Constructed from the ruins of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia was composed of Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Germans, Jews, Hungarians, and Roma (Gypsies). Between the two world wars, Czechoslovakia was a liberal democracy with an advanced industrial economy. The British, French, and Italian attempt to appease German dictator Adolf Hitler by sacrificing Czechoslovakia in the 1938 Munich Accords led to the dismemberment of the country and, consequently, to the popularity of the Communist Party in the reconstituted postwar Czechoslovakia, ultimately controlled by the Soviets.
Czechoslovakia was liberated at the end of World War II by the Red Army to the east and American forces to the west. It became a binational Czech and Slovak state because most of the Jews and many of the Roma had been exterminated by the Nazis. The Ruthenian part of eastern Czechoslovakia was annexed by Soviet Ukraine, and the Sudeten Germans were expelled following the Edvard Beneš decrees of 1946.
Czechoslovak democracy was limited after the war to a handful of parties within the Soviet-backed National Front, led by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz). In October 1945 the National Front nationalized all enterprises that employed more than fifty workers. In the May 1946 elections, the CPCz won a plurality of the popular vote with 38 percent. CPCz leader Klement Gottwald thus became prime minister and consolidated power by controlling key ministries, the police, and mass media as well as the Communist People's Militia (supported by 1.5 million party members, about 10 percent of the population).
In February 1948, Gottwald implicitly threatened civil war and Soviet intervention to pressure President Beneš to accept the resignation of noncommunist ministers. Later that year, when Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was found dead and Beneš died, nobody of stature was left to oppose the communists, who built a Soviet-style state.
The communists established a political monopoly by absorbing the Social Democrats and turning the few parties not already banned into their puppets. Favors and threats increased membership in the CPCz to 20 percent of the population and led to a large influx of communists into governmental institutions. Five-Year Plans redirected the nationalized Czechoslovak economy toward heavy industry and integrated it into the Comecon system of production and trade.
Soviet advisors instructed Czechoslovak communists and established direct control over security services and the armed forces. Ideological dogma dictated the purging of prewar culture from schools, art, and books. Political control of educational institutions ensured that only the children of politically reliable (communist) parents would have access to the professions. A system of terror and labor camps was established, most notoriously in uranium mines where many thousands became terminally ill. Initially, the terror campaign was directed at political opponents, organized religion, prewar elites, independent intellectuals, bourgeois peasants, and soldiers who had fought with the Allies during the war. Eventually, however, the communists turned on themselves according to the demands of the Kremlin. Show trials of leading communists, mostly of Jewish descent, led to their execution in 1952. Such random purges continued until the late 1950s.
After Antonín Novotný succeeded Gottwald in 1953, the Czech communist leadership managed to remain united and survived the winds of change blowing from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's Moscow. A new constitution was introduced in 1960, marking "the end of class struggle" and the achievement of a socialist society.
From the mid-1960s, growing discontent manifested itself among communist and intellectual elites. A new generation that had grown up under communism found its upward mobility blocked by the revolutionary generation that became the elite in 1948. Middle-aged communists who became disillusioned with the system also began to agitate for liberalization. Czechoslovak economists sought to decentralize the failing system of central planning without abolishing it and introduced confused and inconsistent experimental measures. Influential writers such as Milan Kundera, Pavel Kohout, and Václav Havel began to criticize the regime publicly. Others called for the release of political prisoners. In January 1968, a broad coalition of anti-Novotný party functionaries finally replaced him with Alexandr Dubček, leader of the Slovak branch of the CPCz. Thus, the Prague Spring went into full bloom.
On 25 February 1968 Major General Jan Šejna, a high official in the Czech Ministry of Defense and a friend of Novotný, defected to the United States, one of the greatest successes of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Cold War. This revelation unleashed a new wave of public criticism of the regime's corruption, inefficiency, and Stalinist tactics. Growing divisions among the communist elite paralyzed their decision-making abilities, and they soon lost control as the reformers demanded complete political and press freedoms.
