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Historical Overview

Czech Communism to 1945

It is not possible to write on Czech Communism, dividing it from Czechoslovakian communism. When in 1918 united state of Czechs and Slovaks was created, it brought with also unification of most political parties, including the communists. Development of communist ideas was supported by the influence of Bolshevik revolution in Russia, from where many Czechs and Slovaks, who were prisoned during the I World to Russia, got their first infection of communism. Majority of Czechs nevertheless returned from Russia not with infection but with strong anti-communist understandings.

Formally founded in 1921, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party was one of some twenty political parties that competed within the democratic framework of pre-WWII Czechoslovakia, but it was never in government. Uniting both Slovak and Czech part of the country, it even worked with German and Hungarian minorities. As at the beginning Czechoslovakian communists tried to keep independent line, then with years they were pressed under string control of Comintern, turning more from parlamentarian fight to underground acitivtity. It decreased significantly its influence in Czechoslovakia, turning communists to some kind small secret sect, which at the same was strongly organized. During World War II many KSC leaders sought refuge in the Soviet Union, where they made preparations to increase the party's power base once the war ended. Czechs communists were not so active in Czechislovakia, they were kept on back, preparing for takeover when the war is over.

Communist takeover 1945-1953.

In many ways Czechoslovakia was a exception in Soviet conquered Central and Eastern Europe. Mostly on the same way as with Austria or Finland, was Stalin not absolutely sure, can he really sovietize Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia stayed of-course in the Soviet sphere of influence, but Stalin did not station its troops there. Czechoslovakia was also only country in Central Eastern Europe, where pre-war government had right to return from the exile. After the war, President Beneš still seemed to be in charge of affairs. At the same time, Soviet prestige was high and the Communists were popular. In the elections held in 1946, the Communists polled 38% of the votes and proceeded to build coalitions with other parties in the government. By exercising control in the government, the police and the army, the Communists consolidated their influence within the country. In July 1947, Moscow demanded in the most brutal way that Czechoslovakia change its decision to accept American Marshall Aid. The Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, the son of the founder of the Czechoslovakian Republic, likened the decision to a second Munich. This decreased the popularity of the Communists, with public polls demonstrating that their popularity had fallen to 25%. The Communists started to arm their supporters, moving in the direction of a full takeover of power. The Soviet deputy minister, Zorin, declared that Moscow would not allow any Western interference, while at the same time Soviet units were concentrated on Czechoslovakia's borders. President Beneš, fearing civil war and Soviet intervention, accepted the Communists' demands for a new administration. The Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk fell to his death from his office window, having almost been certainly pushed by a Communist mob. Beneš resigned and Czechoslovakia was thereafter firmly embedded in the Soviet camp and quickly sovietised, to be more precise, stalinized.
The most obvious sign of Stalinism was the intensification of terror. This was manifested in an ongoing series of public and secret trials that adjudicated allegations of economic sabotage by former underground leaders in Poland and the ‘White Legion' in Czechoslovakia. In the 1950s, for example, 244 people were executed on political charges in Czechoslovakia and a further 8,500 died as a result of torture or in prison. A minimum of 100,000 people were imprisoned for acts against the Communist state between 1948 and 1956. he growing number of arrests throughout the region resulted in the establishment of a system of concentration camps. In the early 1950s, there were 422 concentration camps in Czechoslovakia in which people were held under gruesome conditions. In 1950, the number of prisoners in such camps amounted to 32,638 men and women. Many Central and Eastern European people were arrested by the Soviet authorities, interrogated, sentenced in the Soviet Union and sent to the GULAG. Some Central and Eastern European countries had their own ‘Siberia' as well: in Czechoslovakia, prisoners were sent to work in uranium mines-in December 1953, the number of people working there reached 16,100.

