General Articles


In Prague, the Communists showed how to seize a country, grab its wealth and crush its liberties in five days — without a shot

HOWARD K. SMITH April 15 1948
General Articles


In Prague, the Communists showed how to seize a country, grab its wealth and crush its liberties in five days — without a shot

HOWARD K. SMITH April 15 1948


General Articles

In Prague, the Communists showed how to seize a country, grab its wealth and crush its liberties in five days — without a shot


LONDON — (By Cable) — The coup in Czechoslovakia technically was the most nearly perfect yet of the Communists’ postwar “revolutions.”

It took Tito three years of bloodshed and civil war with Mikhailovitch to establish Communism in Yugoslavia. Georgi Dimitrov in Bulgaria and Matyas Rakosi in Hungary have taken fully two years to wear down their opposition by long and attrition to assume complete control.

Klement Gottwald, the Communist boss of Czechoslovakia, overtook them in five days with virtually no violence except the grazing of a single recalcitrant student’s leg by an accidentally fired

police bullet. The student walked from the hospital the morning after.

Otherwise, in five days on the streets of Prague, I saw not a blow struck, heard not a word shouted in anger.

As a matter of fact, Gottwald’s coup didn’t even take five days. Everything decisive happened in six hours on the evening of the fourth day. All that went before was mere preparation. All that followed, including President Benes’ assent to the neo-Communist Cabinet, was anticlimax. Gottwald’s organization moved like an expert batter —alert, calm and relaxed while getting into position, then with perfect timing tautening his muscles only for a split second when he drives the bat against the ball with all the stored-up strength he possesses.

And when it was over, Czechoslovakia was Red.

What was the background for this model revolution?

One factor was the Communist desire to strike now for power before what they call the “revolutionary opportunity” shall have passed. The Europe-wide pro-Communist tide of the postwar period, born of admiration for Russia’s war effort and disgust with conservatism which had generally collaborated with the Nazis, has reached its |>eak and begun to ebb. Europe’s right wing, which was demoralized and scattered by liberation, is now recoagulating around new leaders like Gen. de Gaulle in France and again becoming an articulate opposition to the left. Europe’s broad middle classes are turning against the left for fear the Communists may repeat in the West the repression they have begun in the East. The United States, with the Marshall plan, is offering an attractive alternative to extreme leftism.

Almost all the early winter elections in the European lands that still vote freely showed a declining Communist vote. In France and Italy the Communists lost their partial hold on the administration last summer. In Continued on page 67

Continued on page 67

Conquest Without Blood

Continued from page 7

France their control of the labor unions was weakened by the split in labor that followed this winter’s general strike.

If the coming season brings a good harvest—-and present signs are that it will—and the Marshall plan commences Europe’s recovery, the Communist pro-Russian stock with the voters is likely to fall fast. The democratic pro-American stock will likely rise in its place.

Knowing that it may be a long time before circumstances raise their strength to what it is now, the Communists are striking now for power while their strength is near its postwar peak.

This general European pattern worked this way in Czechoslovakia: the all-party coalition had been going sour ever since the Government turned

down Marshall-Plan aid last summer at Russia’s behest. The economic situation had deteriorated—mainly due to the summer drought which singed Czechoslovakia worse than any other European country. Conservative leaders had been longing to renege and ack for Marshall aid which the country could certainly use. Hubert Ripka, who was Minister of Foreign Trade in the Cabinet before the resignations which started the Czech crisis, had said flatly in a public speech that Czechoslovakia couldn’t live without stronger economic ties with the West.

What had alienated non-Communist parties from the Communists in the coalition even more was the systematic liquidation of their kind in neighboring East European countries. In each case the process began with the Communists winning control of the National police force. In Czechoslovakia, Communists headed the Ministry of the Interior, which ran the police, and were well into

that first stage. It was in protest against the Communists firing eight non-Communist police officials and replacing them with Communists that three Conservative parties resigned from the Cabinet in mid-February, precipitating the crisis.

The conservatives’ aim was to force dissolution of the Government, which would enable President Benes to call new (¡lections. Their expectation was that public opinion at the polls would check expansion of Communist control before it was too late.

