Czechoslovakia (Československo) was a sovereign state in Central Europe that existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until its peaceful dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993.
The area was long a part of the Austro Hungarian Empire until the Empire collapsed at the end of World War I. The new state was founded by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937), who served as its first president from November 14, 1918, to December 14, 1935. He was succeeded by his close ally, Edvard Beneš (1884–1948).
The roots of Czech nationalism go back to the nineteenth century, when philologists and educators, influenced by Romanticism, promoted the Czech language and pride in the Czech people. Nationalism became a mass movement in the last half of the ninteteenth century. Taking advantage of the opportunities for limited participation in political life available under the Austrian rule, Czech leaders such as historian František Palacký (1798–1876) founded many patriotic, self-help organizations which provided a chance for many of their compatriots to participate in communal life prior to independence. Palacký supported Austroslavism and worked for a reorganized and federal Austrian Empire, which would protect the Slavic speaking peoples of Central European against Russian and German threats.
An advocate of democratic reform and Czech autonomy within Austria-Hungary, Masaryk was elected twice to Reichsrat (Austrian Parliament), the first time being from 1891 to 1893 in the Young Czech Party and again from 1907 to 1914 in the Czech Realist Party, which he founded in 1889 with Karel Kramář and Josef Kaizl.
During World War I small numbers of Czechs, the Czechoslovak Legions, fought with the Allies in France and Italy, while large numbers deserted to Russia, in exchange for their support for the independence of Czechoslovakia from the Austrian Empire. With the outbreak of World War I, Masaryk began working for Czech independence in union with Slovakia. With Edvard Beneš and Milan Rastislav Štefánik, Masaryk visited several Western countries and won support from influential publicists.
Bohemia and Moravia, under Austrian rule, were Czech-speaking industrial centres, while Slovakia, which was part of Hungary, was an undeveloped agrarian region. Conditions were much better for the development of a mass national movement in the Czech lands than in Slovakia. Nevertheless, the two regions united and created a new nation.
The Bohemian Kingdom ceased to exist in 1918 when it was incorporated into Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was founded in October 1918, as one of the successor states of Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I and as part of the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It consisted of the present day territories of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia. Its territory included some of the most industrialized regions of the former Austria-Hungary.
The new country was a multi-ethnic state. The population consisted of Czechs (51%), Slovaks (16%), Germans (22%), Hungarians (5%) and Rusyns (4%). Many of the Germans, Hungarians, Ruthenians and Poles and some Slovaks, felt oppressed because the political elite did not generally allow political autonomy for minority ethnic groups. This policy, combined with increasing Nazi propaganda especially in the industrialized German-speaking Sudetenland, led to unrest among the non-Czech population.
The state proclaimed the official ideology that there are no Czechs and Slovaks, but only one nation of Czechoslovaks, to the disagreement of Slovaks and other ethnic groups. Once a unified Czechoslovakia was restored after World War II (after the country had been divided during the war), the conflict between the Czechs and the Slovaks surfaced again. The governments of Czechoslovakia and other eastern European nations deported ethnic Germans to the West, reducing the presence of minorities in the nation. Most of the Jews had been killed during the war by the Nazis and their allies.
During the period between the two world wars, democracy thrived in Czechoslovakia. Of all the new states established in central Europe after 1918, only Czechoslovakia preserved a democratic government until the war broke out. The persistence of democracy suggests that Czechoslovakia was better prepared to maintain democracy than were other countries in the region. Thus, despite regional disparities, its level of development was much higher than that of neighboring states. The population was generally literate, and contained fewer alienated groups. The influence of these conditions was augmented by the political values of Czechoslovakia’s leaders and the policies they adopted. Under Tomas Masaryk, Czech and Slovak politicians promoted progressive social and economic conditions that served to defuse discontent.
The failure of Austrian authority in 1918 affected all aspects of life in Czechoslovakia, including the postal service, which did not even operate in large cities. In Prague, a local post was operated by scouts under the control of the Revolutionary Council.
