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The Republic of Czechoslovakia (Czech and Slovak: Československá republika) is a federal democratic and parlimentary republic located in Central Europe.
In February 1948, when the Communists took power in a coup d'état, Czechoslovakia was declared a "people's democracy" after the Communist Constitution of 1948 (Ninth-of-May Constitution) became effective – a preliminary step toward socialism and, ultimately, communism. Bureaucratic centralism under the direction of KSČ leadership was introduced. Dissident elements were purged from all levels of society, including the Roman Catholic Church. The ideological principles of Marxism-Leninism and socialist realism pervaded cultural and intellectual life. The economy was committed to comprehensive central planning and abolition of private ownership of capital. Czechoslovakia became a satellite state of the Soviet Union; it was a founding member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1949 and of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The attainment of Soviet-style command socialism became the government's avowed policy. Slovak autonomy was constrained; the KSS (Communist Party of Slovakia) was reunited with the KSČ (Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) but retained its own identity.
Klement Gottwald became President in 1948, and ruled until his death in 1953. He was succeeded by Antonín Zápotocký as president and by Antonín Novotný as head of the KSČ. After extensive purges modeled on the Stalinist pattern in other east European states, the Communist Party tried 14 of its former leaders in November 1952 and sentenced 11 to death. For more than a decade thereafter, the Czechoslovak communist political structure was characterized by the orthodoxy of the leadership of party chief Antonín Novotný. Novotný became president in 1957 when Zápotocký died.
In the 1950s, the Stalinists accused their opponents of "conspiracy against the people's democratic order" and "high treason" in order to oust them from positions of power. Large-scale arrests of Communists with an "international" background, i.e., those with a wartime connection with the West, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, Jews, and Slovak "bourgeois nationalists," were followed by show trials. The outcome of these trials, serving the communist propaganda, was often known in advance and the penalties were extremely heavy, such as in the case of Milada Horáková, who was sentenced to death together with Jan Buchal, Záviš Kalandra and Oldřich Pecl.
The 1960 Constitution declared the victory of socialism and proclaimed the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Destalinization had a late start in Czechoslovakia. In the early 1960s, the Czechoslovak economy became severely stagnant. The industrial growth rate was the lowest in Eastern Europe. As a result, in 1965, the party approved the New Economic Model, introducing free market elements into the economy. The KSČ "Theses" of December 1965 presented the party response to the call for political reform. Democratic centralism was redefined, placing a stronger emphasis on democracy. The leading role of the KSČ was reaffirmed but limited. Slovaks pressed for federalization. On January 5, 1968, the KSČ Central Committee elected Alexander Dubček, a Slovak reformer, to replace Novotný as first secretary of the KSČ. On March 22, 1968, Novotný resigned from the presidency and was succeeded by General Ludvík Svoboda.
Dubček carried the reform movement a step further in the direction of liberalism. After Novotný's fall, censorship was lifted. The press, radio, and television were mobilized for reformist propaganda purposes. The movement to democratize socialism in Czechoslovakia, formerly confined largely to the party intelligentsia, acquired a new, popular dynamism in the spring of 1968 (the "Prague Spring"). Radical elements found expression: anti-Soviet polemics appeared in the press; the Social Democrats began to form a separate party; new unaffiliated political clubs were created. Party conservatives urged the implementation of repressive measures, but Dubček counseled moderation and reemphasized KSČ leadership. A program adopted in April 1968 set guidelines for a modern, humanistic socialist democracy that would guarantee, among other things, freedom of religion, press, assembly, speech, and travel; a program that, in Dubček's words, would give socialism "a human face." After 20 years of little public participation, the population gradually started to take interest in the government, and Dubček became a truly popular national figure.
The internal reforms and foreign policy statements of the Dubček leadership created great concern among some other Warsaw Pact governments. KSČ conservatives had misinformed Moscow regarding the strength of the reform movement. As a result, the troops of Warsaw Pact countries (except Romania) invaded Czechoslovakia during the night of August 20-21.
After the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Gustáv Husák (a centrist, and interestingly one of the Slovak "bourgeois nationalists" imprisoned by his own KSČ in the 1950s) was named first secretary (title changed to general secretary in 1971). A program of "Normalization" — the restoration of continuity with the prereform period — was initiated. Normalization entailed thoroughgoing political repression and the return to ideological conformity. A new purge cleansed the Czechoslovak leadership of all reformist elements. In May 1970, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, which incorporated the principle of "limited sovereignty." Soviet troops remained stationed in Czechoslovakia, and the Czechoslovak armed forces worked in close cooperation with the Warsaw Pact command. Liberalisation reforms were stopped and reverted.