Another typical feature of Stalinism were the purges of the Communist parties in the conquered countries; the most violent of these took place in Bulgaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Moscow warned comrades in Czechoslovakia that enemy agents had penetrated high into the party ranks and when the puzzled Czech Communist leaders Rudolf Slánský and Klement Gottwald enquired as to what they could do, Stalin's NKVD agents arrived to help prepare trials. The Czechoslovakian party subsequently arrested Slánský himself, Vladimír Clementis, Ladislav Novomeský and Gustáv Husák. Slánský, and eleven others together with Slansky were convicted of being ‘Trotskyist-Zionist-Titoist-bourgeois-nationalist traitors' in one series of show trials, after which they were executed and their ashes mixed with material being used to fill roads on the outskirts of Prague. After the trials, the property of the victims was sold off cheaply to surviving prominent individuals; the wife of a future leader of the party, Antonin Novotny, bought Clementis' china and bedclothes. As in Moscow in 1937, the trials were ‘shows', with each participant having to learn a script and conduct repeated rehearsals before the performance. In the Slánský trial, when the judge skipped one of the scripted questions, the better-rehearsed Slánský answered the one which should have been asked. Some years earlier, most of the people now on trial had themselves eliminated their political opponents, tortured and killed people, and therefore knew exactly what awaited them. This made them ready to play their ‘roles' in the trials.

The Church was also repressed. Archbishop Josef Beran, one of the leaders of the anti-Nazi resistance who had survived three years in Nazi concentration camps and all the other bishops in the country were interned or imprisoned. Religious seminars were closed and orders banned, the Church's schools were closed and its land holdings confiscated. Important part of sovietisation was collectivisation. In Czechoslovakia, farms started to be collectivised more intensively after the Communist takeover in 1948, mostly under the threat of sanctions. The most obstinate farmers were persecuted and imprisoned. Many early cooperatives collapsed and were recreated again. Their productivity was low because they failed to provide adequate compensation for work, moreover, they failed to create a sense of collective ownership; small-scale pilfering was common, and food became scarce.

All this created growing resistance against the system. The Communist takeover in February 1948 may be seen as the beginning of the anti-Communist resistance. This so-called ‘third resistance' is understood as concrete armed, intelligence or sabotage operations between the years 1948 and 1956. The members of this new resistance were tens of thousands of Czechoslovakian citizens, some of them living abroad. Following the example of the recent past under the Nazi occupation, underground groups were formed to produce and distribute leaflets, gather weapons and obtain information. In many cases, resistance groups formed independently and spontaneously in response to the Communist terror, in others they were directed by several not very tightly coordinated centres abroad working together with the Western intelligence services. As many people needed help to leave what was now a strictly controlled country, couriers were sent to Czechoslovakia with the task of making contact with the underground, bringing fresh information, instructions and technical equipment and leading people over the border. This was not an easy task as Czechoslovakia's border was by now strictly controlled and protected by what was known as engineering-technical border security: for example, landmines and high voltage barbed wire. Overall, the Iron Curtain claimed more than 300 lives in Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, thousands of people were helped to freedom by the couriers. The skies and waterways were also used as a means of escape in the effort to get across the border. The Communist secret police succeeded in capturing about four thousand people who participated in intelligence operations in Czechoslovakia; 250 couriers were sentenced to long-term imprisonment, 19 were executed, at least 7 died on the border and 11 more in prisons.

Couriers were not authorised to organise armed domestic resistance. Nevertheless, there were also examples of classic partisan warfare in Czechoslovakia such as the activities of the Masin brothers. Their father, Josef Masin, had been a hero of the Czech anti-Nazi resistance who was eventually captured by the Nazis. When the Communists seized power in 1948, his sons, together with some trusted friends, decided to continue their father's fight against totalitarianism-now Red totalitarianism. They organised a resistance group that began to engage in small acts of sabotage: first, in their hometown of Podebrady and later in other areas. If the group needed weapons, they attacked a police station or if they needed money, they robbed a security van with payroll funds. During these operations, several policemen were hurt or killed. Having continually evaded detection, the five friends-the brothers Josef and Ctirad Masin and their childhood friends Milan Paumer, Zbynek Janata and Vaclav Sveda-set off in October 1953 for the border with East Germany. They battled their way across the Iron Curtain heading for the American sector of a divided Berlin, intending to join the American troops in what they thought would be a global conflagration between the Western democracies and the Soviet Communism. The Masin brothers also carried a top-secret message from the Czech army stating that when the West attacked, the Czechs would open the front and let them through. Not long after entering East Germany, they became embroiled in a gun battle with the police in a train station, one that left several police officers dead and the Czech fugitives on wanted posters across East Germany. The biggest manhunt in East German history began, with Soviet soldiers also participating. The Czech freedom fighters spent 28 days moving though snow-covered forest, dodging 24,000 Soviet soldiers and the East German police before miraculously reaching the freedom of West Berlin. In fact, only three of them made it as two of them, Zbynek Janata and Vaclav Sveda, were captured by the East German police and executed together with the other leaders of the group in Czechoslovakia.

