This year, we celebrate the centennial anniversary of Czech independence. On October 18, 1918, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk declared independence for the new state of Czechoslovakia. The declaration outlined grievances against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and put to paper beliefs in free religion, speech, and equal rights.
The road to independence was hard. For some time prior to World War I, the Czechs and Slovaks had difficulty with Austro-Hungarian rule and felt they were treated like second-class citizens. As a result, many went to other nations, including Russia (under Tsar rule), and aided the Russians (Allies) when they opposed Germany and other Central Powers in World War I in 1914. The Czech and Slovak soldiers (which became the Czechoslovak Legion) were committed to the war effort in part because they wanted to establish independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With Masaryk's support, the Czechoslovak Legion recruited Czech POWs who had been captured from the Central State while in Russia to grow over 100,000 strong.
Czechoslovak Legion recruited Czech POWs who had been captured from the Central State while in Russia to grow over 100,000 strong.
The Russian Civil War began in 1917, during World War I, as the citizens became unhappy with the government and were persuaded by the Bolshevik Communist Party. Masaryk negotiated to keep the Legion out of Russian domestic affairs, and convinced Russia to allow Czech and Slovak soldiers to escape to France to continue efforts with the Allies.
However, the Germans intervened to prevent evacuation. Masaryk and the Czechoslovak National Council made an agreement with the Bolsheviks that the Czech and Slovak soldiers would surrender their weapons in exchange for safe passage. The Czech soldiers were aware that the Bolsheviks and the Central State worked together to stall their progress to Europe, so they did not surrender their arms, and fought against the Bolshevik Red Army in the Revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion from May to August of 1918.
|Cooking tea by soldiers of Czechoslovak Legion on the Russian front in the first World War. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain.|
During this time, the Czechoslovak Legion was strung out along the Trans-Siberian Railway from Penza to Vladivostok. There were a series of battles, and the Legion won against the Bolsheviks in Vladivostok and declared it an Allied protectorate. From there, the Legion went west to join their comrades in a fight against the Bolshevik Red Army and became victors.
The campaign was supported by the Allies, including U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. As a result of the alliance with the Allies, Masaryk gained support for the formation of the Czechoslovak nation. In July of 1918, the United States had a limited intervention to rescue the Legion troops. The Legion was waiting for them.
As a result of the alliance with the Allies, Masaryk had gained support for the formation of the Czechoslovak nation.
Members of the Legion went on to form a significant portion of the Czechoslovak army when they returned to their now-independent and democratic homeland. Following the creation of the Czechoslovak nation after World War I, Masaryk was elected as its president, for three terms, until 1935.
Masaryk had ties in the United States prior to World War I. He was an intellectual who helped spread ideas related to the Czech-Slovak national identity. His last pre-war visit (1907) to the United States strengthened his conviction that Czech Americans were an important part of the Czech nation and that America could be a source of inspiration for Czech political life.
|Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk|
Masaryk feared that if the Central Powers won the war, the Czechs and Slovaks would suffer even more than they had. This led him to align with the allies, form the Czechoslovak Legion, and work establishing an independent state. As World War I came to an end, Masaryk was a spokesmen in America to articulate the establishment of Czechoslovakia and its embrace of American democratic ideals.
On October 28, 1918, Prague declared independence, two weeks before the end of World War I. The date is recognized today as Czech Independence Day, and also recognizes protests against the Nazis in 1939 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Masaryk was one of the first political figures to have concerns about Hitler. Czechoslovak independence fell under Nazi Germany in 1938. After World War II, democracy was again restored but fell again in 1948 to a communist coup. Through the spirit of the Czech and Slovak people, independence reignited in the 1968 Prague Spring, but remained under communist influence until the 1989 Velvet Revolution when a democratic government was reinstated. Czechoslovakia was dissolved into the Czech Republic (Czechia) and Slovakia in 1993.
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