Czech Republic History


The Czech Republic was the western part of the Czech and Slovak Federal
Republic. Formed into a common state after World War I (October 18,
1918), the Czechs, Moravians, and Slovaks remained united for more than
75 years. On January 1, 1993, the two republics split to form two
separate states.

The Czechs lost their national independence to the Austro-Hungarian
Empire in 1620 at the Battle of White Mountain and, for the next 300
years, were ruled by the Austrian Monarchy. With the collapse of the
monarchy at the end of World War I, the independent country of
Czechoslovakia was formed, encouraged by, among others, U.S. President
Woodrow Wilson.

Despite cultural differences, the Slovaks shared with the Czechs similar
aspirations for independence from the Hapsburg state and voluntarily
united with the Czechs. The Slovaks were not at the same level of
economic and technological development as the Czechs, but the freedom
and opportunity found in Czechoslovakia enabled them to make strides
toward overcoming these inequalities. However, the gap never was fully
bridged, and the discrepancy played a continuing role throughout the 75
years of the union.

Although Czechoslovakia was the only East European country to remain a
parliamentary democracy from 1918 to 1938, it was plagued with minority
problems, the most important concerning the country's large German
population. Constituting more than 22% of the interwar state's
population and largely concentrated in the Bohemian and Moravian border
regions (the Sudetenland), members of this minority supported in large
part by Nazi Germany undermined the new Czechoslovak state. Internal
and external pressures culminated in September 1938, when, at Munich,
France, and the United Kingdom yielded to Nazi pressures and agreed to
force Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland to Germany.

Fulfilling Hitler's aggressive designs on all of Czechoslovakia, Germany
invaded what remained of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, establishing
a German "protectorate." By this time, Slovakia had already declared
independence and had become a puppet state of the Germans.

At the close of World War II, Soviet troops overran all of Slovakia,
Moravia, and much of Bohemia, including Prague. In May 1945, U.S.
forces liberated the city of Plzen and most of western Bohemia. A
civilian uprising against the German garrison took place in Prague in
May 1945. Following Germany's surrender, some 2.9 million ethnic
Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia with Allied approval.

Reunited after the war, the Czechs and Slovaks set federal and national
elections for the spring of 1946. The democratic elements, led by
President Eduard Benes, hoped the Soviet Union would allow
Czechoslovakia the freedom to choose its own form of government and
aspired to a Czechoslovakia that would act as a bridge between East and
West. The Czechoslovak communist party, which won 38% of the vote, held
most of the key positions in the government and gradually managed to
neutralize or silence the anti-communist forces. Although the
communist-led government initially intended to participate in the
Marshall Plan, it was forced by Moscow to back out. Under the cover of
superficial legality, the communist party seized power in February 1948.

After extensive purges modeled on the Stalinist pattern in other East
European states, the communist party tried 14 of its former leaders in
November 1952 and sentenced 11 to death. For more than a decade
thereafter, the Czechoslovak communist political structure was
characterized by the orthodoxy of the leadership of party chief Antonin

The 1968 Soviet Invasion

The communist leadership allowed token reforms in the early 1960s, but
discontent arose within the ranks of the communist party central
committee, stemming from dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the
economic reforms, resistance to cultural liberalization, and the desire
of the Slovaks within the leadership for greater autonomy for their
republic. This discontent expressed itself with the removal of Novotny
from party leadership in January 1968 and from the presidency in March.
He was replaced as party leader by a Slovak, Alexander Dubcek.

After January 1968, the Dubcek leadership took practical steps toward
political, social, and economic reforms. In addition, it called for
politico-military changes in the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact and
Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. The leadership affirmed its
loyalty to socialism and the Warsaw Pact but also expressed the desire
to improve relations with all countries of the world regardless of their
social systems.

A program adopted in April 1968 set guidelines for a modern, humanistic
socialist democracy that would guarantee, among other things, freedom of
religion, press, assembly, speech, and travel; a program that, in
Dubcek's words, would give socialism "a human face." After 20 years of
little public participation, the population gradually started to take
interest in the government, and Dubcek became a truly popular national

The internal reforms and foreign policy statements of the Dubcek
leadership created great concern among some other Warsaw Pact
governments. On the night of August 20, 1968, Soviet, Hungarian,
Bulgarian, East German, and Polish troops invaded and occupied
Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak Government immediately declared that
the troops had not been invited into the country and that their invasion
was a violation of socialist principles, international law, and the UN

The principal Czechoslovak reformers were forcibly and secretly taken to
the Soviet Union. Under obvious Soviet duress, they were compelled to
sign a treaty that provided for the "temporary stationing" of an
unspecified number of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia.

Dubcek was removed as party First Secretary on April 17, 1969, and
replaced by another Slovak, Gustav Husak. Later, Dubcek and many of his
allies within the party were stripped of their party positions in a
purge that lasted until 1971 and reduced party membership by almost one-

The 1970s and 1980s became known as the period of "normalization," in
which the apologists for the 1968 Soviet invasion prevented, as best
they could, any opposition to their conservative regime. Political,
social, and economic life stagnated. The population, cowed by the
"normalization," was quiet.

