During the Cold War Era
The beginnings of communism in Czechoslovakia began with the end of World War II. The Soviet Union liberated Prague on May 9, 1945 after a popular uprising against the Germans. This was partly due to the fact U.S. troops held off liberating Prague in accordance with the Yalta agreement. However, the true rise of communist power in Czechoslovakia began in 1948 when communist party members organized mass strikes that left the government in crisis. The Czechoslovakia Communist Party then gained a majority of seats in the parliament and Klement Gottwald became president. Gottwald was essentially Czechoslovakia’s Stalin. Gottwald’s harsh rule was characterized by periodic party purges, in which leading party members received show trials and were then executed. The most prominent official to fall victim to Gottwald’s purges was Secretary-General Rudolf Slansky. As if Gottwald and Stalin’s fate were inexplicably intertwined, Gottwald died of pneumonia just days after attending the funeral of Stalin in 1953.
Gottwald was succeeded by Antonin Novotny as Czechoslovakia Communist Party President and Atonin Zapotocky as president of the country. However, after the death of Atonin Zapotocky in 1957, the positions were recombined. Though restrictions were lessened under Novotny, they were nothing compared to the dramatic reforms to come when Alexender Dubcek became Czechoslovakia Communist Party President in 1968. His attempts at “socialism with a human face” led to a resurgence in artistic expression that had long been repressed. In addition to numerous economic reforms, freedom of speech and freedom to protest were partially restored and censuring was eased. The end result was general euphoria among the populous that came to be known as Prague Spring. Party hardliners in Czechoslovakia and abroad felt the reforms were beginning to get out of hand. On August 20, 1968 200,000 to 500,000 troops from other Warsaw Pact countries, including the Soviet Union, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Poland invaded the country to put an immediate end to the reforms. The party leaders were all secretly forcibly transported to Moscow where they were forced to sign a treaty allowing the occupation of the country by the Warsaw Pact troops.
The tanks met with general civil disobedience, but no organized military resistance. Václav Havel theorizes that there was no one in the military that could do this, both because of will and because the Soviets would know in advance. Also all defense forces were on the opposite border to protect the nation from a NATO invasion. However, popular resistance to the forces including throwing stones at tanks and troops, removing street signs so tanks would become lost, and even scantly clad women would tempt the horny soldiers. However the ultimate act of protest of the invasion was on January 16, 1969 when student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square. The final result of the invasion was 58 deaths, 300,000 people were left jobless, and Dubeck working for the Forestry Department.
The period of “normalization” following Prague Spring, was characterized by a stagnated economy, censured press, a quelled populace, and the intellectual elite performing menial labor. Under Gustav Husak, the Soviet Union’s pick for successor to Dubeck, all the reforms of the Prague Spring were quickly dismantled. The 1970’s were relatively quiet until 1977 when, after so many years of oppression, many people began looking for an outlet to express themselves, particularly the youth.
Plastic People of the Universe and Charter 77
The chance came with the advent of the rock group “Plastic People of the Universe”, whose music would soon get them in trouble. “The Plastic People of the Universe”, led by front man Jirous, played underground concerts with a subversive message that got them arrested on several occasions. However, through the efforts of Václav Havel, national attention was focused on them, and they received relatively light sentences. Still, the incident was very important because it represented people outside the traditional subversive group expressing their anti-communist views. The arrest of the members of the band was one of the main reasons behind the creation of the Charter 77.
The Charter 77 was a group of several hundred signatories who wished to protest the current state of human rights abuses within the nation and demand that they not occur in the future. The three initial spokespersons for the Charter 77 were Václav Havel, Han Patocka, and Jiri Hajek were all harassed and arrested. Both Václav and Hajek served jail time for their involvement; however Patocka was not as lucky and died during a police interrogation.
However, the nation as a whole could only be described as appearing calm on the surface, but underneath there lied a repressed people who yearned to express themselves and be free. This facet of Czech life is best described in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where he describes the communist masters of “kitsch”, or appearances. The appearance of everything of the populace being accepting of communist rule was on aspect that allowed them to stay in power for such a long time. All the people needed was the slightest bit of hope given by a small group of activist to awake them from their subdued state.
The exile community of Czechs that existed in many European nations was not as important as many at the time believed it to be. When the communist party officials seized Havel they assumed that exile communities had been involved in the publishing of the Charter 77, which they were not. The exile community is often criticized for its ineffectiveness at accomplishing anything of significance and instead only making important sounding speeches with no real action. The focus on the exiles probably stemmed from the communist party fears of foreign subversion, similar to United States fear of communist subversion throughout the Cold War era.
The Velvet Revolution, which refers to the dramatic change of power that occurred in Czechoslovakia in 1989, was seen as a quick and sudden change, but actually had roots going back many years. One of the primary changes was that in 1987 Husak was replaced by Milos Jakes, who was not as of a hard-line party leader. The following year marked the 20th anniversary of Prague Spring and the invasion by the Warsaw Pact troops. To honor the anniversary thousands of people poured into the streets to protest communist rule. Police spent the next year attempting to quell mass demonstration after demonstration through the use of force. The Civic Forum, a large anti-communist group, was formed in 1989 to better guide the movement.
However this time there would be no invasion by the Warsaw powers. All the nations of Eastern Europe were attempting to deal with their own problems. The Berlin Wall was falling and the Iron Curtain was beginning to come unraveled. The Soviet Union was under the leadership of Gorbchev under his policy of glasnost and perestroika was promoting his own reforms. Gorbechev promised not to intervene in the Eastern European nations affairs. This left the communist leaders of Czechoslovakia on their own. The majority of leaders in the Communist Party resigned in a bloodless transition of power in November 1989. Maria Calaf was picked to be prime minister in a new government in which the communist held a minority number of seats. Husak resigned as president of the country following the elections. Dubcek was elected as head of the federal assembly and Havel became president. In 1990 the country was changed to the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic and the new coalition government contained all major parties except the communist party. Havel was reelected as president of the nation. In June 1991 all Soviet forces completely withdrew from the country, brining a complete and final end to communist domination of the country.
There remains much resentment today in the Czech Republic over the era of communist rule. The scars of the past are readily visible in Prague today. When one sees the sky line of the ancient city, there are two things that stand out, one is the TV tower built during the communist era that many citizens describe as a horrible mark on an otherwise perfect panoramic image. The other is a red pole, in the place of a demolished statue of Stalin, which serves as a reminder of the tragedies and horrors that occurred during the communist era. This terrible era will forever be ingrained on the hearts and minds of the Czech people.
Milan Kundera . The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper and Row,
Václav Havel . Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala. New York:
Random House, 1986.
Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, Frank M. Turner.The Western Heritage. Seventh Edition. New York: Prentice-Hall. 2001.