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Communist coup in Czechoslovakia: 70th anniversary

Today, it has been exactly 70 years since the "Victorious February", as the event was called up to the Velvet Revolution (and Czechs are sort of OK with similar euphemisms, also in the case of the "Protectorate" and "Normalization", so it's still used today, although the tone is usually satirical; but I think that people must understand why such events were terrible even if the demagogically positive language is used, not just when these events are described by some newer, artificially coined, negative phrases!).

The event wasn't just one of the three most tragic isolated 20th century events in a Czechoslovak pond that you don't care about. It had geopolitical implications. In particular, NATO was created as a response to the Czechoslovak coup – British FM Ernest Bevin proposed it to prevent another Czechoslovakia.

Klement Gottwald announcing his fans at the Old Town Square (the place with the astronomic clock, Orloj, where Ledecká will be welcomed at 4 p.m. on Monday) that the president would replace non-communist ministers by communist ones. (Well, it's a small myth: this fur coat picture is from February 21st, not 25th, when he was saying that the resigning ministers were traitors. On February 25th, Gottwald spoke at the bottom of the Wenceslaus Square.) Because it was cold, he borrowed his Slovak comrade Vladimír Clementis' fur hat – who got Gottwald's old-fashioned hat. Clementis was later executed by Gottwald's regime in 1952 and his face was eliminated from the photograph above.

I have watched several documents and reconstructions of the tragic events in 1948 – including an episode of "The Czech Century" which is a few years old; and the Gottwald episode of a new series, "The Red Presidents". I found those events rather fascinating. So how could communism start?

First, you should understand that in between the wars, Czechoslovakia was a perfectly standard Western parliamentarian democracy with a system that interpolated between those of the defunct Austria-Hungary, France, and the U.S.

It was founded in 1918 mainly by the "travelling founders" who did a lot of diplomatic work abroad – the president-liberator, Prof Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, and his two main collaborators, Dr Edvard Beneš and the Slovak pilot+astronomer Mr Milan Rastislav Štefánik who died in a tragic accident. Well, they had some domestic allies as well, of course, e.g. Mr Kramář (prime minister), Mr Rašín (our brilliant first finance minister), and others.

OK, we were betrayed by our Western allies in the 1938 Munich treaty, Slovakia was independent during the war, while the Czech lands were occupied. Beneš, a refined and sophisticated fan of the Western values, was forced to adapt to the new conditions, including the untrustworthiness of our Western European allies. So his government-in-exile in London – when the U.K. became an actual ally with Winston Churchill in charge – was negotiating various things with Stalin's Soviet Union. It seemed unavoidable to Beneš and I think that it would seem unavoidable to me, too.

After the war, Czechoslovakia was restored as a democratic country with some changes: the Soviet Union was suddenly our main military ally instead of the likes of France while it was assumed that we could keep democracy and freedom despite this new alliance; Germans (and most Hungarians) were expelled because their overwhelmingly Nazi history was incompatible with peace in the new country and because the victorious allies silently agreed; and the Subcarpathian Rus' was given to the Ukraine within the USSR (some informal polls in the region indicated that they – very unwisely – wanted that solution). The latter detail was negotiated directly by Beneš and Stalin in person – even though the commie Gottwald who's the main villain of this blog post loved to take credit for such negotiations.

The third major change was the adoption of some "soft socialist" reforms. Some large companies were nationalized. Moreover, the opposition was abolished in 1945. The cancellation of the opposition didn't mean the cancellation of democracy, however. Voters were still choosing their preferred parties. But they had to belong to the list of OK parties – the parties in the so-called National Front. All these parties have declared to cooperate with each other. Parties that were close to the collaborationist regime were banned. And the government had a proportional composition just like the Parliament – all the allowed parties were "guaranteed" to participate in the government. So the result of elections did matter but it couldn't matter "qualitatively". Do you get it? To some extent, this truncated form of democracy is still democratic and can self-correct.

