Magical number eight in Czech modern history
History of the Czechoslovak state in 20th century has several milestones. Interestingly, most of them happened in year ending with number eight: the Czechoslovak Republic gained independence in October 1918, lost its border regions inhabited by Germans to Hitler’s Nazi Germany by the Munich Treaty in September 1938 (Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia followed in March 1939); the Communists seized power in February 1948; attempt to reform the Communist regime (‘Prague Spring’) was thwarted by Soviet invasion in August 1968. Number eight is also present in the yea of the fall of Communism – 1989.
Today, I would like to tell you more about the ‘February’ as it is also referred to (until 1989, the reference was ‘Victorious February’) which led to 41 years of Communist rule in our country.
Situation in 1945
Czechoslovakia was the last European country to join the forming Soviet bloc. It took the Czechoslovak Communist Party led by Klement Gottwald almost three years since the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945 due to several disadvantages they had in comparison with other Communist Parties. Czechoslovakia – one of the victors – was not occupied by the Red Army (unlike East Germany, Hungary or Bulgaria). Czechoslovakia also had democratic tradition. Klement Gottwald and his followers, therefore, had to employ more cautious strategy. The Communists infiltrated police, security forces and the army and controlled the Ministry of Information (which was in charge of media). Leaders of influential organisations (such as trade union confederations) were also Communists.
After the liberation, the pre-war democratic political system was not restored fully. The view of non-Communist politicians was that Czechoslovakia will be a ‘bridge between the West and the East’ both internationally and domestically. So-called ‘people’s democracy’ was established. Right-wing parties were abolished including the strong Republican (also called Agrarian) Party. The remaining (centre and left-wing) parties established National Front – a coalition based on parity. However, Communists had – for tactical reasons – two parties (a ‘separate’ Communist Party was in Slovakia).
It was time of much excitement. Many wanted to settle accounts – with the Germans (who were collectively transferred to Germany and Austria) and the collaborants. The processes at ‘extraordinary people’s courts’ were hasty with limited appeal options. Rule of law as well as democracy clearly had its limits in post-war Czechoslovakia. Frankly speaking Czechoslovakia was already on the slippery slope. However, the Communist takeover was far from inevitable.
Elections of 1946
In 1946, parliamentary elections were held. The Communists won (in Slovakia, they were second, though), but did not gain the majority. The National Front coalition continued. The Communists infiltrated other parties where they created left-wing fractions. Most important in the following events was the split within the Social Democratic Party.
In 1947, Marshall Plan was announced. The Czechoslovak Government saw it as a good opportunity to boost struggling post-war recovery. As a whole (including the Communists) accepted the invitation to launching conference in Paris. However, Stalin later demanded that the Czechoslovak Government refuse the invitation. Prague obeyed. It was quite a clear signal for other countries that Czechoslovakia follows the foreign policy of Moscow.
The Communists mount pressure
Internally, however, the Communist rule was not established. Stalin was urging Gottwald to seize the power, which he was unable to do immediately. Nevertheless, increased aggressiveness of the Communists intensified tensions within the coalition during 1947. Polls suggested that the Communist began to lose support. Since elections were scheduled on spring 1948, Gottwald had to act as election victory seemed more and more unlikely.
Governmental crisis in February 1948
Things came to a head in February 1948. The Communist Minister of Interior replaced the leadership of security forces with members of the Communist Party. When asked to reverse the step, the Communists refused. The non-Communist Ministers resigned in hope that they will force the Government to fall. Resignation of majority of the Ministers was needed to bring the Government down. However, some independent Ministers and the Social Democrats did not resign so the majority needed was not met.
At that moment, President Edvard Beneš had to decide whether accept the resignations and then Gottwalds proposal to appoint new Ministers nominated by the Communists. After some dithering – and demonstrations in favour such decision, Beneš bowed to the pressure. Later, the Parliament also confirmed the new Government. Meanwhile, so-called ‘Action Committees’ on various levels quickly purged non-Communists from influential positions, public service, schools etc.
Gottwald announced the President’s decision to a crowd at Wenceslas Square from a balcony of one of the buildings. Curiously enough, standing next to Gottwald was Vladimír Clementis who was one of the first Communists to be executed during the purges within the Party itself (and he was edited out of the photographs).
President Beneš abdicated in June on health grounds (and died three months later). Gottwald was elected. Without this last obstacle, a new constitution was approved.
While the Communists seized the power through legal means they seemed to prepare a putsch as well. They had armed workers – ‘People’s Militia’ – and they deemed the Army to be neutralised (Minister of Defence Ludvík Svoboda did not join the Party only because Gottwald wanted him to be an ‘independent’ Minister in the National Front governments. That circumvented the parity principle).
In the fresh new Soviet satellite, the Communist soon overturned the existing order. Opponents emigrated or were monitored by secret police and persecuted (this soon happened also to Party Members). Almost all areas of life fell under Communist control. Czechoslovak border with Bavaria became part of the Iron Curtain. Czechoslovak economy was geared to heavy industry, i.e. arms production. Among the new Soviet assets gained by Communist coup was Czechoslovak uranium – material necessary to build nuclear weapons.