Prague, 1948: the February revolution

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em>20 March 1948</strong>

In February 1948, parliamentary democracy in Czechoslovakia was overthrown by Communist one-party rule – a crucial stage in the outbreak of the Cold War. A few weeks later, the only remaining non-Communist minister, Jan Masaryk, apparently killed himself, though the circumstances of his death were never resolved. The Labour MP Richard Crossman was in Prague at the time, and wrote this despatch exploring the complexities of the rebellion.

Selected by Robert Taylor

It was on Sunday morning that we drove out to Larny, a cloudless day with a nip in the air. When we parked the car outside the wall of the little village graveyard which looks across to the bleak slag-heaps of a coalmine, there was already a long queue shuffling down the path to Jan Masaryk’s grave, as patient and forlorn as the million who had thronged below the Pantheon on the day before. Though their thoughts and passions are tragically divided, the Czech people were at least united in sorrow and stupefaction at the death of Masaryk. We laid our wreaths and went into the chapel to sign our names. There on the opposite page, clear and strong, was Jan Masaryk’s signature. He had visited his father’s grave, alone, and stood there for one hour, just two days before he killed himself.

What had he thought? The question hung in my mind during the endless interviews and conversations of the next three days. The answer to it might solve the riddle of this tortuous crisis which is already being overlaid with anxious rationalisations and exculpations. Jan Masaryk was at the centre of it. By what he did and said, he confirmed the Communists in power. By his death, he robbed them of the legitimation of his father’s name. Why did he change his mind?

A revolution of this sort always looks neater and more rational in history books than in the confused stream of actual events. In Communist history, the February revolution will be remembered as a brilliant defence of the State against a reactionary conspiracy, encouraged, if not actually instigated, by the American. Embassy. As a result of Gottwald’s statesmanship, and the spontaneous revolutionary action of the working class, civil war was averted, the Republic saved.

The democratic version is somewhat different – that an ill-prepared and tactically inept attempt was made by the Right-wing parties to forestall a carefully prepared Communist coup d’etat before the elections; that the Communists seized the opportunity afforded by the resignation of the Ministers to fill the vacant posts with stooges; that they engineered mass action to liquidate Parliamentary democracy, with the result that suddenly the Czechoslovak State machine switched from democratic into Communist gear and from the easy rhythm of law and order into the roaring speed of a one-party State.

Both versions are over-simplifications. Those who assert that the Communists were planning a coup d’etat anyway and merely advanced the date owing to the Cabinet crisis, probably overestimate Communist foresight and planning. They were certainly anxious about the elections, and furious with the Right-wing parties in the Coalition for the growing obstructiveness of their attitude to the nationalisation programme to which they all were pledged. But the Communists had no need of a coup d’etat, since power was already substantially in their hands. What probably happened was that they were caught unawares by the Ministerial crisis, and the violence of their reaction was a measure of its unexpectedness. Their success was due, I believe, less to elaborate plans than to brilliant improvisation of revolutionary tactics. They were as surprised as their opponents by the speed and completeness of their victory.

On the other hand, the Communist story of a reactionary conspiracy for the purpose of swinging Czechoslovakia into the Western Bloc is palpably absurd. There was plenty of outspoken anti-Communism in the Right-wing press, and even more violent anti-Communist talk in military, business and academic circles. But no one of any party doubted for a moment that Czechoslovak friendship with Russia must remain the cornerstone of foreign policy. The attack on Communism was on domestic issues. The nationalisation programme, to which all parties agreed, is much more drastic than our own in Britain, and there is no arrangement yet for compensation. The drying up of Unrra supplies and the catastrophic drought last summer have produced an acute food crisis which is likely to get much worse. Naturally, there was widespread popular discontent which tended to work against the Communists because they are the opponents of accepting Marshall aid. The Right-wing parties exploited this grumbling for electoral purposes, but there is no reason to believe that any of them seriously considered the possibility of even excluding the Communists from the Coalition. How could they do so, with the Communists in absolute control of the police, and backed by the working-class movement?

