Gustav Husak - Czech history's forgotten man

Gustav Husak

In this edition of Czechs in History, we look at the life and career of Gustav Husak, a Slovak native who left an indelible mark on Czech history as the last communist president of Czechoslovakia. Gustav Husak was born in Bratislava in 1913. A gifted and talented student, he trained as a lawyer at Comenius University, where he also joined the Communist Party in 1933.

As a committed anti-fascist, Husak first came to prominence as one of the leaders of the Slovak uprising against a Nazi-puppet government in 1944. He was elected onto the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the same year.

He subsequently held a number of government and party posts after the communists came to power in 1948, but his lively political opinions and intellectual leanings had already aroused suspicions among the party leadership. During party purges in 1951, he was imprisoned as an opponent of Josef Stalin and in 1954 he was formally convicted as a "bourgeois nationalist." He was to remain in jail until 1960.

After his release, he began reestablishing himself politically, and was allowed to rejoin the Communist Party in 1963.

The 1960s saw a softening of the political climate in Czechoslovakia, as reformist elements within the Communist Party sought to establish the "socialism with a human face" espoused by people like Alexander Dubcek.

In such a climate, Husak's experience as the victim of a Stalinist purge in the 1950s gave him a lot of political capital, which - as historian Vilem Precan explains - the ambitious Slovak made every effort to exploit:

Alexander Dubcek
"After he was rehabilitated in the Party in 1964 he was offered the position of deputy minister of justice, which he rejected. He realised that he could not make a comeback using a straightforward route, so he tried to reestablish himself in politics in a roundabout way, by criticising the established regime and the established leadership. He did this and many of us saw some hope in him."

Vilem Precan first met Gustav Husak around this time and, as a young reform-minded historian, he was impressed by the older man's intellectual prowess and credentials as a former political prisoner.

"I had the impression of a very strong personality, with some charisma, which was able to convince the listener. He was the only politician of that time who could speak without a script. I was thirty years old. And I had great respect for him at that time. Later, when I got to know him better, I was not only dissatisfied, I was disgusted."

Vilem Precan
Initially, however, Mr Precan, like many others, was dazzled by Husak's seemingly zealous enthusiasm for reform during the time of the Prague Spring, which helped him become Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party under Alexander Dubcek in 1968.

Unfortunately, however, Mr Precan and other supporters of reform were to discover that Husak would prove to be more interested in his own self-advancement than in effecting any great social changes:

"He was an orthodox communist. This was his belief, but at the same time he was a great manipulator. He was a man of power. His fanaticism for power - to share in power and to occupy the top position was his ambition. And he was able to sacrifice everything in pursuit of this goal. He could sacrifice his name, his word, and even his closest friends. Anything. So he was not a man of principle."

The defining moment in Husak's political career arrived during the cataclysmic events of August 1968.

August 1968
The Warsaw Pact's invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union's heavy-handed efforts to crush the Prague Spring engendered a wave of spontaneous popular protest and provoked an international outcry, which was a major embarrassment to Moscow.

The Czechoslovak population's unexpectedly fierce resistance to the Warsaw Pact invasion left the Soviet leadership desperate for someone who could control the situation. Aware of the fact that simply installing a known apparatchik as leader would probably provoke further unrest, they were desperate for someone with reformist credentials who could still be influenced by Moscow to help reestablish order.

Vilem Precan believes the situation was a perfect opportunity for Gustav Husak to finally fulfil his yearning for power:

"You see in 1968, the invasion turned out to be a political disaster, which was apparent in two or three days. Because you cannot control a country when the population resists. And so the Soviets badly needed a man like Husak with trust among the population and the will and ability to consolidate the country - to make peace and to pacify the country and its population, and to quell the popular resistance. And Husak was this man. At that time the Soviets needed the Czechoslovak question to disappear from European politics and not be the open wound that it then was. So they needed Gustav Husak badly."

Once he had been installed as Party Secretary in April 1969, Husak quickly abandoned any reformist pretensions and reinstituted strong Party control over the Czechoslovak economy, state, and society.

During this period of so-called "normalisation" Czechoslovakia became a police state with a huge network of government informants. It is a period many Czechs consider to be one of the darkest in their history, and few tears were shed when Husak was forced to resign as president following the collapse of communism in 1989. He died in relative obscurity two years later.

Vilem Precan believes it is ironic that Husak spent so much time pursuing the trappings of power that he neglected to leave behind any worthwhile legacy as the country's leader:

"I can't say that he made any positive contribution. And he is forgotten. And the era of Husak's normalisation was a black time in the Czech and Slovak past. He has been forgotten and I think this is his great punishment. We feel no need to put him on any trial - real or imaginative, because his policies and the things he did were finally vanquished. We are here and we live in freedom. And Gustav Husak is forgotten."