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Czechoslovakia: Introduction
Country Study > Introduction

INTRODUCTION


Czechoslovakia, as the name implies, is a state uniting two separate nationalities, the Czechs and the Slovaks. Emerging as one of several multinational states in eastern and Central Europe after World War I, the Czechoslovak Republic of 1918 was the fruition of an ideal espoused by both Czech and Slovak intellectuals since the late nineteenth century. This union had the blessing of the victorious Allies, who hoped that the democratic ideals and principles for which so many lives had been sacrificed would inspire the many nationalities inhabiting that region to overcome age-old animosities. President Woodrow Wilson, in particular, viewed the newly established states as microcosms of the United States, where people of different backgrounds and creeds could live peacefully together. Of all the newly created multinational political entities, Czechoslovakia came the closest to fulfilling this dream.

The ancestors of the Czechs and Slovaks were first noted in recorded history in the fifth century, when the ancient Czech tribes settled in Bohemia and Moravia and when Slovak tribes settled in what was to become Slovakia. In the ninth century, the two peoples were united for the first time in the Great Moravian Empire. Positioned between two great civilizations, the Germans in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East, the Czechs and Slovaks henceforth would play a unique and important role in linking the two worlds. Although both peoples belong to the family of Slavs, they were drawn early in their history into the western European, Roman Catholic orbit.

The unity of the Czech and Slovak people in the Great Moravian Empire was brief. From the beginning of the tenth century and for almost a millennium, the two peoples followed separate courses. Although no independent Czech state existed prior to 1918, the Bohemian Kingdom that emerged in the tenth century and lasted well into the sixteenth century had many of the aspects of a national state. Early in its history, the Bohemian Kingdom became part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Czech people were subjected to strong German and Roman Catholic influence.

Unlike the Czechs, the Slovaks did not attain a high level of political, economic, and cultural development prior to the nineteenth century; their Hungarian overlords proved to be far less enlightened masters than the Germans and Austrians. At the beginning of the century, the Slovaks remained, for the most part, an agrarian society, with only a small number of intellectuals. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did Slovakia undergo large and rapid urbanization. National consciousness among the Slovaks also lagged behind that of the Czechs and grew largely as a result of increased contacts with the politically and culturally more advanced Czechs.

The Czechoslovak Republic formed in 1918 contained, in addition to Czechs and Slovaks, numerous Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians, and Poles. Each minority, however, was granted freedom to develop its own culture and language. The republic also served as a haven for the minorities of the neighboring states fleeing the oppression of the ruling majority.

The Third Republic, which was established after World War II, differs markedly from the First Republic of the interwar period. The Czechoslovakia of the 1980s was predominantly a nation of Czechs and Slovaks; ethnic communities of Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, Gypsies, and Jews made up only about 5 percent of the total population.

According to the 1960 Constitution, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic is a federative state composed of "two equal fraternal nations," the Czechs and the Slovaks. The Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic share with the federal government many of the functions and responsibilities of government; the federal government in Prague, however, has exclusive jurisdiction for the most important responsibilities of state, such as foreign affairs, defense, economic policy, and federal justice. As in all communist states, however, real power in Czechoslovakia rests with the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunisticka strana Ceskoslovenska -- KSC). The government branches of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, as well as those of the Czech and Slovak socialist republics, simply implement the policies and decisions of the party.

The defense of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic rests with the Czechoslovak People's Army. Since 1968, however, five Soviet ground divisions and two air divisions have been stationed in Czechoslovakia as part of the Soviet Union's Central Group of Forces. The Ministry of National Defense, which supervises the Czechoslovak armed forces, has no control over the Soviet military presence on Czechoslovak soil. On the contrary, as part of the Warsaw Pact alliance, Czechoslovak armed forces are part of the Soviet bloc's military might. Czechoslovak soldiers are strongly influenced by fraternization with other "socialist" armies. In addition, they employ Soviet military training and political indoctrination procedures and are taught to adopt Soviet concepts of military doctrine, strategy and tactics, and command structure.

