[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] From Trianon to the First Vienna Arbitral Award



Confrontations with the Representatives of the National Minorities

For twenty years, the Prague government excluded the elected representatives of national minorities from policy-making because they remained in opposition. Deals were made solely with fractional minority parties or subsections of Czech parties having bought up members of the minorities who were used as spokesmen for an entire ethnic group. The disregard for the interests of the nationalities dit not prove to be an adequate path in the promotion of the citizens' welfare. No political party received a clear majority during the existence of the first CSR, except the Sudeten Germans in 1935. They, as well as the other ethnic groups, were a proscribed nationality in the democracy of the Czechs. The strongest Sudeten German Party was not invited to participate in the government, although, according to rule of the parliamentary democracy, the strongest party must be invited to form the government. Perhaps the Czech Agrarian Party tried to change old practices in 1938 and suggest a new political strategy by moving to the right of centre in the government coalition. President Benes, and the coalition party leaders, caused political chaos by ignoring the majority representation of the nationalities in governing the country.

The rulers in Prague divided the minorities into two groups: deserving privileges or punishment. The privileged were those who accepted smaller or larger favours from the government. They increased the distrust of a large population segment in the government. For those few individuals a minority problem officially did not exist. The dissatisfied minorities, more than 509to of the population, waged a constant struggle with the overlords in Prague. The constitution secured rights for the minorities, but for twenty years those obligations were not met and the nationalities suffered significant losses in all walks of life. The dirigents of the republic missed an excellent opportunity in February 1937 to prove their goodwill


and accept responsibility for a just compromise with the nationalities when the activist minority politicians asked for reforms and concessions. The government in its first nationality plan made some significant promises to the oppressed millions. These promises contained the use of the languages of minorities in the pamphlets, on the information sheets and on some buildings of the national railways and post offices. For the minorities it meant that they would have been able to read, in their language, the promotional material for tourism or the names of some railway stations. The realization of promises would have meant for the Magyar minority that bilingual publications or inscriptions would have appeared in those communities where they formed 50% of the population, according to Czechoslovak statistics. For the Polish minority a 20% presence was promised in the new definition of the language rights. The demands of minorities went beyond inscriptions on railway stations which should have been there from the very beginning of the CSR's existence. Hungarians had a right to 24,000 positions in the national railway company and post offices based on their proportionate population, but only 7,000 Hungarians were employed by these state enterprises.(l)

There was widespread disappointment regarding the lack of seriousness in the approach of the government to urgently needed solutions of internal problems. The concern was expressed in a joint interview with the leaders of the autonomist opposition parties arranged by the managing editor of the "Slovak",Sidor, on Sunday, 27 February, 1938. Sidor was one of the leading deputies of the Slovak Populist Party. The invited, among them Esterhazy, deputy of the United Hungarian Party, Henlein for the Sudeten German Party and Pjescak for the Ruthenian Autonomous Agrarian Party, were ready to answer questions from reporters. One year had passed since the promised reforms of the government, however, the grievances of the minorities were not redressed. Slovak autonomists started the offensive in the press. In the year of the twentieth anniversary of the republic and of the signature of the Pittsburgh agreement, autonomy for Slovakia was not yet codified. All three opposition party leaders unanimously demanded autonomy for their minority groups, including a free national development guarantee in the constitution. Esterhazy emphasized the thousand-year old common fate and goals of the Slovaks and Magyars.(2) The government was supposed to have eased the harsh treatment of the Magyars since February 1937. In spite of the promises, exactly one year after the announcement of better prospects for the future, the gendarmerie harassed members of the United Hungarian Party in the town of Kiralyhelmec (Kralovsky Chlumec) who wanted to attend a meeting of the party by blockading the building and asking for personal identification cards from those intending to enter. Many of them were forced to leave the premises.(3) This occurrence along with similar incidents did not augur an era of undisturbed relations between the government and the minorities. Hodza still wanted to negotiate


through the activists, but it only served to aggravate the situation, internally and abroad. The neighbouring states could not watch with disinterest or indifference the manner their brethren were handled in the CSR. Internal tension grew incessantly, and the autonomist front, representing more than 50% of the population, was united in its demand. It was impossible to disregard the dissatisfaction of the autonomists; therefore, Prime Minister Hodza decided to negotiate with them neglecting consideration for the introduction of much needed reforms. The government wanted to sidestep the minority problem rather than solve it.

