Modern history


Czechs and Slovaks

WHERE THE POLES tended to bring exasperated sighs, even from their supporters, the Czechs basked in general approval. The Poles were dashing and brave, but quite unreasonable; the Rumanians charming and clever, but sadly devious; the Yugoslavs, well, rather Balkan. The Czechs were refreshingly Western. “Of all the people whom we saw in the course of our journey,” reported an American relief mission that traveled throughout the former Austria-Hungary in January 1919, “the Czechs seemed to have the most ability and common sense, the best organization, and the best leaders.”1

The Czech delegates, its prime minister, Karel Kramář, and the foreign minister, Edvard Beneš, presented their case to the Supreme Council in February 1919. Beneš did most of the talking. Charles Seymour, the American expert, was deeply impressed: “He had done much to organize the revolution that swept aside the Habsburgs and to build up the CzechoSlovak army in Siberia; his diplomatic skill had combined with the solid honesty of President Tomáš Masaryk to win the recognition of the Allies for the infant state.”2

Everyone in Paris knew how Beneš and Masaryk had devoted their lives to freeing their people from the Austrian empire. Everyone knew the extraordinary story of the army of Czechs who had surrendered to the Russians only to find themselves in the middle of the revolution; how they were fighting their way thousands of miles across Siberia toward the Pacific and freedom. Almost everyone in Paris liked and admired the Czechs and their leaders. (Lloyd George, who referred to Beneš as “the little French jackal” and thought the Czech claims excessive, was an exception.) Beneš and Masaryk were unfailingly cooperative, reasonable and persuasive as they stressed the Czechs’ deep-seated democratic traditions and their aversion to militarism, oligarchy, high finance, indeed all that the old Germany and Austria-Hungary had stood for.3

This being said, neither the British nor the Americans were particularly interested in the new little country, which looked like a tadpole with its head in the west and its tail tapering off in the east, sandwiched between Poland to the north and Austria and Hungary to the south. The French were interested, not for sentimental reasons but for security. France wanted a country strong enough to join with Poland and the new South Slav state to block both Bolshevism and Germany. That meant endowing Czechoslovakia with control of crucial railways, a position on the great central European waterway, the Danube, and adequate coal.4

Beneš presented Czechoslovakia’s claims to the Supreme Council on February 5, the day after Venizelos presented Greek claims and the day before Feisal came to speak for Arab independence. He had an easier task than either, because Czechoslovakia had already been recognized by the powers, and most of the territory it wanted—the Austrian provinces of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, and the Hungarian province of Slovakia— was already in its possession. Much of this was due to Beneš himself and the help he got from France.

When he arrived in Paris in 1915, Beneš was an obscure sociology professor from Prague representing something called the Czechoslovak National Council. Four years later he was foreign minister of a new state. Not a romantic figure like Venizelos or Feisal or a great soldier like PiƗsudski, Beneš was short, ordinary-looking and pedantic, a dull writer and an uninspiring speaker. (The French thought this should appeal to the Anglo-Saxons.) He had no apparent hobbies or vices, and few close friends. His relations with Masaryk, to whom he was devoted, were always curiously formal. But Beneš was enormously energetic and efficient. In Paris during the war he cultivated everyone, from Foreign Ministry officials to leading intellectuals, who might help the Czech cause. Where Beneš gained French attention, his charming, handsome colleague the Slovak Milan Štefánik won hearts. Štefánik, already well known before the war in Paris as an astronomer, made a huge impression when he took out French citizenship and become an ace in the French air force.5

As the nationalities of the collapsing Austria-Hungary scrambled to catch the eye of the powers, Beneš worked even harder. He assured the French that his country, unlike its neighbors, was ready for the fight against Bolshevism: “The Czechs alone can stop the movement.” To the British he explained that his goal was “to form a State that would be thoroughly loyal . . . especially to England and which would form a barrier between Germany and the East.” Beneš had a significant bargaining chip: the Czech forces that had come out of prisoner-of-war camps to fight on the Allied side. “I want all your soldiers in France,” Clemenceau told Beneš in June 1918, during the last great German attack. “You can count on me,” Beneš replied, “I will go with you all the way.”

