On 28 October 1918, a group of Czech nationalists stood on the steps of the Obecni Dům (Municipal House) in Prague and proclaimed their independence from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, allying themselves with the new state of Czechoslovakia. Their declaration marked the beginning of a new era in the Czech lands, one in which Czechs, as the majority nation, hoped to redefine the terms of political discourse. The new Czechoslovak Republic, its Czech supporters declared, would be the antithesis of the Habsburg regime. In the place of a multinational Monarchy, they would erect a democratic nation-state. The second half of this political vision was complicated by the fact that the new Czechoslovakia actually contained many ethnic groups, but Czechs still tended to imagine their new Republic as the political expression of the Czech nation. At the same time, this “Czech-centered” politics also emphasized the democratic basis of the new country. Czechoslovakia, Czech leaders said, would be a state governed by its people and dedicated to protecting their rights and freedoms as individuals. A political culture that rested on both ethnic nationalism and democratic values obviously contained some internal tensions: the need to protect the interests of one specific nation and the duty to protect the individual rights of all citizens could rub uncomfortably against each other. Yet, at that moment in 1918, most Czechs failed to register this potential for ideological conflict, instead seeing an essential link between democratic politics and the good of the Czech nation. For many Czechs, democracy itself was a need of the nation, a political structure crucial to Czech national self-realization. This idea came from one prominent conception of Czech nationhood that had captured the public imagination in the fall of 1918. According to this strain of Czech national ideology, the Czech nation had a sort of democratic character. This meant that only an egalitarian, democratic government would suit a “Czech” state. So, paradoxically, a universal language of rights and freedoms was the key to building a truly national Czechoslovak Republic. It was with a state that emphasized equality and personal freedom that the Czechs would fulfill their national destiny.

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