Confrontations with the Hungarian Minority

From the beginning of 1938, the Prime Minister was involved in endless negotiations with the representatives of the opposition parties, activist groups, foreign governments and with the members of his own cabinet, until his resignation from office in September of the same year, concerning the nationality issue. There were rectifications needed in many purposeful anti-Hungarian actions of the government. Prague was aware of the grievances: the colonization of Czech, Moravian and Slovak farmers on the land confiscated from Hungarians and settling them among totally Hungarian villages; the forced denationalization; the anti-Hungarian school policy; the economic weakening of the Magyar minority; the deception in public opinion by misleading propaganda and the generally dishonest use of political means for maintaining a distorted image of the real face of Czechoslovak democracy. It was a great mistake on the part of the politicians in power to attempt the creation of a national state from a typical state of nationalities. There were very few counties in the CSR where the language spoken by the various nationalities could not be heard. Hungarian political leaders informed the Prime Minister that they had a solidarity feeling with the Slovaks and other autonomists but they assumed their responsibility and were willing to negotiate with the government. An amended constitution could afford the Hungarian minority compensation for sufferings and grievances since the foundation of the republic. The latest offer for the extension of the language law to the inscriptions on some railway stations and post offices was not a satisfactory reform for the Hungarian opposition. The Magyars wanted to find the way to their prosperity in the CSR. They were the autochtonous population in Slovakia, and were not the result of assimilation or Magyarization.(4) Esterhazy, Jaross and Szullo were the three leaders who were invited by Benes, as Foreign Minister in 1935, and their votes were solicited for their support in the presidential election in exchange for promises eventually not honoured.

On 12 January, 1938 Jaross presented the demands of the United Hungarian Party in the Chamber of Deputies in Prague. On 5 April he presented thbm again in 12 points, demanding equal rights for the Magyar minority, reparation of damages since 1918 caused in


the administration of justice, citizenship procedures, public administration, language laws, educational policy, census, and demanded autonomy for Slovakia and Ruthenia.(5) But the aim of the Czechs remained the denationalization of the Hungarians under their rule, the destruction of their national conscience, the impairment of their economic, political and cultural forces. For twenty years the Hungarians resisted the powerful pressure of the Czechoslovak government.

On 31 March, 1938, the deputies of the United Hungarian Party issued a manifesto calling for unity and solidarity among the Hungarians of the republic. They asked Magyar farmers, workers, tradesmen, public employees and university graduates to join a camp of courageous warriors for rightful Magyar demands.(6) That manifesto of the members of the Czechoslovak Parliament was confiscated in several counties. It happened not long after the meeting of those deputies with the Prime Minister for finding the path for improved relations between the two sides. There was a lack of sincerity on the part of the government. Its action was a bluff for internal consumption. In the same days, Hodza granted an interview to the foreign correspondent of the Paris Soir(7) demonstrating to the French that he was negotiating with the opposition on the solution of the problems, and wanted to save the state from a permanent crisis. The legitimate demands of the nationalities in the cultural and linguistic fields or in the proportionality of state employment, and economic advantages could be met within the framework of the liberal, democratic Czechoslovak constitution. The same reporter questioned the Sudeten German leader, Henlein, who intimated that the Sudeten Germans would like to assume responsibility in the leadership of the republic by becoming members of a government together with the Czechs and Slovaks. For this reason they asked for administrative and financial autonomy, and proportionality in public offices.

These were nice words from the Prime Minister, but the mortgages for capital levy and on the lands designated for confiscation by the Land Office had still not been released. Hungarian proprietors did not dispose freely of their holdings after twenty years of waiting. Another step was characteristic of the weaknesses and sinister intentions of the government. In May and June of 1938, communal elections were held in the CSR. Already on 1 April, the Minister of Interior ordered the ban on all public and political meetings based on the decision of the government. The pretext was given for not disturbing the prevailing tone of the 20th year of jubilee. The real cause can be discovered in preventing the political parties from presenting their platform and program to the electors. Detailed information was sent to appropriate law enforcement agencies before the dates of communal elections were made public. Only the presidium of the political parties could conduct confidential meetings. Even such meetings were controlled by the police. A list containing the names of persons present had to be signed, and identification


cards shown; the police obtained the name and address of every participant.(8) This kind of dictatorial method had been employed by the government against rival political parties. The government could not, and did not find remedies for the grievances of minorities without changing its policy. At the 1935 presidential election, confidence was given by the Hungarian opposition parties in advance to Benes in exchange for his promises of a just minority policy. They were disappointed with his performance as president. Nothing transpired, only small, insignificant actions. Three years later the CSR got into a very difficult political situation. The government of a state full of nationalities was thoroughly cognisant of the minority demands, but wanted to oppress them indefinitely and deprive them of their rights and remain unpunished.