The Communists were on the record as opposing early elections. In their new anti-Communist mood, the conservatives, who with the Social Democrats constituted a majority of the non-Communist parties, might following election have formed a coalition, leaving the Communists out, as happened in France. Such a coalition would very likely then have asked for Marshall aid. A long Red decline would have begun, as in France. A Czechoslovakia receiving American aid would not be a very fervent or dependable ally of Russia in any conflict between East and West. So the Communists decided to strike for complete power. Instead of dissolving the Cabinet and allowing elections, they took advantage of the situation to pack the vacated Cabinet seats with undoubted servants.

It’s a Left-wing Country

Gottwald’s operation was made easier for him by the inexplicable absence of realism and preparation on the part of his antagonists. That they should abandon what controls (hey had on government without first conferring with President Benes to make sure he would pronounce the Cabinet dissolved was unforgivable. In effect, this act merely handed all controls to the Communists. The three conservative parties likewise seem not to have conferred fully among themselves. When the decisive moment came, they apparently had no contact with one another. Likewise, they didn’t forewarn their rank and file of their plans, but left them confused and ready to disintegrate when Gottwald struck.

'The Communist Prime Minister also benefited from a peculiarity of the Czech social framework. There is no truly right wing in Czech politics. The parties I have referred to as conservative are in fact well to the left of the British Labor Government. They bad ¡«11 worked feverishly in the past two years to nationalize more than 60% of Czech industry. There is no core of small or large owners of capital in Czechoslovakia around whom a strong right wing could form. They have all been liquidated in wars. Most Czech capitalists were Austrians who were deprived of ownership after the First World War. The next biggest category of Czech capitalists were the German owners of Sudetenland industry who were eliminated after the Second World War. Most of the native Czech owning class had collaborated with the Nazis so they too have been dispossessed. The political coloration of the vast majority of the Czech people is pretty far left, though not Communist. When forced to make a decision, the Czechs are more disposed to resign themselves to Communism than to fight against it.

Even with these advantages granted, Gottwald’s operation was smooth.

First he discovered a “plot” of his antagonists to overthrow the Government by force and tie it to the “western imperialists.” That the opposition was involved in such a plot is ridiculous. Their complete absence of plans and their disintegration on the fourth day is sufficient evidence that they hadn’t thought beyond their dreams of dissolu-

tion of the Cabinet and new elections. However, there was enough probability in the report of a plot to make most Czechs doubtful. Though no Czech leader would think of breaking the alliance with Russia, it was widely known that the conservative leaders aimed for a non-Communist Cabinet and Marshall aid. Those facts left in the minds of many people a very faint “maybe.”

Also, it was possible that if there wasn’t a plot in the Czech half of the country, there may well have been one in the Slovak part. Unlike Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia does possess a right wing. Its society is not urban and industrialized but peasant and landowning. The Roman Catholic Church is strong and the peasants are frankly frightened at the extent of the Government’s nationalization program. The Slovaks, brought up under Hungary, belong to the backward Balkan romantics, in contrast to the Czechs, who were reared under more proj gressive Austria in the old empire. There have been authenticated “plots” j by resentful Slovaks against leftist j Czech rule since the war and people | thought it possible there might now be another one as the Communists ! insisted.

In any case, Gottwald’s second move j was to make sure that whether the people believed in a plot or not, they would get no other version but that of the Communists. The Communists took complete control of information —not by force but by use of their monopoly control of Czech labor unions. One by one, the opposition papers ceased to appear. Either ComI munist paper-mill workers refused to j deliver them newsprint or Communist typesetters refused to set their type.

If for some reason neither of these stratagems worked, Communist transport workers refused to distribute the papers.

Establishing the plot, by one means or another, gave the Communists their excuse for the third move: they called police and troops into the cities to guard key buildings and services. The police could guard the essential institutions for him but they couldn’t operate them, so Gottwald’s fourth preparatory move was to call on Communist cores in every industry and service in the land to form “action committees”—a euphemism for soviets. They were to stand ready for undefined duties.

With the stage rapidly set in three days, on the fourth day Gottwald announced he would present his new cabinet list to President Benes for acceptance or refusal on the following morning. On Tuesday evening the whole massive Communist machine was set moving in order to make sure that Benes would decide right.

The Bloodless Blitz

The action committees were ordered to take over the administration of every industry in the country with more than 50 employees. These were to become j the property of the state and commitj tees were to “prevent plotters from sabotaging them.” This put 90% of the Czech economy in the Communists’ hands.

