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Czecho-Slovakia - Politics

The Czechs and the Slovaks - who had used nationalistic arguments to justify their drive for independence from Austria-Hungary - now found themselves at the other end of the bargaining table. While these two nations were officially considered the two partners in the Czechoslovak union, together they comprised less than 65 percent of the total population. More than 3 million Germans - some 23 percent of the population - lived mostly in the Czech border regions (the territories which were to become known as the "Sudetenland") Meanwhile, the Tesin region in the north was inhabited by a Polish minority of 75,000; South Slovakia and Ruthenia had a large Hungarian minority of about 745,000; and most of the population of Ruthenia (something less than half a million people) were, quite naturally, Ruthenians.

After World War I, ethnic Germans in the border regions made a half-hearted attempt to secede from Czechoslovakia, which was put down by the Czechoslovak army in 1918. Over the course of the next 20 years, the two largest German political parties - the Agrarians and the Christian Socialists - were won over by the Czechoslovak government and agreed to cooperate with the Czechoslovak state.

Czechoslovakia was one of the few states in Europe between the two World Wars with a genuine parliamentary democracy (guaranteed by the Constitution of February 1920). Even the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (which had been established in 1921) was allowed to legally exist - which was very unusual for the time. The Communists even had a few members in parliament - and they were allowed to remain there even when they started to openly denounce democracy as such - and especially the democratic system in Czechoslovakia.

After dealing with post-war chaos, and putting down a few radical Bolshevist uprisings, the domestic political and economic situation in Czechoslovakia was basically stabilized by the beginning of the 1920s.

Although Czechoslovakia was the only east European country to remain a parliamentary democracy from 1918 to 1938, it was plagued with minority problems, the most important of which concerned the country's large German population. Constituting more than 22% of the interwar state's population and largely concentrated in the Bohemian and Moravian border regions (the Sudetenland with its capital Reichenberg / Liberec), members of this minority, including some who were sympathetic to Nazi Germany, undermined the new Czechoslovak state. Internal and external pressures culminated in September 1938, when France and the United Kingdom yielded to Nazi pressures at Munich and agreed to force Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland to Germany.

The economic crisis and the growing influence of the Nazi movement in Germany served to politicize the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia. On Hitler's orders, they called first for autonomy, then for secession from the Czechoslovak state. In the 1935 elections, both of the traditional German parties (the Agrarians and the Christian Socialists) experienced a monumental decline in voter support in favor of the Sudeten German Party. The Sudeten German Party, with 15.2 percent of the vote, became the largest German-interest political party in the Republic.

Tomas Garrigue Masaryk resigned from office in 1935 due to illness, and was succeeded by Edvard Benes. Benes, a National Socialist, had the misfortune to be a weak and ineffectual ruler during a particular turbulent time in the nation's history - much as the king Wenceslas IV had been in the Hussite period centuries before.

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