Why are communists despised in the West?

Czech Republic

In post-war Czechoslovakia, the consolidation of power by the communists took place relatively late, in February 1948. The transformation to dictatorship took place - as the English historian Josef Rothschild put it - in a relatively "smooth transition".

August 21, 1986, anniversary of the Prague invasion: Soviet tanks violently ended the "Prague Spring" in 1968. (& copy AP)

introduction

In Eastern Europe, after 1945, the communist parties, under the direction of the Soviet Union, pursued a uniform strategy for the implementation of socialism by initially entering into alliances with parties from the non-communist spectrum. Another important factor in communist politics was the security needs of the Soviet Union. After the catastrophic consequences of the Second World War for the economy and the lives of its own citizens, it wanted to protect itself from feared military aggression by the West by means of a safety belt from friendly states.

Regardless of these common guidelines, there were particularities in the situation and procedure in every country in the Soviet sphere of influence. In post-war Czechoslovakia, the consolidation of power by the communists took place relatively late, in February 1948. According to the formulation of the English historian Josef Rothschild, the transformation to dictatorship took place in a relatively "smooth transition".


Phase of transition

The special situation of Czechoslovakia can be characterized in two ways: On the one hand, in contrast to other states, the country had a political elite from the prewar period at its disposal, which had not lost its reputation with the population during the war and of its own accord to cooperate with the Soviet Union was ready.

The government-in-exile under Benes, under the trauma of the Munich Agreement, which had been understood as the betrayal of the former ally France, turned to the Soviet Union as an international guarantor. This was facilitated by the fact that the center-left parties of the government-in-exile were widespread socialist orientations, which at the time also found their counterpart in Western Europe, for example in the nationalization of key industries in France and the establishment of a free national health service in Great Britain or in the Ahlen economic program of the CDU in the British zone.

Benes even pursued his own global political concept: He was of the opinion that the societies of the West were moving in the direction of welfare socialism, while the Soviet Union was on the way from a dictatorship to a social democracy and interpreted this as a process of rapprochement between the two systems. A democratic and socialist Czechoslovakia should serve as a bridge.

From this point of view, the period after 1945 was more than just a "sliding communist takeover of power"; it was rather based on commonalities of all parties in the National Front. In addition to the intentions of the political elite, the interests of the urban and rural lower classes also played a role. They benefited from an extensive top-down process of redistribution, and the Communists knew how to present themselves as the main defenders of this redistribution. They were more firmly rooted in society than the communists in neighboring Poland and Hungary.


Communist takeover

Up until the middle of 1947 the development was relatively orderly. Then, under the pressure of international and national events, there was a political crisis and confrontation between the former allies. Internationally, the split between the Soviet Union and the Western powers came to an end during this period. In doing so, the Soviet Union increased its pressure on its own allies to submit to camp discipline. For example, Stalin prevented Czechoslovakia from seeking assistance from the Marshall Plan.

Internal conflicts arose: in 1947 the dispute over the execution of the death penalty against the former president of the satellite state Slovakia, Jozef Tiso, led to growing tensions between Czechs and Slovaks. In addition, the communists, who were blamed by public opinion for supply difficulties after a bad harvest in the same year, came under fire and launched populist campaigns to introduce a "millionaires tax", radicalize land reform and complete nationalization in industry.

In the run-up to the adoption of a constitution and the parliamentary elections in spring 1948, the dissonances between communists, social democrats and bourgeois parties intensified. The Communist Party campaigned for a unified list to be drawn up. At the end of November 1947, the Social Democrats voted out of their left leadership, which worked closely with the Communists, and thus endangered the Communist majority in the coalition government.

The immediate reason for the seizure of power was the resignation of a majority of bourgeois ministers and a Social Democrat (twelve of 26 government members), requested on February 20, 1948. With their resignation they wanted to protest against the discrimination against non-communist officials in the police. With this action they combined the hope of being able to achieve a fundamental improvement in the political situation, while they expected the president to reject their resignation.

After an initial surprise, the communist leadership reacted decisively and used the means of power it had acquired up to then: it mobilized the trade unions and other mass organizations. Demonstrations against the "bourgeois ministers" took place on February 20 and 23, and on February 24 large parts of the industrial workers took part in a one-hour warning strike. Since only a minority of the ministers had announced their resignation, but not all the social democratic members of the government, as the initiators had hoped, they could remain in office. The president bowed to political pressure and accepted the resignation of the twelve ministers.

This clearly shifted the balance of power in favor of the communists. Only politicians from other parties who had shown themselves to be loyal to the communists were accepted into the new government. The National Assembly was disciplined through the intimidation and arrest of reluctant MPs. It not only confirmed the communist-dominated government, but also a draft constitution introduced by the communists that followed the Soviet constitution of 1936.

On May 30, the elections demanded by the communists were conducted according to a single list, which secured them 211 out of 300 seats. The formal communist preponderance was later reinforced by the forced entry of the Social Democrats into the party. After the president had confirmed all the steps taken by the new rulers since February with his signature, however, he refused to accept the new constitution and resigned.

After February 1948 the non-communist parties became insignificant, the nationalization of industry and trade was completed quickly, the collectivization of agriculture was promoted, the administration and the army were "purged" of bourgeois forces, and a struggle against the Catholic Church began. During this period, both the reprisals against the opponents of the communists and the clashes in the own party intensified, which culminated in a show trial against the former general secretary of the party Rudolf Slansky and 13 other leading communists in November 1952. After February 1948, one of the freest countries in Eastern Europe had become a rigid dictatorship within a few years.

In the mid-1950s, almost 100 percent of the commercial sector in Czechoslovakia was regulated by the state, almost four-fifths of foreign trade was conducted with the socialist states, cultural relations with the West were largely severed, and people viewed as opponents of the regime were locked up in prisons and labor camps.

In 1954 a number of Slovak communists, among them the later party leader Gustáv Husák (he was first secretary of the Communist Party between 1970 and 1987), were sentenced to long prison terms for "Titoism and Slovak separatism". The term "Titoism" refers to the Yugoslav head of state Josip Broz Tito (1953–1980), who was described as a traitor in 1947 after a conflict with Stalin. Since then there has been a search for "Titoists" all over the Eastern Bloc. It was not until 1956 that there was reconciliation between Tito and Stalin's successor, Nikita S. Khrushchev (party leader 1953–1964).

The property of the Catholic Church was in the hands of the state, the monasteries were closed and most of the bishops, including the Archbishop of Prague, were under house arrest.

Ten years later, on the other hand, Czechoslovakia was at the forefront of the reform movement in Eastern Europe. What are the causes of this amazing change?