“Red stars over Bethlehem”: 90 years of Czech and Czechoslovak presidents

We have heard plenty in recent weeks from the two candidates in this year’s Czech presidential elections. But what about their predecessors? The Czech Republic and previously Czechoslovakia have had ten presidents since 1918 when Czechoslovakia was founded, and in this programme we let some of them speak for themselves through Czech Radio’s archives.

We start with the recent past, and with Václav Havel, who was swept to power at the end of 1989, just months after serving time in a communist jail, and left office in 2003. Mr Havel does not much relish having to speak English, and he always fills his English speeches with phonetic notes, just in case he gets stuck. Here he is at the Prague NATO summit in 2002, talking of the symbolism of former communist countries joining NATO and the European Union.

“The last surviving remnant of the Iron Curtain, that strange psychological wall, that used to separate the old democracies from the post-communist ones, is finally breaking down. If the whole of Europe is uniting itself in the name of shared values, it also signifies that Europe is once and for all discarding all the dark features that have accompanied its history to date.”

Probably Mr Havel’s most famous speech as president dates back to New Year 1990, just two days after he had been elected president of Czechoslovakia and just seven weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was a time of euphoria, but his speech started with a sober warning of tough times ahead.

“For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you. Our country is not flourishing.”

So let’s see what Mr Havel’s communist predecessor, Gustáv Husák, was saying, exactly one year earlier.

“With my whole heart I send a greeting to our brothers in the Soviet Union, to the nations of other Socialist countries, and all Czechoslovakia’s friends around the world. I wish you health, happiness and contentment and success in your work, so that our homeland, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, may continue to flourish.”

Antonín Zápotocký
One of the best remembered New Year speeches was given in the 1950s by Czechoslovakia’s second communist president, Antonín Zápotocký, when he offered a rather unusual Christmas greeting – very much in the spirit of the time.

First he tells listeners that the Infant Jesus – who in Czech tradition brings the Christmas presents - has now grown up into his Russian, secular equivalent, “Grandfather Frost.” In poetic terms he then goes on to describe how Grandfather Frost’s path is lit “not just by one star, as in Bethlehem, but by a whole plethora of red stars shining above our mines, steelworks, factories and building sites.”

The first of the communist presidents was the hard line Stalinist Klement Gottwald, who shattered post-war Czechoslovakia’s fragile democracy with a political coup in February 1948. The then President, Edvard Beneš, was bullied into accepting a Communist-led government

Klement Gottwald’s words: “I have just returned from the Castle”… uttered to an excited crowd on Prague’s Old Town Square after his meeting with Beneš, are engraved into the collective Czech memory. “I can inform you”, he went on “that the president accepted all my proposals just as I had laid them down.”

It comes as little surprise that four months later Gottwald was himself ensconced in Prague Castle. In June 1948 President Beneš resigned, unwilling to be a puppet at the hands of the new regime.

Edvard Beneš
Edvard Beneš had had a troubled presidential career, serving from 1935 to 1938, then as president in exile in London during World War Two and finally in the three years after the war. Beneš had been one of the founding fathers of Czechoslovakia, but he is also remembered as the president who failed to save the country from Hitler’s greed in 1938 and – as we have just heard – from the post-war ambitions of the Soviet Union to draw Czechoslovakia firmly under its wing. To be fair on Beneš, he could not have lived at a more difficult time – as he himself was only too aware. Here he is an extract from a speech he gave in April 1938, drawing attention to Czechoslovakia’s fragile position in Europe.

“Ever since the Great War we have been experiencing one of the greatest political, social, economic and cultural revolutions which have ever taken place in the history of our continent. Will this process and development, which is characterised by tension in international politics and social revolution in internal politics, terminate in a vast new European or world war? All Europe is asking that question today. I am not blind to the seriousness of the situation, I do not want to calm you vainly and short-sightedly, nor do I desire to diffuse official optimism. Every responsible politician and statesman today cannot but realise the gravity of the situation and guide and prepare his state accordingly. We are doing this. We desire to preserve our state from all dangers, we try to do our duty to the full and are making preparations for every eventuality, and we are indeed prepared for whatever may come.”

President Edvard Beneš in 1938. While Beneš was serving as president in exile in London, Emil Hácha was the puppet president of the German occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Hácha was a tragic figure, who made the fatal mistake of staying in office after the German invasion in the hope of preserving at least a fragment of the former Czech independence. He made one compromise after another, and by early 1945 - as we can hear in an archive recording where he is hardly able even to speak, let alone address the nation - he was a completely broken man. Emil Hácha died in Pankrác prison, just six weeks after the end of the war.

The first Czechoslovak President was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. He was the leading moral authority of the First Czechoslovak Republic, and it was to a great extent thanks to his influence that Czechoslovakia emerged from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Masaryk had spent much of the First World War in exile in Britain and the United States. He came to admire both countries, and in particular their democratic tradition, which he tried to export to Czechoslovakia. Here he is talking about his time in Britain, in a talk to mark the tenth birthday of the BBC in November 1932.

“I have accepted to say a few words to the English public. I am thus given an opportunity of returning in thought to the country whose political and social life attracted me long before the Great War, a country from whose philosophy, literature, arts and political life, I have so often derived enjoyment and benefit. I recall particularly the many months I spent in England, mainly in London, during 1915, 1916 and 1917, where I laboured as an exile in the cause of my nation’s liberty. In England I found many true friends, and above all a lively appreciation and genuine moral and political help for my country in her struggle for freedom.”

Czechoslovakia’s first President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, speaking nearly eighty years ago. Today we can be grateful that we live in less troubled times.