A. J. P. Taylor in 1946: a British historian predicts democracy under communism for Czechoslovakia

A. J. P. Taylor, photo: YouTube

This week in our series to mark Radio Prague’s 80th birthday we feature a recording made in the summer of 1946, when Radio Prague was exactly ten years old. A. J. P. Taylor was one of the best known and respected historians of mid-twentieth century Britain, and on a visit to Czechoslovakia he predicted a future for the country that would combine pluralist, parliamentary democracy with communism. David Vaughan has more.

A. J. P. Taylor, photo: YouTube
In the first post-war democratic elections in July 1946, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia emerged as the strongest political force. They did not have an overall majority, but were the biggest single party in a new coalition government, led by their party leader Klement Gottwald. This was still a year-and-a-half before Gottwald spearheaded the political coup that swept away the entire non-communist opposition, and in the West, many on the left still saw developments in Czechoslovakia as a model of democratic socialism. One was the British historian A. J. P. Taylor, who came to Czechoslovakia just after the 1946 vote. He gave a talk to Radio Prague.

This is A. J. P. Taylor, speaking to you from Prague. It’s a strange feeling for an Englishman to be talking again from Prague and to realize that after all these years of darkness something has come right in the world and that not all the hopes of the years of war have proved barren.

Anglo-American University student George Phillips puts the recording into context.

GP: “A. J. P. Taylor was famously anti-fascist and staunchly left-wing, so his views were that the rise of communism was a positive thing and that, despite their defeat in the Second World War, Germany remained the biggest threat to Europe at that time.”

George Phillips, photo: Markéta Jirovská
There was still euphoria after the liberation of most of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army, but is there any reference in the talk to the influence of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia at the time?

GP: “There doesn’t appear to be. Taylor seems to be pretty convinced that communism is the way to go. He seems to think that it will be a purely good thing and he encourages the Czech people to support the new government and the alliance that is forming between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. So he seems very much in favour.”

I came here too late to see the elections but I’ve been all over the country and talked with people of all classes, and I can say this without any fear of contradiction or shadow of a doubt. This was really a free election. It was conducted with a spirit and with high arguments of which any country in the world could be proud. And now, with the new government, Czechoslovakia is starting on an experiment which is of the greatest interest to every democratic country. For the first time in any country there is a communist prime minister who has reached his position by strictly democratic methods. On the other hand, this isn’t a communist government. It’s a coalition. The communists haven’t got a majority in the parliament. They’re the biggest single party and even if they haven’t got the power, they have, I think, the biggest share of the responsibility. That’s an important difference. It means that in future the communists are going to be blamed if things go wrong, instead of being able to blame others. They’re going to have to use their popularity not to make difficulties but now in order to get things done. It was a novel experience to hear a communist prime minister say, as I did the day before yesterday, that the period of nationalization was over and that now the people must get down to hard work. In fact, in power the communists look very much like any other patriotic politician, overwhelmed with practical problems and anxious to do the best for their country. There will, of course, be plenty of disputes between the parties. In fact there are already. They agree, roughly, broadly, generally, on economic matters. They’re not so likely to agree so easily, so completely, on, say, questions of education, on the organization of the youth. But it looks very much as though the parties will stick together in order to overcome the economic difficulties which are facing the country.

Looking back, exactly 70 years later, how did you feel? What insights did it give you into the time?

GP: “With hindsight I can’t say he was anything other than totally wrong in his predictions. But it was interesting to see the left-wing view at that time of what the benefits of communism might be for Europe and also to see how the people of Europe felt threatened still by Germans, following their domination in the war.”