During the occupation of part of northern Hungary by the Czechoslovak forces, stamps of Hungary were overprinted CESKO SLOVENSKA POSTA and SLOVENSKA POSTA and arms. These stamps were never officially issued although copies did pass through the post.
By 1919, the postal service began to return to normal and general issues appeared. Stocks of Austrian stamps found in the post offices were privately overprinted for sale in Czechoslovakia with ČESKOSLOVENSKA REPUBLIKA, a lion and ČESKO SLOVENSKY STAT, PROVISORNI ČESKOSLOVENSKA VLADA and arms, or ČESKOSLOVENSKA STATNI POSTA and arms. These were sold at a premium of 50% over the face value to support various charities but were purely local issues. A few of them passed through the post but all have been pronounced unofficial and unauthorized by the Postmaster General.
The first official postage stamps were issued in October 1918, portraying Hradčany Castle in Prague with the sun symbolically rising behind it is synonymous with the birth of the new state. However, the sun does not actually rise behind the castle. The stamps were designed by graphic designer Alphonse Mucha, an exponent of Art Nouveau living in Prague, chosen from the more than ten submitted designs. Mucha’s reason for choosing the castle motif was because:
“Every nation has a palladium of its own embodying past and future history. Ever since my boyhood I felt and saw in the architectural lines of St. Vitus Cathedral built so close to the castle, a powerful interpretation of our national symbol. I could, therefore, select no other subject for my design then Hradčany Castle and the surrounding architecture of the Middle Ages.”
The issue comes in two distinct sets with thirty-seven different stamps that can be classified by five different types. The words Pošta Česko-Slovenská are arranged around the two sides and top of the first set (Scott #1-20) while on the second set Česko-Slovenská is in one line under the main castle design (Scott #23-53). The different types show slight variations in the design but several errors exist that include plate faults and flaws as well as different printing plates. Fewer variations exist in succeeding issues because the Ministry of Posts’ designers, engravers and print mills improved their skills with experience.
The first of several stamps illustrate Thomas Masaryk, the country’s first president, followed in 1920 with three denominations of 125 haleru, 500 haleru and 1000 haleru designed by Max Švabinský (Scott #61-63). That year also saw two allegorical sets issued showing a stylized carrier pigeon in six values and referred to by some as Dove stamps (Scott #65-67 and #82-86), while the ten denominations of The Chainbreaker, symbolizing the country, shows a woman breaking free from the chain of bondage (Scott #68-73 and #87-91). Both these sets also exist in tête-bêche pairs due to a booklet printing plate layout proposed by a private company who were going to use the gutter for advertising as well as pay the printing costs. However, even though the stamps had been printed, the booklet deal never happened.
During World War I, many Czech and Slovak soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army surrendered to the Russians. After the war, 70,000 of these men were formed into the Czech Legion in Siberia, which joined the Allies against the Bolsheviks. Stamps for the military post were issued during 1919 1920 and were also available on the Trans-Siberian Railway, though the latter were souvenirs which served no postal purpose.
In 1920, Czechoslovak stamps were overprinted S O 1920 for use in Cieszyn Silesia, an area disputed between Czechoslovakia and Poland. Polish stamps were overprinted S.O. 1920.
Foreign minister Beneš became the prime architect of the Czechoslovak-Romanian-Yugoslav alliance (the “Little Entente”, 1921–38) directed against Hungarian attempts to reclaim lost areas. Beneš worked closely with France. Far more dangerous was the German element, which after 1933 became allied with the Nazis in Germany. After 1933, Czechoslovakia remained the only democracy in central and eastern Europe.
In 1938, Adolf Hitler demanded control of the Sudetenland. Britain and France ceded control in the Appeasement at the Munich Conference, ignoring the military alliance Czechoslovakia had with France. First, in October 1938, Nazi Germany occupied and annexed the Sudetenland border region. In March 1939, the remainder (“rump”) of Czechoslovakia was invaded and divided into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the puppet Slovak State. Much of Slovakia and all of Carpathian Ruthenia were annexed by Hungary. Poland occupied Zaolzie, an area whose population was majority Polish, in October 1938.
