During World War II, Czechoslovakia had largely disappeared from the map of Europe. The Third Czechoslovak Republic (Czech: Třetí Československá republika, Slovak: Tretia česko-slovenská republika) which emerged as a sovereign state after the end of the war was not only the result of the policies of the victorious Western allies, the French Fourth Republic, the United Kingdom and the United States, but also an indication of the strength of the Czechoslovak ideal embodied in the First Czechoslovak Republic. However, at the conclusion of World War II, Czechoslovakia fell within the Soviet sphere of influence, and this circumstance dominated any plans or strategies for postwar reconstruction. Consequently, the political and economic organisation of Czechoslovakia became largely a matter of negotiations between Edvard Beneš and Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) exiles living in Moscow.
In February 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia seized full power in a coup d'état. Despite the country's official name remained the Czechoslovak Republic until 1960, when it was changed to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, February 1948 is considered the end of the Third Republic.
The Third Republic came into being in April 1945. Its government, installed at Košice on 4 April and moved to Prague after its liberation on 10 May, was a National Front coalition in which three socialist parties—KSČ, Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party, and Czechoslovak National Social Party—predominated. The Slovak Popular Party was banned as collaborationist with the Nazis. Other conservative yet democratic parties, such as the Republican Party of Farmers and Peasants, were prevented from resuming activities in the postwar period. Certain acceptable nonsocialist parties were included in the coalition; among them were the Catholic People's Party (in Moravia) and the Slovak Democratic Party. Employing 61.2 percent of the industrial labour force—were nationalised.
14 October 1945 saw a new provisional national assembly voted in.
Beneš had compromised with the KSČ to avoid a postwar coup; he naïvely hoped that the democratic process would restore a more equitable distribution of power. Beneš had negotiated the Soviet alliance, but at the same time he hoped to establish Czechoslovakia as a "bridge" between East and West, capable of maintaining contacts with both sides. The KSČ leader Klement Gottwald, however, professed commitment to a "gradualist" approach, that is, to a KSČ assumption of power by democratic means.
The popular enthusiasm evoked by the Soviet armies of liberation benefited the KSČ. Czechoslovaks, bitterly disappointed by the West at the Munich Agreement, responded favourably to both the KSČ and the Soviet alliance. Communists secured strong representation in the popularly elected national committees, the new organs of local administration. The KSČ organised and centralised the trades union movement; of 120 representatives to the Central Council of Trades Unions, 94 were communists. The party worked to acquire a mass membership, including peasants and the petite bourgeoisie, as well as the proletariat. Between May 1945 and May 1946, KSČ membership grew from 27,000 to over 1.1 million.
In the May 1946 election, the KSČ won in the Czech part of the country (40.17%), while the anti-Communist Democratic Party won in Slovakia (62%). In sum, however, the KSČ won a plurality of 38 percent of the vote at the Czechoslovak level. Beneš continued as president of the republic, and Jan Masaryk, son of the revered founding father, continued as foreign minister. Gottwald became prime minister. Most important, although the communists held only a minority of portfolios, they were able to gain control over such key ministries as information, internal trade, finance and interior (including the police apparatus). Through these ministries, the communists were able to suppress noncommunist opposition, place party members in positions of power, and create a solid basis for a takeover attempt.
Czechoslovakian passport issued in 1947
The year that followed was uneventful. The KSČ continued to proclaim its national and democratic orientation. The turning point came in the summer of 1947. In July, the Czechoslovak government, with KSČ approval, accepted an Anglo-French invitation to attend preliminary discussions of the Marshall Plan. The Soviet Union responded immediately to the Czechoslovak move to continue the Western alliance: Stalin summoned Gottwald to Moscow.
Upon his return to Prague, the KSČ reversed its decision. In subsequent months, the party demonstrated a significant radicalisation of its tactics. The KSČ argued that a reactionary coup was imminent, and that immediate action was necessary to prevent it. Through media and police means, they intensified their activity. Originally announced by Gottwald at the KSČ Central Committee meeting in November 1947, news of the "reactionary plot" was disseminated throughout the country by the communist press.
From June of that year, and especially after the outbreak of the 1947-1948 civil war in Mandatory Palestine in November, Czechoslovakia began to sell arms to the Palestinian Jewish Haganah defense force. It was the only foreign state to do so. This policy, continued after the declaration of the State of Israel the following year, would play an important role in the victory of the Jewish state in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
In January 1948, the communist-controlled Ministry of Interior proceeded to purge the Czechoslovak security forces, substituting noncommunists with communists. Simultaneously, the KSČ began agitating for increased nationalisation and for a new land reform limiting landholdings to fifty hectares.
A cabinet crisis precipitated the February coup. Backed by all non-communist parties, the National Social ministers said that the communists were using the Ministry of Interior's police and security forces to suppress non-communists, and demanded a halt to this. Prime Minister Gottwald, however, repeatedly forestalled discussion of the police issue. On 21 February, National Socialists resigned from the cabinet in protest. The Catholic People's Party and the Slovak Democratic Party followed suit.
The twelve noncommunist ministers resigned, in part, to induce Beneš to call for early elections. Communist losses were anticipated owing to popular disapproval of recent KSČ tactics. A January poll indicated a 10-percent decline in Communist electoral support. Yet the Czechoslovak National Socialists made their move without adequate coordination with Beneš. The democratic parties, in addition, made no effort to rally popular support.
The non-Communists believed that Beneš would refuse to accept their resignations and keep them in a caretaker government, which would presumably force Gottwald to either back down or resign. Beneš initially refused to accept the resignations and declared that no government could be formed without non-Communist ministers. However, in the days that followed, he shunned the non-Communist ministers to avoid accusation of collusion. The Czechoslovak Army remained neutral.
In the meantime, the KSČ garnered its forces. The communist-controlled Ministry of Interior deployed police regiments to sensitive areas and equipped a workers' militia. The communist-controlled Ministry of Information refused broadcasting time to noncommunist officials. Ministries held by noncommunist parties were secured by communist "action committees." The action committees also purged all governmental and political party organs of unreliable elements. Gottwald threatened to call a general strike unless Beneš appointed a new, Communist-dominated government.
On 26 February, Beneš, perhaps fearing civil war and/or Soviet intervention, capitulated. He accepted the resignations of the dissident ministers and appointed a new cabinet from a list submitted by Gottwald. The new cabinet was dominated by Communists and pro-Soviet Social Democrats. Members of the People's, National Socialist and Czech Democratic parties were also included, so the government was still nominally a coalition. However, the ministers using those labels were fellow travellers working hand in glove with the Communists. This act marked the onset of out-and-out Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.
- ^ Jessup, John E. (1989). A Chronology of Conflict and Resolution, 1945-1985. New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-24308-5.
Coordinates: 50°05′00″N 14°28′00″E / 50.0833°N 14.4667°E