Gustáv Husák – the face of ‘Normalisation’ in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia

Gustáv Husák

History remembers Gustáv Husák, the last communist president of Czechoslovakia, as the face of a spineless regime that ruled during the Normalisation era. He had risen to power in the wake of the Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring – a reform movement that Husák had supported. And while a political prisoner himself in the 1950s, he went on to overse the persecution of opposition activists in the 1970s and ‘80s. Ahead of the 30th anniversary of his death, we reflect upon Husák’s remarkable life.

Gustáv Husák was born in 1913 in a borough of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, to an unemployed worker. He joined the Communist Youth Union when in grammar school and went on to study law at university. During the war, he was jailed repeatedly by the Nazi puppet state for engaging in illegal Communist party activity.

After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, Husák helped crush the anti-communist Christian Democratic Party of Slovakia. Despite such credentials, he fell victim to a Stalinist purge in 1950 and was sentenced to life in prison as a “bourgeois nationalist”. But Husák remained a stalwart Communist until his death, two years almost to the very day after the start of the Velvet Revolution.

Photo: Vyšehrad

Historian Michal Macháček is the author of a celebrated biography of Gustáv Husák. He says that perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was his unbreakable will and the strength of his political convictions, which led to such dramatic reversals of fortune.

“He was a survivor… He spent nine years in prison, and it’s important to note that he was one of the few who didn’t confess [in the Stalinist show trials]. His ‘comrades’ did horrible things to people – we’re talking about torturing prisoners – which he also experienced when imprisoned during the war.

“But he persevered, and even in a staged trial, he stood his ground, said what he believed. There were only isolated such cases. Husák managed to remain politically active from the 1930s until the late 1980s. It was rare for someone to last so long in politics. His is the story of a Communist official expelled three times – from his own party.”

Gustáv Husák was released from prison in 1960, and allowed to re-join the Communist Party in 1963, at a time when reformist elements held the reins of power. Although seemingly a zealous reformer himself, Husák came to power after the ouster of Alexander Dubček, who had famously sought to build “socialism with a human face”.

Michal Macháček | Photo: Věra Luptáková,  Czech Radio

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 engendered a wave of spontaneous popular protest and an international outcry, both of which were a major embarrassment to Moscow. The Soviet leadership needed someone who could control the situation – and that someone could not be a known “apparatchik”.

Gustáv Husák fit the bill and in April 1969, replaced Alexandr Dubček as leader of Czechoslovakia’s communist party. Some thought he would try to preserve some liberties from the Prague Spring, but instead Husák launched extensive purges in all sectors of the society.

Husák today is sometimes remembered as a tragicomic figure – his New Year’s speeches, delivered in an odd mixture of the Czech and Slovak languages, by a detached old man with thick glasses were the object of ridicule.

But in his prime, Husák displayed a dazzling intellect, biographer Michal Macháček says.

“He was among the intellectual elite [in the Party] who had a solid education, with perspective. He was rhetorically and linguistically gifted. Although it doesn’t seem like it from later years, he was an excellent orator. A man who could speak articulately without notes at great length, engage audiences. And that helped him in his political career.”

With the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, Gustáv Husák rose slowly to the very top of the communist hierarchy, becoming president in 1975. Although rather a centrist than a hardliner, the regime he represented jailed opposition activists, including his eventual successor, Václav Havel.

Gustáv Husák | Photo: Jozef Kotulič,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Husák was replaced as leader of the communist party in 1987 by the bizarre character Milouš Jakeš. But he was not forced to resign as president until December 10, 1989, just shy of three weeks before Parliament would elected Václav Havel president.

The specific date of his Husák’s resignation was no accident, notes historian Michal Macháček.

“He left on December 10, which is Human Rights Day. That day was not chosen by chance – it was chosen by Václav Havel, as one of the main leaders of the opposition.

“It was symbolic for Husák to leave power on Human Rights Day and he knew it and did not like it, but he was forced to do so under pressure by the opposition and the new Communist Party leadership.

“The opposition insisted, and Husák complied.”

Gustáv Husák served as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia from 1969 until 1987 and as president of Czechoslovakia from 1975 to 1989. He will forever be remembered as the living embodiment of the long, grey period of Normalisation.