Prague History – World War One – End of Empire
During the course of World War I, the Czechs became unified in their opposition to Austrian rule. Most especially, Austria-Hungary’s alignment with Germany and the restriction of democratic rights in the Czech lands led to growing opposition to the monarchy here. An organised resistance began to develop, both at home and abroad. Note that there was never any large scale fighting or trench warfare within the borders of the current Czechoslovakia.
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The Czech university professor, philosopher and politician, Tomas Masaryk (who was later to become Czechoslovakia’s first president) had been an advocate of more independence for the Czech lands long before the war had even started. In December of 1914, he went abroad, where he continued to fight for Czechoslovak independence throughout the war. He worked closely with Czech lawyer Edward Benes and Slovak astronomer Milan Rastislav Stefanik, who were also in exile in the United States throughout the conflict. It was in the United States at this time that Masaryk met his wife, Charlotte Garrigue.
It was there too that Masaryk, Benes and Stefanik founded the Czech National Council in 1916. Over time, this organisation was renamed the Czechoslovak National Council and was recognized as the valid voice of Czechoslovakia by Allied leaders. Their position as the leaders of “free Czechoslovakia” was further strengthened with the formation of Czechoslovak military units known as the Czechoslovak Legions, which fought alongside the Allies. The Czechoslovak Legions earned particular distinction on the Italian, French, and Russian fronts – and on the last of these, they actually became involved in the Russian Revolution, fighting against the Bolsheviks and, for a time during that revolution, controlled about half of the territory of Tsarist Russia. Resistance at home grew only gradually. At first, it was limited to small spy groups who had contact with Masaryk (who was considered an enemy of Austria on account of his subversive activities).
Active resistance to the monarchy was severely punished, and as a result many prominent Czech cultural and political personalities spent most of the war behind bars, convicted of treason. While the sentence for treason at that time was actually death, the Austrians were too busy to carry out the sentences. Thus, the executions were never carried out, and these Czech leaders simply languished in jail for the duration. By 1917, when things were quite apparently not in Austria-Hungary’s favour, Czech opposition to the war became much more active. People began organizing strikes, demonstrations, and even violent protests – which had to be put down by the army. Anybody who is particularly interested in this period of Czech history should definitely read “The Good Soldier Svejk” by Jaroslav Hasek. It not only offers a great deal of insight into the kind of passive resistance the Czechs favour, but also offers many more insights into the Czech psyche.
In May 1918, the representatives of the resistance movement abroad had signed the Pittsburgh Convention, which approved the formation of a joint state composed of Slovakia and the Czech lands. Much later (very recently in fact), Slovak politicians seeking autonomy for Slovakia would refer to a provision in this agreement mentioning Slovakia’s own “administration, parliament and courts of law.”
While the resistance leaders abroad were planning a new state, the various and sundry political forces in the Czech lands still could not agree on whether they wanted to radically reconstruct or completely abolish the political structure of Austria-Hungary. In July 1918, the Czech National Committee, a grouping of the leaders of the chief political parties (which wasn’t much cooperating with Masaryk’s efforts in exile), was reorganized and began preparing to assume power once the Central Powers were defeated.
In October 1918, Masaryk, Benes and Stefanik obtained recognition of the Czechoslovak National Council as the interim government of the Czechoslovak Republic from the Allied Powers. But while they were in Switzerland with delegates from the Prague National Committee discussing details of setting up this new state, a hastily-organised third grouping, the National Committee (headed by Antonin Svehla, Alois Rasin, Jiri Stribrny, Frantisek Soukup and Vavro Srobar) proclaimed Czechoslovakia an independent Republic on October 28, 1918 and began to assume the transfer of power from Austrian officials. Adding to this disparity and completely independent of events in Prague, Slovak political representatives issued the Martin Declaration in favour of a joint Czechoslovak state on October 30, 1918.