Communist Dictatorship in Czechoslovakia (1948-1989)
The Slovak communist party was founded in 1921 but was soon incorporated into the Chechoslovak communist party. As Red Army troops marched into Chechoslovakia in 1944-45, the Communists returned to Slovakia and came to power after a 1948 coup. To curb any opposition, the Communist authorities launched a wave of terror. More than 20.000 people were arrested by the NKVD and deported to Siberia. The Communist authorities of Slovakia imprisoned 27.000 people on political grounds during 1948-1952 and another 70 700 were thus sentenced during 1953-1967. Some 186 000 persons served time in labor camps. At least 15 726 died in imprisonment and 238 were executed. The terror caused at least 450 000 people to flee to the West and another 60 000 emigrated later, using legal means.
Czechoslovakia was founded on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in October 1918. The borders of the new country were settled mostly peacefully in the context of the conferences in Paris, Saint-Germain and Trianon. Small skirmishes broke out with Poland, whereas disagreements with Hungary grew into somewhat bigger battles. Following the resolution of these conflicts, the area of Czechoslovakia stood at 140 446 km² and the new country had a population of 13 million.
Czechoslovakia was a republic - a parliamentary democracy with a powerful president at the helm. Until 1938, the political system of Czechoslovakia remained remarkably stable, something which distinctly set it apart from its neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe. The main problem of the country was the unbalanced growth of its different regions. The Czech lands were significantly stronger, both economically and culturally, than Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia. Czechs and Slovaks constituted 60% of the citizens, whereas the minorities were mostly German and Hungarian. Meanwhile, a conflict between the Slovaks and Czechs gradually developed.
In 1920, a strong Marxist-Leninist faction emerged in the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party. Following a party split, it turned into the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická Strana Československa, KSČ). Until 1938, it existed legally and took part in elections. It achieved results between 10.2% (1929) and 13.02% (1925, second biggest party in parliament). The communists had bigger support in the Czech part of the country, but the party was weakened by their approval of the postulates of the Sudeten Germans.
In 1928, the Comintern ordered the “Bolshevisation” of the KSČ. As an effect, and with limited resistance, leadership of the party was seized by a group centred around Klement Gottwald. The party reached its peak radicalisation in 1934, when the re-election of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was opposed (under the slogan “Not Masaryk, but Lenin”). Gottwald, faced with arrest, fled to the Soviet Union. He returned in February 1936, after the Comintern proclaimed the strategy of the popular fronts.
The rising German threat convinced Czechoslovakia to sign an agreement with the Soviet Union (1935). The primary prerequisite was that France would provide help first. In 1938, the Soviet Union declared its readiness to provide military support in case of a German attack. In combination with the concessions that were made by France and the United Kingdom at the Munich Conference, these Soviet assurances helped grow public support for soviets and communists.
The second republic created after Munich survived only until March 1939 when Slovakia proclaimed independence and all Czech territories were turned into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The KSČ was banned, but the Soviet-German alliance kept the communists from active resistance until the middle of 1941. Especially political leaders escaped to Moscow, whereas leadership inside the country was rebuilt in 1942. The communists’ participation in the resistance movement gradually increased; main forms of resistance were underground press and leaflets, as well as collecting intelligence.
In 1940, the Czechoslovak government in exile was created. In December 1943, President Eduard Beneš signed a friendship treaty with Stalin. Good relations with Moscow (primarily achieved through the cession of Carpathian Ruthenia) allowed for the exile government’s return to its home country. In April 1945 the communists became a part of the new government created in Košice.
In the period of 1945-1948, Czechoslovakia employed a form of limited democracy. In the elections of May 1946, the communists won at 40% of votes and a coalition under the leadership of Gottwald was duly formed. The communists staffed the Ministry of Internal Affairs, gradually placing agents in government structures and other parties.
In Autumn 1947, several non-communist parties became victims of targeted provocations. Several non-communist ministers resigned in February 1948 in order to force by-elections. In response to this, the KSČ organised mass strikes and demonstrations which were also attended by armed units of the People’s Militias (Lidové milice). Simultaneously, the so-called “action committees” started taking control over institutions, social organisations, and other political parties. As part of this move, the aforementioned pro-communist sleeper agents revealed themselves and facilitated the arrest of a large number of non-communist politicians. President Beneš gave in to the threats of the communists and accepted a new government under Gottwald which was fully controlled by the KSČ.
