This month, I decided to write my article about the creation of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918. To an extent, it’s one of the decisions which have been forming my country for a long time and I think it would be worthwhile for everyone to understand how the Czechoslovak Republic received its independence. First of all, you should know something about the history of Czechia and Slovakia before WW1, under the rule of the well-known Habsburg monarchy.
Habsburgs started reigning the Bohemian kingdom in the 16th century. Since then, the Bohemian kingdom was being affected by strong German influence which had a huge impact on the Czech language. The Habsburg monarchy strengthened its power and our kingdom began to be ruled from Vienna. In the 19th century, Czechs were truly indignant because of the continuation of Germanisation and they started supporting the real Czech culture and most of all – the Czech language which was used, in that time, only in villages. Probably, the best pieces of our literature come from the 19th century (for example a poem called Máj (May) by Karel Hynek Mácha or Kytice, a poetry book inspired by Czech countryside and horror myths, by Karel Jaromír Erben or books by Božena Němcová, the mother of Czech prose).
The Austrian government was displeased with these activities as they were trying to Germanise our culture. Furthermore, the Austrian empire consisted of 3 main parts: the Bohemian kingdom, the Hungarian kingdom and Austria. Unfortunately, after the Austrian loss to Prussia in the 1860s, Austrians were afraid of the Hungarian uprising which could break the whole empire and so they offered Hungarians to take part in ruling this realm in order to avoid some unpleasant complications. Consequently, Czechs were very angry with this solution since the country was called Austria-Hungary but in fact, there were 3 parts of this empire. Against all the odds, in the 19th century, nobody thought that Czechs would have their own independent state. This idea occurred during WW1, to be exact, at the end of the war.
Having experienced the inequality among nationalities and the suppression of using their own language, Czechs became truly frustrated as citizens of Austria-Hungary. Anyway, Czechs and Slovaks (whose situation seemed very similar, instead of the Germanisation, they were Hungarised…) never planned to appoint their own state since they believed that they still could improve this situation with creating a new federation. In 1914, the first doubts appeared and the man who brought them was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the daddy of the nation.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk? Who was he? In Czechia and Slovakia, you wouldn’t find anybody who wouldn’t know him. In the UK, there is Winston Churchill, in the USA, they have George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. In Czechoslovakia, we have Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Václav Havel, the two greatest men and presidents of the Czech and Slovak modern history. Masaryk was born in 1850 in Hodonín, a town in Moravia, as a child of impoverished parents. His father was Slovak and his mother spoke better German than Czech regarding the reasons which I have already mentioned before. Masaryk was very clever and diligent and as soon as he finished grammar school (in Czech, it’s so-called gymnázium), he started teaching children from rich families. Masaryk met many rich and powerful people who started supporting him financially and thanks to that, in 1869, he went to Vienna where he studied philosophy and history. In Vienna, he became a teacher in the Schlessinger family, and as an acknowledgment for his great teaching work, he got opportunity to study at Leipzig university for a year where he met his future wife, a daughter of an american businessman, Charlotte Garrigue, and they got married in New York in 1878. Together, they had 5 children and 4 of them reached adult age. Masaryk fluently spoke 12 languages – Czech, Slovak, German, English, French, Russian, Greek, Latin, Polish, Serbian, Croatian and Italian and it’s insanely admirable!
As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being.TGM
Masaryk was informed about the WW1 outbreak during his vacation in Saxon Bad Schandau and he changed his opinion of refederating Austria-Hungary when he heard news about the aversion of Czech and Slovak soldiers who didn’t want to fight for Austro-Hungarian Empire in this conflict. As a former deputy in Austrian parliament, he knew exactly how the system worked and he began to support ideas of fighting against the empire. In 1914, he travelled to western Europe to smuggle some information and documents. He also wanted to get more information about the war regarding the fact that news was strictly censored here. Through Italy, he got to Switzerland where he was told that he shouldn’t return to Czechia because he would be immediately arrested. In Geneva, he publicly declared his fight against the Austro-Hungarian empire. Masaryk obtained Serbian passport and he could continue his unfinished job. In France, he united with Milan Rastislav Štefánik, a slovak pilot and officer, and Edvard Beneš, lawyer and politician who studied in France. They were Masaryk’s former students from Charles University, the most prestigious and oldest university in Prague being founded in 1348. Together, in 1915, they created the first exile resistance organisation called ‘Maffie’ which began to smuggle information and documents between East and West.
Dictators always look good until the last minutes.TGM
Masaryk let Beneš lead everything in France and he moved to the UK where he began to teach slavic studies in London. He didn’t stay there for a long time since, after the january revolution in Russia, he decided to support so-called Czechoslovak legions which, in that time, were being formed in France and Russia as army groups supporting the idea of Czechoslovak independence.
