Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Czecho-Slovakia, Republic of

Collier's New Encyclopedia
Czecho-Slovakia, Republic of

CZECHO-SLOVAKIA, REPUBLIC OF, composed of the former Austrian states of Bohemia, Moravia, the larger part of Silesia, and Slovakia, formerly a part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Bohemia has an area of 20,065 square miles, with a population of about 6,700,000; Moravia 8,584 square miles, with a population of about 2,600,000; Silesia 1,988 square miles, with a population of about 757,000; and Slovakia about 25,000 square miles, with a population estimated in 1919 at between 3,000,000 and 4,000,000. In all these countries the population is of the Slavic race, though in Bohemia there is a large proportion of Germans. The Czech, or Bohemians, are by far the most important of these various peoples, both in numbers and culture, and are now the dominant political element. The capital of the Republic is in the Bohemian city of Prague, whose population is about 550,000. In culture and the educational level of its people it ranks with the most progressive cities of Europe, having two universities, one Bohemian, the other German. In the whole of the Bohemian population the percentage of illiteracy is only 2 per cent. Another important city is Pressburg, in Slovakia, also the site of a modern university. Slovakia, of a much lower cultural level, is inhabited by an agricultural people, of simple manners and a lower standard of living.

The frontiers of the Republic, though not definitely agreed upon in the beginning of 1920, were roughly as follows: Hungary on the N., on the W., Hungary to the Danube, along the Danube to the outlet of Eipel, along the Eipel to Zombat, thence to the mouth of the Ung river, along the Ung to the Uzsok Heights.

The Czechs, or Bohemians, had behind them a history as a free people to inspire their struggles for independence in modern times. Bohemia had been an independent kingdom in the Middle Ages, becoming a part of the Austrian Empire in 1526. The Slovaks, who, in the 9th century, formed the nucleus of the great Moravian kingdom, were subjugated by the Magyars in 907, after the bloody Battle of Pressburg, and have been very much oppressed by the Hungarian kings.

In recent times the movement for independence was most strongly organized among the Czechs. For many years there existed among them a secret revolutionary organization, popularly known as the Mafia, the name being taken from the well-known Sicilian order of the same name. At the head of this underground movement was Dr. Szamal, and Dr. Voita Benes, the latter now a prominent member of the official government. Little is known of the activities of the Mafia because of the secrecy with which they were carried on, no one member knowing more than two of his comrades, but it was famous for the perfection of its intelligence system, its spies being installed even in the imperial household and in all the offices of the Cabinet ministers.

With the outbreak of the World War, in 1914, the movement for Czech national independence began to manifest itself in the open. A National Council appeared shortly afterward in Paris and sought recognition from the Entente nations and the United States. That the people of both Bohemia and Slovakia stood squarely behind the movement became only too evident to the Austrian Government, from the behavior of the Czech and Slovak contingents that were sent to the front. At first they were sent to the eastern front, against the Russians. In at least several instances the Austrian defeats were due to the wholesale defection of the Czechs and Slovaks. On one occasion a whole regiment marched out of the Austrian trenches, with the regimental band playing a revolutionary march, and joined the Russians. So common became these desertions that finally the Czech and Slovak contingents were sent to the Italian front, where they were placed in positions entailing heaviest losses. To these losses the Austrian Government afterward pointed as proof of the loyalty of the Czech and Slovak troops. But throughout the war the disloyalty of these elements in the Austrian forces was a continuous source of military weakness, and accounted for their vast inferiority to the Germans.

The attention of the public of the Allied countries was first attracted to the national aspirations of the Czecho-Slovaks when, after the Russian disintegration following the Revolution (March, 1917), the Czech and Slovak contingents which had deserted on the eastern front suddenly emerged as the only remaining cohesive force in the Russian Army. They formed the backbone of the July offensive, which represented the last effort of the Kerensky Government to carry on the Russian operations against the Central Empires, but were not strong enough to make a success of this vast effort. Later, after the downfall of Kerensky's moderate Socialist Government, the Czecho-Slovaks refused to join the Bolsheviki and received permission from the latter to make their way to western Europe through Siberia. Regretting this promise, the Bolsheviki endeavored to disarm the Czecho-Slovaks en route, whereupon the latter, asserting themselves, turned upon the Bolsheviki and succeeded in driving them out of a greater part of Siberia, and thus formed the backbone of the subsequent intervention of the Allies in Russia.

The brilliant exploit of the Czecho-Slovaks in Siberia attracted world-wide attention to them, and led to official recognition of their movement for independence by the Allies and the United States. On Dec. 10, 1917, Premier Clemenceau of France authorized the formation of a distinct Czecho-Slovak army in France, to co-operate with the Allies on the western front. On April 23, 1918, the Italian Government formally recognized the belligerency of the Czecho-Slovak nation; British recognition followed, on Aug. 3, 1918, that of the United States was announced on Sept. 2, 1918, and that of Japan on Sept. 9, 1918. But already on May 29, 1918, Secretary Lansing, representing the United States, announced officially that "the national aspirations of the Czecho-Slovaks and Jugoslavs for freedom have the earnest sympathy of the United States." In the following June the United States Government officially permitted the Czecho-Slovak representatives in this country to recruit men for a Slavic legion.

Early in April, 1918, after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was well under way, popular demonstrations for independence took place in Prague. So widespread were these disorders that a state of siege was proclaimed by the Austrian authorities and many of the popular leaders were executed. On Oct. 21, 1918, the independence of the Czecho-Slovak peoples was officially proclaimed by the National Council; a general uprising took place in Prague and the city passed almost bloodlessly out of the nerveless hands of its Austrian rulers. On Oct. 28, a week later, a provisional government was organized and installed in Prague. On Nov. 2, 1918, the leaders of the revolution met in Geneva, Switzerland, and drafted a system of organic laws for the new republic, which included equal suffrage for the sexes and referendum voting for all important legislation. On Nov. 10 a provisional National Assembly met in Prague and elected the first President of the Republic, the honor falling to the prominent Czech scholar and historian, Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, who was then in the United States on a diplomatic mission. On Dec. 22, 1918, the new President was officially inaugurated into office in Prague, together with his Cabinet, the Prime Minister of which was Dr. Karl Kramarz, with the prominent revolutionary leader, Voita Benes, as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The new government was based on constitutional provisions as liberal as those of the most liberal governments of the world, being largely modeled after the principles of the Constitution of the United States. These included the complete freedom of religious worship, freedom of the press, speech, petition, the right of assembly, the separation of state and church; universal suffrage, including women, the national representation of minorities and proportional representation. The new National Assembly, which was to remain in power until proper popular elections could be held, was composed of 260 members. The following parties were represented: Agrarians, the peasants' party, 54; Social Democrats, 50; Slovaks, 50; State-Right Democrats, a moderate Liberal party, 44; Socialists, 28; Clericals, 28; and Progressives, representing a liberal middle class element, 6.

The newly organized government of the Czecho-Slovak Republic had tremendous difficulties to face from the very moment it took up its task of administration. First of all Austria had been the heaviest sufferer from the war, economically considered. Supplies of foodstuffs were almost completely depleted, not only in Czecho-Slovakia, but in the neighboring countries as well. The deterioration of the railroads and their rolling stock had reached a point where they had almost ceased to operate, nor did the new state have any opening to the sea. Of railroad lines there were 13,000 kilometers in the countries, including a main line running through Prague from northern Europe down to the Balkans and Constantinople. Thus, the possibilities of future development of transportation were given. Furthermore, the territory of the Republic held within it excellent resources. Before the war its cotton output had been 85 per cent. of that of the whole Austrian Empire; its wool production had been 95 per cent. of the total; its metal production 70 per cent., and 50 per cent. of motor transport vehicles in the Austrian Empire had been manufactured in Bohemia. Thus the plants for production were there, and had only to be worked, as soon as the raw materials could be procured.

