Klement Gottwald (1896-1953) was one of the founders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. He masterminded the coup d'état by which the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948 and served as the country's first Communist president from June 1948 until his death in 1953.
Gottwald was born on November 23, 1896, the son of a small farmer in the village of Dedice in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the age of 12 he was sent to Vienna to become an apprentice to a woodworker. Four years later he joined the Social Democratic (Marxist) youth movement. When World War I broke out he was drafted into the imperial army. As an artilleryman he saw action on both the Russian and Italian fronts, was wounded, and rose to the rank of sergeant major. Before the war ended, however, he deserted (as did many Czechs) and organized sabotage activities against the Austro-Hungarian forces.
In the new state of Czechoslovakia after 1918 Gottwald was a member of the left wing of the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party, leaving with it to form the new Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1921. Thereafter, he gained prominence as a Communist speaker, writer, and general organizer. He became editor of the party's Czech (Pravda) and Slovak (Hlas ludu) publications, was elected to its executive committee in 1925, and in 1927, at the age of 31, was elected its secretary general. In 1935 he led a group of 30 elected Communist deputies to the Czechoslovak parliament, promising in his inaugural speech to "break the necks" of his bourgeois political opponents.
After Hitler came to power in Germany Gottwald was among those who warned of the fascist threat to Czechoslovakia and demanded that the country prepare a strong military defense against it. After the infamous Munich Pact of September 1938 had crippled Czechoslovakia, Gottwald, who had vehemently opposed compliance with it, was sent by his party to safety in the Soviet Union. He remained there throughout World War II, organizing underground resistance and making propaganda broadcasts to the Czech and Slovak lands. In 1943 Eduard Beneš, the Czechoslovak president-in-exile, came to Moscow, and Gottwald worked out with him a new compromise political-economic structure for the freed and reunited country after the war. This program was put into effect in April 1945 at Košice in Slovakia, the first Czechoslovak city to be liberated.
On his return home, Gottwald became a vice-premier in the National Front, a provisional government composed of a coalition of parties that administered Czechoslovakia in the immediately postwar period. In the spring of 1946 he was also elected chairman of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (his best friend, Rudolf Slánský, assumed the more workaday executive position of secretary general). In the national elections of June 1946 the Communists—drawing upon enormous popular goodwill for the liberating Soviet Army and much resentment of the perfidious behavior of the Western powers at Munich-received 38 percent of the votes cast, becoming the largest single party in the Czechoslovak parliament. On July 3, 1946, Gottwald became prime minister, heading a cabinet of Communist and non-Communist representatives. He was viewed at home and abroad as a "moderate" Communist who would respect the established Czechoslovak traditions of democracy and pluralism, and his early actions seemed reassuring. The new constitution guaranteed free elections; a free press; freedom of religion and assembly; the right to work and receive disability compensation, to education, and to recreation; equal rights for women; and an independent judiciary. Financial institutions, mines and other natural resources, and basic industries were to be socialized, but private property and private enterprises of moderate size were protected. There were some worrisome moments, to be sure. In 1947 Gottwald's government first accepted, then—at Soviet insistence— rejected an invitation to take part in deliberations on the U.S.'s Marshall Plan, asserting that Czechoslovakia's ties were totally and irrevocably with the Soviet Union. At the same time, a "millionaire's tax" on more affluent citizens was levied to help support the peasantry, which had suffered severe crop losses.
Covertly, Gottwald and his party were executing a detailed, progressive plan for a Communist seizure of power, aware that waning popular support for them meant a coming defeat at the polls. This plan was publicly exposed in February 1948 when the non-Communist ministers of the government charged the Communists with planning assassinations, dismissing non-Communist police chiefs, and other illegal actions. A majority of the cabinet resigned in an effort to topple Gottwald's government. In response, Gottwald mobilized his party and its followers in a show of force. "Action Committees" seized control of local governmental bodies, factories, schools, and large popular organizations. The army and police arrested alleged "conspirators." Factory workers paraded with arms through the streets and threatened a general strike. On February 25 President Beneš yielded to Gottwald's demand that he be permitted to form a new government of Communists and sympathizers. Three months later, in May, Beneš resigned, and Gottwald replaced him as president a few days later, in June. A new constitution of April 1948 sanctioned a one-party (Communist) dictatorship and completed the nationalization and collectivization process.
Gottwald was still seen by many as a leader who would avoid the excesses of other new Communist regimes. However, the "Soviet viceroy" promptly set about in dogmatic Marxist fashion to reshape the Czechoslovak "people's democracy" into a one-party workers' state, totally reoriented toward the Soviet Union (following the slogan "With the Soviet Union Forever"), Sovietized in its institutions, and heavily Russianized in its culture.
When the Soviet dictator Stalin ordered all of the new "satellites" to purge themselves of "national Communists" and "potential Titoists," Gottwald dutifully sent more than a dozen of his oldest Czech and Slovak Communist comrades (including Slánský) to death or life imprisonment. Although himself unwell, Gottwald attended Stalin's funeral in Moscow on March 9, 1953, occupying the most prominent place of all the satellite leaders on the tribune. While there he contracted pneumonia. On March 14, 1953, nine days after the death of Stalin, Gottwald himself was dead in Prague.
There is no biography of Klement Gottwald in English, but there are some good books on the historical background of his life and career. A History of the Czechoslovak Republic, 1918-1948, edited by Victor S. Mamatey and Radomír Luža (1973), provides a detailed account by many authors of Czech and Slovak history from the founding of Czechoslovakia to the Communist coup. There are also two authoritative treatments of the rise of Communism in Czechoslovakia from the foundation of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1921 to its triumph in 1948: Joseph Korbel, The Communist Subversion of Czechoslovakia, 1938-1948: The Failure of Coexistence (1959) and Paul E. Zinner, Communist Strategy and Tactics in Czechoslovakia, 1918-1948 (1963). □