In June the French foreign minister formally recognized the Czechoslovak National Council as the future government of an independent Czechoslovakia and put pressure on France’s allies to do the same. The French also took the lead, then and later, in recognizing Czechoslovakia’s borders, even the tricky ones. Beneš, and it was a measure of his achievement, was invited to sit in at the Supreme War Council to discuss the armistice with Austria-Hungary. Neither the Yugoslavs nor the Poles were invited to join him. By the time the Peace Conference opened, Beneš had established Czechoslovakia on the winning side, its past as part of Austria-Hungary to be mentioned only in passing and with regret. Unlike the Yugoslavs and the Poles, the Czechs had the advantage of speaking with one voice. Between Beneš and Masaryk there was an extraordinary collaboration, which endured until Masaryk’s death. 6

If Beneš was the workhorse, Masaryk was the man who gave Czechoslovakia life. He had the materials to hand: a people with its own Slavic language and literature, and many memories: of the fourteenth century, when the rich and powerful kingdom of Bohemia had reached north almost to the Baltic; of the few golden years when Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire; and then the sadder story from 1526 on as, one by one, the last vestiges of independence were extinguished by the Habsburgs. But this history did not include the Slovaks, who may have spoken a similar language but had not been politically connected to the Czechs since the tenth century, when the Slovaks had fallen under Hungarian rule. And there they had remained even after the Habsburgs acquired Hungary. The Reformation, which had made the Czechs largely Protestant, had passed them by: the Slovaks remained firmly Catholic.

Masaryk was the son of a farm manager for big estates. He was born in 1850, just after the revolutions of 1848 ignited nationalism throughout central Europe. Pushed by his ambitious mother, he decided early on to escape rural life. Through sheer determination he got to the University of Vienna to study philosophy. He was a sober, hardworking, priggish young man with a striking confidence in his own opinions. At his first university posting he caused a sensation by disagreeing with a senior professor. When he moved into journalism and then politics, he showed the same propensity to challenge authority.7

When the war started, Masaryk slowly came to the conclusion that Austria-Hungary no longer made sense and that the future for Czechoslovakia (he assumed from the first that it would include the Slovak lands) lay in independence, possibly under Russian sponsorship. (That Slavs would work together was a hope he pursued until his death.) By 1915 he was safely in Switzerland. His family, unfortunately, were stuck in Prague. His wife, an American, suffered a nervous breakdown, from which she never really recovered, his eldest daughter was imprisoned, and his son Jan was conscripted into the Austrian army. Masaryk moved on to Britain, where he spent almost two years teaching at the University of London and making friends with a range of influential people, from diplomats to opinion makers such as Wickham Steed of The Times.8

The overthrow of the tsar in February of 1917 drew Masaryk to St. Petersburg. He urged the shaky provisional government to renew its attack on the Austrian armies and worked to transform Czech prisoners of war into an army that would fight side by side with the Russians. The Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 and Lenin’s decision to sue for peace made those plans impossible. The Bolsheviks were nonetheless happy to send the Czech Legion, now 50,000 strong, on its way to the Western Front. The only feasible route was a roundabout one, six thousand miles on the Trans-Siberian railway to the Pacific port of Vladivostok and then by boat to France. With assurances from Bolshevik leaders, Masaryk left first, in March 1918, confident that his troops would be right behind him. Partway across Siberia, however, the Czech Legion clashed with Hungarians heading west to join the Bolsheviks. The fighting spread and the Czechs found themselves at war with the Bolsheviks. By the end of the summer Czech forces were effectively in control of most of the railway and, by chance, the gold reserves of the tsarist government. By this time the war was winding down in Europe, and the Czechs were more useful where they were. The Allied forces that had landed at Vladivostok in August might well want to move westward against the Bolsheviks. Caught up now in the Allied intervention in the Russian civil war, the homesick soldiers were condemned to another two years in Siberia. Beneš was not sorry to see this; indeed, he extracted a promise from the grateful British to recognize his Czechoslovak National Council as the official representative of Czechs and Slovaks. Masaryk agreed. “The dear boys will have to stay a while alongside their allies,” he said as he sailed off from Vladivostok to the United States to gather support.9

