** war and social upheaval: Czechoslovakia 1918-38

Czechoslovakia: Lead up to World War II (1918-38)

Figure 1.--The Czechs after centuries of German (Austrian) rule, the Czechas finally achieved their independence (1918). And after the rise of the NAZIs in Gemany were prepared to fight to maintain it. Ultuimately, howver they would need the support of the British and French ti defend gheir small country. The caption to this photograph takn at th height of the Sudnten Crisis read, "Czech Children Play at Wafr as the Real Thing Looms: While the armies of Europe thundr across the cintinent in huge maneuvers which a smark may turn into the real thinbg, even little children play at war in Czechislovakia. Boys with dummy machine guns and wooden rifles are pictured as the 'repulse' an attack on a parade ground in Prague. Even the childrehn know that if the spark of war comes it will flash somewhere along the borders of Czechoslovakia and Germany." The photograph was dated September 29, 1938. The Czechs had a well armed and trained army. The mountaneous Sudetenland was the key to the Czech defense. The Czechs did not have a sizeable air force.

The Republic of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed in 1918 after the Hapsburg Ausro-Hungarian Empire. The first president was Tomas Masaryk. The creation of Czecheslovakia had been urged by President Wilson and was associated with the Versailles Treaty--making the country with a large German minority an anethma to the NAZIs. The two major ethnic groups comprising Czecheslovakia weee the Czechs and the Slovaks. The Slovaks like the Czechs desired independence from the Austo-Hungarian Empire, but there were substantial cultural differences. The Slovak areas of the country were not as developed economically and thus found it dificult to compete. The Czech lands were highly industrialized and ejoyed a standard of living comparable to Western Europe. Slovakia was a largely agrarian society. The Czechs were highly secular while most Slovaks were strongly Catholic. The Czechs were generally better educated than the Slovaks and mre experience with self-government than the Slovaks. Czecheslovakia tried o pomote the industrialization of Slovakia, but these efforts achieved little success in the 1920s and the world-wide Depression in the 1930s made further efforts difficult. The open, dmocratic Czech state, however, offered considerable freedom for Slovaks in a Czech-dominated country. Czechoslovakia was the only east European country to remain a parliamentary democracy during the inter-War era. Even so, there were problems, not only the Czech-Slovak conflict but also problems in the substantial German minority. Especially in the 1930s with the advent of he Great Depresion, resntment grew in Slovakia over the Czech-dominated Government. Right wing groups began agitating or independence. Some Slovak Church leaders partivcipated in the independemnce movement. mmigration increased. Another problrem was the German minority. Over 20 percent of the population was German who were mostly concentrated in the German/Austrian border regions called the Sudetenland. After the NAZIs seized power in Germany during 1933, they began to promote unrest and the German press reported real and imagined invcidents, accusing the Czechs of brutally supressing the German minority. President Masaryk was succeeded as president by Edvard Benes in 1935.

National Image

The country of Czecheslovakia created in the World War I peace settlement is viewed very differently by people from different countries. Americans and British as well as the French vuew the country as a gallant outpost of democracy in Eastern Europe that was bandoned by the Allies to the horrors of NAZI Germany. To many Germans in the 1930s Czecheslovakia was a state created by the Allies without legal justification that trampled the rights of ethnic minorities. This was the issue that the NAZI propaganda machine enthusiastically joined. It was a country constructed of several nationalities. One author suggests that it was primarily a creation of French diplomacy to surround Germany.

Creation of Czecheslovakia

The Cechs proclaimed their indendence in Prague (October 18, 1918). World War I was not yet over, but the austrian Hingarian Em[ire nd the Cntral Powers allince was ditengrating. The 6.7 million Czechs mostly in Bohemia and Moravia demanded a state of their own. It has been a national dream for years. A week later the Czechs tool the next step in Smetana Hall of the Municipal House at Prague (October 28). This was a site associated with Csech nationalist feeling. The Slovaks meeting in Martin agreed to join the new nation 2 days (October 30). A provisional constitution was adopted and Tomáš Masaryk was declared president a few days after the war ebded (November 14). The Treaty of St. Germain, the peace Treaty with austria was signed (September 1919), formally recognized the new Czechoslobakian republic. Ruthenia was later added to the Czech lands and Slovakia by the Treaty of Trianon ending the war with Hungary (June 1920). This essentilly set ye border with the neigbiring sttes except wih Poland. The Sudeten Germans who had been sujects if the Austro-Hungariam did not to be part of the new country played virtually no role in the politica process creating the new country.

