Klement Gottwald, First Communist Czech President
Unlike the first three Presidents Tomas Masaryk, Edvard Benes and Emil Hacha who trained as philosophers and lawyers, Klement Gottwald was considered a man of the people as his first trade was being a cabinet maker. In the first world war he had originally fought on the Austro-Hungarian side but defected to the Russian side after the 1917 revolution and became a “card carrying” member of the Communist Party in 1921. He then went on to be elected to the Central Committee and then General Secretary in 1929. In the second world war whilst Edvard Benes was in London, Klement Gottwald was exiled to Moscow.
In 1946 the Communist party in Czechoslovakia won a record 38% of the popular vote and formed a coalition government with him as Prime Minister and Edvard Benes as President. By 1947 their popularity had gone down so far that it was widely accepted that in the 1948 election they would have been voted out. Joseph Stalin then put pressure on Klement Gottwald to introduce a Communist regime and the way this begins is via a man called Vaclav Nosek.
Klement Gottwald had placed Vaclav Nosek in the position of Interior Minister and then instructed him to start infiltrating the Police and Security services with Communist supporting people. On February 21st 1948, 12 non-Communist members of the Czech Government resigned in protest at this Police and Security “stuffing” process and these 12 people truly believed that this would force an early election. They were wrong.
Two things now happened. Firstly, President Edvard Benes came under enormous pressure to accept these resignations which he did on February 25th (under pressure from Klement Gottwald who had threatened a general strike and possible civil war). Secondly, Benes is forced to accept the proposals for new ministers who were of course all Communist. And so almost overnight, an unpopular political party conducted a legal Coup D’Etat.
Edvard Benes refused to sign the 1948 May Ninth constitution and resigned a month later. Klement Gottwald was then elected as President of Czechoslovakia. He survived the Communist purge of the 1950’s but died in office in 1953 after suffering a heart attack.
He was so unpopular that in 1990 following the first Vaclav Havel government, the city that had been named after him “Gottwaldov” was renamed “Zlín”. The largest bridge in Prague was renamed from “Gottwalduv Most” to “Nuselsky Most”. The metro station on the other side of that bridge was renamed from “Gottwaldova” to “Vyšehrad”.
Finally, the most popular bank note in the country at the time, the CZK100 note which had his picture on it, was removed from circulation and replaced with the previous version.