President Gustáv Husák, the face of Czechoslovakia’s “normalisation”

Gustáv Husák

The last communist president of Czechoslovakia Gustáv Husák became the symbol of the spineless regime that ruled the country after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Himself a political prisoner in the 1950s, he oversaw the persecution of opposition activists in the 1970s and 80s – an intellectual who supported the reforms of the Prague Spring turned into the Soviet Union’s lackey. We look at the life of Gustáv Husák on the 99th anniversary of his birth.

The year is 1975, the place is Prague Castle. Gustáv Husák is being sworn in as the president of Czechoslovakia, seven years after the Soviet invasion of the country. The 62-year-old Slovak politician reached the top of the power pyramid and was to remain there, in the dual position of the communist party leader and the country’s president, for the next 12 years.

Gustáv Husák became the face of what Czechs know as the normalization, a period which saw the restoration of communist rule following the defeat of the Prague Spring of 1968. His picture hung in every classroom in Czechoslovakia and his New Years addresses (delivered year after year in an odd mixture of the Czech and Slovak languages) were a ritual that reflected an overwhelming atmosphere of resignation. Historian Jan Adamec is the editor of Prague Cold War, a website dedicated to the history of the 20th century.

“This was an indication that the so-called normalization, the cleansing process, was over. It’s done, and now we have to build socialism [communism]. He was a formal representative, he went on foreign visits; he was the face of Czechoslovakia. He did strictly what the Soviets wanted, both in foreign and domestic policy.

“What followed was a decade of political stagnation, and for Husák personally, a period of loneliness. His collaborators later said he was quite lonely, sitting at his office at Prague Castle. Not that he didn’t do anything, but practical politics were over.”

August 1968
Handpicked by Moscow to replace the reformist communist leader Alexander Dubček and to bring his country back under full domination of the Soviet Union, Gustáv Husák was not an obvious choice. Jailed by his party for ten years in the 1950s, he supported the reform efforts of his fellow Slovak Dubček. Historian Zdeněk Doskočil explains what made the Soviets choose Husák.

“They found out that despite his pro-reform rhetoric of 1968, he remained an orthodox communist whose ideas of the regime did not deviate from the Soviet model, and they knew he respected Soviet dominance in the eastern bloc. But it was also important that he had been a victim of the political trials of the 1950s, which was to demonstrate that even people like him could again play a role in the society.

“They thought it would calm public concerns that the persecution of the 1950s would return because Husák experienced it first hand. At the same time, his pro-reform past was to placate the intellectuals. It was also good for the Soviet leadership which could use his activities in 1968 to keep him under control.”

In April of 1969, Gustáv Husák replaced Alexandr Dubček as the leader of Czechoslovakia’s communist party. Some people thought he would try to defend some of the liberties of the Prague Spring but Husák was fully aware that was not the way to go. After the brutal repression of rallies protesting against the Soviet occupation, Husák launched extensive purges in all sectors of the society. A year later, he gave a famous speech calling for purity in the communist party.

Alexander Dubček
But why did Gustáv Husák become the chief collaborator with the occupiers? Zdeněk Doskočil believes he had illusions about his role as the head of the new regime, and thought the Soviets would - sooner or later - leave him room to manoeuvre.

“Husák did not have a very clear idea of the changes he would carry out. I think he knew he would have to subdue any opposition to the Soviet occupation, and hoped that in return, he would be able to pursue his own policies at home. But for a variety of reasons that space never opened up for him as Moscow was not interested.”

Some of the reasons why Husák never succeeded in pursuing more autonomous policies had to with his political style according to Zdeněk Doskočil who says he was very strong at the time of crisis but lacked perspective and strategic concepts.

“Husák was a dynamic politician and he did his best at times of great struggles; that’s why he shone in the 1940s, and then again in 1968 and 1969 when the situation was changing from one day to another and it was necessary to react swiftly. But when the turbulence passed and instead, it was time for strategic concepts, Husák failed because he was not that type of politician.”