By decree, every town, city and village government in Czechoslovakia was relieved of authority. Local action committees were ordered to take over.

On the streets of the cities, the Communists staged a staggering blitz demonstration of their power. Around Prague every factory was shut. Nearly a million shabby workers, fresh fiom their work benches, poured into the centre of town to demonstrate. Forty I and fifty abreast, they streamed into ¡

Wenceslas Square as if a floodgate had been opened—waving hammer and sickle flags, chanting slogans like “Long Live Red Freedom,” “Stalin and Gottwald.”

Their ranks parted now and then only to let truckloads of soldiers pass through. Some soldiers were unloaded to patrol the sidewalks but most ot them seemed just to come from nowhere headed for nowhere.

Late at night, as the demonstrators thinned out, Prague got its biggest surprise. The Workers’ Militia, which no one knew had existed, appeared. Workers, marching four abreast in military formation, shouldering brandnew rifles and wearing civilian clothes with only red arm bands as a token of a uniform, entered the centre of the city. They must have numbered more than 10,000. It took them three hours to pass Communist headquarters where I watched them receiving the salute of the Communist Party’s General Secretary, Rudolf Slansky, who stood on a balcony.

“Like Slender Reeds”

The purpose of this vast impressive pageant, packed into the six hours before midnight, was to intimidate. With cordons of police around every essential building; clusters of troops with tommy guns on every street corner in the centre of town, an endless moving snake of workers’ militia as far down the streets as you could see, with the streets rimmed by shouting demonstrators and with no other version ot the confusing events available but that contained in extra editions of the Communist papers—it had its effect.

The oppositionists collapsed like slender, divided reeds, all within a few hours of the fourth day’s demonstrations. I learned on good authority that 15 parliamentarians of each of the two leading non-Communist parties and 10 of the third (Slovak Democrats) hastened to the Communists to disavow their leaders and pronounce themselves for collaboration with the new Cabinet. That disaffection among opposition deputies is perhaps an index of what happened to the rank and file of the opposition. Merely to make sure of their jobs, I’m told, they submitted themselves in droves to the Communist-controlled action committees of their offices and workshops. The most difficult of the night’s collapses to explain—and the most dramatic—was thftt of the Social Democrats. Of all the Czech parties, the Communists hâve feared the Socialists most—first because they are, like the Communists, a workers’ party whose mistreatment nfight hurt the Communist following and second, because they held the balance of power in the Czech Parliament—just enough seats which, if allied to the Communists, would give them a majority.

Like most Czechs, the Socialists have been moving slightly to the right lately. Last autumn they ousted their ardently pro-Communist leader, Zdenek Fierlinger, and replaced him by a right-ofcentre leader, Bohumil Lauschman. The issue of the party election was the relation of the Socialist Party to the Communists. Fierlinger wanted all-out co-operation with the Reds; Lauschman was against.

I happened to be standing outside Socialist headquarters when the surprise came. Around 200 workers with red arm bands poured into the building and locked its doors. Later 40 or 50 more came and formed a cordon around the building. I asked one workman what was up. He said he was a “Fierlinger Social Democrat” and that the left wing of the party was revolting and taking over.

An hour later Fierlinger issued a statement disavowing right - wing leadership and demanding co-operation with the Communists. It was countersigned by 15 other leading Social Democrats—some of them followers of Lauschman who was now locked up in his office in the headquarters.

Three hours later the cordon around the building suddenly lifted. The workers left and joined the demonstrations in the streets. From his office right-winger Lauschman then issued a statement that he favored Fierlinger and co-operation with the new Communist Cabinet. He had disassociated himself from himself! What peculiar form of persuasion was used to make a principled and respected statesman suddenly alter his considered policy is a mystery. He is now Deputy Prime Minister in Communist Gottwald’s Cabinet.

Next morning—the fifth and last day of the coup—the issue was decided. Gottwald took his Cabinet list up to Hradcany Palace to President Benes. Benes accepted it with the cryptic words: “I have considered the crisis a long time and seriously. I have seen that any other solution would deepen the crisis and lead to a sharp division of the nation and eventually this could lead to chaos. You want to conduct state affairs in a new way. You want a new form of democracy. My wishes are addressed to you and the nation that this new way may be favorable for all.”

