GOVERNMENTS and democracies fall not because their opponents are strong, but because those in power fail to do things that need doing. So wrote Harold Laski in February 1943. The axiom is not original. It dates from the days of Thucydides and has been repeated ever since by various historians. With reservations it applies to the Czechoslovak revolution of February 1948. The starting point of this revolution was Munich; the period of development the Second World War; and the mainspring of action the emergence of Russia as the strongest military power in Europe. To understand what happened we have therefore to go back to September 1939.

At that time Dr. Beneš, who had resigned in October 1938, was in exile in England. M. Gottwald, the present Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia, and a small group of Czechoslovak Communists were in Moscow. So long as the Russo-German Pact remained in force, these Czechoslovak Communists remained in the background. They had no access to the Kremlin. They were, in fact, being kept in reserve. Dr. Beneš welcomed the war, partly because he maintained with some justification that it had started with Munich, and partly because he saw in it the only opportunity of liberating his country. Even in the darkest moments he never doubted Britain's final victory. Optimism has always been his greatest virtue and overconfidence his greatest fault. Nevertheless, under the Chamberlain Government his position was uncomfortable and unpromising. The chief aim of the British Government was to keep France in the war at all costs, and France, unable to forgive the man whom she had wronged, not only opposed even informal recognition of Dr. Beneš, but actively encouraged his Czechoslovak opponents of whom the late Dr. Milan Hodža was the most embittered. The ex-President also had enemies in the State Department in Washington.

During this period his patience was exemplary. Pinning his faith on Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden, he awaited the development of events with the confidence of prescience. He was of course not idle. At this stage of the war his secret communications with Czechoslovakia were good, and with indefatigable energy he established himself as the leader of the Czechoslovak resistance movement. He was ably and loyally assisted by Jan Masaryk, who pleaded his chief's cause with great effect on the radio and in speeches.

The rewards of patience were not long in coming. The advent to power of Winston Churchill, followed by the collapse of France, altered radically the status of the Czechoslovak exiles in Britain, and in July 1940 the British Government accorded recognition to a Provisional Czechoslovak Government with headquarters in London, and restored to Dr. Beneš his title of President. Dr. Beneš was grateful, but not wholly satisfied. He wanted full recognition of the juridical continuity of the Czechoslovak state in the form in which it existed before Munich. In spite of the obvious legal difficulties his request was granted. In June 1941, Mr. Eden announced to an enthusiastic House of Commons that His Majesty's Government no longer recognized the validity of the Munich Agreement.

It must be admitted that the hand of the British Government was to some extent forced by the action of Russia who, coming into the war in June 1941, wasted no time in recognizing the Czechoslovak Government in London. President Beneš was jubilant and, as long as the issue of the war on the eastern front remained doubtful, his confidence was justified. His policy for a restored Czechoslovakia was clear-cut. It was based firmly on the close and friendly coöperation of the Anglo-Americans and the Russians in the maintenance of peace after the war. As a westerner he hoped that the Anglo-American forces would liberate Czechoslovakia or, at least, Bohemia including Prague. He was therefore an ardent supporter of the Second Front from the beginning. As the war progressed, the delay caused him some misgivings, and by the end of 1942 he was seriously afraid lest the war in Europe would be over before the Anglo-American forces landed in France. With increasing military success the Russians began to rely less and less on the Anglo-Americans. Coöperation, never easy, became more difficult, and after the relief of Stalingrad Moscow began to attack the Polish Government in London and to move forward its own Polish pawns. It was a pointer to President Beneš who, with his essentially tidy mind, had now only one ambition: to obtain Russian concurrence with his plan for a democratic Czechoslovakia. In December 1943, against the advice of the British Government, he went to Moscow. He came back to England, if not as confident as before, considerably reassured. His journey, which followed a successful visit to the United States, had been satisfactory. The Russians, he told me, had received him with honor. For the Kremlin dinner which Stalin gave him, the Generalissimo had asked him to choose his own guests. He had taken with him two or three of his own Communists. They had acknowledged gratefully that this was the first time they had been privileged to enter the Kremlin and to meet the great Stalin. President Beneš believed that Czechoslovak Communists were not as other Communists, and his belief was widely shared in the United States and Britain.