The only exception was the federalization of the country. The former centralist state Czechoslovakia was divided in two parts: the Czech Socialist Republic and Slovak Socialist Republic by the Constitutional Law of Federation of October 28, 1968, which went into effect on January 1, 1969. New national parliaments (the Czech National Council and the Slovak National Council) were created and the traditional parliament of Czechoslovakia was renamed the "Federal Assembly" and was divided in two chambers: the House of the people (Czech: Sněmovna lidu; Slovak: Snemovňa ľudu) and the House of Nations (Czech: Sněmovna národů; Slovak: Snemovňa národov). Very complicated rules of voting were put in effect. The Husák regime amended the law in January 1971 so that, while federalism was retained in form, central authority was effectively restored.
In 1975, Gustáv Husák added the position of president to his post as party chief. The Husák regime required conformity and obedience in all aspects of life. Husák also tried to obtain acquiescence to his rule by providing an improved standard of living. He returned Czechoslovakia to an orthodox command economy with a heavy emphasis on central planning and continued to extend industrialization. For a while the policy seemed successful; the 1980s, however, were more or less a period of economic stagnation. Another feature of Husák's rule was a continued dependence on the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, approximately 50 percent of Czechoslovakia's foreign trade was with the Soviet Union, and almost 80 percent was with communist countries.
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, the regime was challenged by the rise of the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia, represented (among others) by Václav Havel and Charter 77. The first organized opposition emerged under the umbrella of Charter 77. On January 6, 1977, a manifesto called Charter 77 appeared in West German newspapers. The original manifesto reportedly was signed by 243 persons; among them were artists, former public officials, and other prominent figures. The Charter had over 800 signatures by the end of 1977, including workers and youth. It criticized the government for failing to implement human rights provisions of documents it had signed, including the state's own constitution; international covenants on political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights; and the Final Act of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Although not organized in any real sense, the signatories of Charter 77 constituted a citizens' initiative aimed at inducing the Czechoslovak Government to observe formal obligations to respect the human rights of its citizens. Signatories were arrested and interrogated; dismissal from employment often followed.
At 01:45 A.M. on September 26, 1983, Czechoslovak early warning radars in Prague and Bratislava detected a large number of U.S. Pershing I SRBMs and Tomahawk GLCMs approaching Central Europe. Similarily, they also detected a large number of Soviet SS-1 Scud SRBMs, along with R-5 Pobeda (NATO reporting name SS-3 Shyster) MRBMs, approaching German Federal Republic and the rest of Western Europe.
The Czechoslovak Military High Command was immediately warned, and at 01:53 A.M. they confirmed that this was not an exercise, but in fact a real missile launch by the Soviet Union and the United States. At 02:08 A.M., Czechoslovak President Gustáv Husák is summoned to an emergency meeting with the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party along with the top military leadership of the Czechoslovak People's Army (Československá lidová armáda, ČSLA ). It was decided to quickly evacuate the nation's political and military leadership from Prague, which they expected to be hit by an U.S. nuclear missile at any moment.
After having ordered full mobilisation of all the Czechoslovak armed forces, President Husák, members of the Secretariat of the Central Committee and the military leadership evacuated Prague at 02:16 A.M. as sirens were heard across the city, urging all inhabitants to go for the nearest bomb shelter.
At 2:37 A.M., Prague was hit by a U.S. ICBM. 370,000 people were instantly killed. In the following hours, U.S. Pershing I short-range ballistic missiles would hit military installations in Tabor (Western Army Group HQ), Příbram (1st Czech Army HQ), along with Míšov (outside of Plzeň), Olomouc, Brno, Bělá pod Bezdězem, Bilna and Trenčín (Eastern Army HQ).
Electromagnetic Pulses (or EMP) from airbursted weapons destroyed some 70% of the electronics across the Central Europe. Most radios, televisions, telephones systems, and computers were rendered useless. The initial death toll following the first hours of conflict was estimated at 600,000 people killed.