Slovakia declared full independence on March 14, 1939, and, on the same day, Germany marched into Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia remained an independent stamp-issuing territory under German dependence and control until 1945. A German Protectorate was in force over Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech areas of Czechoslovakia, between March 16, 1939, and May 8, 1945. Over 100 stamps were issued including definitive and commemorative issues, charity stamps, newspaper stamps and official stamps. After May 1945 regular issues of Czechoslovakia resumed.
The eventual goal of the German state under Nazi leadership was to eradicate Czech nationality through assimilation, deportation, and extermination of the Czech intelligentsia; the intellectual elites and middle class made up a considerable number of the 200,000 people who passed through concentration camps and the 250,000 who died during German occupation. Under Generalplan Ost, it was assumed that around 50% Czechs would be fit for Germanization. The Czech intellectual elites were to be removed not only from Czech territories but from Europe completely. Just like Jews, Poles, Serbs, and several other nations, Czechs were considered to be untermenschen by the Nazi state. In 1940, in a secret Nazi plan for the Germanization of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia it was declared that those considered to be of racially Mongoloid origin and the Czech intelligentsia were not to be Germanized and about half of the Czech population were suitable for Germanization.
The deportation of Jews to concentration camps was organized under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich, and the fortress town of Terezín was made into a ghetto way station for Jewish families. On June 4, 1942 Heydrich died after being wounded by an assassin in Operation Anthropoid. Heydrich’s successor, Colonel General Kurt Daluege, ordered mass arrests and executions and the destruction of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky. In 1943, the German war effort was accelerated. Under the authority of Karl Hermann Frank, German minister of state for Bohemia and Moravia, some 350,000 Czech laborers were dispatched to the Reich. Within the protectorate, all non-war-related industry was prohibited. Most of the Czech population obeyed quiescently up until the final months preceding the end of the war, while thousands were involved in the resistance movement.
For the Czechs of the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia, German occupation was a period of brutal oppression. Czech losses resulting from political persecution and deaths in concentration camps totaled between 36,000 and 55,000. The Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia (118,000 according to the 1930 census) was virtually annihilated. Many Jews emigrated after 1939; more than 70,000 were killed; 8,000 survived at Terezín. Several thousand Jews managed to live in freedom or in hiding throughout the occupation. Despite the estimated 136,000 deaths at the hands of the Nazi regime, the population in the Reichsprotektorate saw a net increase during the war years of approximately 250,000 in line with an increased birth rate.
On May 3, 1945, the third US Army of General Patton entered Pilsen from the south west. On May 9, 1945, Soviet Red Army troops entered Prague.
After World War II, pre-war Czechoslovakia was re-established, with the exception of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, which was annexed by the Soviet Union and incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The reconstituted republic issued its first stamps in 1945 portraying linden leaves and buds very similar to wartime issues by Bohemia and Moravia (Scott #256A-262) as well as another Masaryk set (Scott #262A-265) and stamps picturing the national coat of arms (Scott #266-271A). Normal postal services were quickly resumed. However, many of the Czech partisan groups were pro-Russian and this is reflected in the early post-war stamps before the exiled government returned.
The Beneš decrees were promulgated concerning ethnic Germans and ethnic Hungarians. Under the decrees, citizenship was abrogated for people of German and Hungarian ethnic origin, who had accepted German or Hungarian citizenship during the occupations. In 1948, this provision was cancelled for the Hungarians, but only partially for the Germans. The government then confiscated the property of the Germans and expelled about 90% of the ethnic German population, over 2 million people. Those who remained were collectively accused of supporting the Nazis after the Munich Agreement, as 97.32% of Sudeten Germans voted for the NSDAP in the December 1938 elections. Almost every decree explicitly stated that the sanctions did not apply to antifascists. Some 250,000 Germans, many married to Czechs, some antifascists, and also those required for the post-war reconstruction of the country, remained in Czechoslovakia. The Beneš Decrees still causes controversy among nationalist groups in the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria and Hungary.
