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Czech Republic - 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 (see First Political Units). The folk culture of the Czechs and Slovaks remained close to that of their fellow Slavs in the East, but their intellectual and political development was profoundly influenced by western Europe. Today, Czechoslovakia is firmly within the political and economic sphere of the Warsaw Pact alliance, but it still looks to the West for intellectual and spiritual nourishment.
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 (see Bohemian Kingdom). Nevertheless, the Czechs, first under the Holy Roman Empire and later under Hapsburg rule, experienced a considerable degree of political, cultural, and religious autonomy. By the nineteenth century, the Czechs had developed a distinct national identity and culture, as well as a differentiated society made up of a landowning nobility, an urban middle class, an intellectual elite, and workers and peasants (see Hapsburg Rule, 1526-1867).
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 (see Czechoslovak Democracy. In spite of the tolerant and libertarian policies of the Czechoslovak government toward the German and other minorities within the republic's borders, Hitler used the pretext of dissatisfied minorities to dismember Czechoslovakia in 1938 as a prelude to his attack on Poland (see Second Republic, 1938-39).
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. The postwar nationalization of industry and collectivization of agriculture had also simplified the once complex and diverse Czechoslovak society. The Czechoslovak social structure in the 1980s consisted mainly of workers and collective farmers, a small class of intelligentsia, and, at the top of the hierarchy, the communist party elite. In the 1980s, Czechoslovakia remained one of the most highly industrialized and prosperous countries in Eastern Europe and had a comparatively high standard of living. Its citizens did not experience extreme poverty, nor was there a conspicuously wealthy elite. The country still possessed considerable, if dwindling, coal deposits and relatively fertile soil (see Economic Sectors, ch. 3).
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. Internal national security in Czechoslovakia is maintained by the Border Guard, which is responsible for securing the country's frontiers; the National Security Corps, made up of uniformed police and the plainclothes State Security force; and a part-time People's Militia. The internal national security forces are under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior.
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 (see Third Republic and the Communist Takeover). After 1948 Czechoslovakia moved completely into the Soviet sphere of influence and was transformed into a Stalinist state. The party became the only political force in the country, the state apparatus became highly centralized, and cultural and intellectual life became pedestrian and dull in line with the tenets of socialist realism. All manifestations of dissidence, whether political, religious, or artistic, were repressed; elements within the Czechoslovak society found to be the least bit nonconformist were removed from important positions, arrested, and incarcerated; and workers and peasants, left without a voice, passively submitted to their lot. A widespread political, economic, and cultural malaise prevailed in Czechoslovakia well into the late 1960s (see Stalinization).
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. The period called the "Prague Spring" began as an attempt by party and government leaders to bolster the faltering economy and to overcome the increasingly evident constraints on economic growth. Reformers, both in the party in and the state bureaucracy, blamed in particular the central planning system and sought to replace it with a "market socialist" system. Initial calls for reforms, however, did not challenge the paramount role of the KSC, nor did they include any proposals for liberalizing Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, even the modest proposals for reform met with strong conservative opposition. In fact, the developing political crisis was the result of a broad conflict between the liberal economic and conservative elites in the party and the government (see The Reform Movement).
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 (see The Prague Spring, 1968).
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 (see Intervention).
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
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