Communists take power in Czechoslovakia
Under pressure from the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, President Eduard Benes allows a communist-dominated government to be organized. Although the Soviet Union did not physically intervene (as it would in 1968), Western observers decried the virtually bloodless communist coup as an example of Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe.
The political scene in Czechoslovakia following World War II was complex, to say the least. Eduard Benes was head of the London-based Czech government-in-exile during the war, and returned to his native land in 1945 to take control of a new national government following the Soviet withdrawal in July of that year. National elections in 1946 resulted in significant representation for leftist and communist parties in the new constituent assembly. Benes formed a coalition with these parties in his administration.
Although Czechoslovakia was not formally within the Soviet orbit, American officials were concerned with the Soviet communist influence in the nation. They were particularly upset when Benes’ government strongly opposed any plans for the political rehabilitation and possible rearmament of Germany (the U.S. was beginning to view a rearmed Germany as a good line of defense against Soviet incursions into western Europe). In response, the United States terminated a large loan to Czechoslovakia. Moderate and conservative parties in Czechoslovakia were outraged, and declared that the U.S. action was driving their nation into the clutches of the communists. Indeed, the communists made huge electoral gains in the nation, particularly as the national economy spiraled out of control.
When moderate elements in the Czech government raised the possibility of the nation’s participation in the U.S. Marshall Plan (a massive economic recovery program designed to help war torn European countries rebuild), the communists organized strikes and protests, and began clamping down on opposition parties. Benes tried desperately to hold his nation together, but by February 1948 the communists had forced the other coalition parties out of the government. On February 25, Benes gave in to communist demands and handed his cabinet over to the party. Rigged elections were held in May to validate the communist victory. Benes then resigned and his former foreign minister Jan Masaryk died under very suspicious circumstances. Czechoslovakia became a single-party state.
The response from the West was quick but hardly decisive. Both the United and Great Britain denounced the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia, but neither took any direct action. Perhaps having put too much faith in Czechoslovakia’s democratic traditions, or possibly fearful of a Soviet reaction, neither nation offered anything beyond verbal support to the Benes government. The Communist Party, with support and aid from the Soviet Union, dominated Czechoslovakian politics until the so-called “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 brought a non-communist government to power.