The Third Republic was created as a result of a compromise between pre-war Czechoslovak Republic leaders and the KSC. Following World War II, Czechoslovak nationalist leaders Eduard Benes and Tomas Masaryk hoped to re-establish a republic with the liberal, democratic principles and institutions of pre-war Czechoslovakia. Their hopes were subverted by the KSC, which at the time had considerable popular support and the backing of the Soviet Union. The KSC steadily expanded its influence over key ministries and in 1948 delivered the final blow to Czechoslovak democracy by seizing all power.

The Czechoslovak economy, which had been nationalized almost totally by 1952, began to stagnate in the late 1950s. The continued poor economic performance throughout the 1960s led to political instability and demands for reform.

In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek replaced Antonin Novotny as the first secretary of the KSC, and from that point the Prague Spring movement was transformed into a mass movement for political reform, led by a coalition of intellectuals and party officials. The KSC itself became an agent of reform. A consensus on the need for reform seemed to have developed very quickly on the part of Czechoslovak citizens, who disagreed only on the reform's scope and pace. In April 1968, the KSC Presidium adopted the Action Program, calling for a federalized Czechoslovakia and a "democratic" and "national" model of socialism. At the same time, however, the Presidium reaffirmed Czechoslovakia' allegiance to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

The pace of reforms in Czechoslovakia -- and particularly the degree of penetration of all levels of the KSC apparatus by the reformers -- was a matter of increasing concern to the Soviet Union. The Soviets became especially alarmed when in June 1968 Ludvik Vaculik, a candidate member of the Central Committee of the KSC, issued a manifesto entitled "Two Thousand Words," calling for the immediate implementation of the reform program. The Soviet Union was confronted with the prospect of full-scale democratization and political alienation by an integral member of the Soviet bloc. The Soviet response at first consisted of a series of warnings. Warsaw Pact forces held military maneuvers on Czechoslovak soil in the summer of 1968, a letter of castigation signed by Warsaw Pact member states was sent to the KSC, and Soviet Politburo members met with KSC leadership in an attempt to push back the reform movement. When all these steps failed, the Warsaw Pact forces, with the exception of Romania, invaded Czechoslovakia. Remarkably, in spite of the exuberance of the spring and summer, Czechoslovak citizens heeded the call of the KSC Presidium not to shed blood and offered only passive resistance to the invaders. The reform movement collapsed overnight without a shot being fired.

The refusal of Czechoslovak citizens to resist with arms the Warsaw Pact invasion of their country did not come as a total surprise. After all, Czechoslovaks had displayed similar behavior when Hitler dismantled their country in 1938 and when the communists forcibly imposed their rule in 1948. Passive resistance when confronted with overwhelming odds and pacifism in general are viewed by many observers as a long-standing Czechoslovak national characteristic. Such pacifism is exemplified, if not glorified, in the popular World War I novel The Good Soldier Svejk by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek. In the novel, the Czech soldier Svejk, a seemingly slow-witted and submissive provincial bumpkin, uses gile and obtuseness, disguised as passive compliance, to outwit the Austrian bureaucracy and military establishment. A more convincing explanation for the lack of armed resistance on the part of Czechoslovak citizens in times of grave crisis is perhaps the dualistic nature of their society.