In the 1946 elections, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia got 40% of the Czech votes – although the gain of the Communist Party of Slovakia (which is how they would name their commies – Slovaks always loved the unified country less than Czechs did) was much worse in Slovakia where commies with 30% lost to the Democratic Party with 60%. So you may imagine that in Prague, they were feeling extremely strong. (Just to be sure, Czechs' support for commies wasn't unique in the Western world – commies have won with 40% in France just a little bit later, too – but France was lucky to avoid totalitarian communism.) They became sort of "natural leaders of the National Front" after 1946. In particular, the commies controlled the ministry of interior (minister comrade Nosek) and police – and were gradually conquering it by firing non-communist police directors.

As "The Czech Century" (shot before Babiš became a politician) reconstructed the events, the communists as "members of the National Front" behaved just like Babiš in his coalitions: they took credit for everything that was considered good, and blamed the other parties for everything that was considered bad, and the typical Czech voter, almost a brain-dead one, simply bought all this garbage. (This is also a way to steal, or "tunnel out", communist companies during the privatization – Babiš did the same thing. Divide the communist company – let's call it Petrimex – to the good one and bad one. Buy cheaply the good one – let's call it Agrofert. As a "mere manager" of both companies, bring all the positive assets from the bad one to the good one – clearly, this step is only possible because no "real owners" are carefully watching your managerial steps. Let the bad one go bankrupt. You own all the good stuff as parts of the good one. Someone else pays all the debt in the bad company that disappeared.)

On February 20th, 1948, the non-communist ministers saw that the communist changes were too much and a protest was necessary to slow down this uncontrollable rise of the communist power within the existing system. I couldn't ever understand why they did what they did and even now, I think it was just plain suicidal. And maybe there was no better option. At any rate, the non-communist parties' ministers (12 and later 14 ministers, roughly 1/2) collectively resigned. They didn't even try to clearly predict what President Beneš would do – and that was already a lousy aspect of their plan, I think.

OK, the Czech president formally accepts or refuses to accept resignations, appoints prime ministers in any way he wants (although it's a "good habit" e.g. to pick the winners of elections), calls new elections, and so on. So the basic "good" possibilities were that Beneš – who wanted to avoid the arrival of the Soviet-style communism but who was mysteriously attracted to the communists' influence within the nation as well – would

  • refuse to accept the resignation, and officially urged the communist party to behave because their behavior threatens the unity in the National Front, or
  • he would accept the resignation, dissolved the Parliament as well, and called snap elections, or
  • he could fire the government and appoint a technocratic government led by a prime minister close to him, perhaps an official the Prague Castle
So maybe the non-communist ministers were "vaguely certain" that one of these scenarios had to take place. But when ministers resign, you know, there also exists another, more straightforward (remember that adjective!) solution:
  • the resignation may be accepted and the prime minister may be given the power to find new ministers to replace the resigned ones.
After all, isn't it what a resignation of a minister primarily means?

Well, guess what happened. Immediately after the resignation on February 20th, the communists invented this not so ingenious straightforward solution. (Maybe the democratic ministers explicitly assumed that communists were nice and they would never take active steps to conquer all the power – well, that was surely a wrong assumption.) And they started to exert pressure to make sure that this is what would happen. They established their partisan "LM" (People's Militias) paramilitary units that were sort of ready to fight, that were sort of ready to join or even launch a civil war if needed. And of course, a general strike was ready if they wouldn't get what they wanted – not to mention a possible military intervention that was "perhaps" privately promised by their Soviet comrades. They were constantly pushing Beneš to accept this game. And they were organizing rallies.

Now, the street was totally on their side so they could collect many more communist fans than what the democratic parties could dream about. The democratic politicians have also observed that many of the brave Scouts and Sokols (Falcons) who could bring pals on the street as the healthy democratic force had been executed by the Nazis. A similar destruction of the pro-Western true Czech elite (plus many waves of emigration – and among Czechs, it was mostly the elite that was emigrating, something that isn't true in most other nations, I guess) has taken place many times in the recent 400 years so whether someone likes it or not, the self-described working class is unavoidably overrepresented within the Czech nation – even today.