Masaryk crisscrossed the country—Chicago, Washington, Boston, Cleveland, wherever there were Czech and Slovak immigrants. In New York he lectured the experts of the Inquiry on self-determination in eastern Europe. He talked to representatives from Austria-Hungary’s other nationalities about working together in freedom and friendship. At a huge meeting in Carnegie Hall, he and Paderewski spoke of their profound admiration for each other and their common struggle against oppression. Three weeks before the war ended, the Mid-European Democratic Union, with Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, South Slavs, Rumanians, Italians and even, improbably, Armenians and Zionists staged a four-day meeting in Philadelphia. Masaryk crafted a Declaration of Common Aims of the Independent Mid-European Nations. As the Liberty Bell rang, he was the first to sign it, dipping his pen in the inkwell used for the American Declaration of Independence.10

In Pittsburgh, Masaryk signed another agreement, this one with Czech and Slovak organizations, promising that, within the new democratic state, Slovaks would have considerable autonomy, with their own courts, a parliament and their own language. Although about a third of the world’s Slovaks lived in the United States, they were not yet strongly nationalistic. Murmurs from their compatriots in Central Europe that not all Slovaks wanted union had not yet made their way across the Atlantic. Later on, when things started to go wrong between Czechs and Slovaks, Masaryk downplayed the agreement. “It was concluded in order to appease a small Slovak faction which was dreaming of God knows what sort of independence for Slovakia.”11

The Pittsburgh Convention was useful in reassuring the Americans that self-determination would carry Slovakia into Czechoslovakia. And American support would be, as Masaryk knew, vital. Through Charles Crane, a well-traveled, inquisitive tycoon whose fortune came from making sinks and toilets, Masaryk met Lansing, House and finally, on June 18, Wilson. The meeting with the president did not go well. The two former professors lectured each other. More important, Masaryk discovered that Wilson was more interested in using the Czech Legion in Siberia than in supporting Czechoslovak independence. The Americans were not yet ready to admit publicly that Austria-Hungary was finished.12

By the autumn, it clearly was. Austrian forces had been smashed on the battlefields; inside the empire, the inexperienced young emperor watched impotently as Poles, South Slavs, Czechs, Germans talked of independence. In Prague, demonstrators cheered for Wilson and Masaryk. In Wilson’s words, Austria-Hungary was “an old building whose sides had been held together by props.” The time had come to take away those props. On September 3 the United States recognized the Czechoslovak National Council as a de facto belligerent government. Like the earlier British recognition, the statement did not specify the territory the new country would occupy.13

From Paris, Beneš decided to create facts on the ground. “A fait accompli,” he wrote to his colleagues, “carried through without noise or struggle and the domination of the situation are now decisive.” On October 28, in Prague, Czech politicians gently but firmly took power from the demoralized Austrian administration. Beneš urged the Allies to evacuate the German and Hungarian forces from the Czech lands and Slovakia and to bring in Allied forces. It was essential as well, he told the French, to occupy Teschen, on the border with Poland, and Bratislava (German Press-burg) in Hungary. Since the Allies had few troops to spare, the occupation was largely done by Czech forces acting under Allied command.14

The delay in starting the Peace Conference helped the Czechs considerably. By January 1919, Masaryk was back in Prague, installed as Czechoslovakia’s first president and living in the palace that had once housed Bohemia’s kings. In spite of complaints from the inhabitants, Czech troops had moved into the German-speaking borderlands, where Bohemia met Austria in the south and Germany in the north. In Slovakia the French military authorities had ordered the Hungarian government to withdraw its troops behind a line that, conveniently, coincided with the border the Czechs wanted.

