With no European power left unscathed following the war, economic stagnation created a vacuum across the continent, and the US Government recognised the threats and opportunities that lay before it. In 1946, the potential for social unrest and the creeping expansionism of Communism into the West still existed across Central and Eastern Europe, even accounting for the successes of UNRRA in bringing people back home and helping to rebuild their communities.
Though commitments had been made for five years, funding for Czechoslovakia ground to a halt in 1947. Instead, efforts were made to revive the stricken economies of Europe through the European Recovery Program, commonly called the Marshall Plan after its creator, US Secretary of State George C. Marshall, an overtly US package of support that transferred over $13 billion in economic recovery programmes to those countries of Europe most impacted by the war. Launched on the 3rd of April 1948, it provided the British economy with $2.7 billion worth of free aid, allowing the Attlee Government to haul the nation out of severe austerity and properly implement its reforms.
While Britain benefitted from $3 billion of aid from the Marshall Plan, Czechoslovakia, along with other Eastern European nations, was forced to go without. Stalin had seen France, Italy, and Greece reject Communism and was not prepared to let his immediate neighbours slip through his fingers.
When, in 1947, President Beneš notified the Generalissimo of Czechoslovakia’s intention to renew her pre-war military alliance with France, a country that, like Czechoslovakia, had suffered severely because of its proximity to Germany, the President’s letter received a lukewarm response. Soon afterwards, on the 5th of July, while political negotiations between Poland and Czechoslovakia were taking place in Prague, the invitation to attend talks in Paris on the European Recovery Program was extended to all war-devastated European countries at the suggestion of the United States’ Foreign Secretary, General Marshall.
When Mr Masaryk asked his views, the Polish Prime Minister, Józef Cyrankiewicz, who was in Prague, replied that Poland was most interested in the Marshall proposals and would also send representatives to Paris. This statement was passed to the Czechoslovak Government, which met on the 7th of July. After discussion, it was voted unanimously that Czechoslovakia would accept the invitation. Poland did not react as quickly, and on the 9th of July, it was evident that Czechoslovakia was the only country behind the Iron Curtain that had agreed to take part in the conference in Paris.
The same day, a Czechoslovak government delegation, headed by Prime Minister Klement Gottwald and Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Masaryk, left for Moscow to discuss pending political problems and pave the way for a new commercial treaty with the Soviet Union. Dr Drtina, the Minister of Justice, accompanied them in place of Dr Ripka, the Minister of Foreign Trade, who had suddenly fallen ill.
It was Thursday, the 10th of July, and the audience with Marshal Stalin had been arranged for 9.30am. Masaryk and Drtina met half an hour earlier in one of the rooms of the State residence put at their disposal, but Gottwald was late. They became impatient as the minutes passed, so Masaryk sent a message to Gottwald’s apartments, asking if everything was all right. The Prime Minister’s secretary came down and profusely apologised, explaining that the meeting had been postponed but he had omitted to inform them. At that minute Gottwald entered, and according to Josef Josten in his book Oh My Country, he seemed
“… in the best of spirits. ‘All has gone well,’ he announced to Masaryk, who still had no idea what the Prime Minister was talking about or what had given him such satisfaction. ‘We shall not need to go to Paris. We shall get all we want from the Soviet Union. The Generalissimo has just told me so!’ When Mr Masaryk had recovered from his surprise and annoyance, he turned to Dr Drtina, ignoring Gottwald, and said: ‘It seems there is not much point in our being here at all. I may as well hand in my resignation!’”
In the Kremlin, their reception was cold, and the discussion was one-sided. Marshal Stalin had the newspapers of the world displayed on his table and pointed out two-inch headlines: “Prague losing her ties with Moscow,” “Breach in the Eastern Bloc,” and others, just as the more sensational overseas newspapers had happened to report Czechoslovakia’s decision to go to Paris.
“In these circumstances, gentlemen,” said the Marshal after a long discussion on Czechoslovakia’s economic situation, “it is for you to decide whether you consider the pact of friendship and mutual aid between our countries valid, or whether you prefer to go to Paris. I suggest you discuss it with your government and let me have your answer later today.”
