105 years ago a new country emerged in Central Europe

Today ceremonies take place in Prague and beyond to honor the establishment of the independent Czechoslovak Republic. What does all the fanfare mean?

Expats.cz Staff ČTK

Written by Expats.cz StaffČTK Published on 28.10.2023 11:14:00 (updated on 30.10.2023) Reading time: 4 minutes

On Oct. 28, the Czech Republic celebrates the 105th anniversary of establishing independence from Austria-Hungary in 1918. Events across the country underscore Czech pride in the First Republic that was dismantled by the 1938 Munich Agreement before World War II.

In Prague, President Petr Pavel will present state honors at Prague Castle to over 60 recipients, with former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg expected to receive the Order of the White Lion.

Earlier in the day, top officials attended a ceremony at the National Monument in Vítkov; later the president will appoint new generals. Commemorative events are also set to take place in Lány, Brno, Pardubice, Pilsen, Turnov, and Litomyšl.

What's behind the fanfare, what do you need to know about this important day for the Czech lands, and why are these celebrations still relevant today? Here is a brief history of the founding of Czechoslovakia.

A declaration of independence

When Czechoslovakia declared independence on Oct. 28, 1918, it marked the establishment of a new country representing the self-determination of Czechs and Slovaks after centuries under Austrian and Hungarian rule. The republic centered around unifying the predominantly Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia with the culturally distinct Slovak territories.

One of the key leaders behind Czechoslovakia's creation was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. A respected academic and politician, Masaryk had spent years abroad advocating for Czech and Slovak independence. During World War I, he served as a representative for the Czech independence movement and gained international recognition.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk on horseback / public domain
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk on horseback. Public domain photo.

In 1918, Masaryk was chosen as head of the newly formed Czechoslovak National Council in Prague. On Oct. 28, independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire was officially proclaimed. Masaryk's respected stature helped gain world recognition for the fledgling country at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference following the war.

The Czechoslovak Republic: One of the most developed countries in the world

The new republic brought significant changes to the Czech lands, which had previously been part of the Bohemian Crown within Austria. Under the Dual Monarchy, Czech influence had steadily declined as the German language and culture asserted more authority. Now reunited with long-divided Slovak brethren, the Czechs suddenly had autonomous self-governance and control over their own affairs.

Internationally, Czechoslovakia offered hope as a new democracy emerging among the successor states of Central Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Its heavy industry and cultural institutions gained global prominence. Masaryk became the republic's first president in 1920, guiding the integration of varied ethnic regions into a unified nation.

As a unifying founding father figure, Masaryk helped stabilize Czechoslovak politics through his leadership over the fragmented ethnic and territorial lands that now comprised the republic. The 1920 constitution formally laid out the country’s government as a parliamentary democracy led by a president and the National Assembly.

Strong Czech-Israeli relations are attributed to Masaryk. In 1920 he visited Palestine's first Jewish kibbutz. He was the first statesman to visit the Holy Land, a somewhat prescient event connecting the First Republic's leader with current events today.

While tensions with neighbors soon emerged, the founding of Czechoslovakia represented liberation for the Czech people and established their identity on the world stage after centuries of rule by outside empires in Vienna and Budapest. It gave them control of their destiny within a new parliamentary system for the first time in history.

Munich Agreement ends 20 years of democracy and prosperity

By 1921, Czechoslovakia had a population of over 13 million people and inherited much of the former empire’s heavy industry. However, economic challenges from the Great Depression exacerbated minority grievances, fueling nationalism. While democratic stability prevailed through most of the interwar period, Nazi expansionism spelled the end for the First Republic.

A period of 20 years of democracy and prosperity ended by the aggression of Hitler's Nazi Germany. The Munich Agreement in September 1938 and the following German occupation in March 1939 brought the end of the independent Czech state.

Today's Czechia faces similar challenges

In an interview following today's wreath-laying ceremony at Vítkov Hill in Prague, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said the entire current Czech Republic is built on the traditions of the First Republic. 

"In addition to gratitude, we should also feel responsible for what we have, to maintain it. To pass on a prosperous free country to the next generation," he said.

Masaryk statue / iStock: Olivier DJIANN
Masaryk statue / iStock: Olivier DJIANN

The PM went on to say that there are many situations in the world that directly or indirectly threaten Europe. He mentioned the conflict in Ukraine and Israel. 

While democratic traditions run deep in the Czech lands, threats of Russian expansionism and political polarization at home and abroad pose additional challenges.

If anything, the past underscores that Czechia's small size demands an ongoing commitment to defending sovereignty and balancing foreign partnerships: lessons as relevant as ever in today's complex geopolitical environment.

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