The Košice manifesto – the 1945 document that sealed Czechoslovakia’s eastern orientation

Košice Programme

On April 5, 1945 the newly formed Czechoslovak government agreed on a manifesto known as the Košice Programme. It clearly delineated the future of the country as a Soviet ally – and can be seen as laying the groundwork for the eventual Communist takeover in 1948.

Košice Programme
In the final weeks of the war, while the Red Army was pushing through Slovakia, a new government was formed with the backing of both the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and the Communist Party, on April 4th, 1945.

A day later it produced its manifesto, which has become known as the Košice government programme, a document that largely foreshadowed Czechoslovakia’s foreign policy for the next 44 years. Furthermore, whether it was through political enlightenment officers within the army, or national councils, the programme established many internal policies reminiscent of those used in the USSR.

These policies would have been virtually unacceptable to any systemic party of the First Republic.

Yet while this was a document penned by the Czechoslovak Communist Party, it actually received the approval and support of the democratic parties that made up the country’s government-in-exile, who attended the negotiations on the programme a month earlier in Moscow.

A failure of the democrats

Vít Smetana,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková / Czech Radio
Historian Vít Smetana, who specialises in Czechoslovak diplomatic history around the time of the Second World War, says that democratic consensus was the result of a much longer realignment process that followed the Munich Agreement of 1938.

“The democrat negotiators arrived in Moscow not very well prepared and the very fact that their country should be tied to the USSR was by then regarded that something basically given and more than welcome. The recent experience with Western countries, I am talking in particular about the Munich Agreement, affected the mind-set of democratic politicians. The bulk of them had come to the conclusion that the security of Czechoslovakia could only be attained through cooperation with another country, for example the great power to the east. The Soviet occupation of the bulk of their country it only strengthened their conviction that it was the only option.”

Members of established democratic parties, who spent the war in exile in London, increasingly started to accept radical solutions to their country’s future economic and social policies. Therefore, the programme they were presented with in Moscow was largely acceptable to them.

“Nothing that was proposed was really a new thing. When we look at the exile discussions, we can see that some of these radical ideas were being put forward by democratic parties. For example, the Social Democrats saw the question of the future economic development of the country as their flagship policy and they really thought that the economic structure of the country should be shifted towards economic planning and a vast nationalisation of the economy."

Edvard Beneš,  photo: Bain News Service,  Library of Congress,  Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain
While it may seem naïve from today’s perspective, many of the leading exile figures believed in a post-war system where communist and democratic institutions would coexist and create a better society. President Beneš, who played a pivotal role in the exile government, was a believer in the so-called “convergence theory”, which foresaw continued co-operation between the Soviet Union and the West after the war, while also admitting that democracy could and even should be infused with certain social policies that had been implemented in the Soviet Union.

Even US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to some extent believed that democratic and societal systems would converge to create a mixture that would be more progressive, democratic and bring social justice.

This belief on the side of Beneš, coupled with the Czech tradition of romanticising Russia and the disillusionment with the Western powers following the Munich Agreement, created a willingness to submit to Soviet and communist doctrine unimaginable just ten years earlier.

Furthermore, the democratic delegation had failed to prepare any sort of strategy going into the Moscow meetings. The prime minister of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, Jan Šrámek, did not even bother to show up, says Vít Smetana.

“We have some records showing that he cared more about the quantity of his wine allocations for personal use. He recommended to Beneš that he should not care about these negotiations either, that he should lie down and not worry. He only came to the negotiations at the final stages when governmental positions were being decided.”

The Communist strategy

Jan Šrámek
It seems that the Communists on the other hand were very well prepared and drafted the manifesto with a larger strategic vision.

“What we do know is that Grigory Dimitrov [leader of the Comintern] had approved the Communist proposal for the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s programme. When the Comintern still existed in 1943 the Czechoslovak Communists received orders telling them to seek a larger sort of people’s front model and get authentic support from the people, for this they needed to cooperate with progressive political parties. Meanwhile, radical solutions involving Sovietization and Communist revolution were to be postponed for the future.”

The Communists used the lack of preparation on the democrat side wisely. Aware that one of the delegations, the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party, was still very nationalistically oriented, they pushed hard on the Slovak question, diverting attention from the subject of national committees and economic nationalisation which were present in the manifesto. The strategy was successful, with the democratic delegation ending up haggling about Slovakia, rather than the Communist policies.

Part of the manifesto laid out the groundwork for the severe retributions against parts of the German and Hungarian population, as well as anyone who was viewed as having collaborated with the Nazi regime.

The Communists had made sure to secure key positions within the Košice government. Aside from Communist Party members in charge of the ministries of interior, information and education, they also placed “their men” in the positions of prime minister and defence minister.

In a clever move, the Communists also secured the Ministry of Agriculture, which awarded land to citizens following the retributions in regions such as the Sudetenland, winning them many potential voters.

In the interest of winning more voters, the democrats also agreed with the communist proposal to ban the Republican Party of Farmers and Peasants, which had been the largest political party in the state before World War Two. It’s banning essentially disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of farmers, who the other parties now hoped to seize.

Revolutionary changes

Klement Gottwald | Photo: Czech Radio
Aside from these measures, there was also the commitment to huge economic nationalisation, which Vít Smetana says extended to four-fifths of the economy.

“It was a huge nationalisation, which affected about 80 percent of the economy. If some historians say that other, even Western countries nationalised parts of their economies it should be put into context. When it comes to Britain or France, the scale of nationalisation did not exceed 10 percent. The vast amount of nationalisation in Czechoslovakia led to serious economic problems in the short term, including problems in production, inefficiency and the planning economy.”

Despite these almost revolutionary measures, or precisely because of them, the programme seems to have been welcomed by much of the population.

“According to some records that we do have, such as diaries and memoirs it seems that the vast majority of the population accepted the programme as a reasonable solution to the problems that their country had gone through, especially the Great Depression and the Munich Agreement.”

While it may have seemed enticing in the period immediately following World War Two, time would show that it had been a fatal mistake to rely so heavily on the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. The manifesto laid out the framework for a system that made the eventual fall into totalitarianism virtually inescapable.

According to Vít Smetana, that April day in 1945 when the manifesto was unveiled undoubtedly ranks among the most important dates of the Czechoslovak 20th century.

“It was definitely very important because the programme came up with some new phenomena such as the introduction of censorship on anything that was anti-Soviet. It was then implemented during the pre-electoral campaign. Of course there was also this very radical change to the political system, which was suddenly derived from the will of the people. Not measured by the results of elections, but the people were able to appoint and recall their representatives at meetings that were set up just with the intention to get rid of someone. It implemented the retribution which was abused for several years by communists to get rid of their political rivals.

"So, if I had to rank it among the most important dates of the Czechoslovak 20th century, it would certainly be among the top 10.”