Throughout its existence, Czechoslovakia has lacked the demographic homogeneity of present-day Poland or Hungary. Despite the government's considerable success in the 1950s and 1960s in removing many of the most pronounced economic imbalances between the Czech lands and Slovakia, social and political tensions between the Czechs and the Slovaks persisted. The two peoples consistently pursued different concepts of a Czechoslovak state. The Czechs, who outnumbered the Slovaks two to one, wanted in 1968, as they had in the past, a single Czechoslovak state. The Slovaks, resentful of what they perceived as Czech domination of administrative and educational posts in Slovakia, sought a federative political system in which they would exercise greater political autonomy. Czechoslovakia lacked the kind of unifying forces that were present in Poland, for example. The Roman Catholic Church did not exert a powerful unifying influence, nor was there a strong labor union that represented the interests of all the Czechoslovak workers. The various nationalities and interest groups were united in 1968 only in their efforts to free themselves from the oppressive domination of the party and the state. The reformers themselves assumed that an essential ingredient of the reform movement was the right of the various nationalities and interest groups to pursue their own specific and different aims. These factors made Czechoslovak society ready for democracy in 1968 but incapable of standing up to a totalitarian challenge.

The process of "normalization" following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia was carried out under the leadership of Gustav Husak, elected the new first secretary of the KSC in April 1969. Husak had been purged in 1951 for "nationalist" tendencies and imprisoned until 1960. Rehabilitated in 1963, Husak occupied a centrist position in the debates over reforms during the Prague Spring. It was now his task to restore the country to the pre-reform period, to cleanse the party of reformist elements, and to reinstall ideological conformity.

A sense of defeat and alienation permeated Czechoslovak society in the 1970s as hopes for political and economic reforms were dashed. Materialism and consumerism became the main pursuit of most citizens. At first, the country's economy was strong enough to allow for a rise in the standard of living and to satisfy the public's aroused passion for material goods. In the mid-1970s, however, the economy took another turn for the worse, and a prolonged economic decline followed. In response, antisocial behavior became more pronounced. Criminal activity, alcoholism, and absenteeism from work increased alarmingly; labor productivity declined; and more and more Czechoslovak citizens sought escape from their bleak lives through emigration. A highly developed sense of humor, as manifested in popular political satire, served as another avenue of escape from everyday doldrums. In his book Rowboat to Prague, Alan Levy illustrates the cynical view of life under the socialist system by citing what the people of Czechoslovakia refer to as the "four paradoxes of applied socialism": everybody works, but nothing gets produced; nothing gets produced, but quotas are met; production quotas are met, but stores have nothing to sell; stores have nothing to sell, but the standard of living continues to rise.

Another aspect of normalization was Czechoslovakia's increased dependence on the Soviet Union. In the late 1960s, Moscow had initiated a process of integration to make countries like Czechoslovakia increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union. Czechoslovakia, in particular, acquiesced to Soviet pressure in Eastern Europe, almost totally submitting to Soviet control. Indeed, in its desire to preserve the status quo, at times it seemed a more orthodox communist state than the Soviet Union itself. Not surprisingly, Czechoslovakia was one of the staunchest opponents of the 1980-81 reforms and the Solidarity movement in Poland. Since 1968 the ties between the armed forces of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia have been especially strong.

The voices of dissent and reform were not completely stilled, however. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a few individuals continued to call for greater personal freedom. The most prominent of these individual organized themselves around Charter 77, a manifesto issued in January 1977 and originally signed by 243 leading Czechoslovak intellectuals. The manifesto called upon the government to respect the civil and human rights enumerated in the 1960 Constitution and in several international agreements, in particular the 1975 Helsinlu Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe's Final Act (also known as the Helsinki Accords), signed by Czechoslovakia. The response of the Husak regime to the Charter 77 movement was reminiscent of the Stalinist era in Czechoslovakia. The signatories of the charter were viciously attacked in the official press, fired from their jobs, arrested, and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the Charter 77 movement continued to grow. By the mid-1980s, the number of signatories had reached 12,000 and included representatives from almost every segment of society Another manifestation of dissent in the 1980s was growing religious activism, especially among the young.

In late 1987, Czechoslovakia once again faced the challenge of reform. Paradoxically, the winds of change were blowing, this time not from the West but from the East, from the Soviet Union itself. Glasnost' and perestroika, the cornerstones of Mikhail Gorbachev's ambitious program to invigorate the moribund Soviet economy and society, caused the KSC considerable consternation. The KSC was under increasing pressure from the Soviet Union to follow its example and institute reforms in Czechoslovakia. Within the KSC, reformist elements, encouraged by the Gorbachev program and frustrated by the stagnation and inertia in their own country, also pressed for reform.