In the April 8 issue of the Pragai Magyar Hirlap, the official newspaper of the Magyar opposition, the speech of deputy Jaross delivered three days earlier in the Chamber of Deputies was summarized. The United Hungarian Party demanded a change in the internal and external political orientation of the government: emancipation and autonomy for all nations in the republic, compensation to the Hungarians for all losses caused to date by inequality before the law; in the regions where Hungarians lived hiring of civil servants in proportion to the population, and where they formed the majority, the direction should be in Magyar hands; in Magyar language schools and other institutions of education, officials should be elected by the population, the demanded Hungarian schools should be opened and the schools of the Slouenska Liga in purely Hungarian regions should be removed because they had been established there to serve denationalization; freeing the agricultural production from the restrictions of the state monopolies and assuring of its competitiveness by customs agreements; the Czech, Moravian and Slovak colonies and residual properties in the Hungarian language belt should be distributed among Hungarian farmers; the establishment of the minimum salaries should be introduced; Hungarian workers should be protected by restricting the hiring of others than unemployed Hungarians; the use of Hungarian tradesmen in public works and a system of compensation for dismissed Hungarian public servants and pensioners; further demands were: establishment of national cadastres in every community for securing a complete equality among all nationalities, passing laws for the punishment of denationalization, autonomy for Slovakia and Ruthenia, termination of the military alliance with the Soviet Union and political agreements with the neighbouring countries. The efforts of all the nations of the republic should be used for the preservation of the state.(9)

At the end of March the Czech Narodni Politika published an editorial in a similar tone.(10) It stated that nothing else was left but to acknowledge the failure of activism and to review the demands of the Sudeten Germans, whether they were compatible with the sovereignty of the state. It was important for all citizens, regardless of


their language to feel satisfied in the common fatherland and not to give them reason to look over the borders. In spite of such rare Czech voices, tempers were very high in those months, and incidents easily erupted over the most innoeent comments made in public places or in the streets. People were detained by the police on the basis of Law No. 20, paragraph 2, which said: "Those who ridicule the name of the republic, its crest, its flag or the picture of the President or damage or remove them in order to lower the dignity of the republic or of the president of the republic, are punishable for that offense with a jail sentence from eight days to six months."(ll) Under those conditions it was dangerous even to talk aloud in the streets or at public gatherings.

In such a charged atmosphere it should have been wise for the government to announce as soon as possible the promised nationality statute. It was delayed because the government was helpless and indecisive concerning the contents of the proposed concessions to the minorities. Advice was sought through diplomatic channels in Paris and London. In the CSR the interested parties did not yet know anything of the reforms in the making; however, the London Times on 4 May (12) already had inside information concerning the main points of the nationality statute: change in the language law, that German would be recognized as equivalent with the Czech and Slovak languages; the recognition of cultural autonomy for all nationalities with its own budget; introduction of the languages of ethnic groups in cultural and educational matters; public service jobs in proportion to all ethnic groups; ombudsman for the enforcement of the language law. It was felt that the government could not postpone the negotiations with the nationalities for a long time. The United Hungarian Party handed to the Prime Minister on 9 March --that is prior to Henlein's proclamation of this eight Karlsbad points--the demands of the Hungarian minority elaborated in detail in eighty-one points. The memorandum contained the legal, cultural and economic grievances of the Hungarian population. In the view of the Hungarian deputies, the problem could be solved only by the revision of the constitution.(13) They demanded the participation of all nations of the republic in the work of the new constituent assembly which was not the case in 1918. On the economic front the memorandum demanded a Hungarian management of financial institutions, credit unions, the rebuilding of the dismantled industrial enterprises in the Magyar regions, a Hungarian agricultural chamber, a wheat board, reinstating the Hungarian landowners in their properties, urgent regulation of rivers, including the systematic dredging of the Danube, 10 million Kc for land improvement, change in railway tariffs for making the agricultural and industrial products of Slovakia competitive with those of the Czech historic lands.(l4) The United Hungarian Party tried to obtain rehabilitation for the two-decade-old grievances. The Sudeten German Party took note of the Hungarian memorandum with Henlein asking Esterhazy for closer cooperation on 9 April, after the Sudeten


leader's visit to Hodza.(5) Since 1935, Henlein had made several trips to London. The British also wanted to obtain information from the original Hungarian source on the nationality problem in the CSR. The Hungarian Committee of the House of Commons invited two Hungarian deputies of the Prague Parliament, Geza Szullo and Andor Jaross, for a visit to London.(16) A list of the grievances and demands of the Hungarian minority was presented and explained to the British policy-makers leaving little doubt on the urgency of internal reforms in the CSR. The visit took place in June because of communal elections at the end of May.(17)