Unfortunately, as the war approached its end, the balance of actual power swung more and more heavily from west to east, and when in February 1945 President Beneš left England to return home, he had to take the hard road through Moscow and Slovakia. When he reached Košice, he was the prisoner of Russia's progress and was more or less forced to accept an agreement which gave great power to the Communists. The failure of General Patton's Third Army to relieve Prague when it was within easy striking distance of the capital was an additional blow to his hopes, for the Communists were able to hail the Russians not only as the liberators of Czechoslovakia but also as the real victors of the war and to attribute sinister motives to the hesitation of General Patton who, in point of fact, was acting under superior orders. Although the first Government after the liberation was composed of the four parties that were permitted to exist and constituted a so-called national front committed by agreement to coöperation and to parliamentary democracy, the real power lay with the Communists, and the first victory celebration of May 1945 was mainly a Red triumph with the flags of the hammer and sickle vastly outnumbering the Czechoslovak national colors. The elections of May 1946 confirmed the ascendancy of the Communists, who were returned as the largest party in the state, but without a majority over the three other parties. The National Front was, therefore, maintained, but the key positions in the Government went to the Communists. M. Gottwald, who had spent the war in Moscow, became Prime Minister in place of M. Fierlinger, a vacillating Russophile Social Democrat, and the Reds strengthened their hold on the Ministries of Defense, Information and the Interior.

Obviously President Beneš was faced with far greater difficulties than he had expected. His personal popularity, however, was great, and with courage, tempered by prudence, he began to reëstablish his personal authority. Aided by UNRRA, whose generous help relieved the dangers of the immediate post-occupation economic crisis, he succeeded so well that by the spring of 1947 the tide of Communism seemed to be on the ebb. President Beneš and Jan Masaryk were the two most popular men in the country, and at the victory anniversary of 1947 the Czechoslovak national flag was predominant. This decline of Communism, confirmed by the most competent observers, was to sound the death-knell of Czechoslovak democracy and to prepare the way for the events of February 1948.


In May 1947, I revisited Czechoslovakia as the guest of Jan Masaryk and stayed with him in his flat at the top of the Czernin Palace. I had several long talks with President Beneš. He had aged greatly since I said good-bye to him in 1944, but his energy seemed unimpaired. He showed, too, no lack of confidence. The Czechs, he said, were a rational people to whom Communism made no great appeal. Slovakia presented certain difficulties, but they would be eliminated. The Republic was recovering both its political sense and its economic prosperity. M. Gottwald was a reasonable man who believed in parliamentary democracy, and under parliamentary democracy there was little chance of Communist domination. Indeed, Beneš assured me, the elections of 1948 would see a reduction of the Communist vote; not a great reduction perhaps, because the Czechs were a slow-moving people, but sufficient to restore confidence. He had only one fear: the growing discord between the Anglo-Americans and the Russians. He was still obsessed by the failure of the Americans to liberate Prague, harped continually on its adverse effect, and said that he had never understood the decision which compelled General Patton to inaction. When I took my leave of him, he told me to tell Mr. Eden that he had been through the two most trying years of his life, but that the worst was now past.

With Jan Masaryk himself I talked every night. By and large, he shared President Beneš's optimism. Provided that there was no breach between the Anglo-Americans and the Russians, all would be well. The behavior of the Russian troops in Czechoslovakia had cured both Czechs and Slovaks of their exaggerated enthusiasm for Russia. He himself had recently addressed a large Communist meeting, had praised Winston Churchill and had been cheered. On Sunday he took me to a great Pan-Slav gathering on a grassy slope near Tabor in commemoration of the Czech Partisans who fell in the war. The huge crowd was composed mainly of Communists. The redoubtable Rudolf Slansky, Secretary-General of the Communist Party and himself a valiant Partisan during the German occupation, made a fiery Communist speech. Jan himself was one of the last speakers, and I wondered nervously how he would fare. Within a few minutes he had the vast assembly in the hollow of his hand. He made them laugh, he made them cry, and to this Pan-Slav audience he preached the gospel of world brotherhood and world peace. At the end he was nearly mobbed by men and women of all ages seeking to shake his hand. On the long drive home he was cheered in every village. He was tired but elated. Between the two wars he was regarded by most of his countrymen as the favored son of a great father. Now he knew that he was loved for his own sake, for his inspiring broadcasts during the war, and for his inspired work for peace. He, too, felt that Czech Communists were not like other Communists.

