From the Communist coup d'état in February 1948 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Czech: Komunistická strana Československa, KSČ). The country belonged to the Eastern Bloc and was a member of the Warsaw Pact and of Comecon. During the era of Communist Party rule, thousands of Czechoslovaks faced political persecution for various offences, such as trying to emigrate across the Iron Curtain.
The 1993 Act on Lawlessness of the Communist Regime and on Resistance Against It determined that the communist government was illegal and that the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was a criminal organization.
1948 Coup D'état
The 1948 Czechoslovak coup d'état (often simply the Czech coup) (Czech: Únor 1948, Slovak: Február 1948, both meaning "February 1948") – in Marxist historiography known as "Victorious February" (Czech: Vítězný únor, Slovak: Víťazný február) – was an event late that February in which the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, with Soviet backing, assumed undisputed control over the government of Czechoslovakia, marking the onset of 4 decades of communist rule in the country.
The coup’s significance extended well beyond the country’s boundaries as it was a clear marker along the already well-advanced road to full-fledged Cold War. The event alarmed Western countries and helped spur quick adoption of the Marshall Plan, the creation of a state in West Germany, vigorous measures to keep communists out of power in France and especially Italy, and steps toward mutual security that would, in little over a year, result in the establishment of NATO and the definitive drawing of the Iron Curtain until the Revolutions of 1989.
An atmosphere of mounting tension, coupled with massive Communist-led demonstrations occurring throughout the country, convinced Beneš to remain neutral over the issue, for fear the KSČ foment an insurrection and give the Red Army a pretext to invade the country and restore order. At the same time, the non-Communist ministers seemed to behave as if this was just an old-fashioned pre-1939 governmental crisis. They did not know that the Communists were mobilizing from below to take complete power.
Communist "Action Committees" and trade union militias were quickly set up, armed, and sent into the streets, as well as being prepared to carry through a purge of anti-Communists. In a speech before 100,000 of these people, Gottwald threatened a general strike unless Beneš agreed to form a new Communist-dominated government. Zorin at one point offered the services of the Red Army, camped on the country's borders. However, Gottwald declined the offer, believing that the threat of violence combined with heavy political pressure would be enough to force Beneš to surrender. As he said after the coup, Beneš "knows what strength is, and this led him to evaluate this [situation] realistically".
On May 9, a new constitution was approved by parliament. Although it declared Czechoslovakia a "people's REPUBLIC" under the leadership of the KSČ, it was not a completely Communist document. However, it was close enough to the Soviet model that Beneš refused to sign it. At the May 30 elections, voters were presented with a single list from the National Front, which officially won 89.2% of the vote; within the National Front list, the Communists had an absolute majority of 214 seats (160 for the main party and 54 for the Slovak branch). This majority grew even larger when the Social Democrats merged with the Communists later in the year. Practically all non-Communist parties that had participated in the 1946 election were also represented within the National Front list and thus received parliamentary seats. However, by this time they had all transformed themselves into loyal partners of the Communists, and the few independent-minded members of those parties were either in prison or in exile. The National Front was converted into a broad patriotic organization dominated by the Communists, and no political group outside it was allowed to exist. Consumed by these events, Beneš resigned on 2 June and was succeeded by Gottwald twelve days later. He died in September, bringing a symbolic close to the sequence of events, and was buried before an enormous and silent throng come to mourn the passing of a popular leader and of the republic he had come to represent.
United States' Response
The coup's impact in the United States was immediate. Opposition towards the Marshall Plan had developed in the United States Congress, but a shocked and aroused public opinion overwhelmed this, and Congress promptly approved over US$5 billion for the first year of the European Recovery Program.
Until the Czech coup, the emphasis in Washington had been on economic containment of Communism, primarily through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and a heavy reliance on atomic power as a shield to support it. President Harry S. Truman understood that in 1946 and 1947 the American people were not prepared for a massive conventional arms buildup or a confrontation with the Soviet Union. He was reluctant to increase the military budget dramatically and instead chose a gradual and balanced buildup. Expecting to spend large amounts on the Marshall Plan, he sought to keep the annual defense budget below $15 billion.
However, the coup served to expose the limitations of U.S. conventional forces and its over-reliance on atomic power. At the time of the Prague crisis, roughly 10 ill-equipped and poorly trained U.S. and West European divisions faced over 30 Soviet divisions. When taking into account Defense Department complaints that the U.S. atomic arsenal and the air power to use it were starkly inadequate, it became clear that the U.S. lacked a credible military deterrent in Europe.
