On New Year’s Day 1993, Czechoslovakia broke into two separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Thus ended one of the creations brought about by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, and as a country that had existed for just under 75 years, Czechoslovakia spent most of its time under the tyranny of fascism or communism.
The country’s origins go back far longer than the 1910s, and they were complex and convoluted. The very geography of central Europe meant this territory had been conquered and occupied many times, and for much of the modern era, it belonged to much larger empires. Two distinct ethnicities had come to make up the bulk of the territory’s inhabitants: the Czechs and the Slovaks.
Czechoslovakia’s split was mostly peaceful. Although nominally all “Slavs”, the country was an amalgamation of languages, alphabets, cultures, religions, and traditions, which ensured its short existence was littered with splits, conflicts, and shocking violence. In a sense, it’s somewhat surprising that it lasted as long as it did.
In the wake of World War I, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, initially known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, came into existence with a monarch as its head of state. Confirmed at the 1919 Versailles Conference, the “first” Yugoslavia was a particularly fragile enterprise, and there was almost constant tension between the majority Serbs and the other Yugoslav nationalities, especially the Croats. the Kingdom was a land of political assassinations, underground terrorist organizations, and ethnic animosities. In 1929, King Alexander I suspended democracy and ruled as a dictator until he himself was assassinated in 1934.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was particularly vulnerable to the forces that engulfed the rest of Europe at the end of the 1930s. When the Axis forces attacked in 1941, the country quickly capitulated and was dismembered by the Nazis and their allies. A separate Croatian state was formed, led by Ante Paveli, who committed some of the worst crimes and human rights abuses of the war. The Balkan region was virtually emptied of its Jewish population, victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
Tito managed to quash the intense national feelings of the diverse groups through several methods. He managed to successfully play the two superpower rivals, the United States and Soviet Union, off against each other during the Cold War, and in doing so, he maintained a considerable amount of independence from both, even as he additionally received foreign aid to keep his regime afloat. All the while he remained defiant, once penning a legendary letter to Joseph Stalin warning the Soviet dictator, “To Joseph Stalin: Stop sending people to kill me! We've already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle...If you don't stop sending killers, I'll send a very fast working one to Moscow and I certainly won't have to send another.”