The Fight for Slovakia in 1919 and the French Military Mission

from 26. 9. 2019 to 2. 2. 2020

Each historical milestone marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. This is certainly true for the date October 28, 1918, after which the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was replaced in the Slovak territory by a republic with the adjective Czechoslovak. In the revolutionary years of 1918 and 1919, marked by unprecedented geopolitical changes throughout Europe, the vision of a better life in a democratic and peaceful environment helped to overcome the political, economic and cultural differences of the parts of the new republic.

The common state of Czechs and Slovaks, which was declared and accepted by world powers, had its own government and even an army in the form of legions. The Prague government was formed in mid-November 1918, and two Slovaks (M. R. Štefánik and V. Šrobár) were appointed to ministerial positions. However, the government still needed to gain control over the country's territory. And the territory of Slovakia was especially problematic. Its borders were not established and the governments of the new Hungarian (People's) Republic and later the communist Hungarian Soviet Republic had no intentions of making concessions. The activities of V. Šrobár, "Prague's" plenipotentiary minister for the administration of Slovakia were accompanied by problems. The influence of the Slovak National Council, the supreme domestic political authority and the second center of power, was extremely limited. Therefore, military control of the territory of Slovakia was necessary. It was only after the stabilization of the social and political situation in the summer of 1919 and the signing of the Treaty of Trianon of June 4, 1920 that the (Czecho)Slovak – Hungarian border was definitively drawn.

Immediately after the end of World War I, the emerging political representation lacked the power to gain control over the territory of the new state and consolidate the situation. France provided significant assistance in this process. It had sufficient military strength and the authority of a victorious nation, as well as the ambition to become a power in the geopolitical space of Central Europe. The French Military Mission began its activities in Czechoslovakia in early 1919 based on agreements. It was the decisive military force during the inclusion of the territory of Slovakia in the new state. It also deserves the most credit for creating the armed forces and the ministry of national defense. French Division General M. C. J. Pellé (1919 – 1921) became its first commander. He was followed by General E. D. A. Mittelhauser (1921 – 1926) and General L. E. Faucher (1926 – 1938).

The revolutionary situation naturally caused worries even among the residents of the city of Košice. As a city of strategic significance, it was coveted by both conflicting states. The fact that Košice, situated for centuries at the intersection of cultures and on an ethnic borderline, was not predominantly Slovak in late 1918, was a disadvantage for the ascending power. It would not be enough to win over the city with an army or behind a negotiation table. It was necessary to win trust of its populace.

The Czechoslovak army arrived in Košice for the first time on December 29, 1918. Units of the Czechoslovak legions from Italy occupied the demarcation line between Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the area of Abov-Turňa County from mid-January 1919 and the building of the military commander of the 6th Imperial and Royal Army Corps of the Austro-Hungarian Army became the seat of its headquarters. It was built from 1906 – 1908 on what was then Franz Joseph Square (today the seat of the Office of the Košice Self-Governing Region) and across from the new museum (today the Eastern Slovakia Museum). The second arrival of the Czechoslovak Army in Košice was connected with the military operations against the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Afterwards, French Division General E. Ch. A. Hennocque took control over the city in early June 1919. Košice's mayor, V. Mutňanský, Abov-Turňa County Governor J. Sekáč and J. Slávik, the governmental commissioner at General Hennocque's headquarters, were his closest assistants in ensuring everyday life. 

The exhibition entitled Boje o Slovensko v roku 1919 a Francúzska vojenská misia / The Fight for Slovakia in 1919 and the French Military Mission was created on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of incorporating the territory of Slovakia in the state in which Slovaks became engaged for the first time in state-building. It commemorates the difficult struggle for a common state and the overlooked role of the French Military Mission in establishing Czechoslovak state power in the territory of Slovakia. The exhibition particularly focuses on important individuals of those days and the city of Košice and its surroundings. Originally held in Košice, we believe that the presentation of this exhibition at the Slovak National Museum will contribute to the development of Slovak-French cultural dialogue and to the further promotion of the wealth of history of the Košice region.