Czechoslovakia was born 102 years ago, but this year celebrations are limited

Anti-COVID protests are planned for Czechoslovak Independence Day, a state holiday commemorated on October 28

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston
Published on 27.10.2020 15:57 (updated on 29.10.2020)

October 28 is Czechoslovak Independence Day, marking 102 years since Czechoslovakia split from the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

Typically celebrated with fanfare and special events, this year few public celebrations are planned due to restrictions on the size of public gatherings. A wreath laying will take place at the Municipal House at 6 pm, but it is mainly a photo opportunity.

Only up to 100 people can gather in separate groups of 20, and must wear face coverings. City officials have appealed to people to cancel or postpone their events.

A demonstration against the government's anti-COVID measures is planned for 11:55 am at náměstí Republiky in Prague. Another anti-government protest is planned at Klarov starting at noon. A March for Freedom was planned to start at noon on Old Town Square, but now must take place in one spot. A protest against President Miloš Zeman is planned for 2 pm on Old Town Square.

This year proves a sharp contrast to the 100th anniversary in 2018, which included month-long celebrations, the reopening of the National Museum, the unveiling of the renovated Astronomical Clock, and several parades.

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The idea of independence day is a bit confusing in the Czech Republic. There is also Restoration Day of the Independent Czech State on January 1, Czech Statehood Day on September 28, and Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day on November 17.

As with many historical events, Prague’s Wenceslas Square played a big role in the history of this holiday. The First Czechoslovak Republic, as the era from 1918 to 1938 is called, was declared on October 28, 1918, when novelist Alois Jirásek read the proclamation of the independence of Czechoslovakia in front of the then-new Saint Wenceslas statue.

Wenceslas Square on October 28, 1918 / public domain
Wenceslas Square on October 28, 1918 / public domain

The text, sometimes called the Washington Declaration, was drafted by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and American sculptor Gutzon Borglum and presented to the US government on Oct. 17. It was published in Paris on Oct. 18, but the reading at Wenceslas Square is seen as the official start of the new country.

The establishment of Czechoslovakia came in the final days of World War I and marked the first time since the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 that Bohemia was not under foreign rule.

The roots of independence go back to 1916 when Masaryk, Edvard Beneš and Milan Rastislav Štefánik created the Czechoslovak National Council, which began to advocate for independence. Masaryk and Beneš would later be the first two presidents of Czechoslovkia. Štefánik died in a plane crash in 1919.

On October 14, 1918, Beneš declared that the Czechoslovak National Council was the Czechoslovak provisional government. France was the first country to recognize it. Masaryk was designated president, Beneš was became acting foreign minister and Štefánik was acting minister of war.

Plaque at Obecní dům
Plaque at Obecní dům / via Raymond Johnston

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The Czechoslovak National Council on the morning of October 28, 1918, stopped grain shipments to support the Austrian side at the front in World War I. Later in the day, the provisional government issued the first law on the establishment of an independent state.

Independence was also declared by the National Council at the Municipal House (Obecní dům) on the same day, and an Art Nouveau plaque on the corner of the building commemorates the event. Slovak leaders accepted the idea of independence two days later.

In the aftermath of the declaration of independence, a Habsburg victory column from 1650 was toppled in Old Town Square. After years of debate, it was finally replaced with a replica in June 2020.

Vicotry Column toppled in Old Town Square
Victory Column toppled in Old Town Square in 1918 / public domain

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While museums are currently closed to the public both the National Museum and Google Arts and Culture have online exhibits devoted to this era (the former in Czech, the latter is English-friendly).

Stores larger than 200 square meters will be closed across the Czech Republic, as this date is included in the holiday shopping law from 2016. Smaller food stores will remain open. Interestingly, stores could actually open under the law, as there is an exception for emergency situations. But all major chains have said that they will not exploit the loophole.