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Czechoslovakia: 1948 - 1968

This article is part of the article Czechoslovakia

Table of contents
1 Stalinization (1948- 1963)
2 De-Stalinization (1963-1968)
3 Prague Spring (1968)
4 Warsaw Pact Intervention and the end of Prague spring

Stalinization (1948- 1963)

In February 1948, when the Communists definitively took power in Czechoslovakia, the country was declared a "people's democracy"--a preliminary step toward socialism and, ultimately, communism. Bureaucratic centralism under the direction of KSC leadership was introduced. Dissident elements were purged from all levels of society, including the Catholic Church. The ideological principles of Marxism-Leninism and socialist realism pervaded cultural and intellectual life. The entire education system was submitted to state control. The economy was committed to comprehensive central planning and the elimination of private ownership. Czechoslovakia became a satellite of the Soviet Union; it was a founding member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1949 and of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The attainment of Soviet-style "socialism" became the government's avowed policy.

A new constitution was passed by the National Assembly on May 9, 1948. Because it was prepared by a special committee in the 1945-48 period, it contained many liberal and democratic provisions. It reflected, however, the reality of Communist power through an addition that discussed the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leadership role of the Communist party. Benes refused to sign the Ninth-of-May Constitution, as it was called, and resigned from the presidency; he was succeeded by Gottwald.

Although in theory Czechoslovakia remained a multiparty state, in actuality the Communists were in complete control. Political participation became subject to KSC approval. The KSC also prescribed percentage representation for non-Marxist parties. The National Assembly, purged of dissidents, became a mere rubber stamp for KSC programs. In 1953 an inner cabinet of the National Assembly, the Presidium, was created. Composed of KSC leaders, the Presidium served to convey party policies through government channels. Regional, district, and local committees were subordinated to the Ministry of Interior. Slovak autonomy was constrained; the KSS was reunited with the KSC but retained its own identity.

Gottwald died in 1953. He was succeeded by Antonin Zapotocky as president and by Antonin Novotny as head of the KSC. Novotny became president in 1957 when Zapotocky died.

Czechoslovak interests were subordinated to the interests of the Soviet Union. Stalin became particularly concerned about controlling and integrating the socialist bloc in the wake of Tito's challenge to his authority. Stalin's paranoia resulted in sweeping political changes in the Soviet Union and the satellite countries. In Czechoslovakia the Stalinists accused their opponents of "conspiracy against the people's democratic order" and "high treason" in order to oust them from positions of power. Large-scale arrests of Communists with an "international" background, i.e., those with a wartime connection with the West, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, Jews, and Slovak "bourgeois nationalists," were followed by show trials. The most spectacular of these was the trial of KSC first secretary Rudolf Slansky and thirteen other prominent Communist personalities in November and December 1952. Slansky was executed, and many others were sentenced to death or to forced labor in prison camps. The KSC rank-and-file membership, approximately 2.5 million in March 1948, began to be subjected to careful scrutiny. By 1960 KSC membership had been reduced to 1.4 million.

The Ninth-of-May Constitution provided for the nationalization of all commercial and industrial enterprises having more than fifty employees. The nonagricultural private sector was nearly eliminated. Private ownership of land was limited to fifty hectares. The remnants of private enterprise and independent farming were permitted to carry on only as a temporary concession to the petite bourgeoisie and the peasantry. The Czechoslovak economy was subjected to a succession of five-year plans

Following the Soviet example, Czechoslovakia began emphasizing the rapid development of heavy industry. The industrial sector was reorganized with an emphasis on metallurgy, heavy machinery, and coal mining. Production was concentrated in larger units; the more than 350,000 units of the prewar period were reduced to about 1,700 units by 1958. Industrial output reportedly increased 233 percent between 1948 and 1959; employment in industry, 44 percent. The speed of industrialization was particularly accelerated in Slovakia, where production increased 347 percent and employment, 70 percent. Although Czechoslovakia's industrial growth of 170 percent between 1948 and 1957 was impressive, it was far exceeded by that of Japan (300 percent) and the Federal Republic of Germany (almost 300 percent) and more than equaled by Austria and Greece. For the 1954-59 period, Czechoslovak industrial growth was equaled by France and Italy.

Industrial growth in Czechoslovakia required substantial additional labor. Czechoslovaks were subjected to long hours and long workweeks to meet production quotas. Part-time, volunteer labor--students and white-collar workers--was drafted in massive numbers. Labor productivity, however, was not significantly increased, nor were production costs reduced. Czechoslovak products were characterized by poor quality.

