Czechoslovakia 1948

Seventy years ago, a popular revolution swept the Communist Party to power in Czechoslovakia. It quickly proved to be a hidden coup.

Czechoslavak peoples' militia, February 1948. Czech Radio archive

On February 21, 1948, tens of thousands of workers and students poured into Prague’s Old Town Square. By evening, popular militias and revolutionary “action committees” had begun to form all over Czechoslovakia, and the unions sent a delegation to President Edvard Beneš demanding that he respect the people’s will and appoint a new, thoroughly socialist government.

Two days later some 2.5 million workers went on strike (in a total population of around 11 million), and action committees occupied offices across the country. On February 25, demonstrators filled the enormous Wenceslas Square and threatened to march on Prague Castle, the seat of government, if the president refused to give in. By late afternoon Beneš accepted the revolutionaries’ proposal for a new government, and Communist leader Klement Gottwald returned to Wenceslas Square to announce victory to the cheering crowd.

Milan Kundera, in his 1969 novel Life Is Elsewhere, describes the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s 1948 seizure of power as a moment of mass euphoria. The first anniversary of what came to be known as “Victorious February” was celebrated with genuine jubilation. But already repression had begun, and it was only the beautiful ideals of the revolution that enabled some (like the novel’s poet protagonist) to overlook its increasingly ugly reality. Kundera himself, formerly a socialist realist poet, would dedicate the rest of his life to cynical prose.

Still, many people had prosaic enough reasons to support the new order even when its more lofty appeals grew stale. Wealth redistribution brought clear benefits to many, and rapid industrialization lifted the poorer parts of the country out of dire poverty. But this improving material security did not come with growing popular power. The unions, factory councils, action committees, and militias were brought under Communist Party control, and the party itself was controlled by its leaders — and by its leaders’ leaders in Moscow — rather than its members.

Almost immediately after Victorious February, opposition from the Right and Left were suppressed by a powerful police apparatus, and by 1950 a show trial would lead to the execution of some of the party’s most prominent critics. By 1952 some of the party’s own leading figures, including General Secretary Rudolf Slánský and Foreign Minister Vladimír Clementis, would fall victim in a Soviet-orchestrated show trial.

But in early 1948 it was hardly clear that this was the direction a Communist victory might take. Even for those who understood the reality of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, there was good reason to believe that a Czechoslovak revolution might follow a different course. The Communist Party itself had declared its support for a “Czechoslovak path to socialism” that respected and fulfilled the democratic traditions of the interwar Czechoslovak Republic. And unlike its analogues in most of Central and Eastern Europe, the Czechoslovak Communist Party rose to prominence largely on its own.

Already at the moment of its founding it was one of the largest groups in the Comintern, and by 1928 it surpassed the Communist Party of Germany to become the largest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union—not per capita, but in absolute numbers (with 138,000 members, it had more than twice as many as the French Communist Party and nearly five times the numbers of party members in China). At the same time, the party’s political activity was complemented by a powerful labor movement and a thriving left-wing intellectual scene — many of the country’s leading writers and artists were also Communists or fellow travelers.

Czechoslovakia was also home to a highly industrialized economic base. Though this industrialization was regionally uneven, the Czechoslovak Communists never faced the Bolsheviks’ dilemma of building socialism amid conditions that had hardly begun to build capitalism. In the industrialized west (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia), Communism really was a mass movement of the working class. In Slovakia the movement grew more slowly, but after the Communists took the lead in a powerful anti-fascist resistance struggle, there too they established themselves as a genuinely popular force.

In many respects Czechoslovakia represented a textbook case for socialist revolution. None of the criteria demanded by orthodox Marxism were missing. But one complicating factor was present: a Communist Party that was as skilled in projecting images of popular power as it was successful in subordinating democratic structures to its own institutional needs.

When the end of the war brought an upsurge in socialist ideas throughout Europe, Czechoslovak Communists were well positioned to claim a leading role in turning ideas into reality. By the time of the first postwar elections in 1946, their membership had already reached 1 million. And after the fascist parties and their collaborators were banned, the remaining parties united around a program that incorporated many long-standing Communist demands: for improving social welfare, nationalizing large and even medium-sized industry, and gradually increasing worker control.

In the 1946 elections, the Communists won 38 percent of the vote, one of the best results ever obtained by any Communist Party in a competitive election. By way of comparison, the powerful French Communist Party won 28 percent in elections the same year; the Italian Communist Party won 19 percent, before taking 30 percent in 1948; and in 1945 the Hungarian Communist Party had won only 17 percent. The Czechoslovak Communists were also joined by a Social Democratic Party that came out of the war radicalized and inclined toward cooperation with the Communists, which took another 12 percent of the vote. The remainder of the vote went to an array of traditionally centrist parties, all of which adapted to the prevailing mood of national redemption and social progress.