The Czech coup changed the whole tone of the debate on the U.S. military budget. It helped spark a new round of Pentagon lobbying for a substantial rise in the military budget, while the NSC called for "a worldwide counter-offensive" against the Soviet bloc, including U.S. military aid to the Western European Union. Truman responded to the crisis with a grim nationwide radio address on 17 March calling for a renewal of selective service, which had been allowed to lapse the previous year. He also sought congressional approval for a program of Universal Military Training (UMT). He aimed to send a signal of determination to the Soviet Union that U.S. military posture was strong and that the country with this expansion of military preparedness was also prepared in the future to rearm massively if necessary. Congress rejected UMT, but did vote to resume selective service, and voted the money for a 70-group air force, 25% larger than the official request.
Nevertheless, the change in American foreign policy in response to the crisis-like atmosphere of early 1948 was more symbolic than real. American willingness to consult on new security arrangements for Europe was the product of neither a changed estimate of Soviet intentions nor a readiness to take on a larger share of the burden of defending Western Europe. Rather, it was a tactical maneuver intended to mitigate the effect of the coup in Czechoslovakia and the brief but intense war scare that followed.
As a result, a series of quick fixes followed to ensure that American forces would not be caught completely off guard in the event of war. More important was the sensitivity with which American officials now treated the nervousness of their European counterparts; the Americans now became more willing to take steps to boost morale in Europe and ease the now-widespread anxieties there. The coup and the Berlin Blockade that June made clear that constant reassurance was needed to bind the Europeans to the U.S. system; hence, the remobilization of U.S. armed forces began.
Indeed, the fear of war between the Soviets and the West reached a high point after the coup. On 5 March, General Lucius D. Clay sent an alarming telegram from Berlin that advised of its likelihood: "Within the last few weeks, I have felt a subtle change in Soviet attitude which I cannot define but which now gives me a feeling that it may come with dramatic suddenness". General Omar Bradley later wrote that when he read Clay's "lugubrious assessment" in Washington he was "lifted right out of [his] chair", and George F. Kennan wrote that the coup and the telegram had combined to create "a real war scare" where "the military and the intelligence fraternity" had "overreacted in the most deplorable way". Only a week later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended rearmament and a restoration of the draft.
In fact, Clay's warning had more to do with a request by Army director of intelligence Lt. Gen. Stephen Chamberlain for material that would persuade Congress to spend more on military readiness than with any hard evidence of Soviet intent to launch a war in Europe. Still, in Europe too in February and March "war was being commonly, even calmly discussed in streets and cafes on the Continent", a fear exacerbated by reports on 27 February that Stalin had invited Finland to sign a treaty of mutual assistance, contributing to expectations it would be the next domino to fall; pressure for a treaty was placed on Norway too.
Amidst the general alarm, more sanguine voices were also raised. The Truman Administration had months earlier written off Czechoslovakia as little more than a Soviet satellite; in November 1947 U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall told a cabinet meeting that the Soviets would probably soon consolidate their hold on Eastern Europe by clamping down on Czechoslovakia as a "purely defensive move", and Kennan cabled from Manila that the Soviets seemed to be consolidating their defenses, not preparing for aggression. He later wrote that the Prague coup and the Berlin Blockade were "defensive reactions" to the Marshall Plan's initial successes and to the Western decision to press for an independent West German state. This view of the event sees Truman's reaction as him seizing on a necessary crisis to sell the Marshall Plan and the rearmament programme the Pentagon had long been pushing.
Marshall's own reaction was that "in so far as international affairs are concerned, a seizure of power by the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia would not materially alter...the situation which has existed in the last three years". Even as he was holding a press conference to push his economic aid plan on 10 March, the CIA reported that "We do not believe...that this event reflects any sudden increase in Soviet capabilities, more aggressive intentions, or any change in current Soviet policy or tactics... The Czech coup and the demands on Finland...do not preclude the possibility of Soviet efforts to effect a rapprochement with the West", but the administration chose a different course.
On 2 March, CIA director Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter had also written to Truman that "the timing of the coup in Czechoslovakia was forced upon the Kremlin when the non-Communists took action endangering Communist control of the police. A Communist victory in the May elections would have been impossible without such control".
ŠtB State Security (1945-1990)
State Security (Czech: Státní bezpečnost, Slovak: Štátna bezpečnosť) or StB / ŠtB, was a plainclothes secret (political) police force in former Czechoslovakia from 1945 to its dissolution in 1990. Serving as an intelligence and counter-intelligence agency, it dealt with any activity that could possibly be considered anti-state or "western influence".