The Ninth-of-May Constitution declared the government's intention to collectivize agriculture. In February 1949, the National Assembly adopted the Unified Agricultural Cooperatives Act. Cooperatives were to be founded on a voluntary basis; formal title to land was left vested in the original owners. The imposition of high compulsory quotas, however, forced peasants to collectivize in order to increase efficiency and facilitate mechanization. Discriminatory policies were employed to bring about the ruin of recalcitrant kulaks (wealthy peasants). Collectivization was near completion by 1960. Sixteen percent of all farmland (obtained from collaborators and kulaks) had been turned into state farms. Despite the elimination of poor land from cultivation and a tremendous increase in the use of fertilizers and tractors, agricultural production declined seriously. By 1959 prewar production levels still had not been met. Major causes of the decline were the diversion of labor from agriculture to industry (in 1948 an estimated 2.2 million workers were employed in agriculture; by 1960, only 1.5 million); the suppression of the kulak, the most experienced and productive farmer; and the peasantry's opposition to collectivization, which resulted in sabotage.

The 1960 Constitution declared the victory of "socialism" and proclaimed the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The ambiguous precept of "democratic centralism"--power emanating from the people but bound by the authority of higher organs--was made a formal part of consitutional law. The president, the cabinet, the Slovak National Council, and the local governments were made responsible to the National Assembly. The National Assembly, however, continued its rubber-stamp approval of KSC policies. All private enterprises using hired labor were abolished. Comprehensive economic planning was reaffirmed. The Bill of Rights emphasized economic and social rights, e.g., the right to work, leisure, health care, and education. Civil rights, however, were deemphasized. The judiciary was combined with the prosecuting branch; all judges were committed to the protection of the socialist state and the education of citizens in loyalty to the cause of socialism.

De-Stalinization (1963-1968)

De-Stalinization had a late start in Czechoslovakia. The KSC leadership virtually ignored the Soviet thaw announced by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia that April, at the Second Writers' Congress, several authors criticized acts of political repression and attempted to gain control of the writers' congress. The writers' rebellion was suppressed, however, and the conservatives retained control. Students in Prague and Bratislava demonstrated on May Day of 1956, demanding freedom of speech and access to the Western press. The Novotny regime condemned these activities and introduced a policy of neo-Stalinism. The 1958 KSC Party congress formalized the continuation of Stalinism.

In the early 1960s, the Czechoslovak economy became severely stagnated. The industrial growth rate was the lowest in Eastern Europe. Food imports strained the balance of payments. Pressures both from Moscow and from within the party precipitated a reform movement. In 1963 reform-minded Communist intellectuals produced a proliferation of critical articles. Criticism of economic planning merged with more generalized protests against KSC bureaucratic control and ideological conformity. The KSC leadership responded. The purge trials of 1949-54 were reviewed, for example, and some of those purged were rehabilitated. Some hardliners were removed from top levels of government and replaced by younger, more liberal communists. Jozef Lenart replaced Prime Minister Viliam Siroky in 1963. The KSC organized committees to review economic policy.

In 1965 the party approved the New Economic Model, which had been drafted under the direction of economist and theoretician Ota Sik. The program called for a second, intensive stage of economic development, emphasizing technological and managerial improvements. Central planning would be limited to overall production and investment indexes as well as price and wage guidelines. Management personnel would be involved in decision making. Production would be market oriented and geared toward profitability. Prices would respond to supply and demand. Wage differentials would be introduced.

The KSC "Theses" of December 1965 presented the party response to the call for political reform . Democratic centralism was redefined, placing a stronger emphasis on democracy. The leading role of the KSC was reaffirmed but limited. In consequence, the National Assembly was promised increased legislative responsibility. The Slovak executive (Board of Commissioners) and legislature (Slovak National Council) were assured that they could assist the central government in program planning and assume responsibility for program implementation in Slovakia. The regional, district, and local national committees were to be permitted a degree of autonomy. The KSC agreed to refrain from superseding the authority of economic and social organizations. Party control in cultural policy, however, was reaffirmed.

January 1967 was the date for full implementation of the reform program. Novotny and his supporters hesitated, introducing amendments to reinforce central control. Pressure from the reformists was stepped up. Slovaks pressed for federalization. Economists called for complete enterprise autonomy and economic responsiveness to the market mechanism. The Fourth Writers' Congress adopted a resolution calling for rehabilitation of the Czechoslovak literary tradition and the establishment of free contact with Western culture. The Novotny regime responded with repressive measures.

