Author: Petr Vagner


Publishing house Oxford University press, Inc. printed in 2012 a book On the Edge of the Cold War [1] by well-known historian,University Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University, Igor Lukes. The book in gripping way describes collapse of the democracy in Czechoslovakia in period 1945-1948 which meant a clear signal for Western countries that peaceful coexistence with the U.S.S.R. would be hardly possible.

Russkii vopros discusses with professor Lukes substantial moments leading towards collapse of “the bridge policy” which President Edvard Benes was going to realize in postwar Central Europe.

Stalin understood approaching end of the Second World War like a chance to broaden Soviet influence in various parts of the world. He paid a special attention to Central Europe. Stalin´s role was facilitated by the fact that Allies had a certain understanding for his intentions. Poland was unscrupulously sacrificed; Hungary stood more or less beyond a dispute. Austria can be taken like a specific case because of presence of several armies on its territory. Czechoslovakia seemed to have its destiny its own hands. During negotiations in Yalta Stalin did not show a bigger interest to this country and Allies took it like a part of democratic Europe. Post-war development, although, very quickly foiled all illusions and Czechoslovakia became after 1948 part of so called communist camp. Was there any chance how it could have avoided such a destiny?

I’m not convinced that Stalin had a clear plan for a Soviet-dominated postwar Europe.  For years to come, perhaps until the establishment of NATO in 1949, he could only speculate what the Western allies, especially the Americans, might do.  Would they stay put and build up their positions in Europe?  Or will they withdraw, as they did after World War I?  He was determined to crush Poland; on that matter he was not prepared to compromise.  However, he was uncertain about other countries in the region, including his zone in occupied Germany.

My book argues that Czechoslovakia was a country whose postwar political evolution was not decided at Teheran, Yalta or Potsdam, it was not determined by the weight of the emerging rival blocs, and it was not driven by the map.  On the Edge of the Cold War shows that the democratic identity of Czechoslovakia was lost, first and foremost, by the Czech democratic elites, and also by the fecklessness of Western, especially American, diplomats and intelligence specialists.

Stalin was uncertain but at the same time ready to catch momentum. Czech democrats, unintentionally, and Czech communists, deliberately, were gradually creating a favourable situation for Kremlin to bring Czechoslovakia under its control. Where would you see milestones on the way leading Czechoslovakia towards February 1948? Probably all had already started in Munich but what steps followed?

You’re absolutely right to start with the Munich Conference.  Therein lies – in addition to other factors, such as the Red Army’s conquest of Eastern Europe – the source of the Communists’ influence in postwar Prague.  Regarding the milestones: The French and the British (and to a lesser extent the Americans) hoped that Edvard Benes would leave the international scene altogether and never reappear after Munich.  By contrast, Soviet diplomats, including Konstantin Umanskii in the United States and Ivan Maiski in Great Britain, kept close to Benes and treated him with great respect at a time when he had no international standing.  It flattered him.  In the summer of 1941, it was Moscow that granted the Benes government a de jure recognition – before the British, French, and Americans reluctantly agreed to follow.  Among the unmistakable milestones in the postwar environment are the composition of the government agreed upon in Moscow in March 1945, the Kosice program and the nationalization decrees, the May 1946 elections, and the Marshall Plan fiasco a year later.  And also a number of lesser known factors, such Washington’s decision not to extend credit to Czechoslovakia.

February 1948 could be taken not only like the end of democracy in Czechoslovakia for a long period but also like the end of hopes that it could be possible peacefully to cooperate with Stalin. Communists, using words from your book, exchanged popularity for absolute power. Why Stalin in the Czechoslovak case did not use an opportunity to demonstrate that he is able cooperate with West? He would have got more than he would have had to give if he had created in Central Europe another Finland...

What you say may sound controversial to many, but I agree with you.  The Communist coup d'état in February 1948 represented a defeat for Soviet interests.  Czechoslovakia could have remained a multi-party quasi-democracy that would have followed Soviet directions in foreign policy, as it did – voluntarily – from the end of the war.  It could have maintained a mixed economy (private and state-owned).  Such a country would have been more useful to Moscow interests than as Stalinist satellite.  A liberal welfare state in the heart of Europe would have been quite attractive to the European left in the postwar context.  The February takeover represented, in my view, a defeat not only for Stalin’s global ambitions but also for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.  After Klement Gottwald, Rudolf Slansky and their colleagues usurped absolute power, they could maintain it only as puppets of the Kremlin.  The purge of the Party leadership in the late forties and early fifties demonstrated it was not a pleasant role to play.

