Shaping Postwar Czechoslovakia

Article excerpt


Czechoslovakia was born in 1918 out of the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. The First Czechoslovak Republic - prosperous, democratic and tolerant - lasted just two decades. In 1938, British and French political leaders tried to appease German dictator Adolf Hitler and handed over a portion of Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich. This act of betrayal at Munich, where the peace conference took place, turned out to be a misguided and futile attempt to avoid war.

A few months later, in March 1939, Hitler occupied Prague and dismantled the country. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. The West did not respond with force. On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler's armies attacked Poland. This time, the British and the French decided to draw the line and declare war on Germany. World War II would last six years and end with the unconditional surrender of the Nazis and the military defeat of Imperial Japan. It took help from both the United States and the Soviet Union to accomplish victory in Europe. And it came at an enormous price of blood and treasure.

A free and democratic Czechoslovakia had a second chance. Or so it seemed. But it was not to be.

In his meticulously researched book On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague, historian Igor Lukes describes how a small group of Soviet-backed communists were able to seize power in Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Mr. Lukes notes that Czechoslovakia's postwar destiny was shaped by the fact that the United States permitted the Red Army to take Prague in May 1945. That decision was not born out of military necessity because Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army was within striking distance of the Czech capital and easily could have marched ahead of the Russians. Many saw it as a gesture to encourage Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to permit a free and democratic Czechoslovakia.

Both the U.S. and Soviet military occupations ended in December 1945 with an agreement of mutual troop withdrawal.

But the Soviets, through their communist allies, had other ideas. They seized important ministries such as the police and the army, making a coup possible.

The greatest share of responsibility for the loss of Czechoslovakia's democratic identity rests with the Czechs, Mr. Lukes concludes. The nation tolerated and accepted in its midst the aggressive minority that had embraced Communism.

Mr. Lukes writes that an ailing Czechoslovak President Edward Benes, who spent the war in London; Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk; and other politicians bear a large share of this responsibility as well. Masaryk died under mysterious circumstances during the communist takeover and likely was murdered by the communists.

They had underestimated the viciousness of their totalitarian opponents, treating them as legitimate partners in a shared patriotic enterprise, he writes. …