In 1950s the resistance in Czechoslovakia was weakened as it became more and more clear that the West will not effectively help Czechoslovakia to liberate it from the communist yoke.


Czechoslovakia 1953-1968

On 5 March 1953, Stalin died, creating instability in all communist system. This lead to the protests also in Czechoslovakia. On 31 May 1953, the Czechoslovakian government announced a currency reform, that meant a substantial rise in prices and a 12% cut in wages. Large protests followed including demonstrations and strikes, the most serious being that by 20,000 workers in the Plzen Skoda plant who attacked portraits of the Soviet leaders and the Soviet flag. Such of protests were not directly dangerous to the Soviet system, it nevertheless resulted with some liberalization both in economy and in public life. Some political prisoners were released and little-bit more freedom in the sphere of culture tolerated. These changes in the Communist system were nevertheless cosmetic at best, as the essence of the Communist dictatorship remained unchanged. The open terror and purges had created a pervasive fear that lasted for decades, even though mass terror ceased. The Communist system in Czechoslovakia relied on a powerful security apparatus, whose role expanded rather than diminished with the end of open terror. To keep the situation under control, even the slightest symptoms of resistance had to be suppressed; in order to exercise control over ever-increasing areas of life, the number of functionaries in the Communist security services grew constantly, with the agent network expanding simultaneously. Historian Karel Kaplan estimates that a total of ‘about two million Czechoslovak citizens, or half a million families,' were affected by political persecution under the Communist regime; most often in the form of political purges, exclusion from public life, exclusion from certain professional activities or studies, surveillance by the secret police, review of pensions or forced removal to another place. At the beginning of the 1990s, the Czechoslovakian courts rehabilitated 257,902 people who had been convicted of offences of a political nature.

But even, when Czechoslovakia tried to launch some economic reforms and developed normally, it became more and more obvious, that it could not compete with the Western European countries. Productivity was still poor and most of the goods produced were not competitive on world markets, with the result that they could only be traded on the closed socialist markets. Czechoslovakia ha earlier in the century ranked among the top ten industrialised nations, found it increasingly difficult to compete in Western markets in the with its low-quality manufactured goods. This made demands for real reforms more and more strong.