Czechoslovakia’s borders had been largely set by the time the peacemakers turned their attention to the new country. Above all, Beneš wanted recognition from the Peace Conference, but he also wanted to push the borders out in places. When he had his hearing at the Supreme Council on February 5, 1919, he laid claim to several morsels of Poland, as well as a slice of Hungary stretching along the Danube, and, where the great river bends south, pointing on toward the Carpathian mountains. He also asked for pieces of German and Austrian territory north and south of the old Bohemian and Moravian frontiers to give Czechoslovakia a smoother and more defensible border. These, Beneš claimed in private conversations, were not his demands; he was being pushed, he regretted, by nationalists such as his colleague Kramář. 15

At Czechoslovakia’s tail in the east, Beneš asked for the largely Ukrainian-speaking territory on the south side of the Carpathians on the grounds that the locals, largely Ruthenians, were very like the Slovaks. It would be unkind, he felt, to leave them under Hungarian rule when Czechoslovakia was prepared to take them under its wing. (Conveniently, Ruthenian immigrants in the United States had voted for joining Czechoslovakia.) Adding in that piece of territory would also give Czechoslovakia a border with Rumania, a friendly state.16

He had a couple of further requests, suggestions really. There were some Slavs living in the southern part of Germany, just east of Dresden, who had begged Czechoslovakia to protect them. This was essentially a moral question and he left it to the Peace Conference. Then there was Czechoslovakia’s need for friends, surrounded as it was on three sides by Germans and Hungarians. Perhaps there could be a corridor of land running southward between Austria and Hungary to link his country with Yugoslavia. “Very audacious and indefensible,” was Lloyd George’s view. The corridor, which never materialized, reflected Masaryk’s old dreams of a Slav federation. The Poles, Yugoslavs and Czechoslovaks, Beneš assured the French, were all aware of how much they had in common. Although a dispute over the territory of Teschen was already removing Poland from that happy equation, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were to remain on friendly terms.17

The Czechs had many arguments to back their claims: their glorious past, their deep love of freedom, their sober, industrious virtues. They stood against Bolshevism when the lesser peoples around them were succumbing. They were at the same time the most advanced part of the Slavs and a bastion of Western civilization. His people, claimed Beneš, had always felt a special mission to defend democracy against the German menace. “Hence the fanatical devotion of the Czechs which had been noticed by all in this war.” The Czech demands were modest and reasonable. “The Nation,” said Beneš, “after 300 years of servitude and vicissitudes which had almost led to its extermination, felt that it must be prudent, reasonable and just to its neighbours; and that it must avoid provoking jealousy and renewed struggles which might again plunge it into similar danger.” His government, he insisted, “wished to do all in their power to assist a just and durable peace.” Lloyd George, almost alone, was unimpressed. “He larded his speech throughout with phrases that reeked with professions of sympathy for the exalted ideals proclaimed by the Allies in their crusade for international right.” When Kramář, as second Czech delegate, asked to add his views, Clemenceau, despite his sympathy for Czechoslovakia, cut him short: “Oh, we’ll appoint a special commission and you can talk to them for a couple of hours. Now we had better have a cup of tea.” 18

The Czechs passed lightly over any difficulties. Slovakia, they admitted, would contain some 650,000 Hungarians, but 350,000 Slovaks would still be left outside. The Hungarians could not complain; they had tried, with little success, to turn Slovaks into Hungarians and forced thousands to emigrate. Yes, Beneš said, there were German speakers living along the borders with Austria and Germany, in the west of old Bohemia (what the Germans themselves called the Sudetenland, “Southland”). But the prewar Austrian figures of several million were quite untrustworthy; the Czech ones, by contrast very carefully done, showed only one and a half million Germans to probably three times as many Czechs. These Bohemian Germans knew that their future lay in Czechoslovakia. They did not want to see their businesses submerged by the more powerful German economy. If some of them talked of joining a greater Germany or perhaps even Austria, that was simply because they were being terrorized by outside agitators. Anyway, and this in his view was the strongest argument, Czechoslovakia could not survive without the Sudetenland’s sugar refineries, glassworks, textile mills, smelters and breweries. And the Czechs needed the old frontiers, which ran along mountains and hills, to defend themselves. “In Bohemia,” commented an American expert cynically, “they demand their ‘historic frontiers’ regardless of the protests of large numbers of Germans who do not wish to be taken over in this way. In Slovakia they insist on the rights of nationality and pay no heed to the ancient and well marked ‘historic frontiers’ of Hungary.”19