I also had talks with other ministers including M. Gottwald. He was cautious but not unduly so. Czechoslovakia, he told me, needed peace for her reconstruction. The German occupation had left the country without investment capital. He would welcome an American credit if it were given without political conditions. The Government, he assured me, had completed its program of nationalization. Czechoslovakia would carry out her revolution in her own way. All that she demanded from the outside world was no interference in her internal affairs. I asked him whether he had any reason to complain of interference. He replied cryptically: "The Russians do not interfere, although of course we rely on them for our security. Our people have not forgotten Munich. As for the Iron Curtain, you can see for yourself that it does not exist here."

His statement was true. At that time Prague seemed to me to have changed little and the countryside not at all. In Prague itself Kravchenko's "I Chose Freedom" was on sale everywhere, and at Topič's, the leading bookshop, one large window-front was dressed with stacks of Churchill's war speeches in a Czech translation. There was, too, a rich profusion of American and British books and magazines.

In spite of these external evidences of freedom, I found pessimists among my Czech friends. In particular, M. Ripka, the Minister of Foreign Trade, was full of forebodings. Czechoslovakia's economic recovery was more apparent on paper than real. Nationalization had had a cramping influence on production. It was becoming daily more difficult to sell Czech goods abroad. Above all, trade with Russia was beset with vexatious hindrances and delays, for the Russians were always late with their own deliveries and high-handed in their rejection of Czech goods which they had ordered. It was M. Ripka's opinion that without her western and overseas trade Czechoslovakia could not exist except at the cost of a drastic reduction of her standard of life. What perturbed him most was his conviction that, despite the unsatisfactory trade relationship with Russia, Russian influence was increasing in the Czech factories.

Nevertheless, even M. Ripka was confident that, if elections were free, the Communists would lose ground. As the British and American Ambassadors shared this view, and as both knew the country well, I felt reasonably reassured. The two disturbing factors were the enigma of Russia's attitude and the state of Beneš's health. With Munich and the German occupation fresh in their minds all Czechs from the President downward looked to Russia for military security and set a high value on the Russo-Czechoslovak Treaty. At that moment the general public had no qualms about President Beneš's health. It was known that he had broken down in the middle of a speech. But his withdrawal was attributed to overwork, and it was only in ministerial and diplomatic circles that one heard the suggestion that he was no longer the man that he had been. His own doctor was discretion itself, but let it be known privately that the President had some trouble with an old affection of the ear which had temporarily disturbed his balance. The news was not alarming. Indeed, it was meant to allay official uneasiness. Nevertheless, it was sufficiently disturbing to induce Sir Philip Nichols, the British Ambassador, who had known President Beneš intimately for seven years, to modify his estimate of Czechoslovakia's ability to survive as a parliamentary democracy. Two conditions were now essential: no change in the mental and physical vigor of Dr. Beneš and no change in Russia's attitude to the existing equilibrium.

Unfortunately, both were to undergo radical alteration. In June Secretary Marshall announced the general outline of his plan for assisting European recovery, and, as the plan began to take shape, the Czechoslovak Government was eager to share in its benefits. Moscow, however, put its foot down. Acceptance of American aid meant submission to American capitalism. Moscow could supply all that Czechoslovakia required and could consume all that Czechoslovakia could manufacture. The Czechoslovak Government submitted. In July President Beneš had another breakdown. This time it was said that he had been affected by the sun of an exceptionally hot summer. Within four months the whole situation had changed for the worse. Communist propaganda against the west became more violent and the security police of the Ministry of the Interior more active.

