Prague History – Post World War Two Changes
Prague and most of the rest of Czechoslovakia were liberated by the Soviet Red Army in May, 1945. That this would happen had been decided by Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill at the Yalta Conference.
It was at this same conference that it was decided that Czechoslovakia would come under the Soviet “sphere of influence” after World War II. But, the westernmost part of the country – from the beer-brewing town of Pilsen to the spa town of Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary) were liberated by the Americans led by General Patton. It was in 1945 that the USSR officially annexed this western part then known as Ruthenia.
On May 7, 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allied Forces, but the last shots on Czech territory were fired on May 11. During the war, most of the members of the domestic resistance movement had gradually become ever more leftist in their ideology, since they were so vehemently opposed to the extreme right ideals that were ruling it at the time. Czechoslovakia’s first post-war government was constructed exclusively from the political parties of the leftist “National Front.” These included the Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, the National Democratic Party, the People’s Party and the Slovak Democratic Party. Pre-war right-wing parties were not allowed to renew their activities, because of their real and/or alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Left-wing Social Democrat, Zdenek Fierlinger, well-known for his affiliation with the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC), was appointed Prime Minister. The remaining six government posts were filled with Czech and Slovak Communists – Klement Gottwald, Viliam Siroky, Vaclav Kopecky, Julius Duris and Jozef Soltesz. In addition, the Communists were able to place their loyal supporter, Ludvik Svoboda (later Czechoslovak President), in the key post of defense minister. Thus, the extreme left gained a strong political position in the newly-liberated country as early as 1945.
Democratic life in Czechoslovakia never fully recovered. The most apparent demonstration of this were the 1945 Presidential Decrees (today called the “Benes Decrees”), especially those of October 24, 1945 on the nationalization of coal mines, heavy industry, food production, banks and private insurance companies. More than 3,000 companies – representing about two-thirds of the overall industrial capacity of the country at that time – were nationalized. Other presidential decrees were issued “on the punishment of Nazi criminals, traitors and their supporters, and on extraordinary people’s courts” (the Large Retribution Decree of June 19, 1945) and “on the punishment of some offenses against the national pride” (the Small Retribution Decree of October 10, 1945). On the basis of these decrees, not only the real collaborators – but also those who were only accused of collaboration – were punished harshly and without regular trials.
Before World War II, some 30 percent of the population in the Czech lands had been Germans; in Slovakia, 17 percent had been Hungarians. In 1945, 700,000 Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia under an agreement which was sanctioned by the Allies and had been reached at the Potsdam Conference. This expulsion was, in some cases, accompanied by brutality against the Germans, which brought about protests by the Allied Powers. In the second and more organized wave of deportation in 1946, 1.3 million Germans were deported to the American zone (in what would become West Germany) and 800,000 to the Soviet zone (in what would become East Germany). Another 200,000 Germans had fled voluntarily before the end of the war to the American zone, and around 200,000 escaped to Austria. According to the Presidential Decrees, property which had belonged to many of these people was confiscated and put under “national supervision” and the people themselves were deprived of their Czechoslovak citizenship.
Only about half a million Germans remained on the territory of Czechoslovakia after the deportations, and just 165,000 of these claimed German nationality in the first post-war census. In 1950, according to the official statistics, Germans accounted for just 1.8 percent of the population in the Czech lands, compared with a pre-war count of almost 30 percent. The Potsdam Conference, which had approved the expulsion of Germans from the Czech lands, had vetoed the deportation of the Hungarian minority from Slovakia, after the Allies saw what had happened in the first deportations. Nonetheless, anti-Hungarian sentiment was so strong that a significant number of Hungarians did not claim Hungarian nationality in the 1950 census. Official statistics from that census show a significant drop in the number of people claiming Hungarian nationality in Slovakia, from around 17 percent before the war to only about 10 percent after the war.
Czechoslovakia’s first post-war Parliament, the provisional National Assembly, began its activities on October 28, 1945. Its composition had been determined by an agreement among the political parties and social organizations within the “National Front”. The first test of the new political environment came with the Parliamentary elections of May 1946. The results corresponded to the expectations of the Communists, who won 40.17 percent of the vote, making them the most powerful party in Parliament by quite a large margin. The next strongest parties were the National Socialists with 23.66 percent, the People’s Party with 20.24 percent and the Social Democrats with 15.28 percent. In Slovakia, the Communists obtained only 30.37 percent of the vote, while the Democratic Party took 62 percent. Two newly-registered Slovak parties, the Freedom Party and the Labour Party, together received just 3.73 percent of the vote. In terms of the country as a whole, it was a landslide election victory for the Communists. In the new Parliament, the Constituent National Assembly, they won 114 seats, while the National Socialists held 55, the People’s Party 46, the Democrats 43, the Social Democrats united with the Slovak Labour Party 39, and the Freedom Party had just three seats. Based on the results of the May elections, a new government headed by the Communist leader Klement Gottwald was appointed on July 6, 1946. Gottwald formed a cabinet consisting of seven Czech Communists; two Slovak Communists; four Ministers from the National Socialists, the Democrats, and representatives of the People’s Party; and three Social Democrats. Thus, the communists had a strong grip on power well in advance of the “coup” which would take place nearly two years later. Only two government ministers were not then members of any political party. (They were Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk (the son of Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk) would soon meet his death under mysterious circumstances and War Hero Ludvik Svoboda, who would later join the Communist Party and later still would become Czechoslovak President in 1968).
On June 5, 1947, U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall delivered a speech in which he offered assistance (which came to be known as the Marshall Plan) from the United States to all the countries of Europe for the reconstruction of their economies damaged during the war. The Soviet Union had already refused to participate in the plan as early as June 1946. And in fact of the future Soviet bloc countries only Czechoslovakia considered taking part in the Marshall Plan. After consultations with Stalin, however, Czechoslovakia too, refused the aid. For the next four decades Czechoslovakia would continue to follow Soviet orders.