OK, there was this February 25th rally on the Old Town Square. The boss of communists and prime minister Mr Klement Gottwald (1896-1953) came there in the borrowed fur hat and announced: "I just returned from the Castle and the president has accepted all our demands [about the replacement of the reactionary ministers etc.]." The stupid working class celebrated.

"The Czech Century" added a nice twist – I have no idea whether they have any evidence for that. They suggested that Gottwald made this victorious announcement before Beneš decided what to do – and Beneš, totally afraid of something like a civil war or any breakdown in the unity of the nation (as he repeated all the time), simply had no other choice than to do what Gottwald had already announced. Well, it may be just a legend of the Galileo style "it is moving, anyway".

Fine. So with the pressure from the street and the bet by the democratic parties that backfired, communists were suddenly able to transform 40% in the recent elections (Czech part) to 100% in the government. (Well, some of the members in the "reconstructed government" – their euphemism for the first totalitarian government of Czechoslovakia – did belong to the other parties but they were puppets who were loyal to the communists, anyway – because they were chosen by the communists.) And those 100% in the government could have been easily used for them to get 100% for the "Communist-led National Front" in the subsequent "elections". So up to 1989, Czechoslovakia had periodic "elections" in which there was one bloc running, the National Front, and it was completely controlled (not by Le Pen but) by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Not so nice. (In the 1980s, the phrase "National Front" lost all of its meaning. I was relatively old when I learned what the "National Front" originally meant in 1945. In the 1980s, it was nothing else than a meaningless phrase used during the periodic farcical "elections". If you failed to vote for the National Front, you faced troubles in the workplace and life in general. Consequently, sometimes NF got 105% of the votes.)

The main villain in these events was Klement Gottwald, the first working-class president (1896-1953). It's sort of amazing what sort of a person could have become the top politician in a cultural nation that had the world's 10th largest absolute GDP in 1929. (He was turned into a superstar after 1948, tons of things including Baťa's city of Zlín were named after Gottwald or his wife.) In the final years of his life, he almost mindlessly obeyed instructions from Stalin's Kremlin. But it doesn't mean he was a great friend of Joseph Stalin.

OK, who was Gottwald? He was born as an illegitimate son of a poor maid – a strange background for someone who occupied the same offices at the Prague Castle as the Habsburg Dynasty and Prof Masaryk just decades earlier. His father was a spoiled brat, a son of a rich farmer, but he pretended not to have anything to do with Klement. To make it even worse, he met his wife, a fat woman who was also an illegitimate child of an extremely poor mother. Their daughter was also born out of a wedlock but at least both parents were known and admitted to be parents. Needless to say, these things were presented as advantages.

At school, Klement had very good grades – A's except for singing. Legends said the story how he refused to speak German for a year in his classes of German.

In the First World War, he ironically fought as a pawn in the Battle of Zborov on the Austrian side ;-) – against General Ludvík Svoboda who became a communist president some 20 years after Gottwald. In 1921, he was already standing on the side of the Communist Party that just separated as the Stalinist wing from some broader left-wing party. He became a top official in 1926 and the general secretary of the communist party in 1929. This party was never strongest but it wasn't negligible so he's been rather important in the democratic interwar politics.

During the Second World War, he moved to the Soviet Union and tried to play an important guy there. His wife suddenly got special access to luxurious stores in Moscow, had servants, and immediately got addicted to this luxury, as people of the very poor background often do. But Stalin actually almost never met him, except for the negotiations about the Subcarpathian Rus', and most of these agreements were done in between Stalin and Beneš, anyway. Stalin may have had some imperfections ;-) but it's hard to disagree with his statement that he didn't think much about the Czechoslovak communists. They seemed too one-dimensional, too straightforward (did you remember the adjective?), too simple-minded. Well, even their famous Georgian comrade has figured out that the Czechoslovak communists were a bunch of primitive morons.

