Communist coup confirmed Czechoslovak reality but was wake-up call for West

Клемент Готтвальд (Фото: Архив Чешского радио)

For around 40 years, so-called Victorious February was sacred for the Czechoslovak communist regime. The period from around February 17 and culminating on February 25 marked the party’s seizure of power when leader Klement Gottwald was finally named as prime minister of a communist dominated government.

Klement Gottwald | Photo: Czech Radio
The event that sparked the crisis that led to the communist coup was the resignation of ‘democratic’ ministers from the hitherto uneasy coalition that had governed since the end of the war. And then there was president Edvard Beneš’ decision to confirm Gottwald and the communists in power rather than dissolve the government and call elections.

Professor Igor Lukeš is one of the best known Czech historians worldwide, currently teaching history and international relations at Boston University in the United States. I asked him whether the ‘democratic’ ministers really had any other option than to resign when they did and spark the crisis that ended with the coup.

ʺRegarding the resignation of the democratic ministers, there certainly may have been some confusion. I bet they were really surprised to discover that Jan Masaryk [the then foreign minister] had failed to join them. But I think to try and just explain the whole thing as some kind of childish error or some kind of political mistake made by political neophytes, I think that is not accurate. I think that if the democratic ministers had stayed then they would have become complicit in the dismantling of whatever remained at that stage of Czech democracy. And therefore they simply had to go. They had to distance themselves from what the communists, especially in the Ministry of Interior were doing.ʺ

That probably brings us onto the second key moment when the president, Edvard Beneš basically allowed the communists to form their own government headed by Klement Gottwald. Was there much room for manoeuvre for Beneš to do anything else or did he concede to what he more or less had to do?

ʺBeneš was who he was and so he remained true to himself.ʺ

ʺWell, given the limitations of Beneš’ personality, he probably had no room for manoeuvre. But the country at that stage deserved a different, a better president. But Beneš was Beneš and he thought within a very narrow framework. He could not imagine some dramatic, heroic, action and so he did in 1948 what he had done earlier in 1938 and essentially accepted what he considered to be the inevitable. But, of course, had he been a Pole or of pretty much any other nationality that I can think of he probably would not have done it. But Beneš was who he was and so he remained true to himself.

ʺAnd the second point that needs to be made is that he was really a shell of a man at that stage. He was desperately ill. True to the time, his medical condition was well concealed from the public. He had suffered a number of various serious medical mishaps at least from the Spring of 1945. Even at the time he was still in Britain, he suffered a minor stroke. He woke up, he was blind, he could not speak, at least a small stroke. And that continued on at least two occasions in post-war Prague. He suffered on two occasions he suddenly lost the ability to read a text, he became disorientated and couldn’t see and so on. So he really was a shell of a man, an empty suit as I think somebody put it once, one of the people, professor Černy who visited him after his resignation. So his poor health is really the second factor that contributed to Beneš’ decision to accept what already was a diktat by Gottwald, Slanský, by Kopecký and these rough, rough, players against whom Beneš simply stood no chance.ʺ

Edvard Beneš,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Maybe we should go back a little way to the immediate post-war and maybe earlier to the end of war period. The democratic forces in Czechoslovakia such as they were had already made a lot of concessions by the end of the war. They had already accepted the Kosice programme, basically a communist programme for how post war Czechoslovakia would develop. There were a series of other concessions about what old parties would be banned, such as the Agrarian Party, if I remember correctly. So, in what way was post-war Czechoslovakia seriously flawed as a democracy and what were the chances to eventually stave off what was the eventual communist coup?

ʺLet me make two quick points on this. First of all, Czechoslovakia was part of the post war movement in Europe to the left. That can be detected not only in the notorious countries like France and Italy where communist parties almost made it into government coalition and the CIA subsequently worked very hard to keep them out. But even in Britain, as everybody knows, Churchill was voted out of office and replaced by a nonentity and the Labour Party was essentially a Marxist party. There was a general trend in Europe towards left of centre ideologies.