On his return to Prague airport in response to journalists’ inquiries, Masaryk declared,
“I left as a minister of a sovereign state but have come back as Stalin’s lackey.”
From that moment on, Czechoslovakia became increasingly Sovietized as moves were made to set up a puppet state, mimicking the behaviour of the Motherland. In Prague, during the winter of 1947–48, rising tensions between the Communists and other parties, both in the cabinet and in parliament, led to bitter conflict. Masaryk and Beneš knew the score, that there was no way back. All traces of support from the West would be lost. Czechoslovakia would be sucked under the umbrella of Soviet hegemony, with nothing to halt the process, as a larger drop of water absorbs the smaller. Both statesmen would lose all hope for the nation and would die during the fateful year of 1948 – Masaryk under mysterious circumstances.
Václav Nosek, a former member of the British-based Czech Government-in-exile, who was seen as one of the “good Communists” in London, and the prime mover behind the construction of a new Lidice, was also a principal agitator at a grassroots level, and within industry, for a Czechoslovak Communist state, ruthless in the pursuit of the Communists’ manifesto and willing to implement totalitarian methods. And he was brazenly candid about it, once announcing at a speech in Brno in October 1947 that he was happy to apply the techniques of the Nazis to the Communist cause in order that the Czechs out-Gestapo the Gestapo:
“We are accused of Gestapism. I do not deny it. On the contrary, we shall show our opponents that we can do this better than the Germans.” he said.
With this ideological thinking at work in 1947, it is easy to extrapolate how the groundwork was being prepared for the political weaponisation of the future village of Lidice by an increasingly hard-line, Stalinist government. In February 1948, Chairman of the Lidice National Committee, Václav Nosek, acting in his capacity as Minister of the Interior illegally attempted to remove all remaining democrats and other non-Communist personnel from the Czechoslovak police and intelligence services. Many saw this as a move towards subjugation – the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) using the security services as instruments of tyranny.
Seeking retribution, on the 12th of February 1948, in Prague, the non-Communists in the cabinet urgently demanded punishment for the offending Communists in the government and an assurance that they show loyalty to democracy. Nosek, backed by Prime Minister Klement Gottwald, flatly refused. Instead, he and his supporters threatened to use force and, in order to coerce colleagues in parliament, appealed to groups of activists across the nation to mobilise in support of the Communists’ aims.
On the 21st of February, twelve non-Communist ministers resigned in protest after Nosek refused to reinstate eight non-Communist senior police officers in defiance of a majority vote of the cabinet in favour of doing so. President Beneš initially rejected their resignations in the hope that Prime Minister Gottwald would either back down, resign, or call new elections. But by then it was too late: there was no pretence to follow the democratic process.
On the 25th of February 1948, fearful of civil war and Soviet invasion, Dr Beneš capitulated. He accepted the resignations of the non-Communist ministers and appointed a new government in accordance with Communist Party demands.
The Communist Party’s takeover of Czechoslovakia was complete.
Thousands of people fled the country as the Communists began tightening their grip on power. Non-communists were fired and hundreds were arrested. The National Assembly, which had been freely elected two years earlier, quickly became a rubber-stamping machine, making a mockery of democracy by handing the autocratic President Gottwald and his Government a 230-0 vote of confidence. The loss of the last remaining democracy in Eastern Europe came as a profound shock to millions. For the second time in a decade, Western eyes saw Czechoslovak independence and freedom snuffed out by an oppressive dictatorship intent on dominating a smaller country.
The ripple effects had serious ramifications for the whole of Europe, one of a series of momentous events that sealed the fate of East-West relations for decades to come, as it contributed to an increase in mutual distrust and cynicism, which we today look back on as the Cold War. Britain, facing financial ruin, now saw every vindication in its growing loyalty towards the US, measured by its speedy adoption of the Marshall Plan. Through Ernest Bevin’s active foreign policy, Britain openly upheld the establishment of the West German state and backed measures to keep communists out of power in Europe’s most vulnerable post-war nations.