Sudeten German Reaction

The Sudeten Germans responded to the right of self-determination expressed in American President Woodrow Wilson 14 Points expressed a desire to join Austria. Many Austrians in turn wnted to unite with Germany. Sudeten Germans were disappointed at finding themselves a minority in the new Czecheslovakia. Domonstraions followed. Czech soldiers On March 4, 1919, fired on Sudeten Germans who were demonstrating for their right to self-determination. The soldiers killed 54 of the demonstrators.

St. Germain Peace Conference

Several different peace conferences were needed to end World War I with the various members of the Central Powers. The best known Conference was the Versailles Peace Conference to create a peace treary with Germany. The St. Germain Peace Conference created the treaty ending the war with Austro-Hungary--even though the country no longer existed. The various national groups in the Empire made their case at the Conference. The Conference, however, decided against the Sudeten Germans. They were not allowed to join Austria and Austria was not allowed to join Germany. The problem for the peace-makers in 1919 was to fashion new nations out of the often patch-work quilt of Eastern Europe. It was decided to include the heavily German and industrialized Sudetenland with Czech-populated Bohemia and Moravia to create a economically viable state ith defensable borders. Germans were incensed at the severity of the World War I peace treaties. Hitler and the NAZIs made a major issue of this in their rise to power, but it was a attitude widely felt by a broad spectrum of German public opinion. This national consensus in fact helped Hitler draw support from many who disagreed with other aspects of NAZI dogma. The Germans had a point. They agreed to an armistace on the relatively generous terms of Wilson's 14 Points. The actual peace traties were more harsh. That said, it should remembered that the harshest terms of the various treaties ending World War I was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the treaty Germany forced on Russia.

The New Country

Czechoslovak was notable for both is democracy and its political stability. Well-organized political parties emerged in the country and played and importnt role in the prlimentary process. After the NAZI seizure of power in Germany, Czechoslovakia was left the only democracy in central and eastern Europe. Czecheslovakia was a very ethnically diverse country. The Czechs had a very narrow majority in an ethnically diverse country. The Czechs had wanted their own country for some time and were intent on protecting it. Unfortunately the other ethnic groups were less commited to the new state and the Germsns and Hungarians largely opposed to it. The new country of Czecheslovakia had a population of about 13.5 million people, composed of: 6.7 million Czechs, 3.1 million Germans, 2.0 million Slovaks, 0.7 million Hungarians, 0.5 million Ruthenians (Ukranians), 0.3 million Jews, and 0.1 million Poles. Czecheslovakia was one of the few real demiocracies that emerged in Eastern Europe. There were problems as a result of the country's ethnic diversity. The basic problem was the large German minority. There was also a problem with the Slovak minority. There were religious and historical differences. And there were different levels of economic development. Slovakia was primarily agricultural wjichethe Czechs had substantial indistrial development. Both the Germans and Magyars (Hungarians) agitated against the boundaries drawn as aesult of the World War I peace treaties. One unifying thread was that the Slovaks were not strong enoigh to resist Hungroan claims hile combined with the Czchs, Czecholovakia was. The Czech Goverment with its parlimentary democracy initiated a range of progressive reforms in housing, social security, and labor law. [Berend, p. 168.] While a small fraction of the territory of former Austro-Hungarian Empire, it had as much as 80 percent of the Empire's industry. It was thus one of the most heavily industrialized countries. A substantial part of the light industry was in the ethnic-German populasted Sudetenland. Heavy industry was centered in te Skoda Works located in Czech Bohemia. Much of the industry was controlled by Germans and German-owned banks. Subcarpathian Ruthenia was largely agriculturl and less deeloped than Slovakia. Before the onset of the Great Depression there was sunstanyial econnomic growth in Czechoslovkia, over 40 pervent over pre world war I levels and even greater levels of industrial growth. At the time Hitler targeted Czechoslovakia, the country had the 1th lrgest industrial plant in the world. [Rybák]


There was in the early-20th century a huge differenced between Eastern and Western Europe. The West was more ondustrialized and modern. The East was more agriciltural and in many ays backward than the West. This could be measured in many ways, income, education, electrification, car ownership, miles of rail track and highwats, telephone onership, lice expectancy, etc. Czechoslovakia set between East and West was the mosy advanced contry in the East. It was also the only real democracy. And while thete were agricultural areas (especially Slovakia), there was alsoan important, moderm industrial base. The Škoda Works were especially important. It was one of the largest European industrial conglomerates in Europe. It was founded by Czech engineer Emil Škoda in Plzeň (1859). Thois was in Bohemia, at the time part of the Austrian Empire. It was the primary indusdtrialized area of the Austrao-Hungarian Empire in World War I. Prime-Minoister Chamnberlain's deciusion to bow to Hitler's demands at Munich mean that it would become an important poaty of the German war economy in Worlfd War II. Larrge numbers of tanks and artilery pieces were manufactured there. A good idea as to just how modern Czechoslovakia was the Central Social Institution in Prague, a huge despository of data on the population. We are not entirely sure hiw all that data was used, but we believe tjat it was a kind of social security agency. We can see the Institutions modern filing system here in 1937 (figure 1). We are not sure if the NAZIs used it when they seized power (1938). The facility still exists, but the data has beem digitized.