The British government was examining the possibility and necessity of sending an observer to the critical territory. During the end of May and beginning of June, the British and French newspapers were reporting the travels of William Strang, chief of the Central European section of the British Foreign Office, to Paris, Berlin and Prague. London wanted to contact the interested and involved parties by sending their officials and members of the Parliament to the CSR and to her neighbours, and inviting the representatives of the national minorities from the CSR to London to explain the causes of their grievances and the reasons for their demands. Prague was in the forefront of international interest, and Benes could not remain silent in such a situation. He granted an interview to the French newspaper L'Ordre,(l8) in which he pronounced that the Czechs could face most grave oonsequences if they were not determined to apply necessary measures resulting in internal and externel peace. The people would accept the fulfillment of those demands which were compatible with national security but would not cede any national territory to foreign governments without erecting brave defence. The Czech people had more confidence in their allies than in their nationalities but unexpected news started to pour in the CSR. Aocording to the information of the Prager Presse(l9) a message was sent to Prague from Paris through ambassador Osusky urging the most liberal statutes to the Sudeten Germans. This was emphasized since the government refused the eight Karlsbad points of Henlein after their proclamation in April. The French were afraid of provoking a crisis by Czech intransigence and wanted to advise caution and flexibility. It was difficult for the Czechs to accept the idea of satisfying the demands of the nationalities. In pre-war Hungary there was an autonomous county system for internal administration but it was changed in Slovakia, and an administrative monster was created throughout the republic. The counties elected their own officials. In the CSR the autonomists had asked for it, too. Prime Minister Hodza, at the end of June 1938, decided to receive the leaders of the opposition parties at an audience including the Sudeten Germans, the Slovak autonomists, the Poles, the Ruthenians and the Hungarians. On 29 June the Polish opposition handed over the memorandum of the committee of Polish parties, and on the same day the Hungarian representatives were received by the Prime

Minister. The official press release read: "On June 29 at 11:00 a.m. at


the invitation of Dr. Milan Hodza, Prime Minister, on behalf of the United Hungarian Party Dr. Geza Szullo, Andor Jaross, Janos Esterhazy and Dr. Endre Korlath, members of Parliament, appeared at the Prime Minister's offlce. The Prime Minister was briefed on the written memorandum of the party, delivered some time ago, and on the implementation of the basic principles expressed in it. The members of the legislation had an occasion to inform the Prime Minister in detail of the vital requests of the Hungarians in Czechoslovakia."(20) The Prime Minister did not say anything to the representatives of the five ethnic groups regarding the nationality statute in preparation. This attitude of the government added to the uncertainty of the problem. The word "statute" was constantly used instead of "legislation" or "changes in the constitution." In other words, there were plans for lesser changes only through ordinances and not by legislation. The problem of the minorities could have been solved only by changes in the constitution which would have clearly spelled out equality before the law of all nationalities. Only such recognition would have ended the existing discrepancies and inequalities concerning the rights of citizens. There were no provisions in the constitution for the use of government statutes. Perhaps an order in council would have been equivalent to a statute, but in that case, the word statute would only have camouflaged the insincere intentions of the government. The interests and legal status of the minorities short of legislative changes would have been exposed to the caprices of governments and the composition of the Parliament. Rights ought to be secured in a constitution. The leaders of the nationalities had every reason to doubt the good intentions of the government when they saw the unnecessary delays in the publication of reforms concerning their fate. Such tactics would only serve to make permanent their lasting oppression in the democracy of the Czechs. On 20 July, Hodza received again the leaders of the United Hungarian Party, and outlined the planned Bills for the next parliamentary session. It suggested that the government had some legislation in preparation. For the following weeks, the Prime Minister indicated the completion of the definite text of the reforms, language law, and plans for autonomy. The Hungarian representatives could not comment on unknown bills, and asked for the remedy of the grievances by legislation.(2l) The government's obstruction was obvious because the voluminous material of the proposals had to be studied before being presented to Parliament which, at that time, was on summer vacation. This meant that the government wanted to postpone the presentation of the bills to Parliament until fall and to gain time in avoiding an embarrassing confrontation with the minority leaders which would reveal the real face of the Czechoslovak democracy. The Czechs were not able to free themselves from the troubles caused by the creation of the republic. The problem became more and more burning daily. There was feverish diplomatic action in the background, and Prague was waiting for the outcome of such diplomatic bustling. The intervention


