Today, the last communist president of Czechoslovakia and Slovak communist Gustáv Husák would celebrate his 100th birthday. When I was a kid, this birthday – January 10th, 1913 – would be the most frequently celebrated one. It would be written down in all the calenders, too.
Click the image for various pictures of Husák. YouTube offers tons of videos. New Year Address in which he said the year was 1895 so they returned the clock by 5 minutes and started again. Various parodies in which Husák says jokes, and so on. It's easy to find his pictures and videos with all the fellow communist leaders, with Gaddaffi, and lots of characters of this sort.
I want to shock you with the size of this image so that you appreciate how omnipresent this image has been during the first 10 years I spent at schools. I am pretty sure that Husák has spent more time in front of my eyes than any of my parents. ;-)
He was born as "Augustin" to a working-class family in Pozsonyhidegkút (Kingdom of Hungary) near Pressburg (today, Dúbravka, as the P-word is called in Slovak today, is a part of Pressburg and Pressburg is known as Bratislava; incidentally, I live in Doubravka in Pilsen, it's a word for a forest) and became involved with the local communist party rather soon. During the Second World War, he was already one of the main organizers of the Slovak National Uprising (1944) against the Slovak clerofascist state.
After the war, he would already hold lots of important communist jobs. That's why I find it really bizarre that during Stalinist purges in 1950, he was sentenced to a life in prison as a supporter of "nationalist bourgeoisie". His six years in the Leopoldov prison were pretty tough but he didn't have any bad feelings. It was just some misunderstanding, he repeatedly stressed.
Needless to say, I agree with him that it was a misunderstanding. He was a kind of a hardcore communists that communists had no reason to arrest. Still, I find it amazing if someone is terrorized by his fellow demagogues for 6 years in a harsh prison and he still can't figure out what disgraceful assholes all these people (including himself) are. ;-)
In 1968, he was alarmed by the pro-freedom "socialism with a human face" organized by another Slovak guy, Alexander Dubček (the boss of the communist party during the Prague Spring), and others. So it's unsurprising that Husák was picked as the new general secretary of the communist party after the Soviet-led 1968 occupation (since 1971) and replaced the ill Czech war hero Ludvík Svoboda as the president (in 1975).
Throughout my childhood, he was the symbol of the new Stalinism and our "friendship with the Soviet Union", too. Nevertheless, later I found out that he wasn't really one of the most hardcore commies, one of those who invited the Soviet troops to "help us in a friendly way", and his own record indicates that he had some character.
In fact, people born in the 1970s including your humble correspondent are known as Husák Children (our Generation X, roughly speaking). Pro-population-growth policies (including various special gifts for birth, and so on) have been invented since the 1960s but they waited for Husák's tenure to be realized. The people born in 1974 (de facto my year, if you ignore one month that I was ahead by) are the strongest class in the demographic composition of Czechia and Slovakia.
Husák wouldn't be the guy who would be heard as saying tough totalitarian proclamations and nasty things about the dissidents such as Havel. This job was done by others – including Husák's successor at the helm of the communist party (since 1997), the funny Milouš Jakeš. Nevertheless, it's clear that Husák couldn't have been innocent. He must have received tons of requests to give pardons for various political prisoners but he has never done so.
Husák was also replaced by Havel as the Czechoslovak president at the end of 1989. It had to be humiliating him because due to various kinds of pressures, it was actually a mostly communist Parliament that still managed to elect Havel (a guy who was in jail just 2 months earlier) as the new president. The vote was actually unanimous. ;-) I am sure that the pro-democratic Civic Forum (OF) movement had to harass the communist deputies rather intensely. A Slovak historian claimed today that Husák actually lobbied for Havel to be elected – he hated Dubček much more. A non-socialism was more acceptable for him than the return to the socialism with a human face.
He died forgotten in 1991.
To summarize, Husák has been a key symbol of the occupation and all the bad communist things in Czechoslovakia during the last 2 decades of communism. Nevertheless, his "bad character" image was probably less black-and-white than what you could expect from similar Stalin-like leading figures of an authoritarian regime.