In March, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev pressured the Czechoslovak leadership to reestablish control of the press and quash the Prague Spring. Czech reformers believed that the Soviets would not intervene. But conservative leaders invited the Soviets to intervene and, in the Soviet embassy in Prague, prepared plans for an invasion.
The Soviet leadership concluded that the Czechoslovak communists could not control the situation. A final meeting on 29 July failed to bridge the differences between the reformers and conservatives. Consequently, Brezhnev lost all confidence in Dubček and ordered an invasion.
On 21 August 1968 a mostly Soviet force of 165,000 soldiers and 4,600 tanks invaded Czechoslovakia. The Soviet-led invasion force eventually numbered 500,000 soldiers and 6,000 tanks. While Czechoslovak radio broadcast protests against the invasion, the party leaders were detained and taken to Moscow, prompting more resistance and protest. Under enormous pressure, the Czechoslovak leadership acceded to Soviet demands to normalize the situation in Czechoslovakia according to the Soviet model, purge the party and the security services, muzzle the press, and reassert control. As a result, some 500,000 of the most reform-minded citizens crossed the still-open borders to the West. In October the Czechoslovak communist leadership agreed to the indefinite stationing of 75,000 Soviet troops in the country. Consequent public protests were violently suppressed by the Czechoslovak police.
The communist leadership was divided between reformers and realists, the latter of whom accepted the Soviet invasion and made the best of it for themselves and their clique. After Dubček's April 1969 resignation, Slovak Communist Party boss Gustáv Husák emerged as the realist leader, becoming first secretary and then president. He held power for twenty years. Under Husák's normalization policy (1969–1970), 20 percent of the Communist Party was purged. During the 1970s, the party attracted 500,000 new (and younger) members. Without gulags but also without any prospects for influencing their society, Czechoslovaks increasingly turned inward. Family became very important, and the average age of marriage and motherhood declined. A culture of weekend recreation in the country also evolved, while the stagnating centrally planned economy offered opportunities for personal enrichment through widespread corruption.
The main voice of protest amid the general passivity of the population was the 2,000 dissident signatories of Charter 77, which encompassed a broad coalition of former reform communists, artists and intellectuals, and religious dissidents. They frequently suffered sanctions such as professional demotions and exclusion from higher educational opportunities. Top dissidents were jailed or expelled from the country. But they nevertheless managed to keep Czechoslovak culture alive. The stale Husák regime was ill-prepared for the glasnost and perestroika reforms that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev initiated beginning in 1986. Tentative liberalization in later 1988 gave way to renewed repression of dissidents and civil protest in early 1989.
The beginning of the end of communism in Czechoslovakia came on 17 November 1989 when a student demonstration was violently suppressed. This led to large protests and the creation of the Civic Forum, an umbrella group of anti-communist Czechs, and the corresponding Slovak group, Public Against Violence. No longer able to rely on Soviet troops, the communist elite was virtually powerless to stop the growing anti-communist fervor. On the 20 November, 150,000 people demonstrated in St. Wenceslas Square in Prague. Similar nightly mass demonstrations followed, culminating in a demonstration of 750,000 Czechs in Letna fields and a two-hour mass strike on 27 November. By 10 December, when Husák resigned, the CPCz was falling apart and losing control over the country.
A new, pluralistic government was rapidly put in place, headed by Slovak communist Marián Čalfa. The border with Austria was thrown open, censorship was ended, and all of the main figures of normalization were purged from the party. When Charter 77 leader Havel was elected president on 29 December by the partly reconstructed parliament, the revolution was all but complete. It was legitimized by democratic elections in June 1990. The Czechs and Slovaks subsequently embarked on the bumpy road of reform that led them eventually to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). The two peoples arrived there separately, however. Growing nationalist sentiment in Slovakia led to the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia on 1 January 1993.
Tucker, Aviezer. The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence from Patočka to Havel. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000.; Wheaton, Bernard, and Zdeněk Kavan. The Velvet Revolution: Czechoslovakia, 1988–1991. Boulder CO: Westview, 1992.; Williams, Kieran. The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968–1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.