The aim of the Czech Socialist Party, which is now accused of leading the conspiracy, was very modest; they wanted to score a tactical victory by making Gottwald concede on a single minor issue – the appointment of eight police officials in Prague. In this way they hoped, with the help of the Social Democrats, to show the Communists that any hanky-panky before the election was ruled out. The Social Democrats, though the smallest party, were in a key position, balancing between the Communists and the Right. If their Ministers resigned, along with those of the three Right-wing parties, it was reckoned that Masaryk would also follow suit. Then the President could legitimately refuse to accept the resignations, and Gottwald might have to sacrifice his Minister of the Interior.

This was the plan. It may have been inept, but it was not a conspiracy to overthrow the State. It misfired because the Czech Socialists made two mistakes. In the first place, they hoped to win a Cabinet intrigue against an opponent who not only held the real power, but was only too ready to use it ruthlessly at the first sign of danger. In the second place, it was a tragic miscalculation to bank on the Social Democrats. True, the Right at the Brno Conference had defeated Fierlinger by sixty to forty and voted Laushman – an unstable careerist – into the chair. But the Social Democrats are a weak, middle-class party. Once they saw that organised labour was behind Gottwald, the Right Wing, which had made brave speeches at Brno, ran for cover in the Communist Action Committees, while the Left Wing wrung its hands and said: “We told you that this would happen if you tried any tricks. It is you, by your irresponsibility, who have cost us our freedom.”

Once the Socialists collapsed, everything was lost. Masaryk stayed on at the Foreign Office, Benes had to accept the twelve resignations, and Gottwald replaced them with twelve “reliable” men. A move designed to weaken the Communists resulted in their obtaining total power.

Within a few hours, Czechoslovakia was transformed from a parliamentary democracy into a workers’ and peasants’ State on the Eastern model. The Right-wing parties and the press were gleichgeschaltet. Action Committees sprang up in every city and village, and began a vast purge of “reactionaries.” The workers’ militia, established in 1945 to prevent sabotage by the Germans, paraded. In Prague, the Central Committee of the Trade Unions equipped it with five thousand new rifles from a government small arms factory. The secret police took quiet precautions against trouble in the army or air force, and the whole labour movement responded to the Prime Minister’s appeal. Against this demonstration of Left solidarity, a few hundred students of Prague University were the only people who dared to make a public protest. In no other town could I learn of any form of organised counter-demonstration. According to politics and class, the Czech people accepted the February revolution either with proletarian enthusiasm or with the hypnotised rigor of a rabbit facing a stoat.

Revolution has its own momentum. Gottwald has driven the Parliamentary opposition underground, and so created the conditions for the conspiracy which he claims to have forestalled. There are plenty of very brave anti-Communists with experience of illegal resistance to provide him with justification for another turn of the screw. Immediately the main issue is whether to stage a Petkov trial or not. Both Nosek and Slansky, who, as Secretary of the Communist Party, is far the biggest man in the country today, assured me that they did not intend to do so. Only the Secretary of the Czech Socialist Party and some civil servants who supplied him with secret information are to be charged with espionage, and three officials of the American Embassy have been asked to leave the country. Will this really be all?

The February revolution was not a workers’ rising against a reactionary regime. It was a coup undertaken by the unchallengeable masters of the State against a disorganised and rather incompetent opposition inside the Government. The big man used a hammer to knock out the little fellow who had clenched his fist in the course of an argument. Maybe in the present state of Europe, the delicate equilibrium on which democracy depends, could not have been sustained in Czechoslovakia. Maybe the Czech Socialist and Social Democratic leaders were inept and irresponsible. But the fact remains that, three weeks ago, Czechoslovakia was a country with civil liberties and Parliamentary institutions. To-day that is no longer true. When I said this to a young Communist he replied: “But it’s such a small price to pay for a great leap forward to Socialism.” Such a small price? That, I believe, was the question which Jan Masaryk pondered by his father’s grave. By then, alas! the price had been paid, and he knew it was much too high.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation