Gottwald, Klement (1896–1953)

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Czech politician and president of Czechoslovakia from 1945 to 1953.

Klement Gottwald was a prominent Czech politician, general secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz) from 1929 to 1945 and its chairman from the inception of the post in 1945 until 1953, prime minister of Czechoslovakia from 1946 to 1948, and the country's president from 1948 until his death. Born into a poor rural family in 1896, Gottwald worked as a cabinetmaker and became active in left-wing politics as a youth. After serving in, and eventually deserting from, the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, he participated in the founding of the CPCz in 1921. For the following five years he was a party functionary in Slovakia, where he also edited several party publications. As a member of the CPCz's Central Committee (from 1925) and its Politburo (1926–1929) he became a staunch advocate of the bolshevization of the party. With the victory of the left wing of the party in 1929, Gottwald became CPCz general secretary. Also in 1929, Gottwald became a member of the National Assembly, Czechoslovakia's parliament, a position he relinquished upon becoming president.

Beginning in 1928, he served as a member of the executive of the Communist International and deepened his work with that organization in Moscow after fleeing a Czechoslovak arrest warrant in 1934. While in the Soviet Union, he contributed to the creation of the "Popular Front" strategy and as a result of his labors was named secretary of the International's executive and editor-in-chief of its monthly journal. Upon returning to Czechoslovakia in 1936, he continued his advocacy of the Popular Front strategy. When Czechoslovakia became the target of Nazi German pressure in the late 1930s, Gottwald led his party in attempts to cooperate with all political currents committed to the defense of the republic. These culminated in the CPCz's opposition to the Czechoslovak government's acceptance of the Munich Accords of September 1938.

Six weeks after Munich, Gottwald again fled Czechoslovakia for Moscow, where he spent the war years coordinating CPCz activities in the domestic resistance and leading discussions with the official Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London. One turning point in these discussions came in December of 1943, when President Edvard Beneš (1884–1948) came to Moscow to discuss the future of a reconstituted Czechoslovak Republic. The agreement that was reached outlined wide-ranging changes in the postwar political structure of the state (including the truncation of the political spectrum through the banning of collaborationist parties), in its economic organization (including the nationalization of several sectors of the economy), and in its ethnic composition (including the expulsion of Czechoslovakia's German and Hungarian minorities). These principles were then enshrined in the first postwar government program announced in April 1945.

The Czechoslovakia to which Gottwald returned was remarkably open to radical change, and while serving as deputy prime minister and CPCz chairman he saw his party's membership rise from twenty-eight thousand in May 1945 to over one million by March of 1946. This support, encouraged by Gottwald's proclamation of a moderate, parliamentary program summed up as a "Czechoslovak road to socialism," was reflected in the CPCz's victory in the general elections of May 1946. The party won 40 percent of the Czech vote, and the strong showing catapulted Gottwald to the post of prime minister. While in office, he continued the nationalizations and social changes begun by the interim government, and promulgated and launched Czechoslovakia's first economic plan. As international and domestic tensions mounted in 1947, however, Gottwald, in line with Soviet desires, moved away from the conciliatory line of the first postwar years. Sharpening political antagonisms culminated in the resignation of many non-communist cabinet ministers in February 1948. When Gottwald received President Beneš's blessing to form a government based on the CPCz, the Communist Party of Slovakia, and fellow-travelers from the other parties, the communists' takeover of Czechoslovakia was complete. When Beneš, citing ill health, resigned from the presidency in June 1948, Gottwald became the first communist president of Czechoslovakia.

As president, Gottwald bears the responsibility for the Stalinization of the economy; the beginnings of collectivization; and the purges of political life, the army, the bureaucracy, and social life that took place in the first years of communist rule, as well as for the extra- and pseudo-judicial punishments of enemies real and imagined. These reached their apex in the show trial of Rudolf Slánský (until recently beforehand general secretary of the CPCz and Gottwald's longtime right hand man) and thirteen codefendants in late 1952, in a proceeding with markedly anti-Semitic overtones. Gottwald died on 14 March 1953, nine days after Joseph Stalin, at whose funeral Gottwald caught a cold that turned into pneumonia.

See alsoBeneš, Eduard; Collectivization; Communism; Czechoslovakia; Popular Front; Slánský Trial.


Matějka, Jaroslav. Gottwald. Prague, 1971.

Suda, Zdenek. Zealots and Rebels: A History of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Stanford, Calif., 1980.

Bradley Abrams

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Gottwald, Klement (1896–1953)

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