Since the Allies had largely accepted the new state as it was, the commission set up to report on Czechoslovakia had a relatively easy job. Its members worked amicably, assisted, said Seymour, by the informality (which allowed them to smoke) and by the fact that the British and Americans met privately, as they were doing on most issues, to agree on common positions before the meetings. Occasionally they had trouble with the chief British representative, Sir Joseph Cook of Australia, whose complete lack of knowledge did not stop him from having very strong opinions. Nicolson spent much time coaching him. Because Italy’s interests were not directly involved, the Italian representatives were not obstructive as they were over Yugoslavia’s borders. Nor were they particularly helpful. Their chief representative, an old diplomat, was fond of saying, “I ask myself whether it is not wiser, at this stage, to put at least two possibilities before ourselves.”20

The borders that caused everyone the most difficulty were between Slovakia and Hungary. The population, mainly Slovak and Hungarian, was very mixed; and east of the Danube there were no clear geographic features. The French supported Czech claims to territory that was primarily Hungarian; the British and the Americans did not. Everyone agreed that the corridor to Yugoslavia was impractical. After considerable bargaining and many compromises, the commission wound up its work at the end of the first week of March. The chairman asked for the final view of the British delegation. “Well,” said Cook, “all I can say is that we are a happy family aren’t we?” There was a silence as the interpreter provided a French translation.21

The report, which gave the Czechs some, but not all, of the additional territory they wanted from Germany, Austria and Hungary, was approved piecemeal as each of the treaties was drawn up. On April 4 the Council of Four, which was in the middle of strenuous disputes over the German terms, briskly agreed that it would be better on the whole to keep to the old boundaries of the Bohemian kingdom. On May 12, with equal dispatch, it approved the old boundaries between Czechoslovakia and Austria. Some of the peacemakers worried briefly about the German minority, three million strong, within Czechoslovakia. Lansing fretted about ignoring the principle of self-determination. Wilson is supposed to have exclaimed in surprise, “Why, Masaryk never told me that!” but in the end he gave the Sudeten Germans little thought. While Lloyd George later claimed to have had serious misgivings, he did not raise them at the time. Clemenceau had none: as he told the Council of Four, “the Conference has decided to call to life a certain number of new states. Without committing an injustice, may it sacrifice them by imposing on them unacceptable frontiers toward Germany?” No one, after all, much wanted to add the German territories to those of the defeated enemies. Most probably agreed with Masaryk when he said impatiently, “Whole nations are now oppressed by the Germans and the Magyars—is that nothing?” And the Czechs impressed the peacemakers by giving various guarantees to their minorities: their own schools, freedom of religion, even proportional representation, so they could have their own representatives. Czechoslovakia was going to be the Switzerland of central Europe.22

The Sudeten Germans themselves protested ineffectually in 1918 and 1919. Largely prosperous farmers and solid bourgeois, they were divided between despising their new Czech rulers and fearing the left-wing revolutions sweeping through Germany and Austria. Czechoslovakia at least offered stability. In any case, Germany, engrossed in its own problems, showed little interest in them at the time. The German delegation in Versailles mentioned them only once in passing in its written comments to the peacemakers. The German foreign minister, Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, offered the Sudeten Germans his sympathy but made it clear that Germany would not risk its negotiating position with the Allies by looking out for people who had, after all, never been part of Germany. Linking up with Austria was an equally unlikely solution for the Sudeten Germans in 1919, given the way the German speakers were situated in a crescent along the Austrian and German borders. Moreover, in 1919 Austria itself scarcely seemed likely to survive.23

