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Czecho-Slovakia - Foreign Policy

Czechoslovakia based its foreign policy on its ally France, the strongest European state after the First World War. Three neighboring states - Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania - responded to the last Austrian Emperor Charles I's effort to assume power in Hungary by creating the so-called Little Entente defence alliance. Some statesmen optimistically viewed the Little Entente as the func- tional equivalent of a sixth major European power, at least in the diplomatic sphere. Just like its main ally France, Czechoslovakia also concluded a treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union.

The term Little Entente was originally derisive, being first applied by an Hungarian newspaper. Contemptuously it compared "the small and insignificant Little Entente as a ridiculous analogue of the Big Entente." However, the name stuck and was universally applied to those three nations, as it expressed so exactly the relations which existed between them for the common defense. The basis for the entente existed in three treaties, viz., between Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, between Czechoslovakia and Rumania and between Yugoslavia and Rumania. In all three the contracting parties agreed to assist each other in case "of an unprovoked attack" by Hungary, while Bulgaria is coupled with Hungary in the last-named treaty. Hungary was the bete noir of the Little Entente.

Remarkable strides were made by Czechoslovakia under the able leadership of President Masaryk and Foreign Minister Benesh. The Little Entente, and Czechoslovakia in particular, had considerable influence on the diplomatic relations of Europe, an influence would doubtless surprise most who think of Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany as deciding European affairs to their own liking. However, the Little Entente, considered as a unit, was no weakling, and in most affairs it acted as a unit. Furthermore, its relations with Poland were most cordial, and even with Austria in general. This mades a central European bloc of considerable power. Only on the question of the union of Austria with Germany did the Little Entente oppose the former, it was bitterly opposed to such action.

Eduard Benes, Czechoslovak foreign minister from 1918 to 1935, created the system of alliances that determined the republic's international stance in 1938. A democratic statesman of Western orientation, Benes relied heavily on the League of Nations as guarantor of the postwar status quo and the security of newly formed states. He negotiated the Little Entente (an alliance with Yugoslavia and Romania) in 1921 to counter Hungarian revanchism and Hapsburg restoration. He attempted further to negotiate treaties with Britain and France, seeking their promises of assistance in the event of aggression against the small, democratic Czechoslovak Republic. Britain remained intransigent in its isolationist policy, and in 1924 Benes concluded a separate alliance with France.

Benes's Western policy received a serious blow as early as 1925. The Locarno Pact, which paved the way for Germany's admission to the League of Nations, guaranteed Germany's western border. French troops were thus left immobilized on the Rhine, making French assistance to Czechoslovakia difficult. In addition, the treaty stipulated that Germany's eastern frontier would remain subject to negotiation.

Czechoslovakia's relations with its neighboring states - Germany, Hungary, and Poland - were complicated from the very start. In security matters, Czechoslovakia aligned itself with France and her partners in the Little Entente. France allied itself with the Little Entente of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia to protect the status quo.

When Hitler secured power in 1933, fear of German aggression became generalized in eastern Central Europe. Benes ignored the possibility of a stronger Central European alliance system, remaining faithful to his Western policy. He did, however, seek the participation of the Soviet Union in an alliance to include France. (Benes's earlier attitude toward the Soviet regime had been one of caution.) In 1935 the Soviet Union signed treaties with France and Czechoslovakia. In essence, the treaties provided that the Soviet Union would come to Czechoslovakia's aid only if French assistance came first.

A little entente 4-year plan was concluded in 1935 which provided for an exchange of goods between Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Yugoslavia, to open the way to an eventual customs union between those countries. An agreement on industrial property, between Czechoslovakia and Russia, effective April 15, 1935, provided for reciprocity in cases of unfair competition and in the protection of patents and trade marks.

In 1935 Benes succeeded Masaryk as president, and Prime Minister Milan Hodza took over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hodza's efforts to strengthen alliances in Central Europe came too late. In February 1936 the foreign ministry came under the direction of Kamil Krofta, an adherent of Benes's line.

A hostile Germany represented a deadly threat to Czechoslovakia. Consequently, it began preparing for its defense in the second half of the 1930s. It built border fortifications following France's example. But an effective defense was made more difficult not only by the length of the common borders with Germany and the geographical shape of the state, but also by the large German minority, an overwhelming proportion of whom inclined toward Nazism. They were represented by the Nazi and totalitarian Sudeten German Party led by Konrad Heinlein.

A P.E. teacher named Konrad Henlein was the leader of the Sudeten German Party, and he gradually became the mouthpiece of Nazi Germany in Czechoslovakia. His was a separatist platform aimed at joining the Czech border lands to Germany.

Nothing less than Czechoslovakia's sovereignty was at stake. But this did not interest many people outside of the small Czechoslovak state. France and Britain favored a policy of appeasement in response to Hitler's aggressive policy towards Czechoslovakia, and so Konrad Heinlein's wish came true in September, 1938 - when the four great powers of the time (Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy) decided, at a meeting in Munich, that extensive areas of the Czech border regions were to be ceded to Germany.

Shortly after the Munich Pact was signed, the Czech border regions were indeed joined with Germany. When Germany took the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938, it ended the anti-German Little Entente alliance of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania and pushed Yugoslavia closer to Bulgaria. Seizing this window of opportunity, Poland snapped up the Tesin region in the north, and Hungary annexed the southern part of Slovakia while Hungary captured Ruthenia. Overnight, Czechoslovakia lost about a third of its territory.

Fulfilling Hitler's aggressive designs on all of Czechoslovakia, Germany invaded what remained of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, establishing a German "protectorate." By this time, Slovakia had already declared independence and had become a puppet state of the Germans. Hitler's occupation of the Czech lands was a clear betrayal of the Munich Pact and still stirs passions in modern-day Czech society, but at the time it was met by muted resistance.

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