On February 25, 1948, the Communist Party, with Soviet backing, assumed undisputed control over the government of Czechoslovakia, marking the onset of four decades of undisguised communist rule in the country.
Following the end of World War II, the pre-war borders of Czechoslovakia were re-established, with the sole exception of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, which was annexed by the Soviet Union. Edvard Beneš, who had headed the government-in-exile during the war, returned to his native land to form a coalition government , led by the so-called National Front.
Although the country did not formally fall within the Soviet orbit, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) enjoyed a surge in popularity after the war and in 1946, the national elections resulted in significant representation for leftist and communist parties in the new constituent assembly, the Communist Party emerging as the largest party of them all, winning 114 of the 300 seats with 38% of the vote.
President Edvard Beneš, not himself a Communist but very amenable to cooperation with the Soviets, invited KSČ leader Klement Gottwald to become prime minister, while other communists were named at key ministries of defence, interior, education, information, and agriculture. The most important non-Communist in the coalition government was undoubtedly foreign minister Jan Masaryk, who had served as ambassador to London before the war.
But when moderate elements in the Czech government raised the possibility of the nation’s participation in the Marshall Plan, the U.S.’s massive economic recovery program designed to help war torn European countries rebuild, the communists organized strikes and protests, and Jan Masaryk was summoned to Moscow, where he was berated by Joseph Stalin himself.
During the winter of 1947, both in the cabinet and in parliament tension between the Communists and their opponents fuelled an increasingly bitter conflict. With the Communists becoming deeply unpopular, the fracturing of the left-wing coalition led to the general expectation they would be voted out of office in the upcoming elections of May 1948.
Matters came to a head in February 1948, when interior minister Václav Nosek illegally extended his powers by attempting to purge remaining non-Communist elements in the National Police Force. On February 21, twelve non-Communist ministers resigned in protest after the interior minister refused to reinstate eight non-Communist senior police officers despite a majority vote of the cabinet in favour of doing so.
Four days later, Beneš, fearful of civil war and Soviet intervention, capitulated. He accepted the resignations of the non-Communist ministers and appointed a new government in accordance with KSČ demands. Although ostensibly still a coalition, it was now heavily dominated by Communists and pro-Moscow Social Democrats. From this date forward, Gottwald was effectively the most powerful man in Czechoslovakia.
The only prominent minister in the new government who was neither a Communist nor a fellow traveller, foreign minister Jan Masaryk was found dead two weeks later, dressed only in his pyjamas, in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry below his bathroom window. While some believe Masaryk committed suicide out of despair, a longstanding suspicion was that he was actually thrown to his death by the Soviets.
Following the coup, the Communists moved quickly to consolidate their power. Thousands were fired and hundreds were arrested. The national assembly, freely elected two years earlier, quickly fell into line and gave Gottwald’s revamped government a vote of confidence. Known as “Victorious February”, the coup thus marked the onset of four decades of undisguised communist rule in the country.
But the coup’s significance extended well beyond the state’s boundaries. The loss of the last remaining democracy in Central and Eastern Europe alarmed Western countries and helped spur the quick adoption of the Marshall Plan and, in little over a year, resulted in the establishment of NATO and the definitive drawing of the Iron Curtain.
In fact, until the Czechoslovak coup, the emphasis in Washington had been on economic containment of Communism, primarily through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. However, the coup served to expose the limitations of U.S. conventional forces and its over-reliance on atomic power and it became clear that the U.S. lacked a credible military deterrent in Europe.
Czechoslovakia remained as a Communist regime supported by the Soviet Union until the Velvet Revolution of 1989…
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.