Soon after the by-elections, a new constitution was adopted and Gottwald was declared president. Intensive sovietisation and mass purges began. The liquidation of several youth organisations in combination with the forced unification of others led to the creation of the Czechoslovak Union of Youth (Československý svaz mládeže) which was known as the Socialist Union of Youth after 1970 (Socialistický svaz mládeže). Similar processes took place in different areas of life. Effectively, every aspect of life was controlled by the State Security (Státní bezpečnost, StB).
In 1960 a new constitution was adopted which also changed the name of the country to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (Československá socialistická republika, ČSSR). Additionally, the traditional Czechoslovak coat of arms with the eminent lion on it was adjusted; instead of a crown, the lion now had a red star above its head. The constitution also granted the KSČ a leading role in the country.
After Gottwald’s death in 1953, Antonín Novotný became the party leader and eventually president in 1957. Social protests forced a slight adjustment of the country’s economic policy, but on the other hand Czechoslovakia was not subjected to the 1956 de-Stalinisation which took place at the beginning of the 1960s, albeit only to a limited degree. Novotný’s popularity decreased and students grew ever more independent; even inside the communist party, especially in the Slovak faction, there were noticeable signs of opposition.
In the beginning of 1968, Alexander Dubček became the new leader of the KSČ, and a process of top-down reforms known as the Prague Spring began. Society gradually liberalised and non-communist organisations were founded. Despite the reforms’ limited scope, these developments were completely unacceptable to Moscow. The Prague Spring was ended by an intervention of Warsaw Pact troops on 21.08.1968.
In the following months, all new policies were abandoned and rolled back entirely. In 1969, the period of so-called “normalisation” began; effectively, this brought mass repressions and purges to Czechoslovakia. Gustáv Husák became the party leader and president a few years later, in 1975. In 1977, the most notable organisation for political opposition appeared: Charter 77. At that point, however, most of the society was unaffected by the organisation’s advent.
In the second half of the 80s, the activities of the political opposition became more intensive. Opposition organisations grew and the Catholic citizenry also became more active. Demonstrations became increasingly frequent. In November 1989, Czechoslovakia witnessed the Velvet Revolution which would ultimately lead to the end of communist rule in the country. Husák resigned and the opposition leader Vaclav Havel was declared president. In June 1990, free elections were. On 1.01.1993 Czechoslovakia peacefully split up into the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic.
In 1945, Czechoslovakia experienced a wave of repressions led by the Soviet security apparatuses (NKWD, SMERSH). About 500 people were deported to the USSR from the current Czech territories, mostly Russian emigrants. In Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia, the repressions were much more extensive.
In the years 1945-1948, collaborators from the German occupation period were dealt with. About half of those convicted and punished were of German origin, and 35% were either Czech or Slovak. Without doubt, the underlying reasons for these repressions were succinctly political, but the scale of the abuse cannot be determined today.
Communists started their first open political repressions even before gaining full power, although it is fair to say that they grew stronger after February 1948. This was facilitated by changes in the law, including the 231/1948 decree about protecting the “people’s democratic republic”. It is estimated that until 1960, 150,000-160,000 people were sentenced for political reasons, 248 of whom were executed. About 25,000 people were imprisoned in the Czechoslovak system of forced labour camps which operated between 1948-1954. Altogether, about 4,500 people died in the system of prisons and camps.
Some political prisoners were released due to the amnesties of 1960, 1962, and 1965. Between 1960-1968, repressions become less commonplace and “only” 4,000-5,000 people were sentenced. The rehabilitation bill which was adopted in 1968 was soon revoked following the intervention by the militaries of the countries of the Warsaw Pact.
This intervention brought with it another wave of repressions. 108 people died and about 500 were injured. In one instance, the pacification of an anniversary demonstration resulted in five civilian casualties. During the “normalisation” period (until 1974) about 3,000 people were sentenced in the country, and over 100,000 were declared guilty in absentia because they had fled the country.
Purges were also used as a tool of repression – those citizens who were deemed enemies of the state lost their jobs. According to the official data, the purges after 1948 affected 28,000 people, but historians estimate this number to be closer to 250,000. Another wave of purges started in 1958 and affected around 50,000 people. Mass purges were also an integral part of the normalisation process; in that era, between 100,000 and 150,000 people were affected. The number of people who were unable to pursue their preferred education or line of work for political reasons is hitherto unknown.