At the October 30-31 1967 meeting of the KSC Central Committee, Alexander Dubcek , a Slovak reformer who has studied in the Soviet Union, challenged Novotny and was accused of nationalism. As university students in Prague demonstrated in support of the liberals, Novotny appealed to Moscow for assistance. On December 8, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev arrived in Prague but did not support Novotny. On January 5, 1968, the Central Committee elected Dubcek to replace Novotny as first secretary of the KSC. Novotny's fall from KSC leadership precipitated initiatives to oust Stalinists from all levels of government, from mass associations, e.g., the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement and the Czechoslovak Union Youth, and from local party organs. On March 22, 1968, Novotny resigned from the presidency and was succeeded by General Ludvik Svoboda.

Prague Spring (1968)

Dubcek carried the reform movement a step further in the direction of liberalism. After Novotny's fall, censorship was lifted. The media--press, radio, and television--were mobilized for reformist propaganda purposes. The movement to democratize socialism in Czechoslovakia, formerly confined largely to the party intelligentsia, acquired a new, popular dynamism in the spring of 1968.

In April the KSC Presidium adopted the Action Program that had been drafted by a coalition headed by Dubcek and made up of reformers, moderates, centrists, and conservatives. The program proposed a "new model of socialism," profoundly "democratic" and "national," that is, adapted to Czechoslovak conditions. The National Front and the electoral system were to be democratized, and Czechoslovakia was to be federalized. Freedom of assembly and expression would be guaranteed in constitutional law. The New Economic Model was to be implemented. The Action Program also reaffirmed the Czechoslovak alliance with the Soviet Union and other socialist states. The reform movement, which rejected Stalinism as the road to communism, remained committed to communism as a goal.

The Action Program stipulated that reform must proceed under KSC direction. In subsequent months, however, popular pressure mounted to implement reforms forthwith. Radical elements found expression: anti-Soviet polemics appeared in the press; the Social Democrats began to form a separate party; new unaffiliated political clubs were created. Party conservatives urged the implementation of repressive measures, but Dubcek counseled moderation and reemphasized KSC leadership. In May he announced that the Fourteenth Party Congress would convene in an early session on September 9. The congress would incorporate the Action Program into the party statutes, draft a federalization law, and elect a new (presumably more liberal) Central Committee.

On June 27, Ludvik Vaculik, a lifelong communist and a candidate member of the Central Committee, published a manifesto entitled "Two Thousand Words". The manifesto expressed concern about conservative elements within the KSC and "foreign" forces as well. (Warsaw Pact maneuvers were held in Czechoslovakia in late June.) It called on the "people" to take the initiative in implementing the reform program. Dubcek, the party Presidium, the National Front, and the cabinet sharply denounced the manifesto.

The Soviet leadership was alarmed. In mid-July a Warsaw Pact conference was held without Czechoslovak participation. The Warsaw Pact nations drafted a letter to the KSC leadership referring to the manifesto as an "organizational and political platform of counterrevolution." Pact members demanded the reimposition of censorship, the banning of new political parties and clubs, and the repression of "rightist" forces within the party. The Warsaw Pact nations declared the defense of Czechoslovakia's socialist gains to be not only the task of Czechoslovakia but also the mutual task of all Warsaw Pact countries. The KSC rejected the Warsaw Pact ultimatum, and Dubcek requested bilateral talks with the Soviet Union.

Soviet leader Brezhnev hesitated to intervene militarily in Czechoslovakia. Dubcek's Action Program proposed a "new model of socialism"--"democratic" and "national." Significantly, however, Dubcek did not challenge Czechoslovak commitment to the Warsaw Pact. In the early spring of 1968, the Soviet leadership adopted a wait-and-see attitude. By midsummer, however, two camps had formed: advocates and opponents of military intervention. The pro-interventionist coalition viewed the situation in Czechoslovakia as "counterrevolutionary" and favored the defeat of Dubcek and his supporters. This coalition was headed by the Ukrainian party leader Pyotr Shelest and included communist bureaucrats from Belorussia and from the non-Russian national republics of the western part of the Soviet Union (the Baltic republics). The coalition members feared the awakening of nationalism within their respective republics and the influence of the Ukrainian minority in Czechoslovakia on Ukrainians in the Soviet Union. Bureaucrats responsible for political stability in Soviet cities and for the ideological supervision of the intellectual community also favored a military solution. Within the Warsaw Pact, only the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Poland were strongly interventionist. Walter Ulbricht and Wladyslaw Gomulka--party leaders of East Germany and Poland, respectively--viewed liberalism as threatening to their own positions.