Unlike Hungary and Poland, where postwar elections took place under Soviet military occupation, the Red Army had withdrawn from Czechoslovakia by the end of 1945. Quite within the framework of parliamentary democracy, the Communists entered a grand coalition government involving all the legal political parties, known together as the National Front. Communist leader Gottwald became prime minister.

Pro-Communist demonstrations, September 18, 1947.
National Archives / Wikimedia

The period between the Nazis’ defeat in May 1945 and the Communists’ victory in February 1948 was filled with contradiction. In the Czech lands, the end of the Nazi occupation brought with it the hope that the nation could finally achieve the social ideals promoted by Czechoslovakia’s first president, the left-leaning philosopher Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. And in Slovakia, where the wartime dictatorship had been homegrown, the partisans had imbued the resistance with an alternative narrative of national liberation as a step toward social revolution. In an atmosphere of wide-ranging intellectual and political freedom, visions for the future were heatedly debated, and the left-wing cultural tendencies of the interwar period returned with vigor.

But it was also a period of disappointment. Though the nationalization program was implemented, it still came too slowly for many who thought that the moment for radical change had finally arrived. The Communist Party itself, intent on presenting itself as the leader of a “democratic” revolution, was initially hesitant to raise the issue of nationalization, insisting that the time was not yet ripe for socialism, in spite of pressure from the unions and the Social Democrats. Moreover, although new legislation permitted a measure of worker control over industry, Communist leaders also asked workers to accept “temporary” austerity measures and to refrain from striking in the interest of building the new postwar society. And the environment of free political debate, which is remembered so fondly today, took place at a time when 2-3 million ethnic Germans were disenfranchised and expelled from the country, while a similar fate was proposed, but only partially carried out, for half a million ethnic Hungarians.

The governing parties were not only united in their rhetorical commitment to human progress and social equality, but also in their desire to build a binational state under the national control of Czechs and Slovaks, free of Germans. Still, the proclamations of rank-and-file activists leave no doubt that they saw their demands for social change as part of international struggles for emancipation.

When the Communist Party called for revolutionary anti-state action in February 1948, it did so from the ambiguous position of an already-governing party. What appeared from one perspective as a revolution from below could also be seen as a palace coup. After the 1946 elections, the party gained control of nine ministries, including the ministry of the Interior, which it began using to harass political opponents.

It was ultimately the interior minister’s attempt to purge several non-Communist officers from the national police force that triggered the political crisis. On February 13, the ministers of the centrist parties formally demanded an investigation into the purge of the police, threatening to resign from government if their demand was not met. They placed their bets on their ability to make the government fall, leading to further negotiations or new elections. Instead, the Communist Party turned the government crisis into a crisis of the political system as such.

Even if the Czechoslovak Communist Party used its strategic control of the state machinery to provoke the February crisis, it probably could not have come out of the crisis on top without support that extended far beyond its position in state structures. The Communists enjoyed considerable support among the officers of the Czechoslovak Army, whose leader Ludvík Svoboda had spent the much of the war fighting alongside Soviet troops. But still more important were the mass organizations capable of exerting pressure from outside the formal structures of the state.

The union movement grew rapidly after the war, and even as Communist leadership complained of the unionists’ syndicalist and ultra-left tendencies, Communist activists gained a majority of positions in internal union elections. Factory councils also spread quickly throughout the country, forming in 12,000 workplaces by the middle of 1946. These too were formally autonomous organizations whose members frequently demanded more radical change than the Communist-led government was willing to implement, but Communists made up a large portion of the councils’ elected leadership. As there was no force that consistently positioned itself to the left of the Communist Party, there emerged no obvious organizational base for those radicals who were disappointed with Communist policies.

Though the left wing of the Social Democrats was sometimes more radical than the Communist Party in its advocacy of workers’ control and the right to strike, this was also the wing of the party most disposed toward working with the Communists. It was unwilling to present itself as a clear alternative, and it never seriously challenged Communist domination in the unions and factory councils.

The Communist Party had also been responsible for dissolving “revolutionary guards” of armed workers that formed at the end of the war, whose members had voiced the demand that they be formally recognized as a part of the new military — a branch of armed forces under the control of the Central Council of Labor Unions. If the party’s decision disappointed the most radical workers at the time, it may also have disposed them favorably toward the party’s apparent change of heart in 1948. When the party leader responded to the February crisis by calling for the formation of popular militias and revolutionary action committees that would push for an immediate transition from “national-democratic revolution” to socialist revolution, it is easy to understand how many people could have seen this act as picking up where the impatient revolutionaries had left off three years earlier. Yet here too it was the well-organized Communist Party, rather than the unmediated will of autonomous workers, that was able to direct the activity of these new organs of power.

