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The First Republic

On November 14, 1918, the interim Parliament declared that the new Czechoslovak state would be a republic, and named Tomas Garrigue Masaryk as the first President.

The Czechoslovak Republic (CSR) was composed of the historical Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia as well as Slovakia and Ruthenia (Sub-Carpathian Russia).

Czechoslovakia's relations with its neighboring states - Germany, Hungary, and Poland - were complicated from the very start.

In security matters, Czechoslovakia alligned itself with France and her partners in the Little Entente. As Germany grew more threatening in the course of the 1930's, Czechoslovakia also signed a pact with the Soviet Union, which promised to help Czechoslovakia in the case of need - but provided that France fulfilled her obligations to help the nation first.

The Czechs and the Slovaks - who had used nationalistic arguments to justify their drive for independence from Austria-Hungary - now found themselves at the other end of the bargaining table. While these two nations were officially considered the two partners in the Czechoslovak union, together they comprised less than 65 percent of the total population. More than 3 million Germans - some 23 percent of the population - lived mostly in the Czech border regions (the territories which were to become known as the "Sudetenland") Meanwhile, the Tesin region in the north was inhabited by a Polish minority of 75,000; South Slovakia and Ruthenia had a large Hungarian minority of about 745,000; and most of the population of Ruthenia (something less than half a million people) were, quite naturally, Ruthenians.

After World War I, ethnic Germans in the border regions made a half-hearted attempt to secede from Czechoslovakia, which was put down by the Czechoslovak army in 1918. Over the course of the next 20 years, the two largest German political parties - the Agrarians and the Christian Socialists - were won over by the Czechoslovak government and agreed to cooperate with the Czechoslovak state.

Czechoslovakia was one of the few states in Europe between the two World Wars with a genuine parliamentary democracy (guaranteed by the Constitution of February 1920). Even the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (which had been established in 1921) was allowed to legally exist - which was very unusual for the time. The Communists even had a few members in parliament - and they were allowed to remain there even when they started to openly denounce democracy as such - and especially the democratic system in Czechoslovakia.

After dealing with post-war chaos, and putting down a few radical Bolshevist uprisings, the domestic political and economic situation in Czechoslovakia was basically stabilized by the beginning of the 1920s.

In the 20 years between the two World Wars, Czechoslovakia was one of the world's most advanced industrial-agrarian countries. In fact, it was among the 10 richest nations in the world at that time, as it had inherited virtually all of Austria's industrial base. This early stability paved the way for a flowering of Czech literature and culture. Proud of their new independence, Czechoslovaks were anxious to put their new country on the map - sometimes in the craziest ways. This led Czech Radio, for instance, to start broadcasting in 1923 - despite that they didn't have a transmitter or even a microphone. They simply borrowed the former (as well as a tent to protect them from the elements) from the Czechoslovak Boy Scouts, and manufactured the latter from a telephone receiver. Why the rush? They were anxious to be the first country in Central Europe to begin regular radio broadcaste. Of course, a Czech - by name of Frantisek Behounek - took part in the 1928 multinational attempt to reach the North Pole in a zeppelin - and was one of the survivors to be rescued after the good airship "Italia" crashed discouragingly far from its destination.

Experiments with architecture in interwar Czechoslovakia resulted in Prague today having the only Cubist buildings in the world, like The House at the Black Madonna (which houses a museum of Czech cubist art today) and a number of houses along the embankment under Vysehrad on Rasinovo nabrezi and on Neklanova Street. Franz Kafka, Josef Capek and his brother Karel (the two coined the word "robot" together), Jaroslav Hasek, Emil Filla, Max Svabinsky, Otto Gutfreund, Vaclav Spala all lived and worked at this time.

At the end of the twenties and the beginning of the thirties, the Czechoslovak economy was hit hard by the world economic crisis with disastrous social and political consequences: 1.3 million people were unemployed. Hardest hit were the soon-to-be-known-as-Sudeten border regions, where German inhabitants predominated.

The economic crisis and the growing influence of the Nazi movement in Germany served to politicize the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia. On Hitler's orders, they called first for autonomy, then for secession from the Czechoslovak state. In the 1935 elections, both of the traditional German parties (the Agrarians and the Christian Socialists) experienced a monumental decline in voter support in favor of the Sudeten German Party. The Sudeten German Party, with 15.2 percent of the vote, became the largest German-interest political party in the Republic.

Tomas Garrigue Masaryk resigned from office in 1935 due to illness, and was succeeded by Edvard Benes. Benes, a National Socialist, had the misfortune to be a weak and ineffectual ruler during a particular turbulent time in the nation's history - much as the king Wenceslas IV had been in the Hussite period centuries before.

A P.E. teacher named Konrad Henlein was the leader of the Sudeten German Party, and he gradually became the mouthpiece of Nazi Germany in Czechoslovakia. His was a separatist platform aimed at joining the Czech border lands to Germany.

Nothing less than Czechoslovakia's sovereignty was at stake. But this did not interest many people outside of the small Czechoslovak state.

France and Britain favored a policy of appeasement in response to Hitler's aggressive policy towards Czechoslovakia, and so Konrad Heinlein's wish came true in September, 1938 - when the four great powers of the time (Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy) decided, at a meeting in Munich, that extensive areas of the Czech border regions were to be ceded to Germany.

Shortly after the Munich Pact was signed, the Czech border regions were indeed joined with Germany. Seizing this window of opportunity, Poland snapped up the Tesin region in the north, and Hungary annexed the southern part of Slovakia while Hungary captured Ruthenia. Overnight, Czechoslovakia lost about a third of its territory.

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