The Czech government did keep many of its promises. In districts with significant numbers of Germans, they could use their own language for official matters. There were German schools, universities, newspapers. But Czechoslovakia was still a Slav state. Its banknotes showed young women dressed in folkloric Czech or Slovak costumes. Germans— along with Hungarians and Ruthenians—never felt they entirely belonged. 24 Perhaps that would not have mattered, if the Depression had not hit Sudetenland industries particularly hard and if Hitler had not made the cause of the lost Germans his own. At Munich in 1938, the Sudeten Germans provided him with the excuse to destroy Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovakia’s borders with Hungary took longer to settle, partly because the treaty with Hungary was delayed, first by the communist revolution at the end of March and then by the outbreak of more fighting. Assuring the peacemakers that their only intention was to combat Bolshevism, the Czechs moved in to seize Hungarian territory shortly after the revolution. With Foch’s approval, their forces occupied crucial railways on Hungarian soil and then moved ahead, beyond what Foch had authorized, to take the last remaining Hungarian coalfield. The Hungarians counterattacked at the beginning of June. The Czechs immediately appealed to the peacemakers. They were amazed and hurt that anyone should think they had provoked the Hungarians. “I know nothing about a Czech offensive,” said Kramář. “All I know relates to the advance of Hungarian Bolshevism, mixed and confused with Magyar chauvinism.” Beneš painted a picture of a peaceful Czechoslovakia, unaware of the menace to the south: “We were busy with our domestic reforms and forthcoming elections.” Czech forces had been concentrated largely on the German border, ready to leap into action if Germany refused to sign its treaty. “It was then that the Magyars, seeing Slovakia completely defenceless, advanced.” The Czechs took the opportunity to make fresh demands on Hungarian territory: additional railway lines, for example, and a bridgehead on the south bank of the Danube. The Allies, by now seriously worried about the conflict, rejected most of these. “We must be fair even to the Hungarians,” said Lloyd George, “they are only defending their country.” The one exception was the largely German town of Bratislava on the Danube, which was given to Czechoslovakia on the grounds that it needed a river port. Even so, Czechoslovakia ended up with a substantial piece of what had been Hungary, and over a million ethnic Hungarians.25

Czechoslovakia also had trouble with Poland, over the little triangle of Teschen, where Upper Silesia met the western edge of Galicia. As part of Austria-Hungary, Teschen was up for grabs. It was a rich prize, partly because it lay at one end of the great Silesian coalfield, but also because it was a major railway junction, where the main north–south and east–west lines in the center of Europe met. In Paris, Dmowski claimed it for Poland on ethnic grounds. (Out of a total population of half a million, the Poles probably outnumbered the Czechs two to one.) The Polish majority, he said, were particularly well educated and consequently profoundly nationalistic. Beneš challenged his figures: a lot of the Poles were temporary inhabitants, drawn by a higher standard of living or so influenced by Czech language and culture as to be no longer Polish at all. He pointed to the costumes the people of Teschen wore, and their architecture. And Teschen’s coal was essential for Czech industry, as was a railway line which, since it linked the two halves of Czechoslovakia, could not safely be left under Polish control. Delegates from Teschen itself who asked for an independent state never had a chance.26

Like many of the other issues that overloaded the agendas in Paris, this one could have been settled with relative ease. Masaryk and Paderewski had met the previous summer in Washington and agreed that it should be discussed in a friendly way once the war was over. In Teschen itself local Poles and Czechs worked out a division of responsibilities when the Austrian administration collapsed. The new Polish government, unwisely in retrospect, announced that elections to the new parliament in Warsaw would include the Polish part of Teschen. The Czech government in Prague overreacted and in late January 1919 ordered all Polish troops to leave Teschen at once. The Czechs, also unwisely, persuaded several Allied officers to give the impression that this order came from the Allies. Shots were fired and what had been a tense situation became a crisis as both governments rushed reinforcements in. An American professor who visited Masaryk in Prague found him tired and nervous. “Somehow,” reported the American, “I gathered the impression that in the affair he had been led rather than he had taken the lead himself, and he was evidently unhappy about the whole matter.”27