Prague Spring 1968

By the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union and its satellite countries were facing more and more serious economic problems that necessitated the introduction of some economic reforms. The Soviet leaders, tired of paying heavy subsidies to support the feeble economies of the satellite countries, compelled their leaders to listen to the reformers. Thus, the first buds of 1968's Prague Spring blossomed in the field of economics. However, Communist reformers quickly realised that economic reforms also required changes in the totalitarian political system. The appointment of Alexander Dubček to the position of Party Secretary in 1968 marked the beginning of an eight-month period known as the Prague Spring. The aim of the Czechoslovakian reformers was to combine socialism with democracy and blend economic security with civil liberties thereby creating ‘socialism with a human face'. At first, it seemed that the Soviet Union would tolerate reforms in Czechoslovakia, but quite quickly the position changed. Alarming news of attempts to follow Prague's example filtered in from the other satellite countries; in Poland, riot police had struck out against student demonstrations directed mainly against Soviet dominance. All this raised fears that the Czechoslovakian initiatives could jeopardise Communist rule throughout the Eastern bloc. In March 1968, Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador to Hungary in 1956 and now Chairman of the KGB, warned that ‘the methods and forms by which the work is progressing in Czechoslovakia remind one very much of Hungary'. Dubček understood that the Soviets now posed the same threat to Czechoslovakia as they had to Hungary in 1956 and was quick to reassure Moscow not only that his country would remain in the Warsaw Pact, but that the Czech Communist Party would also retain its monopoly on power. This time it was not enough. The GDR, Poland, Hungary and also the Ukraine, where the Communist leader Petr Shelest was afraid of the spread of the Czechoslovakian virus to the western areas of the Ukraine, especially after the restoration of Ukrainian autonomy in Slovakia, all pressed Brezhnev to stop the reforms in Prague. Under pressure, Dubček had to promise that the liberal reforms would be reversed. With time, however, it became increasingly clear that even if Dubček had wanted to, he was not in a position to keep such a promise. Therefore, with the help of Shelest and the leader of the Slovak Communist Party, Bilak, the search began in Czechoslovakia for the ‘second centre', which had to move Dubček from power and ask the Warsaw Pact to help Czechoslovakia to crush the ‘counter-revolution'. Several provocative actions were initiated by the KGB under the code-name ‘Progress', which sought to fabricate evidence of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy by Western intelligence services and thus justify a Soviet invasion. After some hesitation, the Soviet leaders decided to intervene militarily and stop reforms in Czechoslovakia. On 14 August 1968, the Soviet ambassador in Prague met secretly with the leaders of the ‘second centre' and informed them that Soviet troops would move into action on the night of 20 August to support the creation of a ‘provisional government of workers and peasants.' The leader of the ‘second centre', Alois Indra, replied with a guarantee that the majority of the members of the ruling institutions would support the putsch when the Soviets arrived.
On 18 August 1968, the Soviet defence minister, Andrei Grechko, summoned the commanders participating in operation ‘Danube' (the ongoing Warsaw Pact exercise) and announced: I've just come from the Politburo session. The decision was made according to which the troops will move into Czechoslovakia in order to suppress and if necessary, crush and liquidate the counterrevolution. This we will do even if it means the outbreak of a third world war. The Soviet army was prepared to meet NATO forces in Czechoslovakia. If such a meeting were to occur, the troops were ordered to stop immediately, not to open fire under any circumstances and wait for new commands. Remembering how the Soviet officers understood the situation, Viktor Suvorov recalls that they had orders to ‘take control of as much territory as possible. Then let the diplomats decide where the border will run between Eastern and Western Czechoslovakia. It is a matter of honour that Eastern Socialist Czechoslovakia should be larger than the western part'. Some hours before the invasion, the USSR informed the American leadership of its decision and instructed its ambassador to inform President Svoboda of the planned invasion and ask for his support. Svoboda refused to do this, although in order to avoid extensive bloodshed he promised that Czechoslovakia's army would not resist. True to his word, Svoboda ordered the armed forces to stay in their barracks.

Thanks to this, the invasion took place without any major problems. At dawn on 21 August, half a million soldiers with the support of 5,000 armoured vehicles and 800 airplanes, recruited from all of the Warsaw Pact countries except Romania (which refused in a bout of anti-Sovietism), marched into Czechoslovakia. At intervals of less than one minute, a total of 120 AN-12 aircraft landed in Prague airport; by the end of the morning an entire airborne division had landed. At 4.00 am, troops reached the Central Committee building and arrested Dubček and five other members of the Presidium, sending them first by plane to prison in the Ukraine and then on to Moscow. There was no military resistance but from the first of hour of the invasion, there was massive civil protest and resistance. A crucial role in this was played by the radio, as broadcasters prevented the Soviets' pre-prepared declaration of a ‘revolutionary government' from being transmitted. Instead, they ensured that the statement of the Dubčekite majority protesting against the invasion was broadcast. When Soviet soldiers fighting the resistance eventually occupied the radio building, the broadcasters continued to transmit via a network of studios and small regional and army transmitters. An attempt to take over the Presidium of the Czech Communist Party failed; when putschists hiding in the Soviet embassy in Prague turned to President Sovoboda with a petition demanding that he form the new government around them, Svoboda kicked them out. By this time, the streets of Czechoslovakia's cities were full of people protesting against the invasion.

Leaflets were distributed and angry people accused Soviet soldiers of acting like fascists, which made them feel very uncomfortable. In several places, barricades were built to hinder the movement of Soviet tanks while in others, tanks were attacked by people throwing Molotov cocktails. At least 4 tanks were destroyed and 18 soldiers killed during these clashes. The Soviets responded in their customary way by killing at least 94 people, one of whom was a 15-year old boy painting ‘Go Home' on a wall. At the same time, a baby and his mother, who was trying to protect the boy, were shot by a trigger-happy psychopath using the machine gun on his tank. The Soviet invasion caused the most profound shift in the Czechoslovakian outlook since World War II; people who had been divided in 1948 became united in 1968. The Czechoslovakian experiment with humanised socialism and its military suppression effectively destroyed any base of support that Communism had enjoyed in the past.