The Soviet Union agreed to bilateral talks with Czechoslovakia to be held in July at Cierna nad Tisou, Slovak-Soviet border. At the meeting, Dubcek defended the program of the reformist wing of the KSC while pledging commitment to the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. The KSC leadership, however, was divided. Vigorous reformers--Josef Smrkovsky, Oldrich Cernik, and Frantisek Kriegel--supported Dubcek. Conservatives--Vasil Bil'ak, Drahomir Kolder, and Oldrich Svestka--adopted an anti-reformist stance. Brezhnev decided on compromise. The KSC delegates reaffirmed their loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and promised to curb "antisocialist" tendencies, prevent the revival of the Czechoslovaka Social Democratic Party, and control the press more effectively. The Soviets agreed to withdraw their troops (stationed in Czechoslovakia since the June maneuvers) and permit the September 9 party congress.

On August 3, representatives from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia met in Bratislava and signed the Bratislava Declaration. The declaration affirmed unshakable fidelity to Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism and declared an implacable struggle against "bourgeois" ideology and all "antisocialist" forces. The Soviet Union expressed its intention to intervene in a Warsaw Pact country if a "bourgeois" system--a pluralist system of several political parties--was ever established. After the Bratislava conference, Soviet troops left Czechoslovak territory but remained along Czechoslovak borders. Dubcek made no attempt to mobilize the Czechoslovak army to resist an invasion.

The KSC party congress remained scheduled for September 9. In the week following the Bratislava conference, it became an open secret in Prague that most of Dubcek's opponents would be removed from the Central Committee. The Prague municipal party organization prepared and circulated a blacklist. The antireformist coalition could hope to stay in power only with Soviet assistance.

KSC anti-reformists, therefore, made efforts to convince the Soviets that the danger of political instability and "counterrevolution" did indeed exist. They used the Kaspar Report, prepared by the Central Committee's Information Department, headed by Jan Kaspar, to achieve this end. The report provided an extensive review of the general political situation in Czechoslovakia as it might relate to the forthcoming party congress. It predicted that a stable Central Committee and a firm leadership could not necessarily be expected as the outcome of the congress. The report was received by the party Presidium on August 12. Two Presidium members, Kolder and Alois Indra, were instructed to evaluate the report for the August 20 meeting of the Presidium. Kolder and Indra viewed the Kaspar Report with alarm and, some observers think, communicated their conclusions to the Soviet ambassador, Stepan V. Chervonenko. These actions are thought to have precipitated the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. As the KSC Presidium convened on August 20, the anti-reformists planned to make a bid for power, pointing to the imminent danger of counterrevolution. Kolder and Indra presented a resolution declaring a state of emergency and calling for "fraternal assistance." The resolution was never voted on, because the Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia that same day (in the night of August 20-21).

Warsaw Pact Intervention and the end of Prague spring

KSC conservatives had misinformed Moscow regarding the strength of the reform movement. The KSC Presidium met during the night of August 20-21; it rejected the option of armed resistance but condemned the invasion. Two-thirds of the KSC Central Committee opposed the Soviet intervention. A KSC party congress, convened secretly on August 22, passed a resolution affirming its loyalty to Dubcek's Action Program and denouncing the Soviet aggression. President Svoboda repeatedly resisted Soviet pressure to form a new government under Indra. The Czechoslovak population was virtually unanimous in its repudiation of the Soviet action. In compliance with Svoboda's caution against acts that might provoke violence, they avoided mass demonstrations and strikes but observed a symbolic one-hour general work stoppage on August 23. Popular opposition was expressed in numerous spontaneous acts of nonviolent resistance. In Prague and other cities throughout the republic, Czechs and Slovaks greeted Warsaw Pact soldiers with arguments and reproaches. Every form of assistance, including the provision of food and water, was denied the invaders. Signs, placards, and graffiti drawn on walls and pavements denounced the invaders, the Soviet leaders, and suspected collaborators. Pictures of Dubcek and Svoboda appeared everywhere.

The generalized resistance caused the Soviet Union to abandon its original plan to oust Dubcek. Dubcek, who had been arrested on the night of August 20, was taken to Moscow for negotiations. The outcome was the Brezhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty, which provided for the strengthening of the KSC, strict party control of the media, and the suppression of the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party. It was agreed that Dubcek would remain in office and that a program of moderate reform would continue.

On January 19, 1969, student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in 1968.