The borders of Czechoslovakia with Austria and West Germany were a part of the Iron Curtain. Until the mid-60s, an electric fence was a part of the border fortifications. Until 1989, at least 276 people died while trying to cross the border – most were shot or electrocuted.
Political trials took place even in the final years of the regime. Their victims were opposition activists (e.g. from Charter 77) and people involved with the underground Church. In 1989, 52 people were sentenced.
Altogether, about 265,000 people received sentences for political reasons between 1948-1989, 200,000 of which were proclaimed in the Czech part of the country; this number does not include people who had criminal charges but were sentenced for political reasons regardless. 110,000 of all convicted people were sentenced in absentia for escaping the country. The number of people who received fines remains unknown to this day.
In 1945, properties of Germans, Hungarians and other “traitors” were nationalised along with banks, mines, big industrial plants, and food processing plants. Another wave of nationalisation came in 1948. Even though it only targeted enterprises employing more than 50 people, smaller companies were also taken over by the state in the following years. Simultaneously, private trade and craftsmanship were systematically eliminated. The last small enterprises were liquidated in the beginning of the 1960s. The option to allow small private property (trade, craftsmanship) was only considered during the Prague Spring reforms.
The beginning of the 1950s brought central planning, heavy industry development, socialist (labour) competition and other elements of the Soviet economic model. In 1953, the communist government implemented a monetary reform which deprived the society of most its savings. This policy went hand in hand with an increase in prices for most commodities. In reaction to those changes, numerous strikes and a mass demonstration in Plzeň ensued. Under pressure from Moscow, the KSČ leadership introduced a “new course”, the target of which was to improve the standard of living of the people.
Farming collectivisation began in 1949. The peasants’ resistance was broken with the use of mass repressions (fees and imprisonment, dismissal of children from higher education institutions, property confiscation, and the relocation of a few thousand families). During the crisis in 1953, about 20% of all members in Czechoslovakia left the cooperatives. In 1954, over 60% of all land was still in private hands. Intensive collectivisation was resumed in 1957. By 1960, cooperatives had gained control over 68.5% of the land whereas state farms owned 19%. The process was continued in the following years. A law introduced in 1975 allowed the cooperatives to use the land of the few private owners that were left at that point in time.
The beginning of the 60s brought a stop to economic growth; in 1963, the state officially admitted to the falling national revenue and production. Looking for ways to reform the economy was one of the reasons for the Prague Spring. In 1968 wide-ranged reforms were introduced in order to improve the work efficiency and competitiveness of the Czechoslovak economy. Among those reforms were the decision to grant enterprises a greater degree of autonomy, and to allow for greater self-governance of the workers. Proper market competition between enterprises – within the framework of the socialist system - was meant to be introduced but these ideas were stopped in their tracks as the Warsaw Pact militaries intervened in Czechoslovakia.
One aspect of the “normalisation” period was the unwritten contract between the party leadership and the majority of Czechoslovak society: in return for subjecting itself to the policies of the KSČ, society would experience improvements to the standard of living and an increase in consumption. Since the mid-80s, the economy of the ČSSR was in stagnation but the standard of living was still exceptionally high in comparison to the rest of the Soviet bloc.
Society and culture
The ethnic composition of Czechoslovakia changed as a result of the Holocaust (about 80,000 Jews were killed on Czech territory) as well as post-war relocations, both forced and voluntary. In the Czech part of the country, Germans were among the most affected; about 2.5 million people ended up in the Soviet and American occupation zones in Germany.
Having seized power, the communists also began changing social structures. Purges and property confiscation affected hundreds of thousands of people. In 1955, 90% of employees worked for institutions or enterprises controlled by the state. The monetary reform of 1953 deprived people of their savings, while personal wealth went into the possession of the state, thus causing a certain “downward wealth equalisation”. Collectivisation accelerated the migration from villages to cities and employment statistics. The percentage of farming jobs fell from 24.6% in 1950 to 16.1% in 1961. In the same period, the percentage of workers grew from 42.1% to 53.3%; this trend persisted until the 1970s.
In the years just after the war, culture was also steered in a more specific direction. After 1948, social realism was imposed, as was Marxism in science. The purges deprived many people of the possibility to create art or scientific works, while others were demoted to less important positions. Some of the affected abandoned their homeland entirely.