ʺNow specifically in Czechoslovakia this was even worse because of the experience at Munich where the once revered Western allies, especially France and to a lesser extent Great Britain, had become tainted in the eyes of the Czech public by what was perceived as a betrayal. And that elevated Stalin to a rather unique position in the eyes of the Czech public. Not only in the eyes of the communists who had accepted the ideology in many cases before the war and in larger numbers during the war but also in the eyes of the opportunists who saw in the immediate post war period, and this was clearly visible in the very first free elections in May 1946. It could be seen that the communists were on the way up and if you wanted to get a better apartment, if you wanted to get property that became available because the Germans had been expelled, if one wanted a better job or better career, a better anything then one would be well served by joining the communist party. So I think there were these two trends: one was a general European trend to the left and then there was the specific Czech experience of Munich which set the Czechs aside from the context of such countries as Poland, of course Hungary, and other countries in the neighbourhood that had no illusions.ʺ

ʺThe battle for Czechoslovakia’s post war identity in Europe was fought in the field of values.ʺ

If we look at history there was a similar attempt at that time of a communist takeover in Finland. In that example the democratic forces repelled that…

ʺExactly, and this is a wonderful argument against the view that it was Czechoslovakia’s position on the map that made its communist identity and pro-Moscow political orientation in post WW2 Europe inevitable. Finland though obviously was a lot closer to Russia, or the Soviet Union, and moreover there was a whole history of Russia dominating Finland whereas none of this had existed in previous Czech or Czechoslovak history.ʺ

Coming back to the degree of Communist takeover prior to February 1948, you mentioned the Ministry of Interior. That was pretty much dominated by the communists and it was moves to increase their domination over the police that actually led to the democratic parties protesting. But how about the rest of the structures as they were, the army for example. Did the communists reall y have control over most of the levers in the run up to February?

ʺYes, by 1947 it became perfectly clear that the communist party had established a complete control over all of the power institutions of the government and that included not only the most notorious enforcement institutions such as the police, the secret police, intelligence agencies and so on and the whole Ministry of Interior. But it included most famously also the armed services. Although the minister was on paper not a member of any political party, in reality he was really a communist stooge and proved himself to be such very quickly. On top of that, pretty much in every ministry, even though that were technically controlled by the democrats - and those were the second class ministries such as the Ministry for Postal Services – even there the communists had well developed networks that allowed the central committee to be informed about everything. But most importantly, and I think this is often forgotten, the battle for Czechoslovakia’s post war identity in Europe was fought in the field of values, in the realm of values. And this is where the communists had won well before they established control over the police, the army, and all the other instruments of power. It really had to do with values…ʺ

Igor Lukeš,  photo: Ian Willoughby
They had won most of the arguments apparently…

ʺWell, the point was that essentially the democrats had accepted what the communists argued. This was that the West and Capitalism were deeply flawed systems to wit the great economic crisis that had started with the collapse of the stock market in New York in 1929 and then ruined the whole decade of the 1930s all the way to the outbreak of WW2. In fact, the stock market did not recovery until Pearl Harbour. Very few people now remember that. So when the war was over very few people were willing to say that all was well until September 1, 1939.ʺ

One final point, to what extent do you think that the Western powers were caught sleeping when the communists did take over In February 1948? Churchill started giving percentages on various bits of paper [for Communist and Western domination] for countries in Central Europe and the Balkans, I think Czechoslovakia was about 50:50 between the West and the Soviet Union. Was the West not paying attention or do you agree that they were inactive?

ʺHere I would have to disagree with the premise of your question. First of all, Czechoslovakia was never mentioned on that piece of paper that included the percentages. It really included the Balkans and Hungary. The fate of Poland was determined already in Tehran in 1943 and then more explicitly in Yalta in February, 1945, and then affirmed finally at Potsdam after WW2. But the future of Czechoslovakia was never discussed at Tehran, it was never discussed at Yalta, and was not mentioned on that piece of paper with percentages. And in fact the United States specifically identified Czechoslovakia as the laboratory which needed to be watched very, very closely. American experts said already in 1944 that they would be able to discern in post war Czechoslovakia if a peaceful coexistence with Stalin would be possible. If the Czechs, who had done more than anybody else in their part of the world to signal that they could coexist with Stalin, if they could maintain their democratic identity – albeit in some limited form let’s say along the line of Finland – then America would know that peaceful coexistence was possible. But if even the Czechs were to be thrown into the communist abattoir, then Washington would know that peaceful coexistence with Stalin was not possible. And this is why February 1948 was so hugely relevant. In the context of Czech history it is really a non- event in the sense that it only confirmed what had already happened at least by 1947. It only affirmed that the communists ruled everything…ʺ

But for the West it was a wake up call…

ʺIt was an absolute eye opener. It was a wake- up call and it was a call to mobilisation.ʺ

ʺIt was an absolute eye opener. It was a wake- up call and it was a call to mobilisation. That is why shortly after the coup five Western European countries signed a defensive agreement and a year later the United States and Canada and other countries joined and that gave birth to NATO. NATO in 1949 meant that the Russians could not gain any other territory in Europe but it also meant that the Cold War had become militarised and therefore frozen in a kind of balance of power that would hold communist rule over the whole area all the way up to the end of 1989.ʺ