A former country in central Europe. This star-crossed nation had its origins in the cauldron of nationalities that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1916, during World War I, the Czechs and Slovaks united in a national council headed by Thomas Masaryk to lobby with the Allies for a Czechoslovak national state after the war. In October 1918 the council declared the independence of that state, whose boundaries, the consequence of World War I peace negotiations, came to include not only Bohemia and Moravia, but also Upper Silesia, part of the duchy of Teschen, and Carpathian Ruthenia. Czechoslovakia’s liberal constitution of 1918 guaranteed minority rights, but this congeries of Czechs, Germans, Magyars, Poles, Slovaks, and Ukrainians proved to be unstable.
President Masaryk and Edvard Benes, who succeeded him in 1935, managed to guide the state through the troubled waters of its early years and through the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the middle of that decade, however, German agitation in the Sudetenland of Bohemia, led by the local leader Konrad Henlein and encouraged by Hitler, posed a grave threat to the nation. Following his annexation of Austria in March 1938, Hitler demand ed that those areas of Czechoslovakia with more than 50 percent German population be placed under German control. Great Britain and France agreed to these demand s in order not to provoke a war, a policy that became known as “appeasement.” In an agreement signed at Munich on September 29 the Sudetenland was hand ed over to Germany. Poland demand ed and got Teschen; Ruthenia and part of Slovakia went to Hungary. In March 1939 Hitler took what was left and made it a German protectorate.
German rule during World War II was brutal, especially so after the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich in May 1941. All the men in the town of Lidice were executed in reprisal. The Czech government in exile came under Soviet influence. The war ended with the Soviet liberation of Czechoslovakia and the restoration of the boundaries of 1938, except for Ruthenia, which became part of the USSR. Klement Gottwald, a communist, became prime minister in 1946. By February 1948 communist domination was complete. A Soviet-style state was set up with centralized and rigid control of political and economic activity.
The Communist Party was purged in the early 1950s. By the middle of that decade some attempts at liberalization began to appear in order to counter growing discontent. But unrest continued to build and finally broke to the surface in the “Prague Spring” of 1968. The Soviet Union, feeling increasingly threatened by what it perceived to be the Westernization and breakdown in party discipline and control in Czechoslovakia, led a Warsaw Pact invasion of the country on August 20. Under military occupation, Gustave Husak replaced the reformist Alexand er Dubcek as premier. Rigid party control of government and society was instituted and has continued to 1989 when the communist government collapsed. Slovak nationalism resulted in the separation of Slovakia and the establishment of the Czech Republic in 1993.