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Slovaks in Czechoslovakia (1918-1938)

This article is part of the article Czechoslovakia.

Whereas Czechs wished to create a Czechoslovak nation, Slovaks sought a federative republic in 1918. The new Czechoslovak republic ("First Republic"), with its predominantly Czech administrative apparatus, hardly responded to Slovak aspirations for autonomy. In the Slovak view, Czech domination had simply replaced Hungarian, since Czechs who were unable to find positions in Bohemia or Moravia took over local administrative and educational posts in Slovakia. Lingusitic similarity and geographic proximity proved to be an inadequate basis for a nation-state. A Lutheran minority of Slovaks (educated and influential in government) was generally sympathetic to the republic, but the Slovak Catholic clergy, the rural bourgeoisie, and the peasantry wanted autonomy. The Slovak Republic (1939-45) was, among other things, the culmination of Slovak discontent with Czech hegemony in the country's affairs (see The WWII Slovak Republic).

Political autonomy was a particularly grave issue for the Slovaks. In 1918 Masaryk had signed an agreement with American Slovaks in Pittsburgh, promising Slovak autonomy. The provisional National Assembly, however, agreed on the temporary need for centralized government to secure the stability of the new state. The Hlasists, centered on the journal Hlas, continued to favor the drawing together of Czechs and Slovaks. Although the Hlasists did not form a separate political party, they dominated Slovak politics in the early stages of the republic. The Hlasists' support of Prague's centralization policy was bitterly challenged by the Slovak Popular Party (see also Jozef Tiso). The party had been founded by a Catholic priest, Andrej Hlinka, in December 1918. Hlinka argued for Slovak autonomy both in the National Assembly and at the Paris Peace Conference. He made Slovak autonomy the cornerstone of his policy until his death in August 1938.

The Slovak Popular Party was Catholic in orientation and found its support among Slovak Catholics, many of whom objected to the secularist tendencies of the Czechs. Religious differences compounded secular problems. The Slovak peasantry had suffered hardships during the period of economic readjustment after the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire. Moreover, the apparent lack of qualified Slovaks had led to the importation of Czechs into Slovakia to fill jobs (formerly held by Hungarians) in administration, education, and the judiciary. Nevertheless, at the height of its popularity in 1925, the Slovak Popular Party polled only 32 percent of the Slovak vote, although Catholics constituted approximately 80 percent of the population. Then, in 1927, a modest concession by Prague granted Slovakia the status of a separate province, and the Slovak Popular Party joined the central government. Monsignor Jozef Tiso and Marko Gazlik from Slovakia were appointed to the cabinet.

Although Hlinka's objective was Slovak autonomy within a democratic Czechoslovak state, his party contained a more radical wing, led by Vojtech Tuka. From the early 1920s, Tuka maintained secret contacts with Austria, Hungary, and Hitler's National Socialists (Nazis). He set up the Rodobrana (semimilitary units) and published subversive literature. Tuka gained the support of the younger members of the Slovak Popular Party, who called themselves Nastupists, after the journal Nastup. Tuka's arrest and trial in 1929 precipitated the reorientation of Hlinka's party in a totalitarian direction. The Nastupists gained control of the party; the Slovak Popular Party resigned from the government. In subsequent years the party's popularity dropped slightly. In 1935 it polled 30 percent of the vote and again refused to join the government. In 1936 the party demanded a Czechoslovak alliance with Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. In September 1938, the party received instructions from Hitler to press its demands for Slovak autonomy.