During the communist regime in Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989, scholars estimate that as many as 550,000 people emigrated from the country, or about 3.5 percent of the total population of the country. Some 250,000 of those émigrés left between the years 1968 and 1989. Unlike earlier waves of emigration, these Czechs, Slovaks, and a much smaller number of Carpatho-Rusyns left largely for political reasons. Some of these émigrés would play an active role in monitoring the situation of their countrymen, working to overthrow communism, and energizing their respective ethnic communities in the new host countries.
When the Czechoslovak government first released its census information in 1991 after the Velvet Revolution, official statistics indicated that 3,412,000 people living abroad claimed either Czech or Slovak origin. That amounted to one-sixth of the population of Czechoslovakia at the time, about 15.6 million. Of that total, 62 percent were Czechs and 31 percent Slovak.
Most of these people resided in North America (2,780,000), with a majority residing in the United States (2,669,880). Before the publication of these statistics, scholars had surmised emigration demographics based largely on host country census data and the estimates of émigrés and scholars.
Based on ancestry, U.S 1990 Census data had counted even higher numbers -- nearly 1.3 million Czechs, about 1.9 million Slovaks, over 315,000 Czechoslovaks, and over 77,000 Slavic peoples. The Czechoslovak and Slavic peoples most likely included Slovaks and Czechs, as well as Carpatho-Rusyns (also called Ruthenians), who received no separate designation. Carpatho-Rusyns could also have been mixed with Ukrainian and Russian figures.
Czechoslovak immigrants and their descendants living in Canada amounted to over 54,000 in 1991, but they lived in widely dispersed areas across the country. After World War II and the communist takeover, 10,000 Czech and Slovak political exiles settled in Canada. A larger wave of 8,000 Czechs and 13,000 Slovaks arrived after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, and most settled in the eastern urban and industrial areas of Ontario and Quebec.
For the Czechs in particular, political emigration already had a long history dating back to Counter-Reformation era and afterwards. Many Czech Protestants fled their homeland following the Czech defeat at White Mountain in 1620, among them the Moravian educator Comenius. Likewise, the failed Revolutions of 1848 resulted in a wave of political émigrés from German lands, Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary.
Mid-19th century economic hard times propelled a wave of Czech emigrants who settled mainly in the rural areas of the American Great Plains. But the largest waves of immigration occurred in the late 19th century until the Great War choked the inflow of new arrivals. By World War I, nearly 620,000 Slovaks, over 600,000 Czechs, and as many as 225,000 Carpatho-Rusyns made the trek across the Atlantic to the USA. Most of them were poor peasants in search of a better life (za chlebom – for bread); most worked in industry and mining. Slovaks and Czechs established separate parishes, as each nationality wished to have their own ethnic churches. Generally, Slovaks and Czechs did not socialize much with one another on a regular basis, and each found their own fraternal benefit societies. Political tensions arose, especially after disagreements over the Pittsburgh Agreement in which Slovaks and were promised autonomy in exchange for Slovak-American support for the new state of Czecho-Slovakia. Carpatho-Rusyns were similarly disappointed by unfulfilled promises of autonomy in their region.
Shortly after World War I, migration surged, but then turned to a trickle as U.S. anti-immigration laws in 1921 and 1924 placed restrictive quotas on immigrants from Eastern Europe. Thus, some immigrants increasingly chose Canada as a destination, though they settled largely in eastern Canadian cities and western farmlands after the Great War. About 40,000 Slovaks chose Canada as a destination during the interwar period.
For Czechs and Slovaks during World War I, Thomas G. Masaryk and General Milan Štefánik prepared for an independent Czech and Slovak state from France. Largely through astute diplomacy and the added support of their immigrant brothers in America, they succeeded in declaring an independent Czecho-Slovak Republic. Renamed Czechoslovakia in the 1920 constitution, it would remain the lone successor state in East Central Europe which maintained a functioning democratic state until Nazi Germany destroyed it with the infamous Munich Pact of 1938.
World War II would usher yet another wave of political emigration as many Czechs and a few Slovaks fled the onslaught of Nazi Germany during the late 1930s. After 1939, political emigration became a common European phenomenon as exiles fled to Paris, and then after the Nazi occupation of France, mainly to England and the United States. Émigrés set up a government in exile under President Beneš, and the Allies heartily approved and recognized its legitimacy.
The late stages of World War II and shortly afterwards saw the flight of some Slovaks who had affiliated themselves with the wartime Tiso government in Slovakia, which had allied with Germany. They fled to the West before the coming of the Soviet army and to avoid arrest after the war, and about 1,500 of these political refugees settled in Canada.
