The Czechoslovakia Coup
Many important issues were discussed amongst the Allied leaders during the wartime conferences of World War II. Unfortunately, many of the agreements made at these historic conferences were broken in the postwar years. The events that led up to the Czechoslovakian coup of 1948 exemplifies this sad fact perfectly.
Eastern Europe became an issue for the Allied leaders to discuss when the Soviet army began to occupy this area in 1944. Many proposals of how these states would be administered were considered. One plan was Winston Churchill’s, which called for the region to be divided into spheres of influence similar to how Germany was divided. Churchill was also a proponent of the plan to allow the governments-in-exile of these nations (that were operating in London at the time) to return to power in their homeland once the war was over.
Josef Stalin opposed both these plans, as he had Czech and Polish nationals in Moscow who were being trained to lead their respective nations when the war was over. They would lead a communist government and be backed by the army, which would already be present in these states. Stalin also told the Allied leaders that it would be in the national interest of the Soviet Union to have a heavy presence in the region so Eastern Europe could serve as a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and what they perceived as European aggression.
Realizing that Stalin was voicing a legitimate concern (Russia, after all, had been invaded from the west several times throughout history), the other Allied leaders allowed the Baltic states and part of Poland to come under the Soviets’ influence. Stalin, for his part, promised free elections in Poland, and it was inferred in the other Baltic states as well, at the Yalta conference in 1945.
But history was to show that the Baltic states would enjoy no such freedom. A communist government was installed in Romania, the Polish elections were cancelled, the elected prime minister of Bulgaria was forced out of the position (and the country) and the leading activist against communism in Bulgaria was arrested and executed. Bulgaria became a People’s Republic in July of 1947, and Rumania in December of 1947.
The case of Czechoslovakia demonstrates most clearly how the Soviets went against Stalin’s wartime promise and imposed communism on an unwilling nation. Since the war, Czechoslovakia had worked to achieve a non-aligned policy that best served its national interests. When it came to foreign affairs the Czechs tended to ally themselves with the powerful (and geographically close) Soviet Union, but domestically the Czech government was restoring the democracy that had existed there in the time between the two world wars. To hasten their economic recovery after World War II, the Czech government was in favor of accepting aid offered in the Marshall Plan.
But the Soviets did not intend to allow any state within their sphere of influence to become a democracy; this threatened the security offered by the buffer zone that the Soviets had created.
Stalin first told the Czech leaders that they were not to accept the aid from the Marshall Plan, and then formed the Cominform to combat the Marshall Plan and the “American imperialism” that it represented. Czechoslovakia was an unwilling participant in this organization, and as a result did not receive aid for recovery. It suffered the same fate as the other nations in Eastern Europe that Stalin had denied the right to participate in the Marshall Plan; its economy deteriorated while those of the western European states began to recover.
But economic stagnation was not all that was in store for the Czechs. As a reaction to the Greek communists’ attempted ouster of the government and the increasing presence of the Soviets in Turkey, U.S. President Harry Truman announced the Truman Doctrine. The Doctrine stated that the U.S. would “provide economic and military support to Greece and Turkey and to any other country threatened by communism.”
Stalin rose to this challenge of his authority in Eastern Europe. Supported by the Soviet Army and Soviet influence, both of which were already strong in Czechoslovakia, the communists carried out a coup in Prague in February of 1948. Though bloodless, the coup was nonetheless nasty. Leading politicians who advocated democracy were arrested and imprisoned, and the communists infiltrated the government. Shortly after the coup the Czech president, Edvard Benes, was ousted from power and replaced by the leader of the Czech communist party, Klement Gottwald. The last independent government in Eastern Europe had become communist.
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