Carpathian Ruthenia (Podkarpatská Rus) was occupied by (and in June 1945 formally ceded to) the Soviet Union. In the 1946 parliamentary election, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was the winner in the Czech lands, and the Democratic Party won in Slovakia. In February 1948, the Communists seized power. Although they would maintain the fiction of political pluralism through the existence of the National Front, except for a short period in the late 1960’s (the Prague Spring) the country was characterized by the absence of liberal democracy.
Since citizens lacked significant electoral methods of registering protest against government policies, periodically there were street protests that became violent. Such was the case in the town of Plzeň, where riots occurred in 1953, reflecting economic discontent. Police and army units put down the rebellion, and hundreds were injured but no one was killed. While its economy remained more advanced than those of its neighbors in Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia grew increasingly economically weak relative to Western Europe.
In 1968, when the reformer Alexander Dubček was appointed to the key post of First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, there was a brief period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring. In response, after failing to persuade the Czechoslovak leaders to change course, five other Eastern Bloc members of the Warsaw Pact invaded.
Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on the night of August 20-21, 1968. The General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev viewed this intervention as vital to the preservation of the Soviet, socialist system and vowed to intervene in any state that sought to replace Marxism-Leninism with capitalism. In the week after the invasion there was a spontaneous campaign of civil resistance against the occupation. This resistance involved a wide range of acts of non-cooperation and defiance. This was followed by a period in which the Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership, having been forced in Moscow to make concessions to the Soviet Union, gradually put the brakes on their earlier liberal policies.
In April 1969, Dubček was finally dismissed from the First Secretaryship of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Meanwhile, one plank of the reform program had been carried out: in 1968-69, Czechoslovakia was turned into a federation of the Czech Socialist Republic and Slovak Socialist Republic. The theory was that under the federation, social and economic inequities between the Czech and Slovak halves of the state would be largely eliminated. A number of ministries, such as education, now became two formally equal bodies in the two formally equal republics. However, the centralized political control by the Czechoslovak Communist Party severely limited the effects of federalization.
The 1970’s saw the rise of the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia, represented among others by Václav Havel. The movement sought greater political participation and expression in the face of official disapproval, manifested in limitations on work activities, which went as far as a ban on professional employment, the refusal of higher education for the dissidents’ children, police harassment and prison.
In 1989, the Velvet Revolution restored democracy. This occurred at around the same time as the fall of communism in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland. Within three years communist rule was extirpated from Europe. Unlike Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the end of communism in Czechoslovakia did not automatically mean the end of the “communist” name; the word “socialist” was removed from the name on March 29, 1990 and replaced by “federal”.
In 1992, because of growing nationalist tensions in the government, Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved by parliament. On January 1, 1993, it formally separated into two independent countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The last stamp of Czechoslovakia was issued on December 18, 1992, to mark the annual Stamp Day (Scott #2876). The Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue continues numbering the Czech Republic immediately following the issues of Czechoslovakia. The first stamp of the Czech Republic was issued on January 20, 1993, portraying the national coat of arms (Scott #2877). The 1939-1945 issues of Slovakia as well as its stamps from 1993 to the present are listed in Volume 5 of the Scott catalogue.
Scott #1413 was issued on August 29, 1966, to publicize the town of Jáchymov where pitchblende was first discovered. The town is known as the “cradle of the atomic age.” The 60 halaru stamp, printed in black and red using a combination of engraving and photogravure, is perforated 11½.