Emigration under Communism
The first sizeable post-World War II wave of emigration of Czechs and Slovaks did not begin until after the communist takeover of February 1948. The Communists fixed the May elections and began transforming the country to a Soviet model by enforcing the nationalization of all industry, confiscating private property, harassing churches, and collectivizing agriculture. Fearing persecution if they remained, about 60,000 Czechoslovak citizens emigrated between 1948 and 1950. Many of these were political émigrés or people from whom Communists had seized factories or large amounts of property.
During the 1950s, little emigration ensued as the Communist government tightly sealed off the borders. Beginning in the early 1960s, the regime gradually eased travel restrictions to the West. Between 1960 and 1968, another 255,000 left the country in a second wave of migration, mainly to Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa.
A third wave of emigration accelerated following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. The borders remained relatively fluid until November 1968, when the regime tightened travel restrictions to the West. In those few months, about 104,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled their native land. Many émigrés again came from the educated layers of society, and this wave included a significant number of professionals and some intellectuals who had given up on the possibility of reforming communism. It amounted to a notable brain drain of the country’s most talented citizens.
Despite the regime’s closing the borders, illegal emigration steadily continued during the 1970s at an estimated rate of about 5,000 annually. By the 1980s, the emigration rate rose to about 10,000 per year. Many exited to the West via travel to Yugoslavia, where the borders remained relatively open. In total, starting in 1968, about 250,000 Czechs and Slovaks had emigrated to the West by 1989.
Life for Emigrants
Having violated the law, the Communist regime made communications very difficult for émigrés with relatives in Czechoslovakia and often read their mail and bugged telephone calls. It arbitrarily issued visas to émigrés, even denying entry for some to attend a parent’s funeral. Some émigrés dared not return, for they would face certain prison sentences.
Because of the impossibility of returning to Czechoslovakia and aided by their skills, youth, and educational backgrounds, this group of émigrés quickly assimilated into their new surroundings. Most settled in cities or suburbs, learned English, and some were able to continue a professional career. Besides expressing concerns about their homeland, they also had to face the mundane realities of raising a family and earning a living, which consumed the bulk of their time. They became more comfortable with their new lives and a better standard of living.
Especially among the Slovaks, some émigrés integrated into existing ethnic fraternal societies, revitalized them with fresh ideas and a renewed dynamism, and even created new organizations. After the 1968 exodus, émigrés assisted in founding folk dance groups, served as radio announcers, and generally helped to renew ties of ethnic peoples to the Slovak and Czech culture of their ancestors’ homeland.
The influx of Slovak émigrés injected a new element into Slovak American society – an intelligentsia that was not part of the clergy. Typically, the new émigrés were well-educated and included some clergy, but were mostly laypersons. They founded cultural and literary organizations, and published their own journals. Their activism contributed to the establishment of specific Slovak organizations such as the Slovak Institute in Cleveland, the Slovak American Cultural Center in New York City, the Association of Slovak Writers and Artists Abroad, the Slovak Jesuit Order in Galt, Ontario, and the Jednota Printery of the First Catholic Slovak Union. They all assisted in the keeping of the faith by printing materials in the Slovak language that were unavailable in their former homeland, including many religious publications which were secretly smuggled into Czechoslovakia.
Political Divisions among Émigrés
For the most part, Slovaks and Czechs from the pre-1948 emigration did not extensively socialize with one another or join the same organizations. Old World politics and religious differences tended to confine interactions within their own ethnic groups. Most Slovaks remained fervent Catholics (70 percent) and interacted in their own circles, shunning relations with Czechs perceived to be generally less religious. The minority Protestant Slovaks (15 percent) and post-1948 Slovak émigrés tended to be more “Czechoslovak” in orientation, and former Democratic Party members like Jozef Lettrich and diplomat Ján Papánek maintained cordial relations with Czech émigrés. This general pattern moderated somewhat with the post-1968 emigration, but was still in place.
After World War I, Slovaks had divided among themselves into those that supported Slovak autonomy and those who backed a more unified Czechoslovak state. The majority of original Slovak immigrants and their fraternal societies followed the nationalist lead of the Slovak League of America and the Canadian Slovak League in promoting more self-rule and asserting their differences with Czechs. Those issues remained divisive and varying attitudes towards Slovakia’s independent wartime state served to heighten political differences.
Following the Communist putsch of 1948, some Slovaks and Czechs established separate political organizations in exile. Supporters of the wartime Slovak Republic formed a Slovak National Council Abroad. Those political émigrés opposing Slovak separatism formed the Permanent Conference of Slovak Democratic Exiles, founded by Martin Kvetko, a participant in the 1944 Slovak National Uprising against Germany. The latter group maintained closer relations with the Council of Free Czechoslovakia, in which Czech and more recent Slovak émigrés predominated. While the Council played a role in warning Western states of the dangers of communism, it could not effectively unite all Czech and Slovak exiles in a common cause.