Conservative opposition to reform remained strong, however. Under the leadership of Husak, the KSC seemed determined to avoid the excesses of the reform movement of 1968. Although in March 1987 Husak nominally committed Czechoslovakia to follow the program of perestroika, he nevertheless cautioned the party in October 1987 not to "hasten solutions too quickly" so as to "minimize the risks that could occur."December 1, 1987

(On December 17, 1987, some two month after research and writing of this book were completed, Prague announced that Husak, who was one month away from his seventieth birthday, had resigned as head of the KSC. He retained, however, his post of president of Czechoslovakia and his full membership on the Presidium of the KSC. Husak's retention of these positions and the fact that the man who replaced him could hardly be called a reformer suggested to most observers that Husak's resignation was caused by failing health rather than by any fundamental shift in the KSC policies toward reform.

Milos Jakes, who replaced Husak as first secretary of the KSC, was sixty-five years of age at the time of his assumption of the most powerful post in the country. Other than the age difference and the fact that Jakes is a Czech whereas Husak is a Slovak, there was little to distinguish the new leader from his predecessor, and most observers expected Jakes to continue Husak's policies.

Jakes was born August 17, 1922, in Bohemia. He joined the KSC 1945 and ten years later became the head of it's youth organization, the Czechoslovak Union of Youth. Subsequently he spent some time in Moscow. Between 1968 and 1977, he served as the head of the KSC's Central Control and Auditing Commission and in this capacity supervised the purge of the KSC following the Soviet invasion of 1968. In 1977 he was elected to the party's Secretariat and assumed responsibilities for Czechoslovak agriculture. In 1981 he was made a full member of the Presidium, overseeing the party's supervision of economic policy and management. Considered a firm supporter of Husak, Jakes was viewed as having neither strong reformist nor conservative tendencies.

In his first pronouncements as the head of the KSC, Jakes assured the KSC's Central Committee that he would continue the cautious and moderate path of reform set forth by Husak. He called for a large-scale introduction of new technology as the means to "fundamentally increase the efficiency of the Czechoslovak economy." But he also warned that there would be no "retreat from the fundamental principles of socialism," adding that the party had learned well the "lesson from 1968-69 and know[s] where such a retreat leads." At the same time, Jakes acknowledged Soviet pressure for reform by pledging to pursue economic restructuring, stating that "just as Soviet Communists, we too must observe the principle that more democracy means more socialism."

Taking the cue from its new leader, the Czechoslovak Central Committee in its plenary meeting of December 18, 1987, failed to make a decision on a very modest proposal for reform. The Czechoslovak version of perestroika, which had slowly taken shape during the last months of Husak's rule under the guidance of the reformist and pro-Gorbachev Czechoslovak leader Premier Lubomir Strougal, called for a modest decentralization of state economic administration but postponed any concrete action until the end of the decade. This reform proposal had been publicly debated and was expected to be approved. The Central Committee returned it to the government for "further work," however, an action which suggesting that committee members disagreed even on this minor reform. The only positive aspect of the whole affair was an unprecedented news conference held by the Central Committee to announce its failure to act.

According to some Western observers, the slow pace of the Czechoslovak reform movement was an irritant to the Soviet leadership. In a congratulatory message to Jakes, Gorbachev urged the latter to "set forth restructuring of the Czechoslovak economy and democratization of public and political life." "We are confidant," Gorbachev added, that "the Central Committee under your leadership will ensure the fulfillment of extensive tasks facing the party." In late 1987, observers were reluctant to predict which course of action the KSC would follow under its new leader.

January 18, 1988 - Ihor Y. Gawdiak

Data as of August 1987




Last Updated: August 1987


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Czechoslovakia was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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