The first serious breach in the National Front occurred in October when Jan Masaryk was in the United States. Slovakia was the weakest link in the Communist armor. It had to be strengthened, and the simplest method of reducing the power of the anti-Communist Slovaks was a charge of conspiracy against the state. The security police duly discovered or invented a plot. To the Communist mind opposition to the Communist Party and criticism of the Russo-Czechoslovak Treaty of Friendship represented treason. The Communists demanded changes in the Slovak Board of Trustees, and the other parties acquiesced, partly in order to maintain the National Front and partly because many Czechs who had no sympathies with Communism could not forget Slovakia's defection at the time of Munich. The Communists were encouraged by their success. From now on, their trump cards were to be charges of conspiracy against the state and espionage for a foreign power.

Early in December Jan Masaryk spent three days in London on his way back from New York to Prague. I had two long talks with him. He was exhausted, wished to see nobody, was eager to return home, and was irritated when bad weather delayed the arrival of his plane by one day. His visit to the United States had disappointed him. He was alarmed by the growing friction between the United States and Russia and by its effect on the situation in Czechoslovakia. His dream of world brotherhood and world peace was shattered. The real trouble, he said, was ignorance. The Americans knew nothing about the new Russia; the Russians knew even less about the New World. I asked him about Beneš's health. How ill was he and what was the matter with him? Masaryk was quite frank. Strain and years of hard work had undermined the President's constitution. He had had a minor stroke in the summer. It had caused a temporary impediment in his speech. If he could be persuaded to limit his work to half a day, he could carry on. He, Jan Masaryk, was going back to Prague to ease Beneš's burden and to take an active part in the election campaign. I told him that we were anxious about the election and that we had heard rumors of Communist infiltration of the police and armed forces. There had been infiltration, he admitted, but the other parties were watching it, and it had not gone far. Although he spoke with unaccustomed bitterness of Fierlinger, he still had confidence in Gottwald whom he had always liked. As for the elections, he did not lack confidence. If they were fair, the Communists would lose seats. Whatever happened, Gottwald would not get his 51 percent majority. Then he added gravely: "That is, of course, if the Russians do not interfere." He made it sound a much bigger "if" than ever before. He knew that he was going back to trouble. I felt instinctively that I should never see him again.


From the beginning of 1948 the four parties of the National Front were engaged in trying to agree on a date for the election. Before the day was fixed, the crisis broke when on the morning of February 20, 12 ministers of the anti-Communist parties resigned. The avowed reason for this action was the refusal of Prime Minister Gottwald to accept a majority decision of the Cabinet to cancel the appointment of eight Communist police officials in Prague. The Communist reaction was immediate. Denouncing the resignations as the first move of a reactionary conspiracy to exclude the Communists from the Government and to link Czechoslovakia to the western bloc, Gottwald called the workers into the street. They came in great numbers. The workers' militia, armed with new rifles, paraded. Action Committees, taking control of the factories and villages, reduced the so-called reactionaries to impotence. Purges began at once not only in the political departments but also in industry and in the universities and schools. Before this wave of class warfare the Social Democrats, who should have held a key position but were divided among themselves, collapsed miserably. The only show of resistance was a counter-demonstration by a section of the Prague students. Within 24 hours the Communists were masters of the country and, while President Beneš was still hesitating to accept the resignations of the 12 ministers, the "model western democracy" of Czechoslovakia had been transformed into a Communist state of the recognized Russian pattern. After a bewildering silence President Beneš was said to have accepted the resignations and to have given his approval to the new Government established by Gottwald who, by including in his Cabinet Social Democrats and weaklings from the two right-wing parties, gave his coup a façade of constitutional authority. By remaining in the Government, Jan Masaryk seemed to confirm the legality of the Communist action.

These are the bare facts, but they are not to be explained by the rival claims of the two contending forces. Whatever the political refugees may say today, I do not believe that the 12 ministers had any intention of ousting the Communists from the Government or of forestalling a Communist coup d'état before the elections. Their sole object was to obtain a tactical success and to ensure that the Communists would not interfere with the elections either by intimidation or by chicanery. If they had any higher ambition, it was to enforce by constitutional means the resignation of the Minister of the Interior. They were confident of winning free elections on domestic issues, for economic stringency and food shortages had created widespread dissatisfaction with the Communists.

