Publications: How did the communist coup happen?

By Dr. Josef A. Mestenhauser

The communists did not just gain power overnight. Understanding the context of how this event happened is very important, because it is now so long since it occurred that people might simply forget or ignore this occurrence as no longer relevant, or because the events of the Prague Spring of 1968 have overshadowed the country’s own history. Yet there are lessons to learn for the present time.

My understanding of these events is very different from that of most historians and scholars, who attribute the takeover of Central Europe to the Russian policy of expansionism, a long-standing tradition begun under the Czars that gains its credibility as an example of continuity. In contrast, I believe the opposite: that the communists were seeking a complete breach with the past and were motivated by a rigid ideology rather than often-changing “national interests,” a theory that dominates the thinking in most social sciences in the West.

Missing from the discourse are the mindsets and mental states of the leaders of both the communist and non-communist side. One of the mindsets held by Western leaders, including Americans, which was based on our orientation towards democracy and pragmatism, was that the devastation of the war would force the USSR to concentrate more on domestic recovery than on continuing expansionist trends of the past. This mindset was strengthened by the fact that USSR was now accepted into the society of nations; it was assumed that acceptance would end its isolation and thus change its behavior. In Western thought, Soviet expansionist tendencies have been attributed to the prevailing belief that nations pursue their national interests; this view generally ignored communist ideology, which was explained as simply the Russians’ justifications for pursing their national interests. I studied communism for my Master’s thesis as well as my PhD thesis, and I hold the view that Marxism-Leninism and later Stalinism did provide a mental map that the regime followed, with only minor deviation, starting with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The dominance of communist ideology was reinforced at all the irregularly-convened congresses of the Party and its Central Committee and by an army of ideologues sitting in the Kremlin. The major parts of the ideology that is relevant to February 1948 held that the world is divided into capitalist and socialist camps, and that the socialist camp’s role was to defeat capitalism as a decadent and exploitative regime on the ground that communism was the superior scientific system that promised a utopia without wars, hunger, and human suffering. The struggle was to be difficult and required the socialist camp to use all means, however ruthless, toward its achievement.

Lenin laid out a course of action in his work “What Is To Be Done,” describing special strategies and tactics that would allow the socialist camp to use any means to accomplish their objectives. Biographers of Stalin agree that he believed in this ideology and contributed to its further refinement and use. Aware of his own increasing age, Stalin was determined to complete the establishment of socialism within his lifetime. He believed that World War II was a typical “capitalist” war which did not concern the socialist camp, but which would nevertheless provide the opportunity to convert it into a socialist war that would install socialist regimes in the warring countries. This mindset allowed Stalin to lie to Western leaders, including Beneš, about his foul intentions in regards to their countries’ independence and sovereignty. From our perspectives, these statements were deceitful untruths, but from the Leninist point of view, they were essential and universal strategies. Stalin may not have thought that he was lying, because his plan was not to engage in direct occupation, but to unleash the local communist parties that the Politburo had secretly organized and long nurtured.

These observations have direct relevance to the events of February 1948. They explain why Stalin strongly opposed Churchill’s idea of invading German-occupied Europe through the Balkans, which Stalin wanted to claim as part of his “sphere of influence.” At one point, I understood that the Czech and Slovak underground was preparing to assist a possible invasion through the Balkans and was concentrating its own resources in Slovakia, from where it planned to function in case of such an invasion. Sadly, the Western powers gave in and instead staged the invasion on the Western front through France.

As mentioned above, the USSR did not need to remove its military from the important Eastern front to invade countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, and Rumania because the well-organized communist cells in these countries could be counted on to destabilize existing regimes and eventually gain power. Ultimately, plans to “unleash” world revolution not only concerned Europe (where the communists did initiate important revolts), but were extended to China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and India.

Similar in-house establishment of the communist party in Czechoslovakia took place as well. To my personal knowledge, Soviet paratroopers landed in Czechoslovakia as early as 1943, presumably to assist the local underground resist the Nazis, but actually to organize communist cells. After the war, these cells became the so-called “national committees” that infiltrated the country’s entire power structure, from the villages to the national scene. As a result, the communist party became the only well-organized force that survived Nazi persecution because they were able to replenish those arrested with new members trained ideologically in the above-mentioned Leninist tactics. Communist leaders in the second, Moscow-based Czechoslovak Government in exile used the same strategy of lying about their intentions, and convinced Beneš and others that they were a democratic political party committed to established principles of governance. Most of our leaders recognized these deceptions too late–after the communists had misused the power of the important Ministries that they had controlled through the Košice agreement (about which I will speak in the next issue) to disrupt all levels of government functions–and then failed to enforce cabinet decisions that would have curbed the communists’ illegal activities.

I was very much involved in the political struggle that opposed the communist functionaries of the National Student Association, of the Law Student Association, and of the National Socialist Party. These activities often haunt me even today when I think of how Roosevelt abandoned Czechoslovakia to the Soviet sphere, how impotent and unprepared our democratic leaders were, and how gullible and apathetic was our general public that looked for stability, ignored the dangers, and went about their daily pleasures as if nothing important was happening. They either did not see, or did not want to see, that the USSR already dominated much of the government through the Czechoslovak communists.

In the next issue of the Slovo I will return to the specific events that prepared the communist take-over and will close this discussion by pointing out important implications for us at the present time.