The words of Neville Chamberlain to describe Czechoslovakia, when he disgraced the UK, and Édouard Daladier disgraced France disgraced by signing over the country to Hitler. Hitler carved it up, with half becoming “liebensraum” for Germany, and the rest a docile client state. This sacrifice of the people of Czechoslovakia (notwithstanding the pro-Nazi minority) was a disgrace, for a momentary period of peace, for all except those who lived in that country. Ultimately 345,000 people in Czechoslovakia perished in World War 2. It was taken from German control between 1944 and 1945 by the Red Army, which then deported over 2 million Germans, regardless of political affiliation, to occupied Germany.
Pre-war leader Edvard Benes had signed agreements with Stalin to restore the pre-Nazi government once Czechoslovakia had been recovered, and shortly after the end of the war, a national unity government was set up. One of its main actions was to expropriate property from alleged Nazi collaborators and redistribute it. Mob justice saw the innocent and those who resisted the Nazis tarred with the same brush.
However, Stalin did not let Czechoslovakia operate as a semi liberal democratic state for nothing at this point. There was much popular sympathy for the communists after the war. Why? Well, Britain and France were far from popular to put it mildly, having both shown willingness to sacrifice the country. This betrayal, combined with support for how Germans were being expelled and maltreated saw the communists win a plurality of the vote in the Czech region, but not the Slovak region. The resulting national unity government, with perhaps shades of Zimbabwe today, saw the communists taking control of half of the bureaucracy and exercising control over society through such control. Non-sympathisers progressively lost their jobs over time, with control of the economic and police portfolios meaning that discrimination against opponents of communism grew.
Nevertheless, it was clear from the beginning that communism in Czechoslovakia had a slightly more moderate flavour than many of its neighbours. When communist Prime Minister Klement Gottwald announced he was going to meet with the Americans about the Marshall Plan, Stalin responded swiftly. Gottwald wanted some neutrality between east and west, but was threatened with intervention. The communists were told to secure power firmly, so the security forces started clamping down on opposition parties and organisations claiming a coup was imminent. This suppression of freedom of speech and association caused the non-communists in the government to resign, seeking to precipitate an election. As the President was a non-communist, it was hoped he would dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections. However President Benes did not, presumably under threat from Moscow.
The communists governed, with all other parties having withdrawn from government, and so they wrote a new constitution to grant a monopoly on power. President Benes refused to sign it, so resigned, causing a wave of Stalinist power to grip the country. Show trials were held of those who had been in past governments, as well as persecution of nationalists, Jews and those with “international” backgrounds. Thousands were arrested and imprisoned, and dozens executed. All businesses with more than 50 employees were nationalised, with remaining businesses granted “temporary concessions”. The economy was to be industrialised on a grand scale.
Meanwhile, Prague was to be host to the Stalin Monument (good story in this link about it), which took six years to complete and was the largest ever representation of Stalin. The sculptor killed himself before the unveiling. In 1956 student protests were repressed, and it was not until the early 1960s that the de-Stalinisation of Moscow started to be reflected in Prague. In 1962, the Stalin Monument was blown up by the regime, increasingly embarrassed by its presence, particularly while Prague itself had crumbling infrastructure. It having taken nearly 10 years for reformers to push the line of Khrushchev against the remaining Stalinists, progressively pushing them out of power.
In 1965 a New Economic Model was launched, with central planning reduced. Price mechanisms were to be reintroduced to guide production and consumption, with management allowed to make decisions on individual operations. President Novotny had somewhat resisted the changes, but was ultimately deposed by reformer Alexander Dubcek, as the party moved to continue its shift to more liberal government.
Dubcek moved to remove Stalinists from power, and censorship was lifted. A federal state would be created with freedom of speech and assembly guaranteed. He emphasised communist leadership and continued alliance with the USSR, but new political groups emerged.
The Prague Spring, and the Red Army troops who suppressed this blast of freedom in Czechoslovakia are a part of history. The bravery of those who stood up, as the Soviet Union, again, retook its empire, is well known. They greyness that came after, set the stage for 20 years of oppression. The other members of the Warsaw Pact connived to demand that the Communist Party ban non-communist organisations and reimpose censorship. Dubcek rejected it and the troops came. The public resisted, but Dubcek was arrested and taken to Moscow.
Czechs and Slovaks both knew only too well that their country was not their’s but Moscow’s. The communist party was purged of reformers, and around a third of its membership were removed. Censorship was reimposed, protestors and other organisers in support of the Prague Spring would be arrested swiftly. This included a playwright who had broadcast on dissident radio, called Vaclav Havel. He would be imprisoned several times over the following years.
Czechoslovakia returned to form, a loyal member of the Warsaw Pact. Freedom of speech and association were gone, but an underground movement remained. Gustav Husak was the joyless drone who brought back the grey oppression. Art, culture, even science were subordinated to the party, the economy returned to more centralised control, so was stagnating once more by the 1980s. Husak connected Czechoslovakia intimately with Moscow aligning itself explicitly on all foreign policy and economic policy. So much so, Husak didn’t know what he was getting himself in for when he committed the country to Perestroika, following Moscow’s lead, in 1987.
In December 1987, Husak resigned due to ill health, replaced with another drone, Milos Jakes. Czechoslovak perestroika involved some decentralisation of decision making, but little more. Yet in the same month, half a million Catholics signed a petition demanding religious freedom. In March 1988, what became known as the Candle Demonstration was held in Bratislava, nominally backing the petition. Of the 2000 protesting, about 100 were arrested. Demonstrations continued in late 1988 and early 1989, with people emboldened by openness in the USSR, and the regime felt unable to respond with great force.
The culmination of this was a demonstration in Bratislava by students calling for liberal democracy on November 16 1989, with a similar protest in Prague. Riot police broke up that protest, sparking further protests in response. Citizens had already heard what had happened in Poland and Hungary on the BBC World Service, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. By November 20 half a million people were protesting in Prague, with a general strike held on the 27th. The next day the Communist Party announced it would relinquish its monopoly on power, and free elections would be held. The Velvet Revolution had occurred.
By the end of 1989, the government had resigned, the iron curtain torn up between Czechoslovakia and Austria and West Germany, (hastening the end of the East German regime), and Prague Spring reformer Alexander Dubcek was appointed Speaker, and Vaclav Havel President of Czechoslovakia. Free elections were held in June 1990.
The model for a peaceful revolution was there, in Prague, and like others, Czechoslovakia has not looked back. It split in 1993 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, peacefully, eventually both pursuing liberal market economic reforms (Slovakia briefly had an isolationist nationalist government), with both joining NATO and the EU. Never again will the UK or France betray the Czechs and Slovaks.
Both states have achieved some relative economic success. Of those individuals involved, Dubcek sadly died in a car crash under suspicious circumstances (as he was to give evidence in a trial), and Havel was President until 2003, having completed two terms. and today is still a vibrant advocate for freedom. In Prague today the Museum of Communism tells the story of life during that era, the tragedies and the ridiculousness of so much. More recently, the Czech Supreme Court has been requested by the State Senate to dissolve the communist party for being unconstitutional, as it does not disown using violence to gain power.
Prague today is a beautiful historic city, and the people of both the Czech and Slovak republics are well and truly not looking back with nostalgia at their past of autocratic oppression and stark denial of humanity. Don't treat it as a far off country today. Both Prague and Bratislava are beautiful cities well worth a visit.