During World War II, Czechoslovakia disappeared from the map of Europe. The re-emergence of Czechoslovakia as a sovereign state was not only the result of Allied policies but also an indication of the strength of the Czechoslovak idea, particularly as embodied in the First Republic. But Czechoslovakia now found itself within the Soviet sphere of influence--a fact that had to be taken into account in any postwar reconstruction. Thus the political and economic organization of postwar Czechoslovakia was largely the result of negotiations between Benes and KSC exiles in Moscow.
The Third Republic came into being in April 1945. Its government, installed at Kosice on April 4 and moved to Prague in May, was a National Front coalition in which three socialist parties--KSC, Czechoslovak Social democratic Party, and Czechoslovak National Socialist Party--predominated. The Slovak Populist 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. All property belonging to Nazi collaborators was confiscated without compensation. Their land was distributed among the peasants, and their industries--amounting to 16.4 percent of all Czechoslovak industry, employing 61.2 percent of the industrial labor force--were nationalized.
Benes had compromised with the KSC to avoid a postwar coup; he anticipated that the democratic process would restore a more equitable distribution of power. Benes 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. KSC leader Klement Gottwald, however, professed commitment to a "gradualist" approach, that is, to a KSC assumption of power by democratic means.
The popular enthusiasm evoked by the Soviet armies of liberation benefited the KSC. Czechoslovaks, bitterly disappointed by the West at Munich, responded favorably to both the KSC and the Soviet alliance. Communists secured strong representation in the popularly elected national committees, the new organs of local administration. The KSC organized and centralized the trade union movement; of 120 representatives to the Central Council of Trade 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, KSC membership grew from 27,000 to over 1.1 million.
In the May 1946 election, the KSC won a plurality of 38 percent of the vote. Benes 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.
The year that followed was uneventful. The KSC continued to proclaim its "national" and "democratic" orientation. The turning point came in the summer of 1947. In July the Czechoslovak government, with KSC 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 KSC reversed its decision. In subsequent months, the party demonstrated a significant radicalization of its tactics.
The KSC raised the specter of an impending counterrevolutionary coup as a pretext for intensified activity. Originally announced by Gottwald at the KSC Central Committee meeting in November 1947, news of the "reactionary plot" was disseminated throughout the country by communist agents provocateurs and by the communist press. In January 1948, the communist-controlled Ministry of Interior proceeded to purge the Czechoslovak security forces, substituting communists for noncommunists. Simultaneously, the KSC began agitating for increased nationalization and for a new land reform limiting landholdings to fifty hectares.
A cabinet crisis precipitated the February coup Czechoslovak. National Socialist ministers, backed by all noncommunist parties, demanded a halt to the communists' blatant use of the Ministry of Interior's police and security forces to suppress noncommunists. Prime Minister Gottwald, however, repeatedly forestalled discussion of the police issue. On February 20, 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 Benes to call for early elections: Communist losses were anticipated owing to popular disapproval of recent KSC tactics. A January poll indicated a 10-percent decline in communist electoral support. The Czechoslovak National Socialists made their move, however, without adequate coordination with Benes. The democratic parties, in addition, made no effort to rally popular support.
Benes refused to accept the cabinet resignations and did not call for elections. In the days that followed, he shunned democratic ministers to avoid accusation of collusion. The Czechoslovak army remained neutral.
In the meantime, the KSC garnered its forces. The communistcontrolled 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 democratic parties were "secured" by communist "action committees." The action committees also purged all governmental and political party organs of unreliable elements.
On February 25, Benes, perhaps fearing Soviet intervention, capitulated. He accepted the resignations of the dissident ministers and received a new cabinet list from Gottwald, thus completing the communist takeover.
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