The Czech Republic was the western part of the Czech and Slovak Federal
Republic. Formed into a common state after World War I (October 28, 1918),
the Czechs, Moravians, and Slovaks remained united for almost 75 years.
On January 1, 1993, the two republics split to form two separate states.
The Czechs lost their national independence to the Hapsburgs 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. For historical reasons, 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
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 of which concerned 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, including some who were sympathetic
to Nazi Germany, undermined the new Czechoslovak state. Internal and external
pressures culminated in September 1938, when France and the United Kingdom
yielded to Nazi pressures at Munich 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 under the Benes Decrees.
Reunited after the war, the Czechs and Slovaks set 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 Novotny.
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 figure.
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 Charter.
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-third.
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,"
At the time of the 1948 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
Heavy industry received major economic support during the 1950s, but
central planning resulted in waste and inefficient use of industrial resources.
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 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
On November 17, 1989, the communist police violently broke up a peaceful
pro-democracy demonstration, brutally beating many student participants.
In the days which followed, 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 1946 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 at 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
By the end of 1990, unofficial parliamentary "clubs" had evolved with
distinct political agendas. Most influential was the Civic Democratic Party,
headed by Vaclav Klaus, who later became Prime Minister. Other notable
parties that came to the fore after the split were the Czech Social Democratic
Party, 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
peaceful. Both states attained immediate recognition from the U.S. and
their European neighbors.