Gottwald was well aware of the unflattering opinion of Stalin's about the Czechoslovak communists and it must have posed some problems for him. The documentaries indicate that he was afraid of Stalin. But this may have contributed to his being so obedient, especially after Gottwald became the President of Czechoslovakia.

So I think that most of the key events that made it possible for communism to arise in Czechoslovakia were "Czech Made", not "Soviet Made" (and indeed, they were also more "Czech Made" than "Slovak Made" – at those times and other times, Slovaks have always preferred to think about independence than about communism, whether positively or negatively). Maybe the key events that made the communist totalitarian regime possible in Czechoslovakia could have taken place even if the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. But there have been some clear examples of the Soviet interference:
  • a Soviet comrade was seen as eating sausages along with Gottwald and his comrades,
  • Gottwald found that he was bugged at the Prague Castle and privately decided it was done by the Soviets which is why he has never visited Moscow, claiming the physicians' recommendation not to fly (he flew to Stalin's funeral in 1953 and died days after he returned so maybe the recommendation wasn't too crazy); they built a mausoleum for Gottwald just like they had done for Lenin but Gottwald disintegrated and began to stink quickly so they cancelled it/him,
  • Soviet experts were teaching the communist regime of Czechoslovakia how to organize some truly disgusting political monster trials,
  • Czechoslovakia withdrew its participation in the Marshall Plan due to some tough words from Moscow (some help from the Soviet Union was promoted instead but I don't think it was needed or useful),
  • lots of the detailed policies, such as the collectivization of farms (kolkhozes or JZDs in Czech) were introduced, despite Gottwald's previous promises that it would never happen and those who say it would are imperialist alarmist liars. Commies similarly violated their promises about the respect for the churches.
OK, look at this interference. Czechoslovakia would have probably remained a full-blown member of Western Europe if it had participated at the Marshall Plan – the tons of U.S. gifts and funds would probably be very popular among the voters, including the stupid voters who were supporting the commies in the street.

Czechoslovakia initially okayed the plan and wanted to participate. But Gottwald was interested in the opinion of Moscow. I think that no one would have the idea to ask in Moscow but Gottwald found it right to ask and the answer was clear: "Your participation in the Marshall Plan would be considered a hostile act." Because our foreign politics was so dependent on the Soviet Union, our main liberator, this was considered to be a red light. Czechoslovakia withdrew from the Marshall Plan – a very important result of Soviet wishes.

Now, there have been political trials. Hundreds of people were executed during Gottwald's reign. Most of the executed ones were executed for politics. Dr Ms Milada Horáková is the most famous example of a very smart woman who was hanged under Gottwald – despite the letter signed by Churchill, Einstein, and others that begged Gottwald to pardon her. So we didn't have millions of casualties like in the Soviet Union but it was a huge number of political murders for a country that had been as civilized as ours.

The trials haven't avoided communists, either. Comrade Gusták Husák – who became the last communist Czechoslovak President years after the 1968 Soviet-led occupation – was actually charged with some pro-capitalist nationalism and only with some good luck, he escaped the death penalty. Others weren't so lucky. Rudolf Slánský, the 2nd man of the Czechoslovak communist party in the late 1940s and early 1950s and a friend of Gottwald's, was executed in another monster trial. Slánský was a somewhat intellectual guy from a Jewish family and was charged with Trotskyism, being an agent of the U.S. and Israel, as well as the murder of the Slovak communist war hero Ján Šverma, among other (probably fabricated) crimes. Stalin was 1) just dissatisfied with Israel's failure to introduce communism, so he turned the Soviet Union into another anti-Semitic empire, and 2) wanted to warn all the new communist countries, create the atmosphere of fear, and check that they're loyal to him. So he effectively asked Gottwald to murder his own friend and Gottwald happily did so. Maybe he thought he had no choice.