On the other hand, the Communist story that by brilliant tactics Gottwald scotched a dangerous conspiracy in favor of the western Powers is absurd. Dislike of Communism was strong among the Catholics and Popular Socialists. Inevitably this dislike extended to Russian methods and favored acceptance of the Marshall Plan, but it was outweighed by the deep-rooted fear of Germany which, today as always, is the strongest sentiment in Czechoslovakia. There was, therefore, no serious criticism of the alliance with Russia or of the foreign policy of Jan Masaryk. The delicate internal equilibrium which in her difficult geographical position Czechoslovakia sought to maintain depended on the maintenance of the European balance of power. As the dissensions between east and west became daily more and more apparent and the balance of military strength in Central Europe swung more heavily than ever in favor of Russia, the rational and security-minded Czech drew his own conclusions. The Americans were far away. The Russians were on his doorstep. In the eternal struggle between Slavs and Germans, he remembered that he was a Slav. In the event of trouble, he was on Russia's side. This statement does not mean that the coup d'état was dictated by Russia. In this connection too much importance has been attached to the presence in Prague of Zorin, the former Russian Ambassador. Although every Czech Communist knew that in a domestic clash he was sure of Russia's backing, the Communist coup was, in fact, a spontaneous and quickly organized counterstroke to a legitimate but inept tactical move by the anti-Communist ministers. Communist propaganda against Munich, against the Marshall Plan and against the alleged attempt of the Anglo-Americans to build up a strong Germany against Russia enabled Gottwald to appeal both to class hatred and to national sentiment. The feebleness of the Social Democrats gave him the full backing of the workers. Control of the police and armed forces transformed the coup into a successful revolution.

There remain three enigmas: the complete absence of anti-Communist resistance, the silence of President Beneš, and the conduct of Jan Masaryk. All three are closely connected. How was it that Beneš, who had stated privately on previous occasions that he would never permit a Communist coup and to prevent it would appeal to the army and the Legionaries, accepted the new Government without an audible protest, without a message to his countrymen, and without resignation of his high office? The answer is that he was overwhelmed by the lightning speed of the Communist action, that failing health had made him irresolute, and that, brought up to believe that argument must always prevail over force, he chose to remain in office in the hope of exercising a moderating influence on Communist impetuosity rather than risk a civil war which he felt -- doubtless rightly -- could end in only one way. His long silence indicated his disapproval of what had taken place, and, when he spoke at last on the 600th anniversary of Charles University, his vague words in praise of freedom came too late to rally the millions of his countrymen who might have followed his lead. Since February 20 neither the American nor the British Ambassador has been received by him; but early in April an English lady, devoted to the President and Madame Beneš, was allowed to visit him. The tears of Madame Beneš were a more eloquent testimony than words to the state of his health and to the decline of his influence. A prisoner of events, he is today a carefully guarded invalid of the new régime.

Since Jan Masaryk's death the Communists have spent large sums of money in explaining to the world that he joined the new Government spontaneously and even with enthusiasm, and that he committed suicide because he was depressed by the bitter criticisms of his conduct which he received from his friends in the United States and in Britain. It is now known officially that he joined the new Government only after hours of hesitation. Regarding his attitude toward the Government I can write with some authority, for between February 20 and March 10, the morning of his death, I received two messages from him. Security reasons preclude any mention of the messengers, but neither was a Czech and one was a very intimate friend. The burden of these messages was that the situation was worse than even the outside world realized. He was being spied on by his own countrymen. He had stayed on with the intention of helping others who were in greater danger than himself. He had pitched his hopes too high. On Saturday, March 6, he had been to see Beneš. The President had begged him to remain at his post, pleading that he had borne the brunt of Munich when Masaryk was abroad and that now he needed his support. Masaryk had come back depressed. The next day was the anniversary of his father's birthday. He could not bear the thought that the Communists, who were destroying everything that his father had created, were now claiming the great Masaryk as a Communist who, if he were alive, would approve their violence. Jan, the message said, could carry on no longer. He had known nothing of the intention of the ministers to resign and considered their resignations a mistake. But it was too late now to find fault. He had failed in his self-chosen task. He was determined to get out at the first suitable opportunity. The rest is still conjecture. Whether he committed suicide on a sudden impulse or by premeditated act after he visited his father's grave alone on the Sunday of March 7 will probably never be known. But as he sent by one of his messengers papers concerning the liquidation of his belongings in England, it is possible and even probable that by "getting out as soon as possible" he meant something different from another period of exile. That the Communists realized the significance of his death was clearly indicated by the haste with which they sought to attribute the blame to his former western friends and by the elaborate state funeral which they arranged. From their own twisted point of view they were right, but I doubt if their propaganda deceived even their own followers.