All culture was subjected to state control and censorship. In 1952 the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences was established in alignment with the Soviet guidelines and pattern. A year later, education was reformed; two types of schools were introduced (8- and 11-years-long) and compulsory education was extended to 9 and, later, 10 years in 1960 and 1984 respectively. School education was the most important indoctrination tool because it was in those classrooms where the future citizens of the Soviet country were raised.
The societal disruption in the 1950s and 1960s evoked a gradual revival of cultural life in Czechoslovakia. Many prominent artists, especially writers (L. Vaculik, B. Hrabal, M. Kundera, and V. Havel), found their voice. The writers’ activities were one of the sources of the Prague Spring. A new wave appeared in cinematography (including M. Forman and J. Menzel). During the “normalisation” process, cultural life was again subjected to the party's control.
Some of the artists emigrated, and independent culture expressed itself in the form of underground publishing, concerts, and scientific seminars in private houses. Many people, including Jaroslav Seifert, the winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Literature, engaged in oppositional activities. On the other hand, 7,000 artists of varying prominence took part in the propaganda campaign against Charter 77. Mass culture, popular music and TV series above all, were an important element of the “normalisation” after the crackdown on the Prague Spring.
For many years, the ruling elite was dominated by pre-war communist activists. It was only in 1987 that Miloš Jakeš, who joined the party in 1945, became its leader. However, the percentage of younger activists gradually increased within the lower ranks. Apart from the purges in the 1950s, when mock trials were held for a few communists including Rudolf Slanski, then the general secretary of the KSČ, only the Prague Spring shed some light on strong divisions within the party. In the normalisation period, over 300,000 members, including many from the regional (44%) and central leadership (including A. Dubček), were expelled from the party for supporting reforms.
The rebuilding of the Czechoslovak army was based on units formed in the USSR and in the West during World War II. The quite ambitious preliminary plans for increasing the number of soldiers to 210,000 were reduced in 1947. Already in this period the communists were building their influence over the military by organising party units on different levels, who also controlled the important aspect of military education. As a result, the KSČ achieved much higher support among the military than among the general populace in the elections of May 1946.
In the years 1946-1947 military units fought alongside the security apparatus against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. For them, this was the last real international combat action in the post-war period.
In the coup of 1948, the military remained neutral which helped the communists seize power. Only a few days after the communists’ victory, party officials initiated a purge which ultimately affected more than half of the entire Czechoslovak officer corps. They were replaced with hastily promoted cadres of “proper” class background. Some of the discharged officers were repressed, sentenced and executed, as was the case with General Heliodor Píka in 1949.
The army was quickly expanded in 1950 and by 1953 it had already reached a size of 240,000 – in case of a big armed conflict, mobilisation was expected to more than triple this number to reach 760,000. Simultaneously, the army was rearmed with Soviet weaponry which was reproduced in Czechoslovakia under various licence agreements. In 1954, the army was renamed as the Czechoslovak People's Army (Československá lidová armáda, ČSLA). At the time, about 60% of professional soldiers were in the KSČ. The educational apparatus was replaced with a political one which was subject to the Main Political Administration.
The “politically ambiguous” conscripts in the years 1950-1954 were directed to the Technical Auxiliary Battalion (Pomocné technické prapory). Soldiers from these units were forced to work in mining and construction. Altogether 60,000 people were subjected to this kind of repression.
In 1955 the ČSLA became a part of the Warsaw Pact. In line with this, it was assigned offensive tasks including the use of nuclear weapons; nuclear ammunition had been stored in Czechoslovakia from 1966. Czechoslovakia was a part of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission in Korea. From 1961 onwards, soldiers pledged allegiance to the “working people led by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia”.
During the intervention of the Warsaw Pact military in August 1968, the army was ordered to remain in their quarters. In August 1969 the military was employed to pacify demonstrations. During the “normalisation” period, the purges also affected the commanding cadre of the ČSLA.
The army played a big role in the social life of Czechoslovakia. The military was used to help with propaganda campaigns, support the economy, and indoctrinate the Czechoslovak youth. Up to 15% of the budget of the country were spent on military expenses each year, and a number of social organisations participated in preparing society for war. The strongest paramilitary organisation was the People's Militia (Lidové milice) which had 85,000 volunteers in 1989.
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