CZECHOSLOVAKIA WAS ESTABLISHED in 1918 as a national state of the Czechs and Slovaks. Although these two peoples were closely related, they had undergone different historical experiences. In the ninth century A.D., the ancestors of the Czechs and Slovaks were united in the Great Moravian Empire, but by the tenth century the Hungarians had conquered Slovakia, and for a millennium the Czechs and the Slovaks went their separate ways. The history of Czechoslovakia, therefore, is a story of two separate peoples whose fates sometimes have touched and sometimes have intertwined.
Despite their separate strands of development, both Czechs and Slovaks struggled against a powerful neighbor that threatened their very existence. Both nations showed resilience and perseverance in their search for national self-expression. The Czechs had a much richer tradition of self-rule. From the tenth to the fifteenth century, the Czech-inhabited Bohemian Kingdom was a powerful political and military entity. The immigration into Bohemia of a large number of Germans, however, created tension between Czechs and Germans.
Perhaps the greatest moment of Czech self-expression came with the Hussite movement in the fifteenth century. In 1403 the Czech reformist preacher Jan Hus challenged papal authority and precipitated a broadly based anti-German rebellion. The Hussite religious reform movement developed into a national struggle for autonomy in political and ecclesiastical affairs. For over two centuries the Czechs were able to maintain political self-rule, which was expressed by the Bohemian estates (an assembly of nobles, clergy, and townspeople representing the major social groups in the Bohemian Kingdom) and the Czech Reformed Church.
The failure to establish a native dynasty ultimately doomed the Bohemian Kingdom. In 1526 the Bohemian estates accepted a Hapsburg ruler as monarch. Soon this voluntary subordination was transformed into the hereditary rule of an alien absolutist dynasty. The Bohemian estates resisted, but their defeat by the Hapsburgs at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 had dire consequences: the entire Czech leadership was either killed or went into exile, the reformed Czech religion was gradually eliminated, and even the Czech language went into decline. As the remnants of the Bohemian Kingdom were abolished, the Czech lands were incorporated into Austria. From self-rule, the Czechs were reduced to an oppressed peasant nation.
New forces at work in the nineteenth century dramatically changed the position of the Czechs. A vigorous industrial revolution transformed a peasant nation into a differentiated society that included industrial workers, a middle class, and intellectuals. Under the influence of the Enlightenment and romanticism, the Czechs experienced a remarkable revival of Czech culture and national consciousness. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Czechs were making political demands, including the reconstitution of an autonomous Bohemian Kingdom. Because of Austria’s parliamentary system, the Czechs were able to make significant cultural and political gains, but these were vigorously opposed by Bohemia’s Germans, who feared losing their privileged position. On the eve of World War I, the Czech leader Tomas Masaryk began propagating the Czecho-slovak idea, i.e., the reunion of Czechs and Slovaks into one political entity.