Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A coalition government set up under President Edvard Beneš after World War II was undermined by Communist Party members under Prime Minister Klement Gottwald, who seized the chance to transform the Czechoslovak Republic into a communist state modeled on the Soviet Union. The Soviets held great influence in Eastern and Central Europe after the region was designated a Soviet “sphere of interest” after World War II.

Summary of Event

At the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 created a number of new countries in Central Europe out of the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of these new countries was Czechoslovakia, formed out of the Czech lands previously incorporated into the German-speaking Austrian part of the empire, and Slovakia, previously part of the Hungarian part of the empire. The Czechs and the Slovaks were racially and linguistically similar, but the Czechs had more experience in self-rule and in the democratic process. Also, Czech lands—the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia—were more industrialized. In drawing the country’s new boundaries, the Allied Powers included several sizable minority groupings, such as the Sudeten Germans, who were living along the borders with Germany. Revolutions and coups;Czechoslovakia Communist Party, Czechoslovakian Czechoslovakia;communist takeover Economic systems;communism Communism;Czechoslovakia [kw]Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia (Feb. 25, 1948) [kw]Power in Czechoslovakia, Communists Seize (Feb. 25, 1948) [kw]Czechoslovakia, Communists Seize Power in (Feb. 25, 1948) Revolutions and coups;Czechoslovakia Communist Party, Czechoslovakian Czechoslovakia;communist takeover Economic systems;communism Communism;Czechoslovakia [g]Europe;Feb. 25, 1948: Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia[02400] [g]Czechoslovakia;Feb. 25, 1948: Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia[02400] [c]Cold War;Feb. 25, 1948: Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia[02400] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 25, 1948: Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia[02400] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 25, 1948: Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia[02400] Beneš, Edvard Gottwald, Klement Masaryk, Jan

Young Czechs parade through Prague carrying banners depicting Klement Gottwald (left) alongside Joseph Stalin.

(National Archives)

Czechoslovakia’s new constitution established it as a democracy, using the system of proportional representation in voting, which led to a series of coalition governments. The first president was Tomáš Masaryk Masaryk, Tomáš , whose drive had persuaded the Allied leaders to agree to the new country. In the 1920’s, the new democracy flourished both politically and economically. Czech light industrial goods found ready markets in the West, and Masaryk’s statesmanship kept the center and moderate left coalition stable.

In 1921, the Social Democrats split and a Czech Communist Party (the KS Č) was formed. Although the KS Č never became part of the ruling coalition, it nevertheless participated in parliamentary procedures and enjoyed a large membership. In 1929, Klement Gottwald became the party’s secretary-general, and under him the party began to model itself more on the model of the Soviets.

In the 1930’s the worldwide economic depression led to unrest. The rise of Nazi Germany, however, was much more of a threat to the stability of the small country, as the Sudeten Germans became increasingly Nazified. They had suffered economically in the various social land reforms in the 1920’s, and this was used by Adolf Hitler to accuse the Czech government of oppression. In the end, Hitler demanded the incorporation of the Sudeten German lands into Germany, to which the leaders of France and Britain agreed at Munich on September 29, 1938. This capitulation disenchanted the Czechoslovaks with the Western powers.

In March, 1939, German troops occupied the remaining Czech lands, despite Masaryk’s desperate attempts at diplomacy. The Slovaks, increasingly restless under the Czech majority, asked for autonomy, and the Nazis allowed them a puppet state. From this point on, the democratic republic of Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. Edvard Beneš, Masaryk’s deputy, fled to London and was soon joined by other refugees and by air force officers, forming a government in exile recognized by the Allied Powers. The Communist Party leadership fled to Moscow, while a number of Czechs formed an army brigade that would fight in the Soviet Red Army.

In December, 1943, Beneš, realizing that any future government for a newly constituted Czechoslovakia would need to include communists, flew to Moscow and held talks with Gottwald. They agreed on the continuation of the democratic system that had worked well in the 1920’s, except that any party that had collaborated with the Nazis was to be excluded. In effect, this eliminated all right-wing parties, reducing eligible parties in Slovakia to only two. In 1944, the Allied Powers held a summit at Yalta, in the Russian Crimea, to discuss the future of a postwar Europe. “Spheres of interest” were established, and the Soviets were allocated Eastern and Central Europe. In effect, this sealed Czechoslovakia’s fate and dealt a deathblow to Masaryk’s original vision of the country becoming a bridge between East and West.

The Russian army was the first to reoccupy Czechoslovak territory, advancing from the east in early 1945. Although the U.S. army reached western Czechoslovakia soon after, the Soviet armies entered Prague first and were greeted as liberators. The Czechoslovak Republic was founded April 4, 1945, and a provisional government was installed.

Political activities soon resumed. In the 1946 elections, the Communist Party did well in the Czech lands, receiving some 40 percent of the votes and emerging as the largest party, though in Slovakia, the Communists were soundly defeated by the Nationalists. However, as the Slovak Communists supported central government from Prague, as did all the Czech parties, a centralized government took office, with Gottwald as prime minister. His cabinet consisted of representatives of all the parties, with eight posts going to the Communists. There was now effectively no opposition to the new coalition. Gottwald appointed Communists to the key interior ministry, which included the police, and the information ministry, which included control of radio.

