From Potsdam to Prague


from the Corvinus Library of Hungarian History, The New Central Europe



There is no evidence to show that the Russians chose Czechoslovakia for tactical reasons to be the last on their timetable of conquest. The fact, however, that Czechoslovakia was conquered last gave Russia all the tactical advantages of a brilliant strategy. Of all the countries in the post- war Soviet sphere of influence, Czechoslovakia, with her reputation for democracy, enjoyed the greatest popularity in the West. The apparent success of the Czech democrats in cooperating with both native and Russian Communists gave, therefore, many Western observers the false impression that the Czechs succeeded where others failed precisely because they were democratic. Conversely, in countries with reactionary and Fascist records, the failure of non- Communists to work in harmony with the Soviet Union was attributed to continued reactionary influence.


The Czech democrats themselves were not quite innocent of spreading false impressions. They made great efforts in the West to keep alive Czechoslovakia's reputation as a "bastion of democracy and peace," though, in cooperation with the Communists, they were guilty of some of the worst crimes ever committed against democracy in Central Europe. With the persecution and expulsion of the non- Slav ethnic minorities, post- war Czechoslovakia obliterated T. G. Masaryk's humanistic traditions. The Czechs did not worry unnecessarily, either, over the tragic destiny of their fellow democrats in neighboring countries; instead, they continued to propagate optimism concerning cooperation with Soviet Russia They seemed to believe that the Czech Communists were not like other Communists, and that the Soviet Union had no reason to behave toward their country as she did toward others, because Czechoslovakia was a sincere friend and ally of the Soviet Union.


Czechoslovakia had a Communist premier in the person of Klement Gottwald, and, in proportion to the country's population, the strongest Communist party in the non- Communist world. In 1946 the Communists won the greatest success ever recorded in free elections: 38 percent of the total poll, 40 percent in the Czech lands, and 30 percent in Slovakia From the summer of 1947 on, however, both the Czecho-Slovak Communists and the Soviet Union began to behave toward Czechoslovakia as they had elsewhere. The crisis started when Czechoslovakia first accepted, then, under Soviet pressure, turned down, the invitation to a preliminary conference in Paris on the Marshall Plan Soon an alleged reactionary conspiracy was discovered in Slovakia The Communists, realizing the decline of their popularity, began to pack the police department in anticipation of the new elections due in the summer of 1948. The crisis reached its climax in February 1948, with the Communists prepared for a showdown, while the non- Communists were confused and paralysed. On February 21, the non- Communist members of the Prague government, with the exception of the Social Democrats resigned in protest against the Communist seizure of the police department. The Communists swung into action, without concealing their determination to seize power by force if necessary. In an atmosphere of imminent civil war, on February 25, President Benes appointed a new Gottwald government which satisfied the Communists. Benes's choice lay between yielding and civil war. He knew that in case of civil war the Russians would not hesitate to interfere if, as seemed probable, Communist success were in jeopardy. On the other hand, from the West Benes could expect hardly more help than diplomatic notes. In fact, after the Prague coup, the Western Powers not only protested individually, but also issued a joint American- British- French declaration, the first of this type, branding the events in Czechoslovakia as placing "in jeopardy the very existence of the principles of liberty." Jan Masaryk remained foreign minister until March 10, when the free world was shocked to learn of his suicide. Rumor reported him murdered by the Communists. Rumors of the same type had been heard when Count Paul Teleki, the wartime premier of Hungary committed suicide; at that time the Nazis were suspected of murder. The fact of Masaryk's suicide, unlike that of Teleki's, has never been proven to everybody's satisfaction. Yet the assassination theory can be discounted. It can safely be assumed that both Masaryk and Teleki ended their own lives, in utter exhaustion and desperation, when they realized the complete failure of their respective policies.9 The failure of the Czech democrats' pro- Soviet policy, which took the life of Jan Masaryk, also felled Edvard Benes, who was the architect of that policy. Broken and sick, President Benes vanished shortly after the February surrender. He resigned the presidency on June 7, and died the following September 3. "His passing symbolized the end of Czecho- slovak democracy," Western comment said.|deg. Actually, the Czech democracy which the West had learned to respect and admire had not been revived since the Second World War. It was a victim of the war.


"We made no mistake," said the Czech democrats after the Prague coup. "In the last resort it was two factors which we could not control which decided the fate of our country: the increasing tension between the U.S.S.R. and the Western Powers, and the dynamism of Soviet imperialism." In substantial agreement with this analysis, some observers thought that Russia acted to bring Czechoslovakia into line with her other satellites under pressure of the gathering crisis between Tito's Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Soviet control of Czechoslovakia, it was said, had to be secured…


An extract from the Corvinus Library of Hungarian History, The New Central Europe

This extract from an internet encyclopaedia on the history of Hungary gives a more detailed, fairly traditional, account of the Soviet seizure of power in Czechoslovakia.