This put Brezhnev in a difficult situation; even though Western governments' protests against the invasion were relatively mild-on 23 August, the Soviet Union and Hungary easily blocked the UN Security Council draft resolution condemning the invasion and on 31 August, NATO ambassadors noted in their communiqué that the situation around Czechoslovakia ‘poses a menace to the security of the US and its allies'-the Warsaw Pact forces had occupied a country whose only legal government had protested against the invasion and refused to cooperate with the Soviets. Thus, Brezhnev again found himself having to deal with Dubček, whether he liked it or not. The Czech leaders were interned in Moscow where they were put under pressure by pro-Soviet Czechs and threatened by the Soviets that if they refused to accept the presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia and were not prepared to revoke liberal reforms, there would be war in Czechoslovakia. Ultimately, Dubček conceded defeat and signed the Moscow Protocol in which he basically accepted the invasion. Many people looked on this as Munich-type capitulation, others were not so condemning. In reality, the ‘compromise' achieved was more useful to the ‘old forces' in Czechoslovakia and abroad, paving the way for a slow takeover of power. The crushing of the ‘Prague Spring' boosted the Soviets' self-confidence and gave them the impression that they could behave as they wished on the world stage. At the same time, the longer-term costs of the Soviets' success in 1968 were high.

All this went unnoticed by the Soviet leaders as they continued to enjoy their success. In November 1968, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev prepared the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine' that obliged Moscow to intervene by force to defend the ‘socialist gains' of its allies. Over the following decades, however, the Brezhnev Doctrine was challenged by a growing tide of intellectual, social and political protest in Central and Eastern Europe. Resistance was not suppressed in Czechoslovakia until the beginning of the 1970s. Only in 1969 was Dubček replaced by Moscow's protégé, Gustav Husák. On the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion, spontaneous demonstrations broke out in several places around Czechoslovakia. Units of the security services and the People's Militia, together with 20,000 handpicked army troops, brutally attacked their own people, even opening fire on unarmed crowds. On the streets of Prague and Brno alone, five people were left for dead on the pavement. That was finally the end of the ‘Prague Spring'. Such a situation made people desperate; in January 1969, a Czech student, Jan Palach, committed self-immolation in protest against the Soviet invasion. A similar act of protest by a Polish patriot named Siwak in Warsaw in September 1968 went unnoticed because the Polish media was forbidden to report it. Jan Palach was followed by other patriots in Czechoslovakia and in the Baltic countries. All this nevertheless could not anymore save the Prague spring.


Czechoslovakia under "developed socialism" 1968-1989.

To support the new administration in Prague after the "Prague spring" the Soviet Union cancelled the debts of Czechoslovakia and delivered large economic aid and increased subsidies. This helped Czechoslovakia's economy to stabilize and move to the clear growth in 1970s. This growth was nevertheless not sustainable as it was based on undervalued raw materials and energy deliveries from the Soviet Union. In reality Czechoslovakia stagnated, as large amount of educated and active people either emigrated to West or isolated its from the society.

In 1970s nevertheless dissident movement was reborn in Czechoslovakia. In 1976 the members of a rock band called ‘The Plastic People of the Universe' were arrested in Czechoslovakia and charged with crimes against the state for holding a rock concert. This led to the creation of the ‘Charter 77' movement that monitored human rights abuses within the country and reported them to the broader international community. Its first spokespersons were Vaclav Havel, Jan Patocka, and Jiri Hajek. Many of these individuals endured long jail terms as a result of their activism.

In 1980s Czechoslovakia's economic growth stopped. As the Soviet Union was in growing economic problems, he could not anymore to deliver such of amount subsidies and support as during previous years. This led to the growing shortages and difficulties also in Czechoslovakia. As before the II World War, Czechoslovakia was in its development far ahead of countries as Portugal, Spain or Italy, then by now all these countries passed Czechoslovakia not only by their economic development but also by quality of human development.

