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The First World War and the Establishment of Czechoslovakia

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Emperor Francis Joseph I was faced with the question as to who his successor would be. His son, the crown prince Rudolph, committed suicide with his lover and the succession passed to the Emperor’s nephew Francis Ferdinand d’Este (also often known as Franz Ferdinand in English). He chose the Konopiště Chateau as his family seat.

As a passionate hunter, he accumulated a huge collection of his hunting trophies in this place. Nevertheless, because of the dynastic irregularity of his marriage to Sophie von Chotkova, who was only a countess, he had to relinquish the succession right of his children. In 1914, he left with his wife for an Austro-Hungarian army exercise in Sarajevo.

Austro-Hungary got involved in the Balkans after it was deprived of the possibility of influencing events in Germany and Italy. As early as 1878, it militarily occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina, and it annexed it in 1908.

In Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the married couple both became victims of an assassination organised by a group of Bosnian Serbs (citizens of the Austro-Hungarian state) and the Serbian Black Hand organisation. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, first hit Sophie, whom he hadn’t even wanted to kill, with a badly aimed shot (he didn’t know how to shoot).  A second shot accidentally hit the successor to the throne.  Both of them later died of their injuries. 

After giving an ultimatum, Austria attacked Serbia, where the trail of the secret Black Hand organization led. This started the First World War because Austria was backed up by its ally Germany, along with Turkey and Bulgaria.  On the other hand, the states of the so-called Triple Entente – Russia, France and Great Britain – as well as other countries came to the aid of Serbia. Parliament was closed right at the start of the War and the army leadership gained an influence in decision-making within the state. At the same time, civil and political rights were restricted.

The commanding officers as well as ordinary people originally expected it to be a quick war. These hopes soon crumbled. Nobody was prepared either materially or psychologically for a protracted, exhausting and debilitating trench war.

The Austro-Hungarian army, in which Czechs naturally also served, fought primarily on the Eastern Front against Russia and at the front in Italy. It did not defeat Serbia (which was several times smaller than Austro-Hungary) until its second campaign with the aid of Germany and Bulgaria.

In 1914, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the renowned sociologist and professor of philosophy at Prague’s Charles University left Bohemia and went into exile.

Together with his collaborators, the Czech Edvard Beneš and the Slovak Milan Rastislav Štefánik, T. G. Masaryk began to write the first chapters of the Czechoslovak foreign resistance.  

Tomáš G. Masaryk established and led the Czechoslovak National Council abroad, and this organized its own forces from compatriots living abroad or from military captives and deserters from the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian army. These people risked facing the death penalty for treason in the event that they were captured.

Czechoslovak troops were deployed at the front in France, Italy and above all in Russia. In this country (which was shaken by civil war after the Bolshevik seizure of power), Czechoslovak Legions, numbering several tens of thousands of men, controlled the entire trans-Siberian arterial railway. They were transferred to the Western Front in France, because Bolshevik Russia concluded a separate peace with Germany and Austro-Hungary in March 1918. The legions prevented the transfer of German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war back to their armies from Siberia. These captives, released from Russian internment, were missed by German generals during the last offensives on the Western front.

It was primarily thanks to the legions and their successful military performance with the Czechoslovak National Council which won international recognition for the Czechoslovak state. It was founded on the idea of Czechosklovakism – one nation with two Czech and Slovak branches.

At home the situation was more difficult than it was abroad. Supply problems and economic difficulties increased. Initially, all the important Czech political parties maintained their loyalty towards the state. And when they didn’t, Austro-Hungary did not hesitate to resort to harsh punishments.  The Czech politicians Karel Kramář and Alois Rašín were sentenced to death for treason. Their lives were saved at the last moment by the death of Emperor Francis Joseph I, who had not managed to confirm the sentence. The succeeding emperor Charles I (also known as Karl I) granted them clemency and they could both participate in politics after parliament convened in 1917. 

Austrian Germans strived to transform Austria into an unequivocally German state. Vienna became increasingly dependent on its stronger ally Germany. The feelers Charles I put out with regard to the conclusion of a separate peace with the Entente powers ended in an embarrassing scandal for which the Austrian foreign minister was to blame, which resulted in an even greater alignment with Germany.

In the war years, the Czech political representatives created a common political body – the National Committee. The individual parties were represented on this according to the election results of 1911. On 28 October 1918, after the publication of a note from the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Julius Andrássy on Austria’s willingness to negotiate an armistice, the National Committee declared an independent Czechoslovak Republic.

Emperor Charles tried to save the empire with a federalization project, but he did not come up with this until October 1918, when he could no longer prevent the disintegration of the monarchy. In view of the fact that he did not want to countenance a civil war, he preferred to allow the break-up of the state and the establishment of new succession countries. The state holiday of 28 October commemorates the establishment of an independent Czechoslovak state.

The declaration of the establishment of the state did not mean the automatic assumption of power on the entire territory. Czech Germans living in the border areas of the state, known as the Sudetenland, did not want to lose their position as the ruling nation. Referring to the right of self-determination for nations, they declared several independent provinces, which were joined to the Austrian Republic.  After negotiations between Czech and German politicians fell through, the borderlands were seized by incipient Czechoslovak armed forces.

At the peace conference in Versailles, the victors also decided on Czechoslovakia’s borders. Defining the borders of all the succession states was complicated for historical, ethnic, economic and strategic military reasons. In the Czech lands, the historic borders with minor changes were applied in favour of Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovak state power was not established immediately in Slovakia, which had been part of the Hungarian kingdom for centuries.  Hungary, the state succeeding the Hungarian kingdom, did not want to surrender part of its territory or population in favour of the new state. Czechoslovak military units were obliged to put down Hungarian resistance, including a communist attempt to set up a Hungarian Soviet Republic. The Slovak nation was able to develop incomparably better and to a greater extent in Czechoslovakia than it could have before 1918.