The whole of Czech industrial life was geared into the German economy and now, if Czechoslovakia is to maintain its present high standard of life, the Czechs have got to find new outlets for their industrial capacity. That’s the explanation for the trade agreement with Russia. The best service the Western countries could do to Czechoslovakia would be to get trade with the West going again on a big scale. What’s even more important for the Czechs is that the neighbouring countries should recover a certain amount of order and prosperity. Czechoslovakia can’t go on indefinitely as a prosperous, democratic island, surrounded by countries in confusion and collapse. On every frontier of Czechoslovakia there’s hunger and dictatorship, sometimes the dictatorship of an occupying power, sometimes of a political party. Very little is left of the Little Entente, which gave Czechoslovakia an outstanding position 20 years ago. The Czechs are on bad terms with the Poles, who are still demanding the district of Těšín, the district which Colonel Beck seized in collaboration with the Germans in 1938. Not surprisingly, the Czechs reject everything connected with Munich [the Munich Agreement of 1938], not merely the surrender of territory to the Germans, but to the Poles as well. The Poles, on their side, carry on agitation about Těšín, I think, to compensate themselves for the loss of territory in the east. And, in fact, in the same way, the Hungarians are demanding a revision of the Slovak frontier, in order, perhaps, to compensate themselves for having got nothing in Transylvania. I don’t think that either the Poles or the Hungarians will get anything for their agitation, but, as long as it goes on, it’s a bar to peaceful cooperation.

Polish tanks in Český Těšín, photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

At that time, in 1946, it was just when the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia were being expelled. Does Taylor mention that?

GP: “He does. He says it’s impossible now for Germans to remain in Czechoslovakia, given the seven years of totalitarianism that the Czech people have just suffered at the hands of the Germans.”

No one who has seen and heard what the Germans did in this country can doubt that it’s impossible now to keep Germans here as citizens. This terror wasn’t the act of a few SS men. It was really the expression of the spirit of a whole people. The Germans have to go. But that transfer is being organized as decently and as humanely as possible, and all the same the great majority of Czechs don’t like it. They don’t like the whole thing. They feel that it’s a defeat for the principles that they tried to defend, a defeat imposed on them by Hitler, but a defeat all the same. They are ashamed, as we in England were ashamed at many of the methods that we had to use in order to win the war.

In the previous programme in this series, we went back to the weeks just after the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and we saw how Czechs remained haunted by a fear of Germany. A. J. P. Taylor’s talk reminds us just how huge a factor this was in determining Czechoslovakia’s policy towards both Germany and the Soviet Union in the years just after the war. Taylor says that the Czechs will be willing to pay “any price” not to face a revival of German aggression. Little did most Czechs realize quite how high a price their country would end up paying.

One terrible shadow hangs over the land. It comes into people’s lives, it takes away any real feeling of security, and that shadow is the problem of Germany. The Czechs have had seven years of German occupation and they will pay any price not to have it again. That’s the reason for the Russian alliance, which is supported by everyone in the country, of whatever class or whatever party. As the prime minister said in his speech the other day, the Russian alliance is for us not just a question of safety but even of existence. If a Great Germany is ever restored, Czech democracy and Czech independence will again be lost. The Czechs are at a loss to understand the policy of Great Britain and the United States. They feel that in the anxiety to feed the Germans and make them capable of standing on their own feet, the real German problem is being forgotten. If the Western powers really care for democracy east of the Rhine, they must end for good and all the possibility of a new German aggression. Democracy can only flourish in conditions of security. Czechoslovak democracy will only survive if the shadow of Germany is removed forever. It seems to me it’s up to us, democratic countries of the West, not to let this democratic people down for a second time.

The irony of Taylor’s words is enormous. The events of the following few years were to show that dictatorship is not a matter of the DNA of a particular nation. Germany changed, and by a tragic irony, it was the Soviet Union, the country that had sacrificed more than any other for the liberation of Czechoslovakia, that was to deprive the country of the pluralist democracy so much praised by Taylor.

Just eighteen months after the British historian’s visit to Czechoslovakia, on 25 February 1948, the Communist Party leader and Prime Minister Klement Gottwald staged what amounted to a bloodless coup, pushing non-communist ministers out of the government and ultimately leaving President Edvard Beneš with no choice but to resign. None of this would have been possible without the conspicuous behind-the-scenes support of Stalin’s Soviet Union and its agents in Czechoslovakia. By May 1948, Czechoslovakia had a new constitution, defining the country as a “people’s democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party”.