Czechoslovakia, Relations with

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Both the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were born from the collapse of European empires at the close of World War I. While the USSR rose directly from the rubble of the Russian Empire, the Paris Peace Conference crafted Czechoslovakia from Austro-Hungarian lands. From the outset, the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia) and Slovakia had as many differences as similarities, and tensions between the two halves of the state would resurface throughout its lifetime and eventually contribute to its demise in 1992.

Under the leadership of President Tomas G. Masaryk, Czechoslovakia was spared many of the problems of the interwar period. Its higher levels of industrialization helped it weather the financial crises of the 1920s better than its more agrarian neighbors. Czechoslovakia also remained a democracy, ruled by the "Petka"the five leading political parties. Democracy ended only when Czechoslovakia was seized by Nazi Germany, first through the Munich Agreement of 1938, and later through direct occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939. A separate Slovak state was established under Nazi protection in 1939. Ultimately, Soviet troops liberated Czechoslovakia in 1945.

Following World War II, Stalin moved to first install satellite regimes throughout Eastern Europe and then mold them to emulate Soviet structures. Unlike other future members of the Warsaw Pact, however, Czechoslovakia's communists were homegrown, not installed by Moscow. A Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz) had been established in 1921 and had a much broader support base than the Soviet party. Communists served in the first post-war government of President Eduard Benes, taking a plurality (38 percent) of the vote in May 1946. They controlled key ministries, including the Interior, Education, Information, and Agriculture. They also acceded to Soviet pressure to not participate in the Marshall Plan reconstruction program. The CPCz seized power in February 1948, when non-Communist cabinet members resigned, hoping to force new elections. A handful of other parties competed in the May 1948 election, but the Communists were in charge. Benes resigned the presidency in June and was replaced by Communist Klement Gottwald.

Gottwald and CPCz First Secretary Rudolf Slansky then began a program of restructuring Czechoslovakia in the Soviet image. Noncommunist organizations were banned, economic planning was introduced, agriculture was collectivized, and media and educational institutions were subjected to ideological controls. Again emulating Stalin, the Czechoslovak communists used terror and purges to consolidate their rule. Even Slansky succumbed to the purges; he was replaced by Antonin Novotny. Following Gottwald's death in 1953, Antonin Zapotocky became president.

The other major communist death of 1953, Stalin's, had little effect on Czechoslovakia. Like hard-line communist leaders in East Germany, officials in Prague did not embrace Nikita Khrushchev's efforts at liberalization and pluralism. They kept tight control over the Czechoslovak citizenry for the next fifteen years, using the secret police as necessary to enforce their rule. Public protest was minimal, in part due to the relative successby communist standardsof Czechoslovakia's economy.

In January 1968 the CPCz removed Novotny and replaced him with Alexander Dubcek, who finally brought destalinization to Czechoslovakia. The CPCz now allowed broader political discussion, eased censorship, and tried to address Slovak complaints of discrimination. This new approach, called "socialism with a human face" led to a resurgence in the country's social, political, and economic lifean era that came to be called the Prague Spring. Soon popular demands exceeded the Party's willingness to reform. The CPCz's "Action Plan" was countered by "2,000 Words," an opposition list of grievances and demands.

The Kremlin kept a close eye on all developments in Czechoslovakia. Khrushchev had dispatched tanks to Budapest in 1956 when Hungarian Communists took reform too far. His successor, Leonid Brezhnev, was even less inclined to allow for experimentation. By summer, Moscow worried that Dubcek had lost control. Moscow declared its right to intervene in its sphere of influence by promulgating the Brezhnev Doctrine. On August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact troops invaded to restore order. Dubcek was summoned to Moscow but not immediately fired.

In 1969 "socialism with a human face" was replaced with a new policy: normalization. Gustav Husak became the CPCz first secretary in April 1969, and Dubcek was dispatched to the forests of Slovakia to chop wood. Husak took orders from Moscow, turning Czechoslovakia into one of the Soviet Union's staunchest allies. The Party purged itself of reformist elements, alternative organizations shut down, and censorship was reimposed. In October 1969, Moscow and Prague issued a joint statement, announcing that their economies would be coordinated for the next six years.

The populace fell in line, quietly accepting the reversal of the Prague Spring. The communist leaders tried to temper the political hard-line by maintaining a high standard of living and plentiful consumer goods. As the shock of the crackdown faded, however, a handful of opposition movements emerged trying to keep alive the spirit of 1968. The best-known of these groups was Charter 77, named for the January 1977 declaration signed by 250 dissidents, including playwright and future president Vaclav Havel.

The rise of Gorbachev in 1985 alarmed the CPCz. The hard-line communist leaders of Czechoslovakia did not embrace Gorbachev's brand of new thinking. They stubbornly held onto their austere rule, while the economy began to skid. They had come to power in 1969 to block reform; they could hardly shift and embrace it now. Gorbachev's first official visit to Czechoslovakia, in 1987, raised hopesand fearsthat he would call for a resurrection of the 1968 reforms, but instead he made rather bland comments that relieved the Czech leaders. They believed they now had Moscow's blessing to ignore perestroika. Husak retired as First Secretarybut not Presidentin late 1987, apparently for personal reasons rather than on Moscow's order. His replacement, Milos Jakes, was another hard-line communist with no penchant for reform.

Czechoslovakia was one of the last states to experience popular demonstrations and strikes in the cascading events of late 1989. The West German embassy in Prague was overrun by thousands of East Germans seeking to emigrate. When the other hard-line holdout, East Germany, collapsed in October, suddenly the end of communism in Czechoslovakia seemed possible. Unable to address popular demands, the Czechoslovak Politburo simply resigned en masse, after barely a week of demonstrations. Havel became president; Dubcek returned from internal exile to lead parliament.

The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 and the Czech Republic and Slovakia divorced on December 31, 1992. Initially, the new Czech state tilted westward, whereas Slovakia leaned toward Moscow, in part because its economy was still oriented in that direction. As the 1990s unfolded, both countries maintained proper ties with Moscow, but also joined NATO: the Czech Republic in 1999, Slovakia in 2002.

See also: czechoslovakia, invasion of; warsaw treaty organization


Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. (1967). The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gati, Charles. (1990). The Bloc That Failed: Soviet-East European Relations in Transition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Skilling, H. Gordon. (1976). Czechoslovakia's Interrupted Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wolchik, Sharon L. (1991). Czechoslovakia in Transition: Politics, Economics, and Society. London: Pinter.

Ann E. Robertson

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