Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Hyphen War—The Rise and Fall of a Republic

Tomáš Masaryk,  Founder and first President of Czechoslovakia.

It is never a good sign when your national legislature cannot agree on the name of your country—or the punctuation of the name.  It is a worse sign when the argument gets so nasty that the world press begins to mock it as the Hyphen War.  It was certainly not a good omen for, as Prince might have constructed it, the Nation Formerly Known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. 

The nation came into existence in the tumultuous aftermath of World War I.  Its boundaries, as established by the Treaty of Versailles, included the largely ethnic Czech lands of former Bohemia and Moravia in the west, and Slovakia which also encompassed significant areas ethnic Poles to the north and Ruthenia to the south east.  All of these were within the border of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Czechs land included a crescent along its western rim which had a German speaking majority which included much of the new country’s heavy industry.

Historically the Czechs had been administered by the Austrians who had not interfered with their ethnic identity.  Slovakia and Ruthenia, however, came to the Empire as part of the Kingdom of Hungary and continued to be administered by Hungarians who pursued a vigorous policy of forced Magyarization on their ethnic minorities.  Those regions were also more agricultural, far less industrialized and urban than Czech lands.  These differences contributed to strains from the beginning.

But the common cause of independence allowed the philosophy professor and Czech nationalist democrat Tomáš Masaryk to cobble together the Czechoslovak National Council during the war which eventually was recognized as a government in exile in recognition of the contributions of volunteer Czechoslovak Legion units raised to fight the Central Powers in France, Russia, and Italy.  With his enormous prestige Masaryk was elected president of the new nation, originally named Czecho-Slovakia, and helped create a constitutional, parliamentary democracy. 

An opponent of both German nationalism and Soviet Marxism, Masaryk became the beau ideal in the west of a Central European democrat.  Like many Czechs he had been raised a Catholic but had left the faith behind to become a Humanist heavily influenced by his American Unitarian wife.

Masaryk reflected the sophisticated, cosmopolitan nature of Czech society, especially in the capital of Prague, considered the Paris of Slav lands and the most westernized capital in Eastern Europe.  Moreover it was prosperous—at the creation of the nation it encompassed more than 80% of the total industrial capacity of the old Hapsburg Empire.  And most of this industrial capacity being far from the front lines of the war was intact.  So the new nation came into existence as one of the top industrial nations in the world.  Unfortunately, most of the heavy industry, including steel production, was located in that majority German crescent and owned largely by German banks and corporations.  The Slovaks lagged far behind in development and tended to look culturally to the east.
Prosperous and cosmopolitan Prague in the 1920's.
A new constitution, crafted with Masaryk’s blessing, renamed the nation Czechoslovakia in 1920.  Under it term he was re-elected three times in 1920, ’27and ’34.  His nation thrived through the 1920’s as neighboring German was ravaged by hyperinflation and unemployment and the Soviet Union to the east struggled to recover from a long Civil War and not always successful experiments in rapid industrialization and a command economy. Moreover, it fared better than most industrialized nations during the world-wide Depression of the ‘30’s.  He managed to keep the sometimes fractious nation together through 10 changes of ministries before retiring due to old age and infirmity on December 14, 1935 as Hitler was ominously consolidating his power in Germany.  Less than two years later he was dead.

Meanwhile Nazi agents in the German majority areas were agitating there to destabilize the Czechoslovakian government.  In September 1938 the former Western allies led by Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Germany in hopes of mollifying its expansionist ambitions.  This appeasement policy handed over the Bohemian, Moravian and Czech Silesian borderlands called the Sudetenland by Hitler to Germany and allowed for the Czech minorities there to be forcefully expelled.  
The dismemberment of Czechoslovakia during World War II
With no allies to support it the Czechoslovakian government was forced to agree to the annexation, but Masaryk’s hand-picked successor President Edvard Beneš resigned and fled to London.  
A weakened Second Republic, re-named Czecho-Slovakia was declared, which was soon forced to cede much of southern Slovakia to Hungary and areas of the north to Poland. The nation continued to unravel.  Slovakia declared its independence in March 1938 and Hitler assumed control of Czech lands on March 15, 1939 claiming them as the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.  The same day the Carpatho-Ukraine—the former Ruthenia, declared its independence from Slovakia and was immediately invaded by Hungary which went on to gobble up adjacent areas of Slovakia. 

After 21 years in existence and as the only Eastern European nation to maintain itself as a functioning and stable democracy for the whole period, Masaryk’s cherished republic ceased to exist.

There were notable and highly effective resistance movements in both the Czech and Slovak regions.  But the Czech resistance looked to London for support and to a Government in Exile headed by Beneš and operated mostly in small, urban cells.  The Slovaks looked to the Soviets and organized partisan irregulars who operated in larger units in the rural countryside taking advantage of the cover of the rugged Carpathians.
Masaryk's political heir Edvard Beneš  led a government in exile from London during World War II and returned to lead the nation in the post-war years as it was being drawn into Soviet domination.

The Third Czechoslovakian Republic was declared in April of 1945 following the collapse of Germany.  Beneš returned as President and issued decrees ordering the forced removal of 2.9 million ethnic Germans.  A National Front government was installed dominated by three socialist or Marxist parties which had dominated the Resistance movements—the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party, and the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party with minority representation from non-socialist parties. 

By agreement at Yalta, the country had been liberated by the Red Army which was greeted as heroic liberators in all parts of the nation.  The Soviets were soon able to exert practical control over the country.  In spring elections in 1946 the Communists won a plurality in Czech regions and the anti-communist won an absolute majority in Slovakia.  But the Communists were able to form a coalition government.  Beneš, who had backed anti-communist slates in both half of the country, remained as president. 
The body of pajama clad Jan Masaryk lays in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry under his apartment window.  Suicide was the official explanation.  No one believed it.