One group of intellectuals, who tried to bridge the gap between Czechs and Slovaks and in 1958, founded the non-profit Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU – Společnost pro vědy a umění). Established as a non-political academic society, it aimed to support and to coordinate “the educational, scholarly, literary and artistic endeavors of the Czechoslovak intelligentsia abroad.” It later expanded its realm to all interested in Slovak and/or Czech culture, and it helped publicize the nature of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. Still in existence, the society has sponsored semi-annual conferences and assisted the Czech and Slovak peoples in their transitions to democracy after the fall of communism.
The exodus of people after the 1968 invasion led to a renewed activism among some Slovaks and Czechs, even though many newer émigrés shied away from political involvement. Two Czech publishers became active in Toronto, the Masaryk Memorial Press and writer Josef Škvorecký ’s Sixty-Eight Press. The influx of more Slovak émigrés also led to the founding of the Slovak World Congress in 1970. The Toronto-based umbrella organization had the lofty goal of uniting all Slovaks and their organizations and institutions into one single entity for all Slovaks abroad. Spearheaded by Jozef M. Kirschbaum and funded by the uranium entrepreneur, Stephen B. Roman, it experienced mixed success as Slovak organizations remained somewhat fragmented.
One notable achievement occurred in the academic world. While one could study the Czech language at several universities, no permanent program existed in Slovak studies. A more unified effort led to the establishment of two Slovak chairs. Both chairs were filled by Slovak émigrés and funded by Slovak fraternal donations.
Martin Votruba began a career as Head of Slovak Program at the University of Pittsburgh, who fled communist Slovakia in the 1980s, and After Professor Votruba died in 2018, University of Pittsburgh’s Slavic Studies Department hired two summer teachers of Slovak replace him: Marcela Michalková temporarily replaced him in 2019 with one-year appointments for two years, and Renáta Kamenárová, lead author of the widely used Slovak language textbook series, Krížom-krážom, received a three-year appointment in 2021.
The University of Ottawa, Canada, hired M. Mark Stolarik as Chair of Slovak History and Culture with the help of government grants and fraternal donations. Stolarik had emigrated as a child to Canada with his family shortly after World War II. He established himself as a leading scholar of Slovak immigration history. He also proved instrumental in founding the Slovak Studies Association, upgrading the journal Slovakia into an annual academic periodical, and establishing archives at the former Balch Institute, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Ottawa. He retired in 2022 and the university has hired Dr. Roman Krakovský as the new Chair in Slovak History and Culture at the University of Ottawa. He is a native of Slovakia and a graduate of Comenius University in Bratislava the Sorbonne University in Paris.
In general, the émigrés from the former Czechoslovakia played an important role in providing an alternative to the communist propaganda during the era of totalitarian rule in their homelands. Because of their higher level of education and skill, they integrated more easily into American and Canadian societies and assisted in keeping the broader public aware of the fate of people living under communism. Although many of new émigrés did not interact much with older immigrants because of educational differences, some émigrés did, especially among the Slovaks, and they revitalized the existing ethnic communities in the USA and Canada. This helped perpetuate and enrich the culture of second and third generations of Czechs, Slovaks and Carpatho-Rusyns.
Nonetheless, the inexorable process of assimilation into mainstream society has proceeded. After 1989, very few émigrés returned to Europe apart from occasional visits, as they had become accustomed to the New World they had settled in. The émigrés’ children, schooled in North America, have adopted the values, language, and customs of its new homeland; their children have intermarried with other nationalities and ties to the old country have gradually diminished. Now émigré families more typically resemble those of other acculturated social groups. While some second and third generation families retain ties to their roots by celebrating their ethnicity at occasional nationality celebrations, connections with their ancestral pasts have faded with time.
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List of Bibliographic References:
CHADA, J.: The Czechs in the United States. New York : SVU Press, 1981. 292p. ISBN 9780936570037.
Multicultural Canada, from The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. http://www.multiculturalcanada.ca/Encyclopedia/A-Z (accessed March 3, 2011).
PEHE, J.: Emigres in the Post-communist Era: New Data, New Policies (radio broadcast). RFE/RL Research, April 26, 1991.
RECHCIGL, M., Jr.: On Behalf of Their Homeland: Fifty Years of the SVU. Boulder, CO : East European Monographs and New York : Columbia University Press, 2008. ISBN 9780880336307.
STOLARIK, M. M.: Commentary: In Step with the Times: A Slovak Perspective. Austrian History Yearbook 35, no. (2005): 198-207. DOI: 10.1017/S0067237800004902.