From its establishment on June 30, 1945, the StB was bound to and controlled by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The Party used the StB as an instrument of power and repression; State Security spied on and intimidated political opponents of the Party and forged false criminal evidence against them, facilitating the Communists' rise to power in 1948. Even before Czechoslovakia became a Communist state, the StB forced confessions by means of torture, including the use of drugs, blackmail and kidnapping. After the coup d'état of 1948, these practices developed under the tutelage of Soviet advisers. Other common practices included telephone tapping, permanent watching of apartments, intercepting private mail, house searches, surveillance, arrests and indictment for so-called "subversion of the republic".
On February 25, 1948, President Edvard Beneš gave in to the demands of Communist Prime Minister Klement Gottwald and appointed a cabinet dominated by Communists. While it was nominally still a coalition, the "non-Communists" in the cabinet were mostly fellow travelers. This gave legal sanction to the KSČ coup, and marked the onset of undisguised Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. On 9 May, the National Assembly, purged of dissidents, passed a new constitution. It was not a completely Communist document; since a special committee prepared it in the 1945–48 period, it contained many liberal and democratic provisions. It reflected, however, the reality of Communist power through an addition that declared Czechoslovakia a people's republic — a preliminary step toward socialism and, ultimately, communism —ruled by the dictatorship of the proletariat, and also gave the Communist Party the leading role in the state. For these reasons, Beneš refused to sign the so-called Ninth-of-May Constitution. Nonetheless, elections were held on 30 May, and voters were presented with a single list from the National Front, the former governing coalition which was now a broad patriotic organisation under Communist control. Beneš resigned on 2 June, and Gottwald became president 12 days later.
In the next few years, bureaucratic centralism under the direction of KSČ leadership was introduced. So-called "dissident" elements were purged from all levels of society, including the Catholic Church. The ideological principles of Marxism-Leninism and socialist realism pervaded cultural and intellectual life. The entire education system was submitted to state control. With the elimination of private ownership of means of production, a planned economy was introduced. Czechoslovakia became a satellite state of the Soviet Union; it was a founding member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1949 and of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The attainment of Soviet-style "socialism" became the government's avowed policy.
Although in theory Czechoslovakia remained a multiparty state, in actuality the Communists were in complete control. Political participation became subject to KSČ approval. The KSČ also prescribed percentage representation for non-Marxist parties. The National Assembly, purged of dissidents, became a mere rubber stamp for KSČ programs. In 1953, an inner cabinet of the National Assembly, the Presidium, was created. Composed of KSČ leaders, the Presidium served to convey party policies through government channels. Regional, district, and local committees were subordinated to the Ministry of Interior. Slovak autonomy was constrained; the KSS was reunited with the KSČ but retained its own identity.
After consolidating power, Klement Gottwald began a series of mass purges against both political opponents and fellow communists, numbering in the tens of thousands. Children from blacklisted families were denied access to good jobs and higher education, there was widespread emigration out of the country into West Germany and Austria, and the educational system was reoriented to give opportunity to working class students.
Czechoslovak interests were subordinated to the interests of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin became particularly concerned about controlling and integrating the socialist bloc in the wake of Tito's challenge to his authority. Stalin's paranoia resulted in a campaign against "rootless cosmopolitans" which culminated in the conspiracy theory of the alleged Doctors' plot. In Czechoslovakia, the Stalinists also accused their opponents of "conspiracy against the people's democratic order" and "high treason" in order to oust them from positions of power. Many Communists with an "international" background, i.e., those with a wartime connection with the West, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, Jews, and Slovak "bourgeois nationalists", were arrested and executed in show trials (e.g., Heliodor Píka, Milada Horáková). Most spectacular was the Slánský trial against KSČ first secretary Rudolf Slánský and thirteen other prominent Communist personalities in November and December 1952. Slánský and ten other defendants were executed, while three were sentenced to life imprisonment. The KSČ rank-and-file membership, approximately 2.5 million in March 1948, began to be subjected to careful scrutiny. By 1960, KSČ membership had been reduced to 1.4 million.
The Ninth-of-May Constitution provided for the nationalization of all commercial and industrial enterprises having more than fifty employees. The non-agricultural private sector was nearly eliminated. Private ownership of land was limited to fifty hectares. The remnants of private enterprise and independent farming were permitted to carry on only as a temporary concession to the petite bourgeoisie and the peasantry. The Czechoslovak economy was determined by five-year plans.