It cannot be denied that the initial irresolution of Beneš and of Jan Masaryk explains to some extent the failure of the large anti-Communist section of the Czechoslovak people to offer even a passive resistance to the Communist coup. Doubtless they had long suspected something of the sort, but they were overwhelmed by the speed of events, and without a lead they were lost. But there were other factors which determined their attitude. Long years of occupation had undermined their morale. Memories of Munich, revived constantly by Communist propaganda, fear of Germany and the proximity of Russia, combined to make a tired people accept a yoke which seemed to them inevitable because there was no alternative. The Communists knew what they wanted; the other parties had no policy and were divided among themselves. The battle for power was almost lost on the first day of the second liberation. It could have been won only by a resolute Anglo-American policy, and for their tardiness the American and British Governments share some of the responsibility for what history will call the February revolution.


Between the two wars it was the rare fortune of Czechoslovakia to be led by two men of such outstanding genius and talent as Thomas Garrigue Masaryk and Eduard Beneš. By his death Jan Masaryk vindicated the principles for which these two men stood, and his name will live with their names in the memory and affection of the Czechoslovak people. Already they are landmarks in the history of their country, but names alone will not bring Czechoslovakia back to democracy. Today there are no men of even superior talent or political experience in the country, and until they arise and the world shapes itself anew no rapid change can be expected. Already decimated by the Gestapo during the war, the intellectual forces of the country have been dispersed. Some have escaped to face the hard lot of exile, others deprived of their livelihood, and others again forced by the necessity of their daily bread to tolerate and serve a régime for which they have no liking. Outwardly little has changed, but behind this external façade a cold terror stalks the land. The judiciary has become political. Freedom of the press has been submerged and a once voluble people reduced to silence in the open places. A great tradition of liberty has been broken. Secretly, class is divided against class and brother against brother. But all power is with the Communists who once again have proved how by ruthlessness and control of key positions a minority can subjugate a majority without firing a shot and without the aid of a single Russian soldier. A political mistake gave them a golden opportunity of destroying the opposition almost on the eve of free elections to which they were committed and which they would almost certainly have lost. Having achieved supreme power, they are unlikely to relinquish it or to treat lightly those who dare to oppose or criticize them.

There is perhaps one consoling factor in the present situation. The Czechoslovaks have always been and still are by nature a peace-loving people, and it is improbable that the present Communist régime in Czechoslovakia thinks in any other terms but those of peace in which to consolidate its position. It is even more improbable that M. Gottwald or any other Czechoslovak Communist, with the possible exception of M. Slansky, would take the risk of relying on the army or the people in the event of war. Indeed, the whole policy of the present Government is to assure the people that peace is now guaranteed and that trade with the west will be not only maintained but increased.

Given that the revolution was the accidental result of the opposition's initiative -- and I think that this is the correct interpretation of events -- it follows that Russia neither instigated the action nor chose the moment, although doubtless she could have forced the issue in one form or another whenever she desired. The revolution brings Czechoslovakia into the Russian orbit of consolidation and, like the Russian action in Hungary and Rumania, strengthens Russia's strategic position. To that extent it may be said to increase the danger of war. But by its nature it can hardly be regarded as a change in Russian policy. The universal triumph of Communism always has been and still is the goal of every true Communist. But the Kremlin and, in particular, Stalin himself have never shown any inclination to define the timing of this millennium, and it is still rather more than an even-money bet that Russia's policy of consolidation in Eastern Europe is dictated more by fear of being attacked than by the desire to attack others.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • SIR ROBERT BRUCE LOCKHART, British Representative with the Provisional Czechoslovak Government in London, 1940-1941; Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office, 1941-1945; author of "Memoirs of a British Agent," "Comes the Reckoning" and other works
  • More By Robert Bruce Lockhart