Husák’s background was different from many other prominent communists in Czechoslovakia. He joined the party as a law school student in Bratislava; while most of the party leaders in Bohemia and Moravia were arrested during the war, Slovak communists were able to operate legally in the independent Slovak state, a satellite of Nazi Germany. Husák’s rise to power began during the Slovak National uprising. He was the author of a memorandum suggesting Slovakia should become part of the Soviet Union.

Former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev,  Gustáv Husák
But that did not spare him from the purges of the 1950s following the communist seizure of power. As a leading member of the Slovak branch of the communist party, he was arrested in 1951, and put to a show-case trial as an alleged “bourgeois nationalist”. He endured harsh torture while in jail but was one of the few political prisoners who never gave in, which saved his life, according to Zdeněk Doskočil.

“The fact that they didn’t break Husák saved his life, and the lives of others who were tried with him. When he came back from prison, he was still a communist at heart but in Prague he was still seen as an enemy, so he worked as manual labourer and was under the discreet surveillance of the secret police.”

Less than ten years later, Gustáv Husák rose slowly to the top of the communist hierarchy. After he became president in 1975, it was the regime he represented that put opposition activists in jail, including his successor at Prague Castle Václav Havel, who between 1979 and 1984 spent four and a half years in prison. Jan Adamec from the Prague Cold War website project says Husák saw imprisonment as part of the political struggle.

“For him, there was nothing bad about putting opposition activists and anti-communists in jail. His own imprisonment he viewed as a mistake which needed to be corrected but he was convinced it had nothing to do with the idea of communism. His imprisonment was harsh; he spent several years in solitary confinement but he didn’t see it as unjustified to use prison sentences against the enemies of the state.”

Gustáv Husák was deeply shaken by the tragic death of his second wife who was killed in an airplane crash in 1978. Political stagnation, the torpidity of the society along with his deteriorating health made him little more than a figurehead of the communist regime that was slowly crumbling.

Milouš Jakeš
In 1987, he was replaced as the leader of the communist party by the bizarre character Milouš Jakeš who almost immediately became the source of many popular jokes, and who hardly anyone took seriously. Historian Zdeněk Doskočil says people felt very differently about Gustáv Husák.

“Husák was not popular by any means; I think he was despised and people viewed him with bitterness. But unlike some of the hardliners like Bilak, he was a man of certain intellectual qualities, and I think that in the eyes of many people, he was not a completely negative figure.”

People who lived through the normalization period will probably remember him as a detached old man with thick glasses, reading his New Year’s addresses at his office with a clock in the background. There is in fact a popular youtube video in which parts of the opening sentences from his addresses between 1976 and 1989 are put into one phrase which still makes sense, and could be delivered in any year during his long, if lonesome, term as president.

But in Slovakia, his legacy is seen very differently. It was under his term that Czechoslovakia became a federation, and the Slovak society saw its living standards very much improved in the 1970s and 80s. Jan Adamec again.

“Husák means much more for Slovaks than for Czechs. There are many more myths about him in the Slovak society. I think for Czechs, he is primarily a symbol of normalization and the change of opinions after 1968. But for Slovaks, there are more dimensions. There is his alleged martyrdom in the 1950s for defending Slovak interests, and there is the federalization. And there is also pride that a boy born into very poor conditions arrived to be the president of Czechoslovakia.”

But at the same time, Jan Adamec says young historians and researchers, unaffected by their personal experiences from the regime of the normalisation, are now beginning to study Gustáv Husák and his era.

“I think there is a trend that became apparent around 2009, and became even more visible after Václav Havel’s death, which shows certain reconsideration of the period between 1968 and 1989. The picture is becoming more diverse, and is no longer as black and white as it was in the 1990s – the communist evil and the fearful, suppressed society. The picture is now gaining a variety of colours.”

Gustáv Husák resigned as president on December 10, 1989, 19 days before Parliament elected Václav Havel as his successor. Before that, he met some of the opposition leaders for the first time when he appointed them as members of the new, post-communist government. Gustáv Husák died two years later in the Slovak capital.