Czech Treatment of Sudeten Germans

Czech and Slovak were the official languages, but there were minority language and education rights. Czech treatment of the ethnic minorities is a matter of considerable controversy. Sudeten Germans maintain that they were abused by Czech officials. A German source charges, "The Czechs broke their promise to make their newly-established country multinational, modelled after Switzerland. Instead, they set out on a policy of Czechization, conducted as follows: 1) Against the German language and culture by closing down German schools and by declaring Czech the only official language to be used in all communications with the authorities; 2) by ousting Germans from civil service jobs and in enterprises owned and controlled by the government; 3) by curbing the German economy and taking over German firms into Czech ownership; and 4) by restricting the powers oflocal government in the German-speaking towns and districts. As a result of this policy, one out of every three Sudeten Germans was unemployed during the depression, and they had to live on the extremely meager social welfare benefits. The policies on finance and exchange control, in particular on borrowing on customs tariffs, on investment, transport, nationalization of enterprises, on the promotion of cultural institutions and on student grants, were all designed to further the aims of Czechization, thus creating a unitary Czech nation which was in fact a multinational country." HBC is unsure precisely how to interpret these charges. We certainly agree that a democratic government is no guarantee against the violation of civil rights, especially those of a minority. A democracy can be just as oppressive toward minorities, if not more so, than an authoritarian regime. The best examples here are violation of minority rights in the American Republic, especially of blacks and Japanese. Minorities can only be protected if democarcy (rule of the majority) is limited by constitutional guarantees of rights, such as the Bill of Rights in America. Any assessment of Czech treatment of minoritoies can not be reasonably assessed on some esoteric basis of political ideals. With our modern 21st century sensabilities the Czechs would seem to have fallen far short of the ideal. A morereasonable assessment would be to compare the Czech policies with those of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or those of Germany (including those in Imperial Germanyu, the Weimar Republic, and NAZI Germany). We have only limited informtion at this time, but we believe that the Czech policies that the Germans found offensive were the very same policies that the Germans routinely followed toward ethnic minorities, especially the Poles in their country. Here we would be very interested in any details that Czech. German, and Polish readers can provide.

The Depression

The situation in the Sudetenland changed in the 1930s with the coming of the worldwide Depression in 1929. The Sudetenland was heavily industrialized. There was massive unemployment as a result of the depression. German's who had lost their jobs in the Depression began to think that they might be better off in Germany.

The NAZIs Seize Power in Germany (1933)

Then Hitler and the NAZIs seized power in Germany in 1933. Unemployed workers were susceptible to the anti-semitic, anti-Czechoslovakia, pro-German rhetoric of the NAZIs.

Sudeten NAZIs

Former PE teacher Konrad Henlen founded the Sudetendeutsche Partei (Sudeten German NAZI Party). Along with with discriminatory actions of local Czechoslovakian officials incidents provoked by the local NAZIS brought about the Munich crisis of 1938. The NAZI media publicized largely manufactured new stories of how the Czechs were mistreating Sudenten Germans. These reputed incidents were emphazsized in news reels, radio, and newspapers in gorry detail. The NAZIs aided the Sudetendeutsche Partei and secrectly created and armed the Sudetendeutsche Freikorps (the Sudeten German Freecorps). The Freekorps caused numerous incidents and created so much unrest that on the May 20, 1938 the Czech Army mobilized to restore order. Henlen at the Antonin Dvorak Music Hall.in the spa town of Karlovy Vary proclaimed the 'the eight Karlovy Vary demands on the Czech government (April 24).

Hitler Targets Czechoslovakia

The NAZIs held their annual Nuremburg Party Rally. Hitler used this as a forum for his fateful Sudetenland speech (September 12, 1938). Hitler insisted that Sudetenland should be part of Germany or they would invade Czechoslovakia. Invasion meant a possible war.


Berend, Ivan T. Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe before World War II (University of California Press: 1998), 485p.

Rybák, Pavel. "Ekonomika ČSSR v letech padesátých a šedesátých" Britské listy (July21, 2011).


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Created: 1:38 AM 7/24/2004
Last updated: 5:43 AM 10/19/2021