The Czechoslovak People's Army, having a strength of before the war broke out, had lost 68% of their original strength. 79% of all military vehicles, tanks and aircrafts had been destroyed or damaged. Only 26% of the Czechoslovak Air Force was left serviceable due to the damaged electronics from the electromagnetic pulses.
On September 27, 1983, President Husák, members of the Secretariat of the Central Committee and the Czechoslovak Military High Command had temporarily moved the capital to Hradec Králové. From there they would lead the Czechoslovak People's Army in a limited military conflict with the Bundeswehr and the U.S. Army.
On September 28, President Husák declared a state of martial law, and announced that anybody "who acted against the Socialist government and the Czech people by supporting the West, by openly criticizing the government, storing food supplies and other crimes that can result in civic unrest" would be either detained, imprisoned or, in the worst case, shot on the spot.
The martial law would in the following weeks be abused by both local KČS branches and bythe Secretariat of the Central Committee itself, who detained large numbers of people under the precedence that they were dissidents. And by 1984, Husák was showing signs of complete denial of reality and signs of paranoia. While the country was going through extremely difficult times with long bread queues in front of empty food shops, he was often shown on state TV entering stores filled with food supplies, claiming that the situation was returning to normal. By the end of the year, 10,000 had been detained illegally, 8,000 had been imprisoned with sentences ranging from 20 years to life, while 5,000 had been executed.
The average Czechs and Slovaks were getting increasingly tired of the brutality of the Husák regime as well as the enormous shortages of food, medicine and other necessary goods. People around the country, especially young people, were beginning to openly criticize the government and the Socialist ideology, while many joined Václav Havel and the other dissidents in Charter 77.
Revolution and the collapse of the Communist regime
On May 5, 1984, the Czechoslovak secret police organisation State Security (Czech: Státní bezpečnost) arrested 80 people accused of anti-Communist conspiracies in Hradec Králové. When some of them tried to escape, the StB officers opened fire on them, killing 5. As a panic broke out in the crowd, the StB also opened fire on them, killing an additional 18 people and wounding 24 others. The remaining of the arrested Czechs then assaulted the StB officers, killing eight of them. This sign of open dissidence against the regime was spread throughout Czechoslovakia by dissidents of Charter 77, now named the Civic Forum and led by playwright Václav Havel. The Civic Forum had also many other prominent members, including Petr Pithart, Václav Klaus, Karel Schwarzenberg, Alexander Dubček and Vladimír Mečiar (in Slovakia).
The massacre spawned a spontaneous demonstration against the Communist regime by over 5,000 Czech students on the town square on May 6. Regular military forces, police and the StB fired on the demonstrators, killing 58. On May 7, as Václav Havel was leading a mass protest against the communist regime, a mass meeting was staged by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia at the same town square. Official media presented it as a "spontaneous movement of support for the Communist Party", where President Gustáv Husák, Secretary of the Central Committee Vasil Biľak and Milouš Jakeš tried to bolster public support for the regime. The image of Gustáv Husák's uncomprehending expression as the crowd began to boo and heckle him remains one of the defining moments of Czech history. The stunned President, failing to control the crowds, was finally evacuated to the temporary presidential residence at the City Hall.
On May 8, the Czechoslovak Army decided to support the dissidents as the StB were trying to fight back the revolt of the population of Hradec Králové. Despite efforts by the police, StB and a few elements of the Czechoslovak Army loyal to the Communist Party to arrest dissidents, they were eventually overrun by the large number of demonstrators of the Civic Forum led by Havel. By noon, revolts had spread to all major cities in both the Czech lands and in Slovakia.
During the night of May 8 and May 9, President Husák and leading members of the Central Committee tried to leave Hradec Králové by car, but they were detained by a large crowd in the outskirts of the town. They were held by the police and eventually turned over to the army. At noon on May 9, President Gustáv Husák, Vasil Biľak and Milouš Jakeš were were sentenced to death by a military court on charges ranging from illegal gathering of wealth to the torture, imprisonment and murder of thousands of innocent civilians. They were executed by a firing squad.
Faced with an overwhelming popular repudiation, the Communist Party all but collapsed. On May 10, 1984, interim President and Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Karel Urbánek announced that the Communist Party would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state. On May 11, President Urbánek appointed the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Petr Pithart was appointed Prime Minister, while Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the Federal Parliament. Václav Havel was appointed President of Czechoslovakia on May 12, 1984.