These people were just scum, anyway.

But it reminds me of the joke about the hiring of new agents for an intelligence service. They need to check that the new hires are going to be loyal and fulfill every order. A new agent is asked to kill his mother-in-law in the next room. After some time, people hear some noise from wood hitting bones and mechanical collisions like that, followed by some screaming. What happened, they ask the candidate for the job? "Well, they told me to shoot her but there were blank cartridges in the gun. So I completed her with this chair." ;-)

Now, aside from his photogenic smoking of pipes, Klement Gottwald was also drinking lots of alcohol, was losing his balance during many talks, his assistants were often feeling frustrated. I haven't done enough research to tell you whether it was better or worse than Zeman's or Juncker's or Yeltzin's or someone else's experience with the alcohol. He died rather young, at the age of 56+ years (youngest death of our president ever), shortly after he returned from Stalin's funeral.

There were lots of interesting details and memes in the documentaries. First, the Czechoslovak communists used the obscene language of the working class, jokes about President Beneš and his wife in the bedroom, and tons of things like that. Their belonging to the working class was absolutely authentic. At least in 1948, the leaders of the communist party were mostly authentic members of the bottom layers of the society. Of course, this was changing later when communists were becoming a new elite.

On the other hand, the democratic ministers felt weak and clueless, they spoke a much more cultivated Czech but were detached from many events and were apparently incapable of bringing masses to the streets. As I said, their mass resignation plan was risky and maybe suicidal and they didn't have strong enough rational reasons to think that the outcome would be nice.

President Beneš was decided that the liberation of the Czech lands from Germans was the most important recent achievement but he still wanted to preserve freedom and democracy – along with some "socialism" which he had been verbally defending for decades but he was imagining some "Scandinavian" socialism or something like that, not Stalinist communism, of course. But it seems clear that he had a great respect towards Gottwald and was impressed by Gottwald's assertiveness and ability to bring these huge and unified mobs to the streets. On one hand, it was manifest that Stalinists were non-democratic and going to deconstruct democracy; on the other hand, their visibly big and authentic support looked like their power was a textbook example of democracy in action. This dilemma exists even today.

Beneš just didn't want to antagonize the mobs. For this reason, it was extremely likely if not unavoidable that when the key decisions are left to the duo Gottwald-Beneš, and these men were meeting every day, the outcomes would be great for the communists and ugly for freedom and democracy. The commies had no respect for freedom and democracy, of course, and they were rather open about their tendency to do anything that will increase their power. In the documentaries, Gottwald's comrades asked him whether he still cared about the ideals or his personal power. Gottwald answered the latter but continued with a monologue indicating that it's insulting to even ask so one should assume the former. What is the right answer? It's both and they have surely worked hard to make the powerful (and therefore useful) communist ideology inseparable from these particular people's power.

Some three parties participated at the resignation plan. Communists didn't, of course. An even more crippling part of the application of the plan was that the popular minister of foreign affairs Mr Jan Masaryk, a politically active son of the founder-president of Czechoslovakia, refused to cooperate with the plan, too. In February 1948, he already seemed like a totally brainwashed servant of the communists. It's hard to say whether he really felt like that or whether something pushed him to this attitude. He jumped out of the window (within the Prague Castle where he had an office) soon after the Victorious February – and could have been helped by some Soviet agents, in which case the death is known as the Third Defenestration of Prague.

As the minister of foreign affairs, Jan Masaryk was superseded by Vladimír Clementis, the lender of the fur hat, and that guy was executed in a political monster trial in 1952. The life expectancy of ministers of foreign affairs was reduced by various factors.

Like Mr Jan Masaryk, the social democratic party had similar attitudes. There were some folks who were willing to cooperate with the democratic parties but most of the social democrats actually got enthusiastic about the commies at that time. Soon afterwards, the social democratic party was united with (i.e. devoured by) the communist party. The merger was only undone in early 1990 – and Zeman turned that tiny resuscitated social democracy to a major force two years later.