The Ninth-of-May Constitution declared the government's intention to collectivize agriculture. In February 1949, the National Assembly adopted the Unified Agricultural Cooperatives Act. Cooperatives were to be founded on a voluntary basis; formal title to land was left vested in the original owners. The imposition of high compulsory quotas, however, forced peasants to collectivize in order to increase efficiency and facilitate mechanization. Discriminatory policies were employed to bring about the ruin of recalcitrant kulaks (wealthy peasants). Collectivization was near completion by 1960. 16% of all farmland (obtained from collaborators and kulaks) had been turned into state farms. Despite the elimination of poor land from cultivation and a tremendous increase in the use of fertilizers and tractors, agricultural production declined seriously. By 1959, pre-war production levels still had not been met. Major causes of the decline were the diversion of labor from agriculture to industry (in 1948 an estimated 2.2 million workers were employed in agriculture; by 1960, only 1.5 million); the suppression of the kulak, the most experienced and productive farmer; and the peasantry's opposition to collectivization, which resulted in sabotage.
The 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia declared the victory of "socialism" and proclaimed the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The ambiguous precept of "democratic centralism" — power emanating from the people but bound by the authority of higher organs — was made a formal part of constitutional law. The president, the cabinet, the Slovak National Council, and the local governments were made responsible to the National Assembly. The National Assembly, however, continued its rubber-stamp approval of KSČ policies. All private enterprises using hired labour were abolished. Comprehensive economic planning was reaffirmed. The Bill of Rights emphasized economic and social rights, e.g., the right to work, leisure, health care, and education. Civil rights, however, were deemphasized. The judiciary was combined with the prosecuting branch; all judges were committed to the protection of the socialist state and the education of citizens in loyalty to the cause of socialism.
De-Stalinization had a late start in Czechoslovakia. The KSČ leadership virtually ignored the Soviet law announced by Nikita Khrushchev February 25, 1956 at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia that April, at the Second Writers' Congress, several authors criticized acts of political repression and attempted to gain control of the writers' congress. The writers' rebellion was suppressed, however, and the conservatives retained control. Students in Prague and Bratislava demonstrated on May Day of 1956, demanding freedom of speech and access to the Western press. The Novotný regime condemned these activities and introduced a policy of neo-Stalinism. After the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956 had been finished by Russian tanks and troops, many Czechs resigned.
Prague Spring (1968)
The Prague Spring (Czech: Pražské jaro) was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II. It began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), and continued until 21 August 1968 when the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded the country to halt the reforms.
The Prague Spring reforms were a strong attempt by Dubček to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. The freedoms granted included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel. After national discussion of dividing the country into a federation of three republics, Bohemia, Moravia-Silesia and Slovakia, Dubček oversaw the decision to split into two, the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. This was the only formal change that survived the end of Prague Spring, though the relative success of the nonviolent resistance undoubtedly prefigured and facilitated the peaceful transition to a free republic with the collapse of Soviet hegemony in 1989.
The reforms, especially the decentralization of administrative authority, were not received well by the Soviets, who, after failed negotiations, sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy the country. A large wave of emigration swept the nation. A spirited non-violent resistance was mounted throughout the country, involving attempted fraternization, painting over and turning street signs (on one occasion an entire invasion force from Poland was routed back out of the country after a day's wandering), defiance of various curfews, etc. While the Soviet military had predicted that it would take four days to subdue the country the resistance held out for eight months, and was only circumvented by diplomatic stratagems (see below). There were sporadic acts of violence and several suicides by self-immolation (such as that of Jan Palach), but there was no military resistance. Czechoslovakia remained Soviet-controlled until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution ended pro-Soviet rule peacefully, undoubtedly drawing upon the successes of the non-violent resistance twenty years earlier. The resistance also became an iconic example of civilian-based defense, which, along with unarmed civilian peacekeeping constitute the two ways that nonviolence can be and occasionally has been applied directly to military or paramilitary threats.
After the invasion, Czechoslovakia entered a period known as "normalization": subsequent leaders attempted to restore the political and economic values that had prevailed before Dubček gained control of the KSČ. Gustáv Husák, who replaced Dubček and also became president, reversed almost all of Dubček's reforms. The Prague Spring inspired music and literature such as the work of Václav Havel, Karel Husa, Karel Kryl, and Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.