At this writing there has been no more precise indication of what went on in Benes’ mind—whether he approved or disapproved of the Communist revolution he thus sealed. More than the collapse of the Social Democrats, Benes’ attitude is the foremost unsolved mystery of the putsch. If he approved, it would seem he would have made the speech to the people he had scheduled for that same night rather than have canceled it and maintained silence. If he disapproved, now that there was no danger of bloodshed with all power in the Communists’ hands, he could have resigned. He hasn’t done so up to the moment this was written, but continues as leader of a Communist land.

Rumors were rife in Prague that day that he had acted under duress and was a prisoner in his castle. I applied the direct approach and went up to see. In all the passages and checkerboard of courtyards of the palace I found only the normal complement of police. I entered the door of his palace and a civilian porter showed me to his apartments where I chatted freely with his private secretary, who assured me Benes was a free agent.

The Masaryk Tragedy

Probably he acted from no clean-cut single motive—there seldom is one in difficult decisions. Probably two motives were outstanding. The powerful Communist display of might must have cowed him. If he refused to accept the Gottwald Cabinet, the students and some others might take it as a signal of his approval of revolt. This mighty Communist force would have crushed them in blood. Second, he must have been as puzzled as the rest of the world by the collapse of the opposition even before the new cabinet list was presented to him. Especially, the most unexpected collapse of the Socialist opposition must have made him wonder if perhaps there wasn’t a strong popular basis for the Communist move and that he would be opposing not a party but his people if he rejected the new cabinet.

This impression must have been

strengthened by the surprising attitude of his close friend, the Foreign Minister and son of the founder of Czechoslovakia—the late Jan Masaryk. Masaryk had always been considered a man of the West and a non-Communist. Yet he led his Foreign Office staff in a one-hour general strike which the Communists ordered early in the crisis to show their strength and later he fervently blessed Gottwald’s Government in which he remained as Foreign Minister.

When I saw Benes* private secretary I asked if the President was seeing anybody during the crisis other than Premier Gottwald. The secretary replied yes, Masaryk.

Masaryk’« subsequent suicide further beclouds both his own motives and Bones’.

If the attitude of “reasonable doubt” about the falsity of the Communist case was what prompted Benes, he was the embodiment of his people. Most Czechs want good relations with the West, hut if it means breaking their alliance with Russia they would prefer the Russian alliance and a breach of relations with the West. Munich is still the deepest scar on the Czech consciousness. The Communists forced the issue on them in precisely that way. Most Czechs don’t want to be Communists, but if forced to choose between the Communists and “reaction” they will resign themselves to Communism. Again the Communists put the issue just that way.

They Took It Calmly

On the streets of Prague throughout the crisis it was as hard to find a clear-cut expression on people’s faces as it is to find a clear-cut motive for Renes’ behavior. Outside of the active demonstrators and even among them sometimes there was no particular joviality. The ordinary people who lined the sidewalks neither wept nor gnashed their teeth —both of which they did copiously when the Nazis marched in in 1939. There was neither joy nor anger but a sort of expressionless expression of resignation—of “reasonable doubt” that the Communist line was w'rong. It was this prevailing attitude that made the coup a nice, polite, clean revolution. Outside of the brief fray between police and students there was absolutely no violence.

Nowhere were the walls scrawled with the frantic political slogans and symbols which are ubiquitous in France, Italy and other European countries where this winter has seen similar political turmoil. The demonstrations on the streets were massive, but the demonstrators very polite and orderly. In Italy I had heard similar mobs shouting, “Death to DeGasperi!” In France, “Schumann to the Gallows!”

The nearest thing to a threat ot violence to the opposition I heard in Prague was “Down with Zenki!” (the leader of Benes’ former party, the National Socialists).

The main villain of the piece was “Imperialist America.” But both on the streets and in the shops the Czechs were almost overbearingly cordial to me when they heard me speak English. American Gl’s in uniform on army tours window-shopped in the streets at the height of the crisis and nobody paid any attention to the “minions of imperialism.” A candy shop near my hotel continued throughout to display in its windows all the flags of the wartime allies—the Czech flag flanked by those of the United States and Britain. In kiosks all the same day’s editions of the London papers were on sale condemning the Czech coup in headlines. Time Magazine, displaying an

antipathetic cover portrait of Karl Marx, was side by side with the latest extra of Rude Pravo, the Czech Communist paper. With the factories closed, goodly crowds stood in a queue to see an American movie called “Heaven Can Wait.”