This increased the tensions in Czechoslovakia. Charta 77 started to gather more attention and support, cooperating now more actively with opposition movements in Poland and Hungary. Charta 77 started also to organize its first public events, specially on the field of environment protections. Charta 77 members were nevertheless hunted by the security service and regularly jailed.

The fall of Communism

In November 1989, the English writer Timothy Garton Ash remarked to the leading Czech dissident Vaclav Havel that ‘in Poland it took 10 years, in Hungary 10 months, in the GDR ten weeks, perhaps it will take 10 days here in Czechoslovakia?' The revolution did, in fact, take a little longer, but the pace of change was remarkable nonetheless. Even though the former leader, Husák was replaced by the younger Milos Jakes, with Gorbachev's support, the new leader still did all he could to block potential reforms, rejecting perestroika and using brutal force to block even the smallest signs of opposition. While members of the opposition in East Germany openly mocked Gorbachev, the attitude of the opposition in Czechoslovakia was rather more reserved. Havel wrote in his essay ‘Meeting Gorbachev', that describes the ‘Glasnost Czar's' visit to Prague in 1987 and the cheering reception he received there, that ‘[he felt] sad: this nation of ours never learns. How many times has it put all its faith on some external force which it believed, would solve its problems? How many times had it ended up bitterly disillusioned, forced to admit that it could not expect help from anyone unless it was prepared, first and foremost, to help itself? And yet here we are again, making exactly the same mistake. They seem to think that Gorbachev has come to liberate them from Husák!'

Thus, the repression and violence continued. In August 1988, the police brutally dispersed small demonstrations commemorating the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In January 1989, a demonstration in Prague in honour of Jan Palach was also brutally dispersed by the militia. Among those arrested and sentenced were Vaclav Havel, Sasha Vondra and other activists who were nevertheless released from prison early in May. On 28 October, the anniversary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia, the militia once again beat up demonstrators in Prague-for the seventh time in recent months. Originally, there were not many people participating in these demonstrations, but then the fall of the Berlin Wall changed everything. People felt that their power had grown, while the authorities felt that theirs had weakened. Accordingly, the number of demonstrations taking place in November suddenly increased to a point where the riot police could no longer control the situation.

On 17 November, during a demonstration by law students commemorating the victim of Nazi occupation Jan Opletal, the unprecedented crowd of 50,000 students diverted their course towards the city centre, where they were assaulted by the security police, leaving 592 people injured. A rumour soon spread that one of the students had died at the hands of the militia. Although this ultimately turned out to be untrue, the story provoked major anti-government demonstrations over the next few days. Only now we know that the "death" of the student was actually a provocation of the Czech secret service, which just got out of control. On 19 November 1989, a free association called the Civic Forum was set up on the initiative of Vaclav Havel and moved its improvised headquarter to the ‘Laterna magica' theatre. On 21 November, the leaders of the Civic Forum addressed a crowd some 200,000 strong for the first time in Wenceslas Square, calling on people to take part in a general strike on 27 November if the authorities did not respond to their demands. On 23 November, 300,000 people gathered in Prague's Vaclav Square demanding a new government and democratic freedoms. This was simply too much for the government to handle and it fell to pieces. The workers' militia ordered to Prague just melted away. Only the army leadership appeared prepared to stand by the regime, reaffirming their support for Communism and their rejection of the protest demonstrations, while continuing to plan military intervention and the seizure of media installations and military. Nevertheless, the beleaguered government did not have the stomach for a Tiananmen-style bloodbath and it was not, in any case, as if the troops would really fight against their own people. As a result, the Communist regime just collapsed within a matter of days. On 27 November, the opposition demonstrated its power with a successful 2-hour general warning strike. Jakes left office, however, the new Communist leader, Ladislav Adamec, was no more popular than his predecessor had been. When he tried to put together a government in which the Communists still constituted a majority, his proposal was rejected by an increasingly mobilised population and had to be replaced by a government that was equally balanced between the Communists and the Civic Forum. On 10 December, Gustav Husák resigned the state presidency and on 19 December, Vaclav Havel was elected the President of Czechoslovakia.