Communists Take Power in Czechoslovakia

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  • 0:02 Czechoslovakia During WWII
  • 0:57 Communist Seizure of Power
  • 4:20 Significance of the…
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. We will also explore what events led to this seizure of power, and we will place this event in the broader context of the Cold War.

Czechoslovakia During World War II

Before we take a look at the 1948 communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia, we need to go back to World War II in order to establish context. In the fall of 1938, Nazi Germany annexed the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia. A few months later, Germany invaded the remainder of the country.

These events forced Edvard Beneš, the president of Czechoslovakia, to resign from office and go into exile in London. While in exile, Beneš organized resistance and helped plot the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi official. He also worked tirelessly to get other countries to recognize him and his exiled government as the legal government of Czechoslovakia.

The Communist Seizure of Power

The history of Czechoslovakia after World War II is complex. This is true of many Eastern European states because there was so much political and ethnic tension in that region. Nevertheless, let's highlight some of the dynamics leading up to the 1948 communist seizure of power in that country.

When the war ended, Edvard Beneš returned to Czechoslovakia as president. Although he was not a communist, he was left-leaning in many respects, and his government tended to ally itself with the Soviet Union. Since the 1920s, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) had been a powerful force in national politics. In 1946, elections were held, and the KSC had a strong showing of support. This prompted Beneš to form a coalition government made up of communists and non-communists. He also invited communist leader Klement Gottwald to be prime minister.

The communists were opposed to the Marshall Plan, America's program to rehabilitate war-torn Europe along capitalist lines. After some moderate government members suggested Czechoslovakia participate in the program, the communists staged protests and began purging the opposition. Following Gottwald's appointment as prime minister, communists infiltrated various levels of government, particularly the police force.

When leaders of the National Police Force began illegally purging it of non-communists, 12 non-communist cabinet members resigned in protest. Their intention was that Beneš would refuse to accept their resignation and punish those responsible for the purges. To their surprise, however, Beneš accepted their resignations. See, popular support for the KSC ran high, and Beneš was also fearful of offending the Soviet Union. Essentially he caved in to pressure.

To complicate matters, Prime Minister Gottwald threatened a general strike unless Beneš formed a new pro-communist government. Beneš gave in, and on February 25, 1948, he convened the new KSC-sanctioned government. This relatively bloodless coup, if you will, is sometimes called Victorious February. To validate the communist seizure of power, elections were held in May 1948.

The communist government was upheld by overwhelming odds. The only problem is that the elections were rigged. Big surprise, right? On May 9, a new constitution was approved. Czechoslovakia was now a 'people's democracy' like much of the rest of Eastern Europe. Don't be fooled by the term 'people's democracy.' It was anything but a true democracy. Out-maneuvered time and again, Beneš resigned in June 1948. He died of natural causes a few months later.

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