On the sixtli day—after Benes had legalized the new Government— all visible signs of the crisis had disappeared as abruptly as the drop of a curtain by an unseen stage director. People casually promenaded the streets as though nothing had happened. Going to bed with my head swimming with impressions of force and my ears still filled with the din of shouted slogans and martial music from loudspeakers—then waking up in a completely calm, normal Central European city left me with an eerie impression. Walking the streets that morning you felt you had dreamt all that had happened or, like Rip Van Winkle, had slept 20 years and the revolution belonged to a generation before. It becomes easy to believe the popular leftist idea that Czech Communists are different from and more humane than other brands of Communists—just as their putsch was more peaceful and more humane.

However, that was an illusion, too. All that had happened was that the spectacular, exciting part of the revolution was over. The ugly, quiet part was only beginning. The putsch had moved off the streets to behind closed doors.

After walking the streets for hours looking for some sign of the previous day’s excitement, I went to the Prague radio station to do my regular early news broadcast. The great lobby of the building, which was usually milling with people, was empty but for a single porter. I asked for my Czech engineer. He said, “You’ll have to wait a little while. The whole staff is locked in the auditorium with the action committee. Heads are going to roll.”

The purge was on. That same morning in every institution and factory in all Czechoslovakia similar sessions were in progress.

I waited half an hour. Suddenly the auditorium doors opened and people flooded out. Some looked relieved. Others looked pale with fright. I was told later that as the radio had been combed through once before only two announcers were fired as a result of that session.

That afternoon it was announced that 25 members of the University faculty had been fired and 12 student leaders expelled. Later, police raided the university dormitories and arrested 40 more students. One in every 11 Czech journalists was fired. One American news outfit was besieged that night with applications for jobs from Czech editors who had been thrown out of their jobs.

Enter the New Order

Czech Communism wasn’t after all much different from other brands. Beneath the placid surface, fear and insecurity—weapons more formidable for mass intimidation than arms—were being used to consolidate Communist control.

When I left Prague on the seventh day, even the superficial signs of life were being affected. London papers offensive to the new Government had disappeared from news kiosks as had Time and its derogatory portrait of Marx. An order was out to close down American movies. The Prague radio announced that Americans might no longer use its facilities for broadcasting. Prague had begun to assume the uniform aspect of other East European capitals.

Back in the outside world I have been almost as astonished by Western reaction to the events in Prague as I was by the events themselves. Here in London, level-headed British parliamentarians and periodicals have been outdoing the Americans they so often criticize for talking too much about war. The left-wing Labor weekly, the Tribune, called the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia an act of war by Stalin. In the House of Commons the Air Minister was questioned by an M.P. on the Royal Air Force’s ability to bomb the Russian oil harbor of Baku. Another member called for resumption of the wartime practice of secret sessions of Parliament.

Does It Mean Conflict?

Frankly, talk like this is hysterical. Events in Czechoslovakia are ugly enough without their meaning having to be exaggerated. The changes in Prague in no way change the world strategic situation from what it was before. Though we certainly shouldn’t leave our powder out in the rain, the Communist coup wasn’t a sign of imminent aggression. It bears all the

signs of being one more clumsy act of ! defense against the impending fall of j Communist influence in Europe and ; realization of the Marshall Plan. At ! the moment it seems to he even bringing one blessing with it. The furious activity in Washington and Europe indicates it has at last built a fire under the dawdling Marshall Planners and Western Unionizers.

Though it is always wise to tighten and improve Western defenses, it would he wrong to think the immediate cold war is going to be decided by arms. The Russians still don’t want war. Their faith that capitalism will collapse of its own “internal contradictions” — of course, with a healthy push by local Reds—seems from all available evidence to be genuine. The cold war’s outcome will be decided on the economic and social front. Events in Czechoslovakia do not alter the truth that the best way to defeat Communism is to restore a healthy, prosperous Western Europe by means of the Marshall Plan and European cooperation. It was probably fear of just that which induced the Czech Communists to pull their putsch when they did. ★