethnic group. A day before Nazi fighters commenced occupying the remaining parts of the Czech-speaking section Slovakia declared its independence (Brubaker 1996).

Given the time, it was only logical for Slovakia to declare its independence. If Slovakia would have failed to take the move to declare its independence, then possibly, the Germans or the Hungarians could have laid a claim to its control. The worst scenario could have witnessed a partitioning of the Slovakia State between the Germans and the Hungarians. The Slovakia declaration could not amuse the Czechs at the same time since the Czechs’ foreign policy was unstable. As such gaining independence on the part of the Slovaks could not be counted or seen as betrayal to the Czechs (Musil 1995).

After World War 2, there were controversies regarding how the republic would be ordered. Immediately after the war, political party leaders from both the Czech and the Slovaks communities in exile, commenced talks on the way forward regarding the relations between the two groups. Several arrangements were proposed with the exiled Czechoslovakia president Edvard Benes preferring the pre-war arrangement. Other arrangements tossed included having a partially independent Slovakia State, fully independent Slovakia, a soviet Slovakia to a federal government (Rothschild 1974).

In 1945, Slovak was given some measure of self-government under a program entered at Kosice. However, less than a year down the line, the authority of Slovak’s National Council had become weak and was operating in subordination to that of the Czechoslovak government. Although attempts were made to strengthen the Slovak National Council’s powers, in 1960, the passing of the socialist constitution paved way for centralization of powers. This thus marked the demise of the Slovak National Council as far as power relations were concerned (Innes 2001).

From this time on, an asymmetry in relations was to ensue unabated. The asymmetry in relations between the Slovaks and the Czechs soared during the 1960’s and it proved an irritant to the two parties. The initial view by the Slovaks that they were appendages in the arrangement of co-existing with the Czechs took its toll, as legislation by the central government appeared to cater for the interests of the Czechs as opposed to those of the two parties. On the other part of the divide, the Czech community perceived that those Slovak institutions, which did not have corresponding ones in the Czech territory as undue privileges, awarded to the Slovaks. As an illustration, the Slovak Academy of Sciences was seen as an undue privilege provided to the Slovaks. Even though it took long to come out in the open, the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s Central Committee responded in1968 as pressure mounted due to the dissatisfaction in Slovakia. The pressure paid off as later in the same year, the Czechoslovak National Assembly gave in to demands to have a federation in the country (Kamm 1992).

As such, the federation facilitated the co-existence of Slovak Socialist Republic and Czech Socialist Republic until 1990. The two groups had separate jurisdiction in reference to both primary and secondary education. Other aspects involved apart from separate jurisdiction included health, internal commerce, national culture among others. It should be noted that the tendency to centralize power at the expense of the separate jurisdictional arrangement continued (Mojmir 1999). The velvet revolution coming in 1989 brought to a halt of forty years of communist rule. Attendant to this was the reopening of the question on Czech-Slovak association. At this time, the democratic space was wide and it was difficult to hide the differences between the two groups (Innes1997).

At 1990, the changing of the wording of the state took centre stage since the Slovaks questioned whether the then wording, Czechoslovak. To the Slovaks, the word failed to reflect equality. In addition the Czechs doubted whether the wording reflected ethnic distinctness characterizing the two groups. This rested on the idea that Czech was being used synonymously with Czechoslovak. After considering options, the word Czech and Slovak Federative Republic was adopted. However, this did not dampen the spirits of sections of Slovaks who still felt that they were entitled to be existing distinctly away from the Czechs. Slovaks in the Diaspora who supported calls for complete independence heavily influenced this minority group (Kraus 2000).

After the elections of 1990, the rift between the two groups seemed to be widening. In a bid to arrest the situation, representatives from the warring sections, Czech and Slovak, continued meeting behind closed doors. The representatives from the side of the Slovaks was clear, they wanted to have strong republics coming together to form a federation while the representatives from the Czech side were in support of a stronger central government. This s not surprising since the Czechs knew that a stronger central government was instrumental in fostering their interests since they controlled the wing of government. Aware of the same predicament, the Slovaks were unwilling to play second fiddle to the Czechs since they fully understood that their interests would be best taken care of under an arrangement which made the republics autonomous. However, in practice, having strong republics would simply imply a reduced role of central government and increased difficulties in policymaking. This was a precursor to actual separation. It was not surprising as later in the same year, nine political parties from Slovak published seven points in a clear indication of declaring self-rule. December the same year, all parties, party to the coalition government were ready to petition the Slovak government to declare sovereignty of Slovak laws over those of the federation. However, this was shelved due to economic and other considerations (Musil 1995).

Immediate causes for the dissolution however centre on the issue of inevitability against the velvet revolution events. Those who favour inevitability point to the problems facing the two nations under shared communalism. In reference to this, communalism thrived in the Slovak land while failing in the Czech land. The 1968 constitution, which provided for a minority veto was also partly to blame. Looking at events between 1989 and 1992, one gets the idea those international events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union being a huge influence (Csergo 2001).

According to Hilde (1999), the Slovaks were a distinct ethnic group from the Czechs. They had their own language as well as a well-defined territorial space. In addition, a larger part of their history was clearly different from the one of the Czechs. Further, there was a difference in the attitudes of the two groups as underscored by the cautious and pragmatic approach by the Czechs. Although ethnicity played a critical role in the separation of the two countries, events in Europe were also partly responsible for the split. This view is held in respect to the events in Yugoslavia and USSR.


It is clear that ethnic nationalism was at the centre in the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Claims on various aspects like economic, social and legislative matters simply oscillated around ethnicity. The most critical finding rests on the idea that perceptions were different. On the one hand, the Czechs perceived themselves as being superior to the Slovaks. On the other hand, the Slovaks felt undermined in the union. Overall, the contribution towards the economic wellness of the country was skewed since Slovak offered less as compared to Czech. The feeling of inferiority coupled with the fact that the Slovaks had a different history worsened matters, as they appear to have slowly but progressively pushed for their independence. Other ethnic minorities in the country of Czechoslovakia contributed towards the collapse of the republic. As illustrated, the Sudeten German people proved influential in reference to the calls made in favour of the annexation of Sudetenland into the 3rd Reich. It is concluded that although other factors such as events elsewhere in Europe being partly influential on the direction taken by Czechoslovakia, the role of ethnic nationalism was clearly a driving force leading to the eventual split of country.

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