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Victorious February: 60th anniversary

Exactly 60 years ago, on February 25th, 1948, the communists took over Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovak coup d'état of 1948 (Wikipedia)
Communists were never negligible in Czechoslovakia, since their creation in 1921, but after the World War II, they had a real momentum. Although Czechoslovakia managed to become one of the last "undecided" countries of the Central and Eastern Europe, as the Soviets thought themselves, the internal situation was much more favorable for the rise of communism than the situation in other countries that adopted communism at about the same time.

There were hundreds of Soviet agents in our country but I don't think that they have played an important role; their ability to convince the social democratic party to co-operate with the communists might have been an exception but it wasn't such a key event. After everything was settled, the Soviet communist party has criticized their Czechoslovak comrades that their victory wasn't sufficiently bloody. But what were the conditions that have made the coup possible - and, in fact, easy?

In the 1946 election, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia won 38% of the vote which is a truly high number for a multi-party democracy. These bastards had the "momentum", indeed. They were able to correlate themselves with the desire for a "change". The Czechoslovaks were still upset about the Western allies who betrayed us in 1938 and grateful to Stalin's Soviet Union that has played a major role in the liberation of the country from the Nazis: the communist party itself had a clear record of their anti-Nazi resistance. In February 1948, rallies were held everywhere, millions of people were ready to participate in nation-wide strikes, and so forth.

Klement Gottwald, the first working class president of Czechoslovakia, with his Russian friend

The prime minister Klement Gottwald - who was the leader of communists since the 1929 Stalinist takeover of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia - returned from President Edvard Beneš and made this speech (sorry, the YouTube video contains the moving pictures of Jiří Paroubek, the current boss of social democrats, but it is not such a dramatic difference anyway, at least as far as their dictatorship ambitions go). He said, very slowly, in a way that highlights how stupid this leader was, that he had just returned from the Prague Castle and the president had accepted the resignation of all the reactionary ministers.

The crowds cheered.

The communists were thus able to fill the rest of the government with their people. Jan Masaryk, the minister of foreign affairs and the son of the first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, was the only non-communist minister in the new government but he became the victim of the third Prague defenestration two weeks later: they threw him out of the window. Czechoslovakia had to cancel its participation in the Marshall Plan, too. The democratic president, Edvard Beneš, resigned soon afterwards and was replaced by Klement Gottwald himself. Beneš also died a few months later, leaving together with the last hopes for democracy's survival. 41 years of communism, with a refreshing interruption in 1968, followed.

The Victorious February, as it used to be called by the official propaganda for all those 41 years, had many implications, even outside Czechoslovakia. It has forced the U.S. government to dramatically increase the funding of Pentagon because their overreliance on nuclear weapons became too obvious at this point. It convinced the West to create a state in West Germany and to rapidly adopt the Marshall Plan. The Victorious February might have been the strongest single event that has contributed to the beginning of the Cold War, the creation of NATO, and all the related dynamics.

What is the message? Well, totalitarian systems can begin by peaceful and mostly legal methods - Hitler's rise in 1933 was another example - but once they take over, it is rather difficult to get rid of them. We should be very careful about the movements that are capable and willing to suppress some basic principles of democracy and freedom for decades because democracy and freedom cannot really protect themselves, at least not when the parties with very different priorities become the dominant ones.

The democratic tolerance for certain parties with not-quite-democratic plans should start to diminish when the non-democratic plans threaten to influence the society in the long run and when they start to look too realistic.

And that's the memo.

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snail feedback (4) :

reader Joyce said...

I collect Czechoslovakian stamps and Victorious February has puzzled me for some time.I shall now be able to tell my friend from the Czech Republic that I am learning more of her culture. Thank you for your excelent artical
Pat from Scotland

reader Keir said...

I appreciate the post, especially after having just visited Prague. BUT I do take exception to the claim that "totalitarian systems can begin by peaceful and mostly legal methods"- I can't think of any, and I teach history here in Bavaria. There was nothing legal about Hitler's rise, from his aborted putsch in 1923 to the violence and anarchy by which his SA blackmailed the establishment into accepting his chancellorship. His Enabling Act was passed with a minority of votes despite the Nazis' throwing their opponents into the newly-built Dachau KZ. Lenin, Mao both took power in coups during war. To hear Americans actually mention Obama's name next to Hitler's or Stalin's is deeply offensive to people here who know such regimes intimately and demeans the real suffering of their victims.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Keir, thanks for your comment. I agree with you that Obama is no Hitler.

But concerning the totalitarian systems that begin peacefully and legally, Czechoslovak communists are just one example.

The communists were a legally working party in between the wars. They gained credit during the war - as a leading group fighting the Nazis. The Soviet liberation of most of Czechoslovakia helped them, too.

In 1946, they won the elections, became stronger, and eventually they pushed all the "reactionary" ministers out of the government - they resigned to protest against tendencies to build communism, but it was a suicide resignation, kind of.

Klement Gottwald celebrated the resignation, the rest of the government was filled with commies, and communism was suddenly built at a huge speed. All rich people's assets were stolen, and only communist-obedient candidates went to the next elections. The communists said that it was what the population wanted - and in some sense, it was true.

Thousands of people were executed, the economic growth was decimated, and hundreds of thousands of people emigrated from Czechoslovakia. But there was no real point in which the totalitarian regime would be gaining important things because of some self-evident crime. They just gradually changed what was legal.

reader Keir said...

Point taken, although I always saw Masaryk's defenestration as the launch of the communist take-over of power. It also came at a time when 3 million Germans were forcibly evicted from the country and brutal reprisals taking place. Coming three years after the war, I wouldn't have considered the time a peaceful, stable one (I was struck by countless memorials on grimy walls to those killed a week after Hitler's suicide).
But I have to side with you, particularly with the legal means.
thanks for the considered reply!