In a controversy over whether or not Czechoslovakia should participate in the Marshall Plan, which Moscow opposed, in March 1947 the Communists staged a coup d’état forcing Beneš to dismiss the government and accept one completely dominated by the Communists.  Days later Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, likely leader of a democratic movement, and son of the nation’s founder was found dead in his pajamas in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry.  His death was ruled a suicide, which almost no one believed.

The new Communist dominated National Assembly approved the Ninth-of-May Constitution declaring Czechoslovakia a People’s Democracy modeled on the Soviet Union.  Beneš refused to sign the document, resigned on June 7, 1948.  Already in poor health following two strokes, he died at his home, under close watch by the Communists, on September 3 the same year.

Czechoslovakia was soon under the complete domination of the Soviet Union.  In the 50’s when some leading local Communist figures were suspected of being too culturally close to the West—including those who had served in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War and who had contact with the British during the Resistance, scores were arrested and many leaders were put on Stalinist show trials.  15 former top leaders were tried, all convicted and 11 sentenced to death.  Stalinism exerted an iron grasp on the Czechoslovakian Communists which would last longer and remain stronger than elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

In 1960 yet another constitution re-named the country once again to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.  Stalinist command economic policies proved disastrous from one of the top ten industrial nations in the world, production plunged to among the lowest levels in Europe.  Extremely oppressive monitoring of universities and cultural institutions crushed what had once been a flower in Europe. 

In 1968 a Slovak reformer, Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary Communist Party on a program of de-Stalinization.  His liberalization policies were wildly popular and set off a near orgy of suppressed political and self-expression, most of it hostile to the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.  Dubček refused to retreat from his position and allowed the Prague Spring to flourish.  
The Soviets and Warsaw Pact allies brutally suppressed the Prague Spring of 1968.
It was too much for Moscow and its partners.  Led by the Soviets, Warsaw Pact troops from every country except Romania invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20.  Dubček declared the invasion to be illegal but was quickly arrested and swooped to Moscow for “deliberations.”

Hardline Slovak Gustáv Husák became First Secretary of the Party and later President.  More than a third of all party members were purged as liberals.  The regime became even more repressive and re-emphasized a command economy that crippled some gains earlier in the decade that had brought Slovak production and incomes to nearly a par with the Czechs.

When Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his reform policy of perestroika in the USSR in 1987 Husák gave little more than lip service to instituting liberalizing reform.  In fact, he defied Kremlin directives. 

In 1988 long pent-up tensions boiled up in the first large anti-communist action in years at the March 25 Candle Demonstration in Bratislava.  As Gorbachev had feared, the repressive regime was ripe for popular rebellion and the USSR signaled it was not going to bail out Husák with a repeat of the 1968 invasion.  More demonstrations broke out in Prague on the 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion and continued into the next year.

On January 16 students in Bratislava launched mass pro-democracy demonstrations, joined the next day by Prague students.  After heavy police repression the loosely organized reform Czech dissidents of the movement known as Charter 77 united to become the Civic Forum led by one of the nation’s most noted intellectuals, the playwright Václav Havel.  A parallel organization the Public Against Violence arose in Slovakia.  Each shunned the use of the word party because of its tainted association with the Communists.  Public support for the two groups swelled to the millions from all levels of society.
Václav Havel and the Hyphen War.
The Communist Party, without support from the Soviet Union and unable to now even rely on its own military, collapsed.  President Husák and his puppet Party Secretary were forced to resign and the party was too weakened to even offer reformed leadership. 

On December 29, 1989 Havel was elected President by the National Assembly.  One of his first actions was to ask to rename the country the Czechoslovak Republic simply dropping the word Socialist.  He did not anticipate that this would be in anyway controversial.  After all it was the name of the country through most of its existence, between 1920 and 1939 and again from 1945 to 1950.  So of course, it was immediately controversial.

The Slovaks now claimed that this was a slight against their co-equal status.  They insisted on hyphenating the name to the Czecho-Slovak Republic or, better yet, the Czecho-Slovak Federation.  They could also point to the use of this form between 1918 and 1920 and during the German dominated days of the Second Republic in 1938 and ’39.  In retrospect, perhaps they should not have brought the last example up.  But the amicable Havel was willing to placate Slovak sensitivities in the name of national unity and quickly agreed to the Czecho-Slovak Republic.

That set off the Czechs who now felt insulted.  With frequent angry debates covered with ill-disguised glee by the world press, the issue settled into a stalemate that brought almost all other business before the Assembly to a halt. 

On March 29, 1990 the stalemate seemed broken with the adoption by the Assembly of a compromise name—Czechoslovak Federative Republic.  In a nifty trick, the new name was to be spelled without a hyphen in Czech and with a hyphen in Slovak.

Yet even this solution wasn’t permanent.  The Slovaks came to believe that the Czechs were insisting that it was a dash, not a hyphen, in the Slovak name. That made a difference because in both Czech and Slovak grammar a hyphen represented a connection between equals while a dash meant something else.  This objection is not clear because a dash and hyphen are represented by different words in Slovakian but by the same word—pomlčka in Czech.

Back to the drawing board.  On April 20 the name was changed again to the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic.  This time it stuck even though it violated a strict rule in both languages that only the first word in a multiple word name be capitalized.  With linguistic purists—a strong voice in both nationalist movements—holding their noses the new name went into effect.

But it did not last long. The bitter divisions exposed by the Hyphen War continued to fester over more substantial issues.  Effective government was all but impossible. 
Czechoslovakia no more
n late 1990s the Federal Assembly, divided along national lines, barely cooperated enough to pass a law officially separating the two nations.  On 1 January 1993, the Czech Republic and  Slovakia simultaneously came into existence.

By any spelling Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.

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