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Czech Republic: Fiftieth Anniversary Of Communist Coup Observed

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 23 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Fifty years ago this week, the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in a nearly bloodless coup.

Several events in the decade leading up to the fateful February 1948 contributed to the takeover's near inevitability.

The most important of these was the 1938 Munich agreement in which Britain, France and Italy acceded to Adolf Hitler's demands that Czechoslovakia surrender its mainly German speaking borderlands, known as the Sudetenland to Germany. Prague had mutual defense agreements with France and Russia, but these fell apart as a result of Munich. Czechoslovakia might have conceivably been able of resisting for a time a German attack since it had a series of strong defenses along much of the German border. But Britain and France warned Prague that if it chose to resist a German invasion, it could not count on Anglo-French military assistance.

Rather than fight a war which would have inevitably led to massive loss of life and destruction of property, the Czechs chose to evacuate the Sudetenland. Six months later the Germans occupied the rest of the Czech lands, declaring it the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia became a puppet state of Nazi Germany while its ethnically Hungarian southern districts and Subcarpathian Rus were annexed by Hungary.

The sense of betrayal by its closest allies at Munich fostered a general belief in Czechoslovakia that the West could not be trusted and that Prague would have to look elsewhere for guarantees for its security in postwar Europe. This feeling was to last for decades to come

Compared to Poland or the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia emerged relatively unscathed from six years of Nazi German occupation.

In late 1944, the Soviet Red Army crossed into Czechoslovakia's easternmost region, Subcarpathian Rus, and gradually installed Soviet power there, annexing the territory to Ukraine the following June. A new Czechoslovak government was established in the eastern Slovak city of Kosice in April, 1945, while Prague was still under Nazi occupation.

In relatively free elections in 1946, the Communists took the largest share of the vote in the Czech lands but came in a distant second in Slovakia. But despite the election victory the Slovak Democrats were gradually decimated by a Communist campaign to drive Democratic Party leaders out of politics.

Czech archivist Karel Kaplan has recently published a study detailing the Communists' road to power. Kaplan had access to the Communist party archives during the late 1960s and later while in exile in Munich he wrote several studies on how the Communists seized power, noting that they came under repeated pressure from Stalin in late 1947 and early 1948 to take power as soon as possible or else let the Red Army in to help out.

After returning to Prague following the collapse of Communist rule, Kaplan gained access to the Interior Ministry archives. These documents show the communists installed agents in strategic positions in all other political parties starting in 1945 and thus were extraordinarily well informed about their opponents intentions and plans.

RFE/RL's Slovak Service has recently organized a roundtable discussion in Prague with several Czech and Slovak historians and publicists on the Communist seizure of power in February 1948 .

Vilem Precan, director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague, said that by the end of 1946 Stalin appeared to have believed that there might be a long-term cooperation and coexistence with the non-Communist parties in Czechoslovakia and that socialism could be achieved there without a dictatorship of the proletariat or a revolution. But Precan also said that Stalin changed his view in 1947 and Moscow accelerated its efforts to ensure Czechoslovakia remained in the Soviet camp.

Jozef Jablonicky, director of the Slovak Academy of Science's political science department, noted the common belief, particularly among intellectuals, that the Soviet Union had been a guarantor and defender of democracy and freedom in central Europe. "The Czech and Slovak intelligentsia of course believed heavily in the Soviet Union and the domestic political development pushed this policy so that the stronger the Communists' position in Slovakia and throughout the republic the better for all."

Jablonicky added that neither Czech nor Slovak Communists realized was that they would have to press for a monopoly of power, which as he put it, "would eventually crush them in their own millstones."

On February 13, 1948 the government, despite communist opposition ordered the police to stop replacing non-communist commanders with communists. The police, already dominated by the communists, refused to do so.

On February 19, Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin arrived in Prague from Moscow and voiced Soviet fears about developments in Czechoslovakia. Zorin told the Czechoslovak Communist leader Klement Gottwald that Stalin was insisting the Czechoslovak Communists seize power. Zorin reiterated Stalin's offer of military assistance. Soviet troops were massed on Hungary's border with Slovakia. Gottwald responded that a Soviet military presence would not be necessary because the party was in command of the situation.

Two hours after Zorin's arrival US Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt flew in to Prague. He expressed optimism that democracy would prevail in Czechoslovakia. He repeated assurances of the West's moral and diplomatic support for the non-Communist opposition.

On February 20, 12 ministers from three non-Communist parties resigned in protest over the police refusal to obey their decree. They assumed the government would fall forcing a Communist retreat and early elections. They miscalculated.

The Social Democrats, deeply split, wavered. Fourteen ministers -- Communists, Social Democrats and Foreign minister Jan Masaryk, who was not a member of any party -- failed to resign. The ailing President Edvard Benes was in no position to mount a decisive fight.

Communist Interior Minister Vaclav Nosek put the security forces on alert and the Communists founded an armed vanguard, the People's Militia.

The following day, the Communists held a huge rally in Prague's Old Town Square. Gottwald called for the immediate establishment of action committees of the national front to purge opponents of the Communist party from public life.

On February 23, several thousand students marched to Prague castle to demonstrate to Benes their opposition to a Communist takeover. Meanwhile, the Communists blocked newsprint deliveries to non-Communist newspapers in Brno and Bratislava. The next day an estimated two and a half million people joined in a one-hour general strike to support the Communists.

On February 25, the Social Democrats resigned from the cabinet. But it was too late. A few hours later, in the face of Gottwald's threats of arrests and possible civil war, Benes appointed a new 25-seat cabinet made up of 13 Communists, three non-partisan ministers, and nine members of non-Communist parties, who, as Kaplan put it, were totally dependent on and subservient to the Communist Party. Gottwald said two months later he could not believe it would be so easy to take power.

That evening police crushed a renewed attempt by several thousand students to defend democracy.

Precan said that what happened in February 1948was a coup d'etat.

"February 1948 meant the elimination of the Communists' allies in the National Front coalition using all means including the police and other forms of force. February 1948 also meant, in addition to installing the Communist Party and the secret police in power, the installation of government through action councils of the National Front."

A historian at Prague's Charles University, Petr Mares, noted the February 1948 events marked both the loss of the democratic parties and a collapse of a concept of a peaceful world order of independent and cooperating states.

The emergence of divisions rooted in the Cold War between the West and the East set the stage for a new situation in Central Europe. Mares said that Czechoslovakia might have only dreamed of becoming a bridge between the East and the West, provided the Cold War could be avoided.

"The Cold War became a reality sometime at the turn of 1947/48 and after that there could be no bridge." Mares added that the February 1948 Communist coup in Prague was not inevitable despite the outbreak of the cold war. He said that the point of no return came at the end of 1947 and start of 1948.

Precan today questions whether there was any chance that the West, particularly the United States and Britain, would have supported an independent clearly pro-Western foreign policy by Czechoslovakia in a situation in which the West had failed to support Poland's efforts at independence.

Precan said that the general belief in 1946 throughout Czech society including the political elite was that Germany was the main enemy, the main danger facing Czechoslovakia. As he result, he said, few Czechoslovaks were able to detect where the real danger was coming from.

Precan said Czechoslovakia's Communist leaders, including Gottwald, were people who had been trained by the Comintern. They considered the establishment of socialism in Czechoslovakia to be their main goal.

"They did not know any other form of Socialism than the Soviet way. In reality they were a fifth column of Soviet imperialism in Czechoslovakia, whether or not they wanted it that way. Ironically, when they won and removed their opponents from power, they became total captives of Moscow and vice-regents of Moscow, who could be shot or otherwise executed at any time as was later shown in the big trials of 1952."