Czechoslovak legions were one of the most significant things which affected independence of Czechoslovakia. They represented resistance abroad during WW1 and they were made of Czechs and Slovaks who weren’t willing to fight for the Austro-Hungarian empire. Consequently, there were some situations when Czechs might have fought against Czechs who served in the Austrian army. These legions were created immediately after the WW1 outbreak in 1914 and the centres of these resistance units became Russia and France where these legions counted thousands of soldiers.
In Russia, legions had to overcome many obstacles. Their enemies were undoubtedly Austria-Hungary and Germany. Unfortunately, after communist coup d’état, Czechoslovak legionaries kept supporting the tsar army and they started contending with the bolsheviks. Regarding the fact that the Czechoslovak legion in Russia consisted of more than 100 000 soldiers, legionaries were truly successful. Anyway, after the murder of the Russian royal family, they realised that this wasn’t their war and they wanted to return home. However, they couldn’t just return because there still was tremendous military conflict called WW1. So, they had to use the trans-Siberian railway to get to Pacific ocean. During their returning journey, they controlled the whole trans-Siberian railway where they were often under soviet attacks. Anyway, after many years of travelling, through Japan and the USA to Europe, Czechoslovaks who served in the legions in Russia finally came to independent Czechoslovakia in 1920, 2 years after its independence.
During WW1, there were many other Czechoslovak legions in other countries. The 2nd most famous one was definitely the Czechoslovak legion in France which was officially, thanks to TGM, part of the French army. Czechoslovak legions were also formed in the UK, USA, Serbia or Italy.
Back to Masaryk! After the October revolution in 1917, the situation in Russia was getting worse and worse. TGM saw it properly and he decided to make a journey through Siberia, the Pacific ocean and Japan to the United States where he wanted to talk to the American president Woodrow Wilson. In the view of the fact that the USA has just joined the war, these talks might have affected the future of Czechoslovak independence a lot. Masaryk was aware of the strong position of the USA and he knew that the USA will partly decide about the future of the old continent.
On 29th of April 1918, Masaryk finally arrived at Vancouver in Canada. Surprisingly, thousands of people welcomed him there. His 1st stop in the USA was Chicago, the 4th biggest country in the United States and also, a city with a huge Czechoslovak community which you can find there even today. For example, Antonín Čermák (born in Kladno, a central-Bohemian city, in 1873) became a mayor of Chicago as a member of the democratic party! His tenure was from 1931 to 1933 when he was assassinated during his close friend’s – Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign in Miami, Florida. In Chicago, you can also find a quarter called Pilsen, named after Czech Pilsen (in Czech, Plzeň) where the members of the Czechoslovak community in the USA lived for centuries.
To sum it up, Masaryk’s arrival to Chicago was literally phenomenal. He continued travelling to Cleveland and Pittsburgh where several treaties and documents due to Czechoslovakia’s future were signed. Even thanks to his american wife’s contacts, Masaryk, as an expert on Russia and author of many books about it, was invited to the White House to consult the next steps of the United States of reestablishing Europe. He also advised Wilson not to influence the civil war in Russia. But the most important thing done by Masaryk was the Washington declaration, approved in Paris on 18th of October 1918 and published in the press on 19th of October 1918, in fact, a document providing independence to Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile in Austria-Hungary, Charles I, the last Habsburg emperor was trying to save his monarchy so he begged the United States not to make any changes. This proposition was denied regarding the Washington declaration. On 28th of October, Edvard Beneš, a representative of a foreign resistance, and Karel Kramář, national-committee member and the 1st future Czechoslovak prime minister, started negotiations in Geneva about the state establishment of Czechoslovakia. They agreed on a solution that Czechoslovakia would become an independent republic even though they also discussed the possibility of monarchy.
During the day, Czech newspapers were full of capitulations, conditions of Austria-Hungary which also included the autonomy of nations living in the empire. People thought that this point meant the definitive approval of independence of Czechoslovakia and so they went out to the streets to demonstrate. However, this independence wasn’t solved yet but nobody was able to stop masses of people shouting and celebrating in the streets. In Prague, In St Wenceslas square, a place where the Velvet revolution took place in 1989 and where Soviet tanks went through in 1968, it all began! Independent Czechoslovakia was publicly declared there and the new era of Czechs and Slovaks was about to begin.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was returning home through the UK, France, Italy and Austria. He had a meeting Raymond Poincaré in Darney where he presented Czechoslovak legionaries serving in France to him. In Italy, he was welcomed by king Victor Emmanuel III. He arrived in Prague on 21st december. The atmosphere had to be very special since crowds of people wanted to see their president. After all the officialities, Masaryk set out for a ceremonial ride in a car through Prague. In Saint Wenceslas square, Masaryk was accompanied by a big parade and a fanfare from Smetana’s opera Libuše.
If you ask me how it all began, the answer is simple. A son of poor parents from a Moravian village told the president of the USA what to do. He was born in an absolutistic empire, he died in a democracy. Is it a fairy tale? No, it’s history!