The outbreak of World War I in 1914 played a significant role in the Slovak history. The idea of Czechoslovak state appeared very early among the Slovaks and was related to the progress of the war. Beyond the domestic rebellion the foreign Czechoslovakia’s revolt led by Tomáš G. Masaryk and Slovak Milan Rastislav Štefánik also evolved. Their task was to organize foreign military legions.

In October, Czechoslovakia’s government was formed. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk became the first president of the Czechoslovakia. On 28th of October in 1918 the state of Czechoslovakia was declared. Peace Agreements in Paris finally established the Czechoslovakia as a new state on the map of Europe. On 29th of February 1920 the Constitution of Czechoslovakia was approved.

Map of Czechoslovakia in 1928:
Map of Czechoslovakia in 1928

The borders of Czecho-Slovak Republic were guaranteed by the international treaties of Versailles, St. Germaine and Trianon of the years 1919-1920. Internally it was established as a parliamentary democracy with a president as head of state (1918-1935 T. G. Masaryk, 1935-1938 Edvard Beneš). The democratic government was preserved, in contrast to all of the neighbouring states, for twenty years.

The new state was composed of two parts with different histories, cultural traditions, ethnic makeup and level of economic development. The Czechs, living under incomparably better Austrian conditions, were able to develop their own schools, scientific and cultural institutions so that the new state only finalized their emancipation. The Slovaks and, to a greater extent, the Ruthens, did not have such an opportunity in Hungary so that their institutions and political agencies were formed only after 1918. Therefore, the Czech upper-hand and hegemony was clearly evident and felt from the very beginning. It was supported also by the transfer of the bureaucratic and centralistic traditions of imperial Vienna and by the complicated ethnic composition of the Czecho-Slovak Republic.

Czecho-Slovakia had about 15 million inhabitants, which included only seven million Czechs. There were also other nationalities: about three million Germans, 700,000 Hungarians and about 500,000 Ruthens, Jews and Poles. The Czechs formed the majority together with the only 2.2 million Slovaks. This was one of the reasons why Czech policy was to maintain the fiction of a Czechoslovak nation included in the Constitution of 1920.

The autonomous movement, which was represented primarily by the catholic and the evangelical national party held the allegiance of nearly one-third of the voters in Slovakia. But there were also other parties in opposition to the government. The opposition in Slovakia obtained a majority of the votes not only due to demands for autonomy but also as result of economic difficulties which were most clearly exhibited during two economic crises (1921-1923, 1930-1934).

The Slovak economy, strongly affected by the breakup of the Hungarian market, was decimated by the competition from more modern Czech enterprises, banks and insurance companies. In the 1920s a number of factories, enterprises and financial institutions in Slovakia were abolished. In 1937 there were as many people employed in the industrial sector in Slovakia as there had been employed in 1913. Widespread unemployment could not be solved either by land reform or by emigration to west European countries or across the sea.

Despite the complicated social and national situation, Slovakia was moving towards a stable and strong civil society. The left-wing radicalism represented by the communists was limited only to 10-12 percent of the voters, right-wing radicalism was only a marginal manifestation. The stability of the young state was strengthened also by strong concerns in the face of the revisionist demands of Hungary whose governments between the wars sought to reconstitute pre-war Hungary.

Slovakia recorded in democratic Czecho-Slovakia evident progress and profit in various areas of life. For the first time it had its own borders, its own capital, Bratislava, it had numerous political agencies, various political parties and representatives in Parliament. There were many interest organizations of entrepreneurs, farmers, small businesses, dozens of central and regional cultural institutions. Among these should be mentioned the Matica slovenská, a newly established national theater, university, and numerous publishing houses and the press. The language of instruction at schools respected regional requirements.

The relatively peaceful conduct of the first decade of Czechoslovakia had severe shocks in the second decade. The international security of Czechoslovakia was built on the postwar international treaties and relied on the guarantee of Great Britain and France. Germany and Russia, however, were increasingly starting to enter the international scene.

Rapid positive changes were accomplished due to many Czech clerks, teachers, professors and soldiers. They were active especially in the state administration and institutions. This fact, however, became more and more the subject of dispute because they occupied posts suitable for the growing number of young Slovak intellectuals and they disseminated concepts concerning a Czechoslovak nation which were unacceptable to the Slovaks.

The greatest threat to Czechoslovakia was the accession of Hitler to power and his increasing aggression. He did not dissemble that he wants to liquidate Czechoslovakia. With the assistance of the political leaders of the German minority, conducted by Conrad Heinlein, they continuously increased the pressure against Czechoslovakia.

Opposition forces led by Hlinka’s People’s Party demanded the recognition of the national independence of the Slovaks and the formation of an autonomous Slovakia with its own parliament and government. They considered autonomy to be a tool for strengthening the republic. But the centralist parties, which defended the unitary character of the Czecho-Slovak Republic, considered them separatists. There was, however, no opportunity to test either of these concepts.

The Czecho-Slovak government, led from 1935 by a Slovak, Milan Hodža, was not courageous enough to resolve the Slovak question. In time, a completely different political situation led to the proclamation of Slovak autonomy as the Czecho-Slovak Republic lived through a deep crisis called forth by the agressivity of Hitler’ s Germany. The plan of breaking up the Czechoslovakia was named the Green case – Fall Grün. Hitler’s pretext for action against Czechoslovakia was the protection of the German population.

On 15th of September in 1938 Hitler met with British Prime Minister Chamberlain, who said at the meeting that he has no fundamental objection to the resignation of Czech border to Germany. German requirements were solved on conference in Munich, where on 29th of September in 1938 representatives of Germany, Italy, Great Britain and France – Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain and Daladier had met. Here, without the participation of Czechoslovakia, they decided that the Czechoslovak Republic has to give border regions of Bohemia and Moravia to Germany.

On the basis of their decree, Czecho-Slovakia was to cede to Germany a large section of its territory in the west, which was inhabited by Germans (the Sudetenland). At the same time Hungary and Poland presented territorial claims against Slovakia. Under the pressure the Government fulfilled the Polish requirements. On 2 November 1938, Germany and Italy were awarded, in an arbitration decision in Vienna, one-fifth of the territory of Slovakia and one-quarter of its inhabitants to Hungary. Czecho-Slovakia, dismembered and weakened became in fact a tool in the power interests of Germany.

In such a situation, the Prague government expressed its approval of the autonomy of Slovakia, which was proclaimed on 6 October 1938 in Žilina. After Munich Treaty the democracy in Prague and Bratislava was liquidated. In Slovakia all parties were swallowed up by the People’s Party or the government prohibited them. The autonomy of Slovakia was the only thing they wanted, but Hitler however, was looking for an excuse to break up Czechoslovakia.

The German Nazis supported the groups within the People’s Party, which desired the full independence. On 13 March 1939, during a time of severe disputes between the Prague government and representatives of Slovakia, Hitler invited Jozef Tiso, the president of the Slovak government, to Berlin and presented him with only one alternative: the division of Slovakia between Germany, Hungary and Poland or a proclamation of Slovak independence as a state. On 14 March 1939 the autonomous parliament proclaimed the independence of the Slovak state. The next day the German army marched into Prague.