Prague History – Prague Communism Arrives
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At the start of 1948, the Communist Minister of the Interior sacked eight non-Communist police officers. This move was protested by the democratic ministers in the government, but to no avail. As a stronger protest, they tendered their resignations – expecting that this would lead to the resignation and subsequent reorganisation of the entire government.
However, much to their chagrin this was not to be. Instead, President Edward Benes accepted their resignations, and their positions were filled by Communist Party members or sympathisers. Thus, from February 25th 1948, all political power in the country was in the hands of the Communist leaders. In Communist propaganda, these events came to be known as “Victorious February” (Vitezny unor) today they are referred to as the “Communist Coup”.
Almost immediately – with the parliamentary elections of May 1948 – the Communists became more openly hostile to normal democratic mechanisms. Non-Communists who attempted to campaign in the elections were persecuted by the police, and voters were only offered a list of candidates from the National Front – no opposition politicians were on the voting list. Yet even using these extreme measures, the Communists did not feel secure that their election victory was guaranteed. So, to make absolutely sure that things went as they wanted them to go, the Communists also falsified the election results. Thus the parties of the National Front were credited with winning an amazing 89.2 percent of the vote — which is still rather a modest majority when compared with later Communist election “victories,” which would see the National Front win 99.9 percent of the “vote”.
On May 9, 1948, parliament had passed a new constitution guaranteeing a “leading role” for the Communist Party in political life. President Edward Benes refused to sign the new legislation, and so he was forced to resign on June 7, 1948. On June 14, the National Assembly elected Klement Gottwald Czechoslovakia’s new (and first ‘working-class’) president. On June 15, Czechoslovakia’s fifth post-war government was appointed with Antonin Zapotocky at its head.
In April 1948, the Czechoslovak Parliament had passed legislation nationalising most companies that had more than 50 employees but many smaller companies were nationalized as a result of these laws. By the end of 1948, some 95 percent of the industrial workforce in Czechoslovakia were employees of the state. The next private sector to be eliminated were small tradesmen and shopkeepers.
In 1949, the law on Standard Farming Cooperatives was approved, launching the forced collectivization of agriculture. Industry was reorganized to favour heavy machinery and military production and foreign trade was shifted away from western markets in favour of the Soviet Union and its satellites. To better coordinate the individual economies within the Soviet bloc, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) was established in 1949, with Czechoslovakia as one of its founding members. In addition to Comecon, the Soviet Union and its satellites were united by the military Warsaw Pact, which was founded on May 14, 1955. This “Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” was signed by the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Albania. The Pact was concluded for 20 years and then prolonged every 10 years after that; in 1985, just a handful of years before it was to become defunct, it was renewed for 30 years. It was formally dissolved by a protocol which was signed in 1991.
The first Soviet “advisors” arrived in Czechoslovakia in September 1949, to show the locals how best to search for class enemies. Not surprisingly, their first victims were Communists – and powerful ones. The high point of the Communist Party’s purges at this time was the “trial” against the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Rudolf Slansky – allegedly the ringleader of a group of treasonous, counter-revolutionary conspirators. Many historians today say that this purge was just so much thinly-veiled, Soviet-style anti-semitism – as Slansky and most of the other accused were Jewish. The repression and show trials of 1948-53 did much to populate the forced labor camps – the most notorious of which was at the Jachymov uranium mines – and to decimate the anti-Communist opposition. Subsequent acts of resistance to the regime remained isolated and unorganized.
It was during this dark and oppressive time that the writers and artists Jaroslav Seifert, Vitezslav Nezval, Josef Sudek, Leos Janacek, Bohuslav Martinu and Jan Zrzavy lived and worked. People caught listening to rock and roll and other foreign music or listening to foreign radio stations like Radio Netherlands were considered subversives and thrown in jail. It was at this time, too, that the authorities – for reasons which remain unexplained to this day – started to claim that the Americans did not liberate the westernmost part of Czechoslovakia after World War II. To those people who insisted they had seen them with their own eyes, the authorities explained that those people they had seen were really Russian soldiers dressed up in American uniforms.
Czechoslovakia’s first “worker president,” Klement Gottwald, died in 1953, just 10 days after attending Stalin’s funeral. Some say he died of a broken heart; others claim he was the victim of a virus that he caught while visiting Moscow, still others are of the opinion that he drank himself to death. In a little-known chapter in Czech history, 1953 also saw active protests against the Communist regime, especially in Plzen and Ostrava, because of worsening economic conditions. These rebellions had to be put down by force, and the fact that they had taken place at all was suppressed by the Communist regime. The ringleaders were sent to hard labour camps like the one at Jachymov.
After the death of President Antonin Zapotocky, Antonin Novotny – the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia – was elected President. For the first time, the top posts of both the state and the Party were in the hands of just one man. Later, it was learned that Novotny had been a spy for the Gestapo during the war. During his presidency, Novotny had a fish pond stocked with carp installed in the very formal Royal Gardens of Prague Castle so that he wouldn’t have far to go when he felt like going fishing.
Well, time passed and in 1960, the Communists adopted a new constitution which officially changed the name of the country to “The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (CSSR)” because, as they said, a socialist society – the first step on the road to true communism – had already been achieved in the country. But even this spiffy new name did not help to slow the country’s rapid and alarming economic decline.