A generally socialist policy was promulgated, including land redistribution, wage equality, and nationalization of the larger industries and businesses. The new policy was beneficial to the working class, as it increased its wage level and helped it acquire land. Many working-class people joined the Communist Party, whose membership rose rapidly. A crisis soon developed between the Communists and non-Communists, however. The Marshall Plan was being instituted to provide U.S. aid to a devastated Europe, and Czechoslovakia was invited to send a delegation to discuss its inclusion in the plan. On orders from Moscow, though, Gottwald had to refuse the invitation, and instead, he demanded further nationalization and land reform.

The non-Communist cabinet ministers tried to withstand Gottwald’s demands, but by this time the trade unions were under Communist control, and large-scale demonstrations were organized. “Local committees,” demanded by the Communists in 1945, had effectively replaced many local non-Communist officials and bureaucrats with Communists, so that the non-Communist power base was relegated to the ballot box alone. New elections were due in May, 1948, and the non-Communist ministers, hoping the party was losing popularity among the middle class, took the calculated risk of resigning en masse, hoping to force President Beneš to call elections early. Beneš, however, knew nothing of this and refused to accept their resignations or to declare early elections.

Instead, various local committee members, aided by factory-based militias, took over the ministries of those ministers who had resigned. The police, under Communist leadership, made it clear they would suppress further demonstrations, and the army’s general, a Communist sympathizer, confined all non-Communist officers to barracks. Gottwald declared a state of emergency and mobilized police forces. Beneš felt he had no option but to ask Gottwald to appoint new cabinet ministers. The list Gottwald submitted consisted almost entirely of Communists. He declared on February 25, at a town square in Prague, that the Communist Party was now in charge of the government.

Significance

The May, 1948, elections did take place, but voters were offered only a limited choice of candidates, all vetted by the Communist Party. However, the mood of the country was still largely sympathetic to communism and the party. The Soviets were considered liberators, and the Red Army had quickly withdrawn from the country in 1946. Memories of Western betrayal in 1938 were strong, and throughout Europe there was a strong left-wing surge, in the hope of a more just society. A new constitution was passed May 9, 1948, making Czechoslovakia a one-party state.

Beneš resigned in June and Gottwald was immediately voted in as new president by the National Assembly. In March, Jan Masaryk, the former foreign secretary and the leading noncommunist (who was also the son of Tomáš Masaryk), reportedly committed suicide, though many suspected he was assassinated. In September, Beneš died after falling ill.

Moscow soon exercised its control over Gottwald, and in the new Cold War atmosphere, compliance was absolute. Further nationalization followed, as did land reform, so that effectively the vast majority of the population was employed by the government. The army and security forces were purged of noncommunists, as was the Communist Party itself, especially whose socialist tradition was not Soviet in nature. Also purged from the party were many people who had fought with the resistance in World War II. Before the purge, the resistance made up a privileged cadre.

A five-year economic plan was implemented that shifted the economy to one of heavy industry, and all trade was directed from the West to the Soviet Union and its satellites. Independent political opinion was suppressed, as were the independent voices of church leaders and academics, already decimated under the Nazis. The Czechoslovak experience of democracy died, and it would not be revived for another generation. In 1993, the nation divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Revolutions and coups;Czechoslovakia Communist Party, Czechoslovakian Czechoslovakia;communist takeover Economic systems;communism Communism;Czechoslovakia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abrams, Bradley F. The Struggle for the Soul of the Nation: Czech Culture and the Rise of Communism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. A study of the political thought that accompanied Czechoslovakia’s transformation from a democratic republic to a Communist state. Includes the chapters “The Reorientation of National Identity: Czechs Between East and West” and “Socialism and Communist Intellectuals: the ’Czechoslovak Road to Socialism.’”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dowling, Maria. Czechoslovakia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Part of the Brief Histories series, this work forms a good updated overview of Czechoslovakia’s history as a nation. Includes maps, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fowkes, Ben. Eastern Europe, 1945-1969: From Stalinism to Stagnation. New York: Longman, 2000. Provides a detailed history of Eastern Europe after World War II. Discusses the profound influence of the Soviets and of socialism on the region. Examines the formation of Czechoslovakia as a Communist nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Held, Joseph, ed. The Columbia History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Chapter four discusses Czechoslovakia in the context of twentieth century European history. An excellent overview.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krejčí, Jaroslav, and Paul Machonin. Czechoslovakia, 1918-1992: A Laboratory of Social Change. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Examines Czechoslovakia’s attempts to solve the political and social problems endemic to Central Europe after World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leff, Carol Skalnik. National Conflict in Czechoslovakia: The Making and Remaking of a State, 1918-1987. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Discusses particularly the Czech-Slovak conflicts and how these conflicts shaped the course of Czechoslovakian history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stone, Norman, and Eduard Strouhal, eds. Czechoslovakia: Crossroads and Crises, 1918-88. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Chapters nine through eleven examine the transformation of Czechoslovakia into a communist nation in 1948. Written by leading Czech historians under the editorship of a respected modern historian of Europe.

Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe

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Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech

Marshall Plan Provides Aid to Europe

Germany Splits into Two Republics

Warsaw Pact Is Signed

Soviets Crush Hungarian Uprising

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Soviet Union Invades Czechoslovakia

Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations

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