By Dr. Josef A. Mestenhauser
(Part One of Dr. Mestenhauser’s article appeared in the June/July Slovo.)
Proclaimed on Apr. 5, 1945, the Kosice Program—although written by the communists–defined the postwar state of a democratic Czechoslovakia. Two ministers were to be non-partisan: Ludvik Svoboda, Minister of National Defense, and Jan Masaryk, Minister of Foreign Affairs. As future events proved, these ministers were anything but non-partisan. Jan Masaryk refused to resign during the crisis; if he had resigned, then it would have meant that a majority of the cabinet had done so, and constitutionally Beneš would have been required to reject the resignations, keep the existing government in place, and declare immediate elections.
Svoboda’s actions also helped the now communist-controlled government: he ordered the military to remain neutral. On the surface, this move seemed designed to de-escalate tensions; however, this order actually precluded Beneš, as commander-in-chief, from calling the military to arms in case of a communist coup d’etat. The military was the only force capable of disarming the illegal militia and renegade police forces. Paradoxically, had the democrats focused on persuading Beneš to use the army, the coup might have been prevented.
Early in 1947, Stalin established a new organization called Cominform, ostensibly to provide an information network among the socialist countries and parties around the world; in reality, it became an instrument of Soviet expansion. The organization’s first meeting passed a confidential resolution that it was time for Czechoslovakia’s communists to consolidate power in much the same way that the communist movements had done in Hungary, Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria.
In 1946, the Czechoslovak communist party confiscated an island resort in Macha Lake in Doksy. Before the war, the island belonged to the German Social Democratic Party and ownership should have passed to the Czechoslovak Social Democrats. Instead, the resort became a secret communist school for the “Fifty,” party leaders who were to implement the plans intended to result in a communist takeover. A copy of the plans, titled “Gaining Power Through Parliamentary Means,” was smuggled out and immediately circulated not only among the non-communist forces of Czechoslovakia but among the intelligence agencies of other countries. The respected publisher and critic of communism Pavel Tigrid printed this document in full in his magazine Svedectvi (Testimony).
At their annual congress, Social democrats—unhappy that their party had been hijacked by the communists under the guise of the National Front—removed their president and installed new leadership. As a result, the communists lost the majority of cabinet posts and the National Front was essentially killed as a vehicle to power.
Most importantly, opinion polls indicated a substantial drop of public support for the communists, for whom it became imperative that new elections, which they had little hope of winning, be prevented. To do so, the communists sabotaged cabinet decisions, presented demand after demand, did not hold cabinet meetings, and ordered police raids of headquarters of the democratic parties. These measures were much more severe in Slovakia.
Communist attempts at destabilization were many. The Ministry of Agriculture refused to open fiscal records of land confiscated from the Sudeten Germans, undoubtedly for fear that they would reveal that the communists were buying votes by awarding property. Similarly, the Minster of the Interior fired eight Prague police chiefs loyal to the government and refused to reinstate them despite a strongly-worded cabinet resolution; the capital was in communist hands. He also hid communist complicity in an attempted effort to kill three major politicians (among them Jan Masaryk), all of whom received packages containing powerful bombs. Minister of Justice Prokop Drtina, one of the intended victims, was able to conduct an inquiry that clearly traced responsibility for these packages to a communist party headquarters near Olomouc.
The communist Minister of Information repeatedly insinuated that prominent members of the democratic parties were spies of foreign governments who should be tried for treason. He also sabotaged the printing of non-communist publications by withholding distribution of printing press ink and paper. Arrests on offences not based on Czechoslovak law, such as enemy of the people, fascist, spy, or saboteur of socialism, were made when the party wanted an enemy kept in a “safe place” during the projected coup.
The President of the Trade Unions helped create the crisis and destabilized the economy by repeatedly increasing salaries of blue color workers while keeping salaries of white collar workers low. During the crucial period after the democratic ministers tendered their resignations, he suddenly convened a congress of Trade Unions to meet in Prague, adding to the atmosphere of fear and intimidation as an armed workers’ militia paraded through the city in a show of strength.
The defining moment came when Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Valerian Zorin appeared in Prague unannounced. Zorin’s visit was, presumably, to inspect delivery of Soviet grain. However, most scholars are convinced that his real mission was to bring a sharply-worded message from Stalin to the Czechoslovak communist leadership expressing the Soviet leader’s impatience with their slow progress toward gaining power.