THE city of Prague in that month of January 1948, before the coup, presented a deceptively pleasant, cosmopolitan picture. The big downtown newsstands were stuffed with newspapers and magazines from England, France and Switzerland as well as from the east European countries that had gone Communist, and from Russia. The windows of the bookshops were piled high, especially with English and American literature, but also with a fair sprinkling of editions of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. There were plenty of American movies, and the theaters showed a special interest in American plays, although Soviet productions were not entirely neglected. Playful Americans and other Western foreigners on vacation seemed to be everywhere, in the hotels, restaurants and night clubs. There were no Communist counterparts, for Communist countries do not very often allow their citizens to play in foreign places. On the whole, after a casual glance at Prague, one might have said that "coexistence" was working well in Czechoslovakia.
Behind the scenes, however, the Communists were watching for their chance to change radically the picture presented by Prague. The chance fell into their laps, like a gift from the Communist heaven, in the form of a government crisis over Communist subversion of the police force.
The build-up for the crisis began in November and December when National Socialist spokesmen in parliament leveled a series of accusations at the Communists. They accused the Communist Ministry of the Interior of padding the rolls of the police force to the extent of 1500 men in Slovakia alone, of labeling non-Communist policemen as "unreliable" in police records, of secretly censoring the mail and of employing plain-clothes snoopers who reported on conversations in streetcars and trains and cafés. In January the word got around that the Czech secret police, the STB, had established direct liaison with the secret police of the Soviet Union. The old democratic conception of an impartial state security system was