The years from 1918-39 are unique in the modern history of Eastern Europe. For the only time since the Middle Ages the nationalities of the region enjoyed a genuine autonomy and, ostensibly, a common form of government with their Western neighbours. As democratic nation states replaced the semi-autocratic empires, the way was clear in the ideology of the victors for the energies of repressed populations to find fulfillment in harmonious alliance with the Western democracies. So strongly felt was this nexus between nationalism and democracy, between East and West in the ‘New Europe’ that, to its supporters like the Czech President-Liberator, Masaryk, the settlement appeared to be not so much the fruit of military victory as of an entire epoch of European progress; it was the culmination of the search for humanity begun in the Renaissance and Reformation and continued in the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the liberal national movements of the nineteenth century. Yet two brief decades after Masaryk’s memoirs Winston Churchill wrote in his account of the Second World War.
there is not one of the peoples or provinces that constituted the Empire of the Habsburgs to whom gaining their independence has not brought the torture which ancient poets and theologians had reserved for the damned.
Separating the two comments was the most dramatic collapse of a major peace settlement and its attendant hopes in modern times.
Essentially the ‘succession states’, as the new states were called, rested on the ambiguity Masaryk had sought to scotch. They were the product of both power and principle, of a particular conjunction of interests between nationalist movements in the region and the need of the allies to destroy Germany’s Habsburg partner and create buffer states on her eastern frontiers after the collapse of tsarist Russia. Their emergence represented the triumph of certain nations over others and of nationalism over rival social philosophies