October 28 – The Birth of the First Republic

Flying the national colours!
Flying the national colours!

A Nation is Born

October 28 is a state holiday in the Czech Republic and one of the few days where you might see a Czech flag displayed anywhere other than on a government building.

The day marks the establishment of Czechoslovakia as a free state, an event which occurred on October 28, 1918.

The Czechs are not a stridently nationalistic lot by and large, so the day is not filled with massive parades, fireworks and overt patriotism. However, there are wreath laying ceremonies at monuments to Tomáš G. Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, across the country.

Very often, you will hear Czechs talk about the “First Republic”. This was the period between 1918,when Czechoslovakia attained its freedom from Habsburg rule, and 1938 when the Munich Agreement was signed and the country came under Hitler’s boot heel.

While the First Republic only lasted only 20 years, it was a significant two decades which live on strongly in the hearts and minds of many Czechs today.

Wreaths laid at the statue of Tomáš G. Masaryk near the centre of Brno.
Wreaths laid at the statue of Tomáš G. Masaryk near the centre of Brno.

T. G. Masaryk and the First Republic

While the First Republic was relatively short lived, the Czechs have every right to be proud of it and the man who was instrumental in making it happen.

Tomáš G. Masaryk is a name, and an image, you will not escape noticing even if you visit the Czech Republic for less than 24 hours. Every town and city has a street or square named after him, Brno’s main university is named after him, his image has graced many postage stamps as well as the 5,000 Koruny bank note and there are many more tributes to him across the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well.

Masaryk went into exile from Austria-Hungary in 1914 and began to actively campaign for Czechs and Slovaks living abroad to support the idea of a free Czech state. His travels took him from Rome to America via Switzerland, France, Great Britain and Russia.

During his time in America, he won support from President Woodrow Wilson and made a speech from Independence Hall in Philadelphia in October of 1918 calling for independence not only for Czechs and Slovaks, but also other people of the emerging new states in Central Europe.

While Masaryk was a skilled lobbyist, he certainly did not work alone. With the help of fellow Czech Edvard Beneš and Slovak born Milan Rastislav Štefánik, he rallied Czech and Slovak communities abroad and influenced foreign politicians to support the cause. Beneš and Štefánik were particularly helpful promoting the cause in France as both of them had strong connections to that country.

The three men are considered key architects and founding fathers of the First Republic.

Wreaths at the foot of Masaryk's statue in Brno.
Wreaths at the foot of Masaryk’s statue in Brno.

Masaryk was a very progressive and forward thinking man for his time and the First Republic reflected that in many ways. Most importantly, the First Republic was the only democratic country in Central Europe during the interwar period.

Socially, the First Republic saw many reforms under Masaryk’s government which were intended to help the various ethnic groups inside its borders live as harmoniously as possible. This included adopting two official state languages, Czech and Slovak, as well as instituting universal suffrage in elections.

The First Republic was a very stable nation which became very well connected and respected internationally during its existence. With a solid industrial and agricultural base, the country weathered the Great Depression of the 1930s better than many others did.

Sadly, with the Munich Conference of September 1938, the First Republic came to an end. Czechoslovakia, by that point with Edvard Beneš as president, was not even invited to send representatives to this event.

A Czech army band plays music by national composers and finishes with the national anthem.
A Czech army band plays music by national composers and finishes with the national anthem.

A Quiet Pride

As I mentioned at the beginning, the Czechs are not particularly nationalistic. While they are not the flag waving sort, that should not be taken to mean that they lack patriotism.

Most Czechs, in my experience, attach a greater level of national pride to individuals and accomplishments in the nation’s history than to flags and other forms of symbolism.

Given the country’s small geographical size, Czechs have made a very large number of contributions to the world in the arts, sciences, industry, humanities and many other fields regardless of which flag happened to be flying over the land at any given point in its history.

Patriotism, like many aspects of their lives, is just one more thing Czechs tend to keep largely under their hats on a day to day basis.

Learning more

This link will take you to a very informative interview from 2013 with a professor from Prague’s Charles University. It goes into a good deal of detail about the day, its history and importance:

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/special/the-meaning-of-czech-independence-day#0

For your listening pleasure; here is the Czech national anthem, “Kde Domov Můj?” (Where is My Home?), in instrumental and choral versions respectively:

http://denceskestatnosti.vlada.cz/mp3/01_Orchestr-Narodniho-divadla_dirigent-Jiri-Belohlavek_2008.mp3

http://denceskestatnosti.vlada.cz/mp3/02_Sbor-a-orchestr-Narodniho-divadla_dirigent-Jiri-Belohlavek_2008.mp3

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