Novotný became regional CPCz secretary of Prague and joined the CPCz Central Committee in 1946, playing an important role in the 1948 February communist coup. In May 1948 he was elected to the National Assembly. As a Stalinist, Novotný profited handsomely from the CPCz purges during 1951–1954, becoming a Politburo member in 1951 and deputy prime minister in 1953. Also in 1953, he replaced Rudolf Slánský as first secretary of the CPCz. In November 1957, upon the death of Antonín Zápotocký, Novotný, while maintaining control of the CPCz, was elected president of Czechoslovakia. He was reelected to a second five-year term in 1964.
Novotný steadfastly resisted calls for de-Stalinization following Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's speech of February 1956 in which he denounced Stalin. Novotný also opposed political and cultural liberalization while at the same time increasing party control over the country by purging CPCz members who advocated reform. Nonetheless, he allowed some economic reforms in an attempt to raise living standards. In spite of this, by the 1960s the Czechoslovak economy began to falter, and criticism of Novotný increased. He responded by firing many of his supporters and permitting investigation into and condemnation of the 1950s Stalinist show trials. In the process, many of its victims were rehabilitated. Despite these token gestures, Novotný's lack of education and political savvy limited his ability to move forward with additional reforms.
At the end of 1967 during a Central Committee meeting, Alexander Dubček, leader of the Slovak Communist Party, denounced the economic stagnation and repressive nature of the Novotný regime. When Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev refused to intercede, Novotný was forced to resign as first secretary of the CPCz on 5 January 1968. He was replaced by Dubček, who began the 1968 Prague Spring reforms.
During the liberalization process, Novotný resigned the presidency to General Ludvík Svoboda in March 1968, lost his remaining party positions, was purged from the CPCz, and retired from public life. Novotný's CPCz membership was restored in 1971, and he died in Prague on 28 January 1975.
Gregory C. Ference
Stone, Norman, and Eduard Stouhal, eds. Czechoslovakia: Crossroads and Crises, 1918–1988. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.