Within a year, Bevin pioneered a system of collective security and due diligence across the Western powers that would function as a deterrent to the perceived ever-pressing Soviet threat. The result was the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or NATO, and its signatories were all the major Western powers including and backed by the USA. The day of its founding signalled the moment the Iron Curtain’s descent was complete. It would not rise again until the Velvet Revolution of December 1989.
For several years, the welfare of Czechoslovakia had grown central to a high-profile British wartime cause due to national contrition associated with the Munich Agreement, a debt of gratitude related to Czechoslovak contributions made to the Battle of Britain, and genuine empathy towards the Czechoslovak people, who shared similar Western and in particular, British sensibilities. An expression of much of this kinship could be found in the Lidice Shall Live campaign.
When many leading Czechoslovak émigrés announced their concern at the nature of the Prague coup, there was a galvanising of anti-communist sentiment throughout the nation, and within the Government especially, which led to calls for Britain to adopt a more offensive propaganda policy.
“Murder in Prague,” wrote the Daily Herald’s Michael Foot as he lamented the most “tragic week since the end of the war.” On the 3rd of March, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee issued a fierce condemnation of Soviet actions stating that Czechoslovakia had “fallen victim to aggression from without aided by treachery from within.” The concern for many onlookers was, that if the Russians could do this to one European democracy three years after the end of the war, there was little to prevent them from doing it to other European countries, notably in Western Europe.
Czechoslovakia’s Communist Government soon found itself in economic, social, and political trouble. It became necessary to find scapegoats who could be made responsible for falling living standards and the failures to achieve set targets. Over a number of years, waves of recriminations and prosecutions resulted. First, the regime focused on enemies outside the Communist Party. Later, with direct Soviet involvement, it looked inward, purging those considered suspect within its core.
Through provocation and the spreading of disinformation about targeted individuals by the State Security – StB, many elected representatives, some with hitherto unblemished party records, were prosecuted, found guilty in filmed show trials, and summarily executed. Altogether, 180 politicians met their fate in this way, including several former members of the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile.
One especially relevant case was that of Vladimir (Vlado) Clementis who, in his capacity as Deputy Foreign Minister, accepted the cheque for £32,375 from Dr Barnett Stross and the Lidice Shall Live campaign delegation, on the 15th of June 1947. Clementis was one of 11 condemned to be hanged on the 3rd of December 1952 after being convicted in a show trial along with 14 others. His ashes were scattered on a road and Lída, his wife, received just her husband’s two pipes and tobacco in return.
This was the new Czechoslovakia Barnett Stross was engaging with, a state creating adversaries at home, in Britain, and in the West. Those perceived to be apologists for the actions of the Czechoslovakian state were, by association, suspect. The British-Czechoslovak Friendship League sent Klement Gottwald a telegram of congratulations on his election as President of Czechoslovakia on the 14th of June 1948 and assured him that, “… it would continue in its efforts to bring about still closer friendship and understanding between Great Britain and Czechoslovakia.” The message carried the signature of Dr Barnett Stross, the then Chairman of the League.
With an appreciation of Stross, this was a perfunctory invitation for increased dialogue between the British-Czechoslovak Friendship League and the new hard-line communist dictatorship. As Chair of the ‘League, Stross used his position to protest against human rights issues in the country. “However, this cut little ice with MI5: Stross was on the left of the Labour Party, an émigré and thus a natural target for the security services.” Henceforth, until his death, Dr Barnett Stross would become a constant source of interest to Britain’s security services, through his work keeping Britain’s links with Czechoslovakia alive.
Meanwhile, the new order ushered in a complete syncopation of politics, industry, society, and living with the words of the Czechoslovak Communist Party song Kupředu Levá, Zpátky Ni Krok! (“Forwards Left, Not a Step Backwards!”) displayed above the doors and factory gates of industrial plants, and all manner of civic buildings, schools, and hospitals.