However, it is not hard to understand why the party bosses decided to act.  There was every reason to fear that the Communist Party might fail in the elections scheduled to take place in the spring of 1948.  This is what caused the Party and Stalin to take action.  The takeover gave them absolute power in February 1948, but having become dictators, they lost their friendly masks.  The coup d'état and everything that followed revealed that the essence of Communism was violence.  The Communists would remain in power for decades to come – but without legitimacy.  Hence the implosion of the system in 1989.

Gottwald, backing by Stalin, outwitted President Benes and he could, in February 1948, finally see their right faces. It was not a pleasant view. Living in his last asylum in Sezimovo Ústí (South Bohemia), he complained to visitors that Gottwald and Stalin had lied to him. Was not it a bit naïve to believe these two men? It is understandable that Benes had his own reasons: Munich syndrome, liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red army, a fear of postwar Germany as well as an unconditional support of the mass transfer of Sudeten Germans but he also had his own experience with communists before WWII and also in postwar period. There was also the speech given by Churchill in Fulton. And Benes, regardless, believed…

Benes is a mystery to me.  In his private conversations he spoke scathingly of Stalin and Communists in general.  But he expressed a completely different point of view in his writing or public speeches.  The truth may be somewhere in the middle.  He was a committed socialist who believed in state-owned economy.  A regulated political system – such that existed in postwar Czechoslovakia in the form of the National Front with its finite number of political parties – was not against his impulses.  He must have found it convenient not having to bother with the Agrarians after the war.  But he failed to appreciate that if the Agrarians were difficult, the Communists would be impossible.  I accept everything else you say about Benes’s irrational fear of Germany and his understandable distrust of Great Britain, France, and the United States.  All these factors combined to put him in a vulnerable position during the crucial time from May 1945 to February 1948.

Discussing a sensitive question of personal responsibility we should not forget Jan Masaryk. In your book you write: “President Edvard Benes, Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, and other democratic politicians bear a particularly large share of national guilt. They had underestimated the viciousness of their totalitarian opponents, treating them as legitimate partners in a shared patriotic enterprise. Even though they privately agonized about the impact of their alliance with Moscow on their sovereignty and democratic identity, they never tried to educate the public about the danger of Soviet Communism.” His mysterious tragic death as if has overlapped Masaryk´s performance as Foreign Minister. He was rather a smart glossarist than a doer. Even though particularly he had probably the biggest potential to address people…  

I agree that Jan Masaryk could have single-handedly turned the February coup d’état into a real contest.  He could have reminded the masses in the center of Prague of his father’s democratic ideals, he could have explained the finality of the choice between freedom and slavery.  Instead, on Friday, 20 February 1948, the day the democratic ministers resigned their posts, Jan Masaryk claimed he got a touch of laryngitis (laryngytidka) and had to stay “in the cradle” (v kolebce).  There was nothing wrong with him, of course.  He was simply too frightened to take action and too ashamed not to do anything at all – and so he hid in bed.  And he was supposed to be the second most important pillar of Czechoslovakia’s democratic identity!

Czechoslovakia wanted to play after WWII a role of the bridge between two more and more hostile camps. The plan failed. President Benes did not manage to build an intended bridge when Stalin assigned a different role to Czechoslovakia: to be an obedient vassal of Moscow. February 1948 in Czechoslovakia confirmed again words of well-known American diplomat George F. Kennan that Soviet leaders recognize “only vassals or enemies”. Following activities of former U.S.S.R. provided us with other arguments for Kennan thesis. What could we say about style of foreign policy of successor of U.S.S.R. – Russia? Has Kennan thesis been still valid?

Moscow’s plotting in the Baltic republics (passportizatsia), manipulations and schemes in Ukraine, the Caucasus (passportizatsia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and Central Asia would seem to confirm the depressing view that the old Soviet policy was but a continuation of an older Russian political intuition, which has now come back with Putin.  What some Russian officials said about Poland in 2009 sounded as if Poland was still partitioned and the Czar’s brother ruled in Warsaw.  The FSB’s heavy footprints can be found everywhere in Eastern Europe, and especially in the Czech Republic, where the political elite looks the other way as Russia becomes more and more influential throughout the region.

Does it mean that in our case history does not work like Magistra vitæ?

Apparently not.  One hears that the current Communist Party in Prague would do fabulously well if an election were to take place now, and the Communists have never left the scene in Moscow.  History is neither a professor nor a jailor; it cannot force you to learn.  It gives you the option to know your past.  But if you choose to remain ignorant and if you manage to inspire a large number of other citizens, then democracy is in danger.  But I cannot accept that this is a viable scenario for the Czech Republic.  The Czechs have – in my view – the most sophisticated middle-class in the world.  It will never, I hope, repeat the mistakes that were made in the disastrous years 1945-1948.

[1] LUKES, Igor. On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 296 pages. ISBN10: 0195166795.