In Paris, where the peacemakers were busy with the League of Nations and the Russian question, this outbreak of hostilities between two friendly powers was an unwelcome interruption. “How many members ever heard of Teschen?” Lloyd George was famously to ask the House of Commons later that year. “I do not mind saying that I had never heard of it.” The Supreme Council summoned the Poles and Czechs. Each side blamed the other, and Beneš used the occasion to produce all the reasons—“statistical, ethnological, historical and economic”—as to why Teschen belonged to Czechoslovakia. Lloyd George called him sharply to order. The peacemakers set up a special inter-Allied commission, which both sides accepted with reluctance.28

The commission managed to get a cease-fire of sorts, but finding a solution was more difficult. Lloyd George confessed that he rather sympathized with the Poles. So, said Wilson, did he. He had been touched when a group of Polish peasants appeared in his office to implore him not to make them part of Czechoslovakia. They had walked, they told him, sixty miles to the nearest railway station to get to Paris. The French, who generally backed Poland, on this occasion supported the Czechs, reasoning that Poland could survive easily without Teschen but Czechoslovakia, a crucial part of the cordon sanitaire against Bolshevism, could not. Beneš did his best to raise the Bolshevik specter; he warned that the cease-fire was only encouraging dark anti-Czechoslovak forces in Berlin, Vienna and Budapest. The Czech authorities had already unmasked their spies and agitators and discovered their leaflets and maps.29

The inter-Allied commission gave little useful advice to the peacemakers. An ethnic division of Teschen, it pointed out, would leave the border going right through the middle of the coalfields. It suggested alternatives that were bound to upset the Poles or the Czechs or both. In April the peacemakers encouraged Paderewski and Beneš to talk directly to each other. When those discussions failed to produce anything, the peacemakers fell back on a plebiscite. In the summer of 1919 the Polish government, thinking it would win, agreed; the Czechoslovak, for the opposite reason, did not. A year later the Czechs, who had been busy making propaganda in their part of Teschen, were all for consulting the inhabitants, but the Poles had changed their minds. Riots and strikes made a vote impossible and in July 1920 the powers finally made their decision. Czechoslovakia got the coal mines. The little city of Teschen was cut in two; the old part went to Poland and the suburbs with the railway station to Czechoslovakia. One state got the electric power plant, the other the gasworks. It was the sort of settlement being made all over Central Europe as modern ethnic nationalism superimposed itself on an older, different world. And two nations who should have been friends now resented each other.30

Poland thought briefly of seizing Teschen but all its resources were being poured into the war with Russia. It never forgave Czechoslovakia for taking advantage of that desperate struggle and for a conspicuous lack of sympathy—for example, the Czechs held up badly needed weapons being shipped from Austria. On October 1, 1938, the day after the Munich agreement dismembered Czechoslovakia, the Polish government demanded the return of Teschen. It was followed by Hungary with a demand for Slovakia and the Ruthenian territories on the south slopes of the Carpathians.31

The newborn democratic Czechoslovakia was based on shaky foundations. The Allies had created a state, according to the leader of the Austrian socialists, out of several nations, “all filled with hatred one against the other, arrested in their whole economic and social development and in the progress of their civilisation by hate and national strife, nourished by tyranny and poisoning their whole public life.” There was some truth in what he said. Out of Czechoslovakia’s population of some 14 million, 3 million were German, 700,000 Hungarian and 550,000 Ruthenian, with a sprinkling of Poles and Gypsies. Czechs and Slovaks together made up the other two thirds, but they had much to divide them. The Czech lands were indelibly marked by Austrian rule, as was Slovakia by Hungarian. The Czechs felt that they were bringing progress and civilization to a backwater, and the Slovaks resented this. The Czechs, who dominated the national government, resisted giving Slovakia the autonomy Masaryk had promised so freely in Pittsburgh, on the grounds that there were not enough educated Slovaks to run their own government; more important, they did not want to encourage the Germans, or the Ruthenians or the Hungarians, to ask for similar rights.32