At the time of the communist takeover, Czechoslovakia had a balanced
economy and one of the higher levels of industrialization on the
continent. In 1948, however, the government began to stress heavy
industry over agricultural and consumer goods and services. Many basic
industries and foreign trade, as well as domestic wholesale trade, had
been nationalized before the Communists took power. Nationalization of
most of the retail trade was completed in 1950-51.

Heavy industry received major economic support during the 1950s, but
waste and inefficient use of industrial resources resulted from central
planning. Although the labor force was traditionally skilled and
efficient, inadequate incentives for labor and management contributed to
high labor turnover, low productivity, and poor product quality.
Economic failures reached a critical stage in the 1960s, after which
various reform measures were sought, with no satisfactory results.

Hope for wide-ranging economic reform came with Alexander Dubcek's rise
in January 1968. Despite renewed efforts, however, Czechoslovakia could
not come to grips with inflationary forces, much less begin the immense
task of correcting the economy's basic problems.

The economy saw growth during the 1970s but then stagnated between 1978-
82. Attempts at revitalizing it in the 1980s with management and worker
incentive programs were largely unsuccessful. The economy grew after
1982, achieving an annual average output growth of more than 3% between
1983-85. Imports from the West were curtailed, exports boosted, and
hard currency debt reduced substantially. New investment was made in
the electronic, chemical, and pharmaceutical sectors, which were
industry leaders in Eastern Europe in the mid 1980s.

The Velvet Revolution

The roots of the 1989 civic Forum movement that came to power during the
"Velvet Revolution" lie in human rights activism. On January 1, 1977,
more than 250 human rights activists signed a manifesto called the
Charter 77, which criticized the government for failing to implement
human rights provisions of documents it had signed, including the
state's own constitution; international covenants on political, civil,
economic, social, and cultural rights; and the Final Act of the
Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Although not
organized in any real sense, the signatories of Charter 77 constituted a
citizens' initiative aimed at inducing the Czechoslovak Government to
observe formal obligations to respect the human rights of their

In the days after November 17, 1989, Charter 77 and other groups united
to become the Civic Forum, an umbrella group championing bureaucratic
reform and civil liberties. Its leader was the dissident playwright
Vaclav Havel. Intentionally eschewing the label "party," a word given a
negative connotation during the previous regime, Civic Forum quickly
gained the support of millions of Czechs, as did its Slovak counterpart,
Public Against Violence.

Faced with an overwhelming popular repudiation, the Communist Party all
but collapsed. Its leaders, Husak and party chief Milos Jakes, resigned
in December 1989, and Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia on
December 29.

The astonishing quickness of these events was in part due to the
unpopularity of the communist regime and changes in the policies of its
Soviet guarantor as well as to the rapid, effective organization of
these public initiatives into a viable opposition.

A coalition government, in which the communist party had a minority of
ministerial positions, was formed in December 1989. The first free
elections in Czechoslovakia since 1948 took place in June 1990 without
incident and with more than 95% of the population voting. As
anticipated, Civic Forum and Public Against Violence won landslide
victories in their respective republics and gained a comfortable
majority in the federal parliament. The parliament undertook
substantial steps toward securing the democratic evolution of
Czechoslovakia. It successfully moved toward fair local elections in
November 1990, ensuring fundamental change on the county and town level.

Civic Forum found, however, that although it had successfully completed
its primary objective--the overthrow of the communist regime--it was
ineffectual as a governing party. The demise of Civic Forum was viewed
by most as necessary and inevitable.

By the end of 1990, unofficial parliamentary "clubs" had evolved with
distinct political agendas. These solidified into the parties that make
up the Czech political landscape. Most influential is the Civic
Democratic Party, headed by Prime Minister and former Federal Minister
of Finance Vaclav Klaus. Other notable parties that came into being
after the split were the Civic Movement and Civic Democratic Alliance.

By 1992, Slovak calls for greater autonomy effectively blocked the daily
functioning of the federal government. In the election of June 1992,
Klaus's Civic Democratic Party won handily in the Czech lands on a
platform of economic reform. Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a
Democratic Slovakia emerged as the leading party in Slovakia, basing its
appeal on fairness to Slovak demands for autonomy. Federalists, like
Havel, were unable to contain the trend toward the split. In July 1992,
President Havel resigned. In the latter half of 1992, Klaus and Meciar
hammered out an agreement that the two republics would go their separate
ways by the end of the year.

Members of the federal parliament, divided along national lines, barely
cooperated enough to pass the law officially separating the two nations.
The law was passed on December 27, 1992. On January 1, 1993, the Czech
Republic and the Republic of Slovakia were simultaneously and peacefully

Relationships between the two states, despite occasional disputes about
the division of federal property and governing of the border have been
as peaceful as Prime Ministers Klaus and Meciar promised. Both states
attained immediate recognition from the U.S. and their European
source: State Department Background Notes 1994
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