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Czechs Are Celebrating Their Country’s Centennial. We Should, Too.

The Czechs are commemorating a number of events this year, including the founding of the National Museum (200 years ago), the Revolution of 1848 (170 years ago), the establishment of Czechoslovakia (100 years ago), the Munich Agreement (80 years ago), the beginning of the communist regime (70 years ago), and the Warsaw Pact invasion (50 years ago). Czechoslovakia’s centennial, on 28 October, is the most significant of these events and has received intense media coverage in the Czech Republic because of the republic’s founder, Professor Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), and its democratic achievement.

Masaryk willingly faced controversy to reveal injustices and placed the welfare of the nation above his own. In 1886, when he was teaching philosophy at Prague’s Czech Charles-Ferdinand University, Masaryk correctly challenged the authenticity of two Czech manuscripts, one supposedly from the ninth century and another from the thirteenth, that purportedly predated significant German works. While some condemned him as treasonous, Masaryk warned about grounding Czech national identity on falsehoods.

Similarly, Masaryk risked his reputation to defend Leopold Hilsner (1876-1928), a Jew accused of ritual murder, and he managed to have the Supreme Court hear the case. The court found Hilsner guilty of murdering two girls, but the emperor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. (Hilsner received a pardon shortly before the First World War ended.)

Already a controversial public figure, Masaryk entered politics and served as a deputy in the Reichsrat in 1891-1893. He co-founded the small Realist party and again entered the Reichsrat in 1907. With the outbreak of the First World War, Masaryk concluded that Austria-Hungary would not reform along democratic lines and left the country to campaign among the Allied powers for the creation of an independent Bohemia. His activities placed him in physical danger and his family in Austria-Hungary at risk. Joining Masaryk were Edvard Beneš (1884-1948), his one-time student, and Milan Rastislav Štefánik (1880-1919), a Slovak and another former student of Masaryk who had become an astronomer and a pilot in the French military.

Diplomatic contacts, an information campaign among Czech, Slovak, and Rusyn emigres, a dedicated army of 90,000 legionnaires at the disposal of the Allies, and coordinated efforts with politicians in Prague convinced Woodrow Wilson and the other Allied leaders to recognize Czechoslovakia. On 28 October 1918, despite the hesitation of some politicians who still had hoped for the democratization and federalization of Austria-Hungary, political leaders in Prague proclaimed the country’s independence.

Among the first acts of the Revolutionary National Assembly was electing Masaryk, who was 68 years old, president of the republic. More than a figurehead, Masaryk used his political capital to influence domestic policies, such as progressive social legislation and effective land reform. He aided in the creation and maintenance of governing coalitions and in bringing Germans into the legislature and the cabinet. In foreign affairs, he strove to solidify Czechoslovakia’s alliance with France, strengthen ties with its Romanian and Yugoslav allies, and support the League of Nations. He won the respect not only of Slovaks, Czechs, and Rusyns but also of the country’s minorities, including Germans, Hungarians, Poles, and Jews. He remained in office until 1935, despite his failing health, because he wanted to ensure that Beneš succeeded him.

Masaryk had his faults, and he manipulated politics through his prestige, but his reputation for devotion to the state as well as for fairness and honesty are enduring. Since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, popular and academic publications about Masaryk abound, and his legacy has become intertwined with that of the Czech Republic.

In 2005, viewers of Czech Television named Masaryk among the top three “greatest Czechs,” behind the legendary medieval king Charles IV (1316-1378) and ahead of Václav Havel (1936-2011), the playwright, dissident, and president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. On 2 October 2018, A Million Moments for Democracy (Milion chvilek pro demokracii), a grass-roots movement that claims a membership of 265,000, inaugurated an e-mail campaign, in advance of the communal and Senate elections, that called on citizens to display posters with Masaryk’s silhouette and such slogans as “do not be afraid and do not steal,” an affront to the current prime minister, Andrej Babiš (born 1954), a billionaire whom many maintain is corrupt, in part over one of his company’s inappropriate acceptance of European Union funds, and had ties to the secret police of the communist era.

Aside from Finland, the Czechoslovak First Republic (1918-1938) was the only successor state of the Romanov, Hohenzollern, and Habsburg monarchies to remain democratic throughout the interwar period, a rather remarkable achievement. Much could have torn Czechoslovakia asunder. It had a multitude of minorities–Germans (23 percent of the 1921 population), Hungarians (6 percent), along with Poles, Jews and others (2 percent)–many of whom were not enamored with the republic’s creation.

Czechs and Slovaks, both West Slavic groups who are closely related and whose languages are mutually intelligible, comprised about 66 percent of the population, but many Slovaks felt that Czechs dominated state affairs and the administration in Slovakia. Rusyns, an East Slavic group that comprised 3 percent of the population, voiced reservations similar to those of the Slovaks. The industrial and urbanized Bohemian Lands stood in contrast to the poor agrarian provinces of Slovakia and Ruthenia.

Finally, significant ideological differences abounded among Czechs, Slovaks, Rusyns, and the minorities: communism, socialism, agrarianism, Catholicism, conservatism, and fascism. One result was that no party ever received a majority in elections to the National Assembly. Czechoslovakia’s politicians overcame these difficulties to build a series of governing coalitions, typically broad coalitions but also center-left and center-right groupings. Compromise and consensus carried more weight than derision and division.

After Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, the Nazis backed the anti-system Sudeten German party, which had gained strength as a result of the Great Depression. Germany provided the party with financial support, and Hitler advised its leader, Konrad Henlein (1898-1945), not to accept any terms the Czechoslovak government offered. To avoid war, France and Britain abandoned their democratic ally with the Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938, which gave the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Germany. The Czechoslovak Second Republic (1938-1939) became a puppet state of Germany.

Some scholars categorize Czechoslovakia as a failed democracy, and they point to its ethnic relations as well as its many governments and bureaucratic cabinets as proof, but considering the state as a consociational democracy, such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and post-1945 Austria, supports a more nuanced view. Based on the consociational model, Czechoslovakia’s democracy thrived, which was apparent in governing coalitions that included the major segments of the society, in proportional representation for minorities in politics and (to an extent) in the administration, in the unwritten right of one segment in the society to veto the implementation of undesirable policies, and in the ability of all segments in the society to thrive and protect their own interests.

Czechoslovakia’s democracy was not without flaws, which is true of any democratic state. Its leaders could have done more to involve minorities in the political process and to give them more positions in the state. They could have made greater efforts to promote the economic advancement of Slovakia and Ruthenia. Despite such shortcomings, Czechs and many Slovaks rightfully consider the First Republic a bright spot in their century-old collective past.

Furthermore, in today’s tumultuous world, when the future of democracy is in question, many outside of the Czech Republic and Slovakia can view Masaryk as an example of an honorable politician and the Czechoslovak First Republic as an illustration of how extremely diverse societies can build democratic compromise.