What can you do? When the communists control the street, enchant the popular son of the founder-president, mysteriously impress the current, second president of Czechoslovakia, and start to devour the members of adjacent parties, there are just too many pressures that push the nation towards the actual goal of the communist party – and the actual goal was what we actually saw, a totalitarian communist terror with confiscation of all factories and farmers' land, abolished political competition, and execution of the opposition.

President Beneš had to face another big loss – after the 1938 resignation in the wake of the Munich Betrayal. He had to supervise the arrival of both Nazi and communist regimes in his country. At the same moment, he was a great politician and these terrible events could have been unavoidable. Communists generously allowed him to remain the president for a few more months when he died (after he refused to sign the communist constitution in May 1948) – and Klement Gottwald, so far the prime minister, was elected the first "working-class president" (i.e. the first primitive moron using the offices of the Czech kings as if they were his own).

"The Czech Century" program has also scared me by the degree of similarity between the communist party and its supporters in 1948; and the acting prime minister Babiš's ANO party and its supporters now. In both cases, they just find it totally OK to openly brag that they want as much power as possible and ideally, they don't want to talk to any opposition at all because they despise all these parliamentarian processes and lawmakers themselves, among other things. The voters are easily brainwashed by stupid promises and the cheapest forms of populism and they don't even seem to care when some promises are rigorously proven to be lies. As I already wrote, both groups of voters easily buy the ludicrous notion that "the aggressively populist politicians – Gottwald or Babiš – are responsible for everything good while their enemies are responsible for everything bad". They simply act as the bottom of the Czech society that identifies itself and protects itself independently of any existing laws, traditions, objective truth, or moral limitations – they don't know the latter at all.

Thankfully, our country hasn't transformed in the same way as it did after February 1948 yet. I think that not even 10% of this evolution towards totalitarianism is taking place under Babiš. But his voters seem to be a similar type of people – or mobs – as the communist voters in 1948. They have the same opinions and sentiments when it comes to too many important political and moral questions. They despise freedom, parliamentary procedures, democracy, and the "successful classes" in the same way. So while things are still fine and Babiš (who had just 30%, not 40% like the Czech commies in 1948) has a lot of work to even stay out of a prison and to pretend that he's trying to find some support for his government, the threat is always there. Of course, I consider Babiš a random product of the balance of power – I am more afraid of his hardcore supporters who would be willing to introduce a much more inhuman, non-Western system than anything that Babiš has ever dared to talk about.

But if our system were exposed to very similar risks and evil plans and strategies as in February 1948, could we end up with a better outcome? Is there a way to learn some lessons from 1948? Do these lessons help us at all? Was there any realistic way to avert the rise of communism before and in 1948? Would an assassination or a civil war be helpful or catastrophic? Could the democrats have won? Would there be a foreign intervention or another big war? I am not sure about the answer to any of these questions.

In most cases, I don't like when foreign countries or the EU meddle with some internal political affairs of ours. But there's surely a red line behind which I could be grateful even for some help from the EU or from Moscow or anyone like that. We're not very close to this red line, or at least it doesn't seem to be the case to me (I am surely offended terribly when the EU wants to decide whether we may expand our nuclear power plants), but such a deterioration may take place.

To summarize, the rise of the totalitarian Czechoslovak communism may be blamed on a vicious circle in which some really primitive domestic Czechoslovak communists and their supporters – who really find freedom and democracy too abstract because they're basically stupid self-serving animals – are allowed to be too loud and self-confident and that's how they suppress the self-confidence and power of everyone else. Democracy defined in a vague way is great but it mustn't contradict the fact that people should do what they have at least some ability to do and the intellectually measured bottom 30-40 percent of Czechs, if not more, is certainly absolutely unable to define, create, or maintain a political system that could be considered civilized. So they simply mustn't be allowed to get the upper hand in such matters. What happened in 1948 mustn't be repeated in 2018 or anytime soon.

And that's the memo.

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