of the great powers was a possibility in the case of a deadlock in the direct negotiations between the interested parties.(22) A proposal was made by the German ambassador in Britain that an international conference should deal with the Czechoslovak problem. It should consist of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. It would mediate between the government and the Sudeten Germans. France first approved the plan for a four-power conference, later disapproved it, stating that such an international conference would meet the opposition of the USSR, Poland and the Little Entente.(23) Behind the internal problems of the CSR there were international bargainings which grew to proportions too large for an undisturbed internal agreement. Benes, Hodia and the coalition government showed their unwillingness toward eliminating the conflict by understanding the minority demands. This could be the only reason for the inexplicable retardation of government proposals for months in lieu of confronting their proposals with boldness to the opposition. The British press, time and again, hinted in competent diplomatic circles for an international mediation with the participation of Prague, Berlin, London, Paris and Rome.(24) Britian did not want to be involved in armed conflict on behalf of a malfunctioning Czechoslovak government. London was rather willing to convoke an international conference of those parties which were interested in the Czechoslovak problem. Chamberlain announced, in the House of Commons, that Lord Runciman had been asked to play a role in the Sudeten German dispute with the consent of the quarelling parties. The mediator would consider the views of all the minorities.(25)

By the end of July, the long awaited nationalities statute, or the second plan of the four plans, which were produced hurriedly before the beginning of September, was completed. Parts of it were released very slowly through some ostensible leaks to the press. It contained arrangements of the decentralization of the government between the capital city and the provinces. The provincial assemblies would be transformed into Parliaments with some restricted legislative power. Within these Parliaments, there would be national curiae for the management of certain nationality affairs. Grievances would belong to the jurisdiction of distinct councils in each province. The nationality statute contained the minority laws in force, and proposals taken from the memoranda of the minorities were added to them. There was a suggestion, for example, for protection against denationalization and political intimidation. These crimes would be punishable with maximum imprisonment of five years. The principle of proportionality would be gradually enforced in the public service, public works and budget. The interests of the minorities would be looked after in the administration, agriculture, commerce, social services, cooperatives and education. County school boards would be divided according to the languages spoken by the population. The percentage granting the use of the language of minorities in the public administration and courts would be lowered


below 20% but the proportion was not yet determined.(26) In the following days, there were additional leaks to the press. The newer particularities of the plan reaffirmed the principle of equality before the law for all citizens. The nationality statute represented but a framework which had to be filled along the process of negotiations with the desired contents. The plan repeated some of the paragraphs in the constitution and added to them provisions for peace among the nationalities. The adherence to a minority was to be determined by the mother tongue which could be changed at the age of 18 by a declaration to the county administration. The proportional employment of all nationalities did not apply to the gendarmerie, police, customs police, army, army suppliers, air defence system, state plants, railways, post offices nor to the employment in mines.(27) The chief of staff declared that the nationality code could not be observed in the army, in the border fortresses, defence production, commissioned and non-commissioned officer corps. The army had two conditions for employment: trustworthiness and knowledge of the official language. With this declaration, the chief of staff inadvertently admitted that the soldiers enlisted from the minorities were not reliable.

The Hungarian opposition party kept pressuring the government for more concessions, and on 24 July deputy Szullo demanded selfdetermination for the Hungarian minority.(28) In Stockholm, Szullo represented the Hungarian minority of the CSR at the congress of national minorities, called for the study of the problem of ethnic groups. The representatives had a common goal, namely, the preservation of ethnic culture and economic power. It was emphasized at the meeting that the League of Nations, which was entrusted with the enforcement of international treaties for the protection of minorities, became the greatest adversary of the protection. It appears, therefore, that between 1929 and 1935, from the 852 submitted grievances, only two emerged to the stage of ruling. The problem of the national minorities in Europe could be solved only with the extension of human rights, not with concessions and treaties.(29)

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] From Trianon to the First Vienna Arbitral Award