I am quite familiar with Jáchymov due to its previous (until 1945) German name of Sankt Joachimsthal or simply Joachimsthal, having discovered its similarity to my family name of Jochim at a very young age. I’d dabbled in coin collecting for a while and first came across references to the town (the German name means “Saint Joachim’s Valley”) when reading about the origins of the thaler which later gave its name to the dollar. Etymologically, Thal is German for “valley” — a “thaler” is a person or a thing “from the valley”. The Czech spelling was tolar; many varieties of the term are used in different languages. In the 1902 spelling reform, the German spelling was changed from Thal and Thaler to Tal and Taler, which however did not affect the spelling of “thaler” in English.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, silver had been found in the area of Joachimsthal. The exploitation of this valuable resource caused the place to grow rapidly, and made the Counts von Schlick, whose possessions included the town, one of the richest noble families in Bohemia. The Schlicks had coins minted, which were called Joachimsthalers. The 1525 Joachimsthaler of the Kingdom of Bohemia was the first thaler. Joachim, the father of the Virgin Mary, was portrayed on the obverse of the coin while the reverse side features the Bohemian lion from the kingdom’s coat of arms and the name of King Ludovicus. In the seventeenth century, some Joachimsthalers were in circulation in the Tsardom of Russia, where they were called yefimok (ефимок) — a distortion of the first half of the name.
In 1523, the Protestant Reformation began. The fame of Joachimsthal for its ore mining and smelting works attracted the scientific attention of the doctor Georg Bauer (better known by the Latin form of his name, Georgius Agricola) in the late 1520’s, who based his pioneering metallurgical studies on his observations made here.
In the Schmalkaldic War (1546–47) Joachimsthal was occupied for a time by Saxon troops. In 1621, when the Counter-reformation and re-Catholicization took effect in the town, many Protestant citizens and people from the mountains migrated to nearby Saxony.
Until 1918, the town of Joachimsthal was in the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, head of the district with the same name, one of the 94 Bezirkshauptmannschaften in Bohemia. In the nineteenth century the town was also the location of a court, and of an administrative office responsible for mines and iron production. Mining was still significant during this period. It was run partly by state-owned and partly by privately-owned firms. In addition to silver ore (of which in 1885 227 zentners [11.35 tonnes] were produced), nickel, bismuth and uranium ore were also extracted. There were also other industries: an enormous tobacco factory employed 1,000 women. In addition, there was the manufacture of gloves and corks and of bobbin lace. The town almost entirely burnt down on March 31, 1873.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Marie Curie discovered, in tons of pitchblende ore containing uraninite from Joachimsthal, the element radium, for which she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Until the First World War this was the only known source of radium in the world. The first radon spa in the world was founded in Joachimsthal in 1906, joining the famous spas of the region, like Karlsbad, Franzensbad, Marienbad. In 1929, Dr Löwy of Prague established that “mysterious emanations” in the mine led to a form of cancer. Ventilation and watering measures were introduced, miners were given higher pay and longer vacations, but death rates remained high.
In 1938, Joachimsthal was annexed by Germany as one of the municipalities in Sudetenland. The German-speaking population was expelled in 1945 and replaced by Czech settlers. The name was changed to the current Jáchymov.
After the Communist party took control of Czechoslovakia in 1948, large prison camps were established in the town and around it. Opponents of the new regime were forced to mine uranium ore under very harsh conditions: the average life expectancy in Jáchymov during this period was 42 years. Uranium mining ceased in 1964. The radioactive thermal springs which arise in the former uranium mine are used under the supervision of doctors for the treatment of patients with nervous and rheumatic disorders. They make use of the constantly produced radioactive gas radon (²²²Rn) dissolved in the water.
Currently, the spa town is in the Karlovy Vary Region of Bohemia, part of the Czech Republic. It is situated at an altitude of 2,405 feet (733 meters) above sea level in the eponymous St. Joachim’s Valley in the Ore Mountains, close to the Czech border with Germany. Not far from here, at the foot of the Plešivec, once stood the Capuchin monastery Mariasorg (Mariánská) but it burnt to the ground in the 1950’s. From the valley of the Veseřice, a chairlift goes to the highest peak in the Ore Mountains, the 1244-meter high Klínovec.