By Dr. Josef A. Mestenhauser
Contemporary political, economic and social scene in the Czech and Slovak Republics have been largely defined by the dissidents and their generation of the Dubcek’s Prague Spring 1968 era. This seemed to hide the fact that there was an important antecedent, the communist coup d’état on February 25, 1948. I was an active participant in those events and wanted to include this topic in one of my articles. The unexpected occasion came up now. We were moving from our house where we lived for 55 years into a nice cooperative housing which necessitated the painful act of sorting out all the stuff that we have accumulated over the half century. To my great surprise I discovered hidden behind my book shelves my diary from 1948 that apparently my family salvaged before the communist police could confiscate my property. The diary started in Prague and ended with the date of March 19th 1948 – the day I was escaping from Czechoslovakia. Suddenly I was confronted with the traumatic memories of what I chose to call the “day of shame”. It surprised me that even after sixty some years I was overcome with the same feelings of despair, resignation, disappointment and impotence that we experienced then, in disbelief that the country of Masaryk and the hair of the Western tradition that gave birth to the only democracy in Central Europe could surrender itself to one of the worst dictatorships, for the second time in a decade, without a single shot or resistance. It took me some time to recover some distance and perspective with which I write this article.
What happened is well known. Non Communist parties in the government could no longer tolerate the dictatorial tendencies and actions of the ruling coalition of Communists and Social Democrats, and decided to submit a collective resignation. They thought they acted prudently and on the basis of prior assurances that their resignation will not be accepted by President Benes, who would then have to dismiss the entire cabinet, appoint a caretaker one, and order new elections. These parties hoped that the new elections will change the political power structure; indeed public opinion polls clearly noted that there was a significant shift away from communists. In addition, the Social Democrats have ousted their President who turned out to be a communist in disguise.
Here is again my point about the importance of the mindset how democratic forces were thinking. They were committed to follow democratic parliamentary procedures that provided safeguards through the power of the President and through the likelihood that the people will decide in free elections to restore true parliamentary democracy. In my own political activities I was the beneficiary of the trend away from the communists when twice during my speeches I was presented with significant number of communist ID cards handed to me by the communists who were defecting from their party because they no longer felt that the communists represented a true democratic party. In other words, we have placed our trust in the President and the elections and assumed that all parties will play by the same rules.
The parliamentary process required that a majority of cabinet members resign in order to dismiss the entire cabinet and call for new elections. That did not happen. The mindset of the President was that he must follow established practices, and eventually – even if under enormous pressure from the communists – accepted the resignations and appointed a new cabinet that consisted of people submitted by the communist Prime Minister Gottwald. The focus shifted to Jan Masaryk, as I have mentioned in previous articles. He did not resign, thus giving the communists the opportunity to claim that they gained unlimited power through parliamentary process. The crisis ended peacefully – except for a last minute desperate effort of university students to protest this development. They were, however, dispersed brutally by the police.
The communists unleashed immediately their rule of fear and terror with many arrests, expulsions from positions, fake trials, new legislation about further nationalization and changes in educational system. Non-communists have been left to their own devices, one of which was to flee the country, and for many long sentences to prison terms. Most of the recriminations were directed against both the President Benes and Jan Masaryk. They do share a great deal of responsibility, but there were many antecedents that need to be taken into account. My purpose is to show that events of the past do not stand alone to be analyzed like parts of a machine, each separately. Together they fit into a pattern that collectively influence future course of events. Our analytical way of thinking tends to dissect complex events into their smallest parts that it deals with one at a time to the neglect of the whole. Historians also tend to concentrate on single events and fail to recognize the role of the mindsets; the cognitive structures people develop that guide their actions.
I begin with such a mindset that is based on the Marx-Leninist ideology that guided the leadership of the Soviet Union. It was based on the idea that World War II was an imperialistic war in which the role of the socialist Soviet Union was to convert it to a proletarian war. Before the ultimate goal of achieving the socialist paradise there will be a period of transition to socialism, during which utmost efforts must be made to overcome thee last desperate efforts of the capitalists/imperialists to hold on to their own powers. Most Western policy makers associated the Soviet Policy with the continuation of the Czarists expansionist trends when the Communists in fact insisted on complete discontinuity with the past.
This mindset had a number of implications. It allowed Stalin to consistently lie both to Western powers and to Benes specifically about his respect for the sovereignty of other countries, including Czechoslovakia. Furthermore it disguised actions that undermined democratic movements and promoted subversive actions that eventually led to installation of socialist regimes in neighboring countries of Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Rumania. Consistent with these mindsets and policies was the fact that the Soviets have dropped in Czechoslovakia a number of paratroopers who came not to help fight the Nazis, but to begin organizing communists cells – as early as 1943 when the London based Czechoslovak government decided to sign a treaty of mutual assistance with the USSR. The same mindset on part of both Stalin and Western leaders prevailed when post war arrangements were being discussed at Yalta and later Potsdam. For example, Stalin prevailed that the second front must be launched in Western Europe, not through the Balkans as Churchill suggested. Similarly Stalin prevailed over Roosevelt and his trusted adviser Harry Hopkins when they agreed to divide Europe into spheres of influence that gave Czechoslovakia to Stalin. This was done without consultation with the Czechoslovak exile government and was one of the causes why the Soviet led coup succeeded so easily in 1948. When the beginnings of the cold war began to be shaped, the Soviets have established their Cominform, a successor to the world-wide Comintern that was supposed to establish the global rule by the Communists. At its first session in Milan in 1947 a secret agenda placed Czechoslovakia next in line for socialist revolution to follow Poland, Hungary and Rumania. The Soviet line did not rest in Europe. The rest of the world did not escape the efforts to create socialist governments; simultaneous revolutions and insurrections have been initiated in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and, of course, in Western Europe. Western diplomats and intelligence agencies knew about these plans, and shared this information with leading non-communists in Czechoslovakia who did not appear to take this information sufficiently seriously into account, still believing that the country of Masaryk will not succumb to the Soviet terror. I was personally familiar with this information when I visited Paris for Student Sport Olympics in the summer of 1947. Representatives of the DeGaul movement conveyed to a few of us they had credible information that a coup d’état was imminent.
By the end of the war there were two governments in exile, one in London and one in Moscow. The effort to reconcile these two organizations resulted not in a compromise, but in capitulations to the communists who gained the most important Ministries of Interior (in charge of police), agriculture, treasury, education and information. The two non-political members were Jan Masaryk who was too weak to be counted on, and General Svoboda, who was clearly from the beginning a silent supporter of the Communists. Another trick of the communists was the establishment of the so-called “National Front” that excluded non socialist parties from being recognized and that tied the non-Marxian parties to collaborate for the sake of consensus.
I will leave the discussion of the details about how the idea of the National Front served the communist plans and how they utilized the powers of the Ministries they occupied, to the next sequence to this article.