A bit of Czechoslovak Communist history for you

stalin and gottwald

Stalin and Gottwald

I stayed in last night for the first time in 2 weeks and I actually watched a bit of Czech tv. I had seen on the internet that Xavier Baumaxa would be on ČT2 late in the evening and something about poetry. I had to watch it.

It was an excellent reminder of how weird Czechs can be.

The programme started off in a standard Xavier Baumaxa way, with his trademark piano introduction and a still title frame with an illustration and the words “Nedělní chvílka poesie” (Sunday poetry moment). Xavi had used the same words as the title to the first track (which was his piano intro) of his first cd, Fenkám, but I have a feeling there may be a cultural reference there that I am not getting. Then there was just Xavi sitting in a chair reciting poetry by Em Rudenko.

Then there were other people reciting other poetry and I was tired and puzzled and trying to figure out what it all meant. And then suddenly, the programme became a journey back in time to 1978 Czechoslovakia and I was watching a televised celebration of the 30th anniversary of Vítězný únor, or Victorious February. There was an orchestra and choirs and dancing and children in their pioneer clothes, and people talking about the glory of socialism and being part of a grand cooperative. I hadn’t expected to be watching anything like it, and it was therefore totally bizarre.

And today I decided to learn more about the history.

Vítězný únor – Victorious February

The Communists had received more votes than any other party in the first post-war elections – 40% in Czech and 30% in Slovakia – and their party, KSČ, was the strongest partner in the resulting coalition government. Klement Gottwald, the leader of KSČ, was named prime minister on 2 July 1946.

The government at the time had 26 ministers:
9 Communists
3 Social Democrats
12 non-Communists (National Socialist Party, People’s Party, Democratic Party)
2 independents

The Communists quickly gained control of the police, the army and workers’ organisations. But there was still a struggle for power going on, and a series of disputes within the government, which all culminated in February 1948.

Václav Nosek, the Communist Minister of the Interior, suddenly retired or transferred all non-Communist regional police commanders working in Prague. On the 13th of February, the government issued a formal decree, against the wishes of its Communist members, demanding that the police commanders be reinstated. The government’s order was ignored.

The real crisis began on the 17th. The Minister of Justice had called a government meeting to negotiate with the Communists, but Gottwald refused to have the meeting, stating the Minister of the Interior’s absence as an excuse. The ministers from the three non-communist parties threatened that, if the Communists continued to ignore the decree, they would resign en masse. They would then have expected President Edvard Beneš to accept their resignations and call for early elections.

The Communists, in the meantime, were consolidating their position with workers, the state police, the media and the army.

The crisis grew over the next few days and the outside world took notice. On the 19th, the Soviets sent over their Deputy Foreign Minister and the US ambassador, who had been away, returned to Prague.

On the 20th, the twelve ministers from the three non-communist parties submitted their resignations to Jan Masaryk, the independent Foreign Minister, but he refused to accept them. The fourth party, the Social Democrats insisted that they would not resign, but also that they would not join the Communists. Beneš was told only that the initial twelve ministers had submitted their resignations. Gottwald went to meet with Beneš. He suggested that Beneš accept the resignations and presented him with a list of nominees, all Communists, for the vacant cabinet posts.

On the 21st, the Communists held a huge demonstration on Old Town Square. Delegates were sent to President Beneš to request that he accept the ministers’ resignations and let Gottwald’s nominees fill the vacant seats. Over the next few days, the Communists ensured their control of the radio and other strategic locations. On the 24th, 2.5 million workers staged a general strike.

Then on the 25th of February, Beneš gave in. He accepted the resignations and Gottwald’s new members of government. It is likely that Beneš was trying to avoid Soviet intervention. Gottwald then went to Wenceslas Square and announced to the crowd gathered there that Beneš had given him everything he had asked for.

And that is why, every 25th of February, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic used to celebrate vítězství pracujícího lidu nad buržoazií a reakcí – the victory of the working people over the bourgeoisie and the reactionaries.

Jan Masaryk, the last minister to hold out against the Communists, was murdered on 10 March 1948.


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