Early in 1919 there was a warning of what was to come when Slovakia’s economy took a sudden turn for the worse. It was now cut off from Hungarian markets and Hungarian coal. Sugar beets lay rotting in the fields; refineries closed down. Slovak farmers and workers were rioting, reported an American observer, saying, in effect, to their new government in Prague, “We thank you for nothing. You say you have rescued us from the political oppression of the Hungarians which was in fact pretty bad but now we are under martial law, we have no work, little food, we suffer from cold and our future is black.” Local priests spoke of their fears for Catholicism at the hands of the Protestant Czechs. That summer, when Czechoslovakia and Hungary clashed, advancing Czech troops were attacked in the rear by Slovaks.33

In September, House’s confidential aide Stephen Bonsal received a visit from two Slovaks, who complained that they had been prevented from leaving Czechoslovakia and had reached Paris only after an arduous journey through Yugoslavia, Italy and Switzerland. They begged him to see their leader, an ailing priest named Father Andrej Hlinka. The American and his Slovak escort rushed through Paris, doubling back on themselves to throw off pursuers, until they reached the secluded gate of a monastery. Inside, Bonsal found a wan Hlinka, lying in a monk’s cell reading his prayer book. The priest talked of his disillusionment with Czechoslovakia. The Hungarians had not been so bad after all. “We have lived alongside the Magyars for a thousand years,” he said. “All the Slovak rivers flow towards the Hungarian plain, and all our roads lead to Budapest, their great city, while from Prague we are separated by the barrier of the Carpathians.” Slovaks were true Catholics; Czechs, whatever they said, were infidels. Bonsal could not offer much hope that the peacemakers would undo what they had just done. “God has punished me,” said Hlinka sadly, “but I shall continue to plead before God and man for my people who are innocent and without stain.”34

In the 1920s, Father Hlinka built up a party, the Slovak Populists, which became the most important political force in Slovakia. In May 1938 a group of American Slovaks triumphantly bore back to Europe the original of the Pittsburgh agreement of 1918 and, at a huge meeting in Bratislava, Hlinka demanded that the government fulfill the promises Masaryk had made. Masaryk had died the year before and Hlinka was dead by the autumn, when the Munich agreement opened the door so long closed. Czechoslovakia, abandoned by its allies, harassed on all sides by enemies, capitulated to the demands of Hlinka’s successor, Father Josef Tiso, and gave Slovakia full autonomy within what was left of the Czechoslovak state. Hitler, scenting blood, urged Tiso into claiming full independence. In March 1939, as Nazi armies marched into the Czech lands, a new state of Slovakia was born. Not all Slovaks welcomed the way this happened or the Nazi godfather who blessed it.35

Tiso barely outlived his creation. In 1946 he was executed for treason in a reconstituted Czechoslovakia, which, this time, had Stalin as a patron. The new country was smaller than, and different from, the one the peacemakers had approved in 1919; the Ruthenian parts had gone, swallowed up into the Soviet Union, and the Germans had fled, with considerable encouragement from the Czechs. As president, an old and sick Beneš struggled, and failed, to keep his country out of the Soviet web that was being constructed across the center of Europe. He died in September 1948, after the coup that carried the communists to power, but too early to witness the full misery to come. Masaryk’s son Jan, who was foreign minister, died in that coup, probably pushed out a window by communist agents. On January 1, 1993, the rest of the construction of 1919 came to pieces as Slovakia and the Czech Republic announced their divorce.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!