1945–1948: Czechoslovakia’s road to Communism

US army soldiers

A question that never ceases to intrigue Czechs: Could their country have joined the democratic fold of nations if the US army had liberated Prague in 1945?

In 1945 the greater part of Czechoslovakia was liberated from Nazi occupation by the Soviet Army. But unlike Poland, Hungary, and the Balkan countries it did not immediately and automatically become one of the Soviet Bloc countries.

February 1948,  Prague | Photo: Czech Television

From 1945 to 1948 Czechoslovakia teetered between democracy and hard-line Communist rule. In fact, the American ambassador to Prague at the time, Laurence Steinhardt, and his Western colleagues were sending reassuring  dispatches back home that all was well with Czechoslovak democracy right until the coup d’etat in 1948.

Most Czechs also initially expected a return to democracy and the values of the First Republic. But gradually, the Communists took control of key ministries and then of the whole government in 1948 and the country became a Soviet satellite.

A question that Czechs often ask themselves is whether their country could have joined the democratic fold of nations if the US army had liberated Prague in 1945.

Czech-American historian Igor Lukeš addresses the question in a fascinating book titled “On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague”.

Could the fate of Czechoslovakia have been different, if only the US Third Army led by General George Patton had not stopped in Western Bohemia and gone on to liberate Prague? Historian Igor Lukeš:

Igor Lukeš | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“The answer is absolutely yes! I interviewed the CIA station chief in Prague at that time Spencer Taggart. He kept telling the Czechoslovak political leaders that America was going to help them, that it was behind them, that it was in the United States’ interest to keep Czechoslovakia democratic. And what he often got was people shrugging their shoulders and saying: ‘Well, the Russians got here first.’”

Right from the start the Soviet Union used the fact that they got to Prague first to give the homegrown Communists political advantage which they used to its full potential.

In the full audio interview, Igor Lukeš explains, why Czechoslovakia was not able to follow the path of Austria or Finland, which were able to hold on to democracy and a market economy in return for a promise to remain neutral.