As in all countries which had suffered severely, there was in Czecho-Slovakia a strong radical sentiment among the working classes. In the neighboring state of Hungary this finally culminated in the ascent into power of a purely Bolshevist government. This same element was a powerful tendency toward disintegration in Czecho-Slovakia as well, but there it was fought more successfully. On Jan. 11, 1919, an attempt was made by the Bolsheviki, or Communists, to assassinate the Premier, Dr. Kramarz, largely on account of his declaration of policy in favor of retaining the big landed estates intact. The attempt failed, and aroused strong popular sentiment against the minor Communist elements, but nevertheless the conservative policy of the Premier proved unpopular among the representatives of the people as a whole. In July, 1919, Kramarz and his Cabinet resigned in favor of the Socialists, who established a new government, with Vlastimil Tusar as Premier, Dr. Benes remaining as Foreign Minister. The Social Democrats and the Agrarians remained the dominating parties, the first leading. This change was fully ratified by the popular elections, which took place at this time in Bohemia. On Oct. 28, 1919, President Masaryk made a memorable speech before the national Assembly, in which he formulated the policies of the Government. He expressed himself very strongly against Bolshevism, considering it only the frantic remedy of a desperate people beset by economic ills that had become unbearable, but at the same time, he declared, the Government would countenance no policy of intervention either in Russia or Hungary, and Czecho-Slovakia would, therefore, not join in any of the Allied efforts in that direction. He proclaimed the Government's policy to be that of peaceful evolution toward high ideals, which might eventually demand many radical changes, but these must be brought about gradually and without bloodshed. He was convinced that the ideals of the Bolsheviki were not at fault; he deplored only their methods. For his Government also had as its ultimate ideal the socialization of the big industries. He plainly enunciated a moderate socialist program, a startling fact, since the President had never before been associated with Socialistic principles. “This policy,” he said, finally, “may be termed crass materialism, but the materialism of the hungry is worthy of more consideration than the materialism of the overfed.” The words of its chief executive plainly indicated that Czecho-Slovakia had joined those nations which have definitely set out on the path toward political Socialism.

During the first year the Czecho-Slovak Government had already begun the formation of a strong national army. This was later augmented by the seasoned troops which arrived in small contingents from Siberia. Already, before the frontiers of the Republic had been definitely fixed by the international boundary commissions of the Paris Peace Conference there developed difficulties with the neighboring states of Poland and Hungary, which on several occasions culminated in actual hostilities and military operations. In January, 1919, there had been serious operations against the Poles in western Galicia, over the Teschen district, which was still disputed territory important on account of its valuable coal deposits and the sovereignty of which was still to be decided by plebiscite. A month later the Czecho-Slovak troops advanced against the forces of the Hungarian Communist Government, and open warfare continued until July, when the Czecho-Slovaks were badly defeated, and were only saved from disaster by the action of the Peace Conference, in Paris, which intervened in their behalf. Great satisfaction was felt throughout the Republic when the publication of the Peace Treaty between the Allies and Germany announced the provisions in favor of Czecho-Slovakia. By its terms it was assured of an economic outlet to the Adriatic, special rights being granted in the matter of railroad transportation to Fiume and Trieste. Furthermore, Germany was also bound to lease to Czecho-Slovakia, for a period of 99 years, terminal and shipping space in Hamburg and Stettin, the details of which were to be worked out by a special commission on which Germany, Great Britain, and Czecho-Slovakia were to be equally represented. A favorable outcome of the Teschen dispute with Poland was also obtained when, in August, 1920, the Council of Ambassadors in Paris, which had been arbitrating the difficulty, awarded Czecho-Slovakia the western district of the territory in question, containing the coal mines, Poland being awarded the city of Teschen.

In July, 1920, the popularly elected National Assembly was installed, the First National Assembly being dissolved in April. The legislative body consisted of two chambers; a Senate, of 150 members, and the Chamber of Deputies, of 300 members, the members of the former being elected for eight years and the members of the latter for six years. The preponderance of power is, however, with the lower house, the Senate having little more than the veto power. At the same time President Masaryk was re-elected to office for a term of seven years. Following this there was a reorganization of the Cabinet, formal rather than real, since the personnel of the Cabinet remained practically the same, the Social Democrats and Agrarians retaining their power. Signs of future stability were in evidence, for while food was still scarce in the larger cities in 1920, on account of poor railroad transportation, the crops of 1919 had been unusually good, and those of 1920 promised to be equally abundant. In his speech before the National Assembly, after his election, the President again emphasized the socialistic ideals of the government and the desire to accomplish this peacefully, not only within the Republic, but through peaceful relations with all other nations.