In a speech on February 21, Prime Minister Gottwald inverted the narrative presented by the ministers who protested against the Communists’ heavy-handed tactics. Gottwald assured the crowd that it was not the Communist Party that sought to break up the popular-democratic coalition. It was the reactionary parties who threatened to resign over a minor technical issue — the simple replacement of eight police officers — perhaps because they wanted to return to the days when State Security was used to suppress workers, rather than support them. But if the centrist parties hoped to frighten the Communists into backing down from the government’s progressive program, the Communists were ready to call their bluff. Gottwald called on the president to accept the ministers’ resignation — and replace them with new ministers loyal to the “original spirit” of the National Front. The Communist Party, as both the leading party in government and the leading critic of the government in its current form, was able to play to both sides of every protest.

On February 23, with the revolution against the established state was in full swing, Communist-controlled State Security units began searching the centrist parties’ headquarters for evidence of anti-state conspiracy. On February 24, the day of the general strike, revolutionary action committees took over the newspapers of the center-right Popular Party and the center-left National Socialists. Workers at the printing press had already refused to print the center-right Democratic Party’s newspaper.

At the same time action committees were formed by activists within all the non-Communist parties, pushing their parties to adopt pro-Communist lines and barring the protesting ministers from entering their own offices. By evening, militias had also taken over the Social Democratic Party headquarters, and the Social Democrats were finally compelled to take sides in the dispute. But the party was divided. Two of the three Social Democratic ministers resigned in protest, but by now their resignations only strengthened the Communists’ position in what remained of the government. After an internal party debate, the pro-Communist wing of the party prevailed, reasoning that the moment of revolution was at hand, and they preferred not to play the part of counterrevolutionaries. They sided with the militiamen who had occupied their headquarters and declared their intention to work still more closely with the Communist Party.

On February 25, as over 100,000 demonstrators gathered on Wenceslas Square to call for a quickening of the revolution, some 5,000-10,000 students marched toward Prague Castle in protest of the Communist actions. While Defense Minister Ludvík Svoboda had announced that the army would not intervene to quell the pro-Communist protests, the police attacked and arrested the Communists’ critics.

Demonstration in Prague, Wenceslas’ Square, on February 28, 1948.
TASR archive

The morning newspapers, most of them now in the hands of pro-Communist action committees, printed a declaration of support for the Communists signed by 153 leading intellectuals. The Communist leaders communicated with the president, allegedly reminding him that they not only enjoyed the support of the masses, the intelligentsia, the police, and the military, but also of the Red Army that was positioned on the country’s borders. President Beneš, apparently wary of further conflict, chose not to oppose the new balance of power. When Gottwald brought the news back to the assembled crowd, he declared, “Now that we have warded off every attack of the reaction, we return to work, to the constructive work of fulfilling the two-year plan, and our work will be all the happier…” The time for protesting — including, perhaps, protesting against future government action — was over.

Formally speaking, the new government was still a broad coalition. But the Communists now held a majority of ministerial posts, and pro-Communist factions had gained control of all the country’s major political entities. It may have been unclear at first whether the new organizations’ leaders were actually controlled by the Communist Party, or if they were — as they seemed to see themselves — genuinely democratic forces arising from within each organization, pushing for progressive change. The Communist leadership, in any case, quickly made the situation clear.

Distrusted political rivals were stripped of their functions, and outspoken critics were arrested. On March 11, Jan Masaryk (son of the former president), a political independent and the only remaining government minister not trusted by the Communist Party, was found dead on the pavement outside his third-floor bathroom window, in a case that was officially ruled a suicide but has never been definitively resolved. On May 30, new elections were held, and voters were presented with only a single candidate list drawn up by the Communist leadership. At the end of June, the Social Democratic Party was forcibly integrated into Communist Party, eliminating the only major political organization that had could have drawn the support of leftists disenchanted with Communist rule.

Kundera, in Life Is Elsewhere, jumps suddenly from his story of Communist poets in Prague after 1948 to a scene of rebellious students in Paris 1968. The clear implication is that anywhere the song of uncompromising revolution sounds, the groundwork is quietly being laid for the repression of all that questions the beautiful ideals. Kundera, of course, made no effort to understand the Parisian left. Among other things, the Parisian revolts of May ‘68 lacked the most crucial factor that determined the outcome of February ‘48: the active involvement of the Communist Party. But Kundera’s poorly justified literary digression reminds us that it is not only party leaderships that turn power from below into power from above. Leaders are helped by masses of participants who, at crucial moments, delegate their power to their leaders and help silence their leaders’ critics. And in silencing their leaders’ critics, they are also silencing their future selves.

It is often said that Communists buy the people’s satisfaction and apathy with promises of material comfort. But there was no such social contract at work in February 1948. What the Communists offered, more than material gain, was redistributed power. The clause that stipulated demobilization and disempowerment came to light only later. Revolutions sometimes conceal their own hidden coups.