Klement Gottwald

It's time now for this week's edition of Czechs in History, and this week Nick Carey takes a look at the life of Czechoslovakia's first Communist president, Klement Gottwald...

Klement Gottwald is a controversial figure in Czech history. During the five years he was president, two hundred and thirty death sentences were handed out, and almost two hundred thousand people were sent to prison and forced labour camps. His name is now indelibly linked with one of Czechoslovakia's darkest periods, but during his presidency he was revered by many, to such an extent that numerous songs such as this one, With President Gottwald, were written in his honour...

Klement Gottwald was born in the South Moravian village of Dedice on November 23rd 1896, the son of a peasant woman. He never knew his father. At the age of twelve he went to work for his uncle, a carpenter in Vienna. Gottwald witnessed the differences between the lives of the rich and the poor in Vienna, and this helped form his political beliefs. In 1912, at the age of sixteen, he became a member of a social democratic youth movement, and remained so until 1915.

By this time, the First World War was in full swing, and in 1915 Klement Gottwald was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, where he served until he deserted in 1918. After the formation of Czechoslovakia in October 1918, Gottwald served in the Czechoslovak army, then worked as a carpenter, until he joined the Communist Party in 1921. He wrote for Communist publications and a workers' movement in Slovakia and Moravia, before coming to Prague in 1926, where his political career took off, according to Dr. Jiri Kocian of the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague:

"Gottwald gathered a group of like-minded members of the Communist Party around him, who opposed the then party leadership, which was more Social Democrat than Communist. Gottwald's group were adherents of the Communist Internationale."

Klement Gottwald became a member of the executive of the Communist Internationale, or Comintern in 1928. In 1929 Gottwald was elected general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.

In November 1929, Klement Gottwald was elected to the Czechoslovak National Assembly, and his first speech in Parliament left little doubt as to what his party wanted:

"We are the party of the Czechoslovak proletariat and our general headquarters are in Moscow. And we go to Moscow to learn, and do you know what we learn? We go to Moscow to learn from the Russian Bolsheviks how to wring your necks."

His speech was widely condemned, and this, as well as Gottwald's adherence to the Comintern were unpopular with party supporters. Jiri Kocian:

"When Gottwald became leader, this met with opposition both outside and inside the party. In the 1925 elections the Communist Party received half a million votes, but within a few months of Gottwald's election, membership dropped to twenty five thousand."

Gottwald's popularity was boosted, ironically, by events in Germany. Jiri Kocian:

"After Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Klement Gottwald moved away from hard-line Comintern policies and co-operated closely with parties like the Social Democrats, who had similar social policies. This was well received by the people, but he was fiercely criticised by Comintern, and he claimed other party members were responsible. Throughout his political career, whenever he was criticised for his policies, Gottwald managed to blame others."

In 1938, Klement Gottwald strongly opposed the Munich Agreement, which forced Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten Lands to Germany. He continued in his opposition after the rest of Czechoslovakia was occupied in March 1939 until the Second World War broke out, and Gottwald fled to Russia. Because Russia and Germany had signed a peace treaty, Gottwald was inactive until Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941. The Czechoslovak government-in-exile was recognised by the Soviets, and after Eduard Benes, the Czechoslovak president, visited Moscow in 1943, Gottwald worked on plans for his country after the war.

Klement Gottwald, Eduard Benes and the representatives of the other main political parties came to an agreement that would reduce the number of political parties in Czechoslovakia after the war, and on a coalition called the National Front, which would work together. Jiri Kocian:

"The Communists came up with a plan that included the reunification and renewal of Czechoslovakia, plus wide social reforms. It was formulated as a national plan, not just a socialist one, and there were no class differences made. This was meant to be a new way to socialism, without blood-letting. Gottwald was well prepared, and other than in a few basic points, the participation of the other political parties in the plan was pitiful."

After the war, an interim government was set up and in the general elections in 1946, the Communist Party took thirty eight percent of the vote, making it the largest party, but lacking a majority. The National Front, made up of all the main political parties, formed a government, with Klement Gottwald as prime minister.

Relations quickly cooled between the parties, particularly in 1947, which also saw the beginning of the Cold War. The Communists began placing party members in high places. This led to disputes within the government, and in Parliament, and the situation reached boiling point in February 1948:

"There was a disputes over the replacement of eight regional Interior Ministry directors with Communist Party members. The rest of the political parties in government demanded that this decision be reversed. When Gottwald refused, they handed their resignation to the president, Eduard Benes on February 25th, thinking that this would force him to call new elections. Instead, he accepted their resignation. Gottwald already had a new government prepared and presented it to Benes, who eventually gave in and approved it."

The other political parties were ill prepared for what happened next. They told regional party representatives not to do anything over the weekend, whilst Klement Gottwald arranged mass rallies, including one on Wenceslas Square, where he gave his most famous speech:

"I have just come from the castle, where I have seen the president of the republic, and I can tell you that he has accepted all of my proposals without making any changes."

The euphoria that greeted the bloodless Communist coup soon faded. Klement Gottwald became president of Czechoslovakia, after Eduard Benes resigned, on June 14th 1948, and what rapidly became a totalitarian regime was now in place. During his presidency, two hundred and thirty death sentences were handed out, and almost two hundred thousand so-called enemies of the state were sent to prison or labour camps. Jiri Kocian:

"The period from 1948 to shortly after Gottwald's death was probably the harshest of the Communist regime. Out of the two hundred and thirty death sentences, about one hundred and eighty people were executed, but this does not include people who were shot while trying to escape from the camps, were beaten to death for minor offences in the camps, or died due to the terrible conditions there. It also, of course, does not include the lives that were ruined. Children who weren't allowed to study because of their parents, families who suffered during the political purges and mass emigration to escape from the Communists. Gottwald is directly responsible for most of what took place after the coup."

It was not only the common people who suffered during the purges. Klement Gottwald turned on members of his party, including some of his closest allies, purging the party in a similar way to another Communist dictator:

"Gottwald worked in exactly the same way as Stalin. Of course, his power was limited, because he was held accountable to Moscow. He was both pragmatic and afraid. He was aware that what he was doing to others could also happen to him, so he removed many of the party's top people. Part of his pragmatism was also out of faith in the party, that there have to be victims in any revolution."

During the last years of his life, Klement Gottwald suffered from health problems, some self-induced, some brought on by his fear of assassination or removal from power:

"He was an alcoholic, and had syphilis. He also suffered from heart problems, and the stress brought about by his fear made this worse. Towards the end, he ceased attending government meetings and became a recluse."

Klement Gottwald went to Moscow to attend Josef Stalin's funeral in early March 1953, and died soon after his return to Prague, on March 14th 1953, the cause of death a burst artery in his heart.