The State against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe

By Grzegorz Ekiert | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The Party-State and Society during the
Prague Spring

ESTABLISHED as an independent state by the Paris Peace Conference in 1918, Czechoslovakia before the Second World War was the most industrialized and prosperous country of East Central Europe. It was also the most democratic, with a relatively well functioning and stable parliamentary system. Additionally, Czechoslovakia was the only country in the region that between the wars had a legal and established communist party, which controlled most of country's trade unions. In spite of the Communist party's opposition to the First Republic and its full subordination to Moscow, it operated with little restriction and was able to achieve considerable electoral support in the industrial centers of Bohemia. 1 The agreement in Munich in September 1938, in which the Western powers bowed to Hitler's territorial claims vis-à-vis Czechoslovakia, destroyed country's independence and freedom and led to its full-scale annexation by the Third Reich six months later. Bohemia and Moravia together were established as a German protectorate, and Slovakia, where the Germans easily exploited anti-Czech nationalist sentiments, was converted into a fascist puppet state. While Czechoslovakia was not spared the horrors and devastations of the war, it suffered less in human and material terms than its neighbors.

Liberated by the Red Army at the end of the war, Czechoslovakia was destined to fall prey to Soviet geopolitical ambitions and to become another victim of the shift in the international balance of power on the continent. But as Joseph Rothschild observes, “For more than two years after the end of World War II the Czechoslovak Communists refrained from any extravagant flexing of their political muscles.” 2 At the end of the war, the Czech government-in-exile headed by Eduard Benes was able to return to the country, although on Soviet insistence a sizable representation of communists was co-opted. While the government included representatives of major political parties (Communists, Social Democrats, National Socialists, Czechoslovak Populists, and all members of the Slovak National Council), the Communists slowly moved into key positions within the state structure in preparation to assume exclusive control over the country. The government implemented wide-ranging economic reforms including nationalization of industry and banking and land reform. In October 1945 President Benes signed a decree that nationalized all enterprises employing more than five hundred workers, and in some sectors of the economy, like mining, steel, and the power industry, all enterprises were nationalized. Thus, immedi-

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