On March 5, 1953 Stalin passed away into his place in
history, beginning a new era in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Under the new leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the people of Eastern Europe
began to feel the Stalinist repression lift from their shoulders.
This presumption was confirmed beginning with Khrushchev’s Secret Speech
in the 2nd month of 1956 during the XXth Party Congress. This criticism
of Stalin’s totalitarian ways would usher in new freedoms that the people
of Eastern Europe had not had in years. The De-Stalinization process
in each country could be compared to walking on burning coals; it was attempted
by the daring, but those that stepped out had to either head back or pay
the price. In Czechoslovakia, the people were allowed to step onto
the burning coals.
When Khrushchev stepped into power, it was Czechoslovakia that still strongly mirrored the Stalinist way. For years after Stalin’s death, no competition emerged to the Communist leaders in the country, leaving Antonin Novotny, a man who was disgusted with the idea of de-Stalinization, in charge of the Communist Party. Novotny had come to power as a result of his successful campaign to promote communism in 1948. With the help of Stalin he became secretary general in 1951 and prime minister of the Communist Party in 1957. With the help of a strong economy, Novotny was able to make a new Socialist constitution more than 7 years after Stalin’s death. As long as the economy was stable, the workers had no incentive to revolt.
It wasn’t long before the tide would turn, and Stalinist ways in Czechoslovakia faced the beginning of its end. There were three main contributors to its collapse. First, Khrushchev demanded that information be released about the Stalinist trials and purges from 1950 to 1954. It was becoming obvious that the Soviet leader would not allow the hard-line Communist way to continue. Second, and most importantly, a streak of bad luck finally caused an economic recession resulting from inefficiency, corruption and mismanagement in the mid to late sixties. The Soviet control disallowed international trade while they set prices too high for Czech workers. Last, and more of a result, Czech and Slovak intellectuals came together to write their opinions in Slovak publications.
In addition to the opposition from Khrushchev, Novotny faced a new opponent and critic: Alexander Dubcek.
Communism’s Final Stand and New History
In a region of the world that seemed
to be moving toward democratization, Czechoslovakia was at a standstill.
Their attempts at reform had been crushed by a Breshnev-controlled government
(that was currently in the local hands of Gustav Husak and the hard-line
Communists). Knowing what they had lost, the people of Czechoslovakia had
no choice except to continue with their lives and think about a time of
relative freedom. Communism, a system of government that had ruled
the nation for generations, was again curtailing the freedom of the people.
While what seemed to be Communism’s securest stronghold, Czechoslovakia
would soon not be able to contain the demand for freedom; in fact, the
nation was witnessing Communism’s final breath.
Under Gustav Husak the people were lethargic. They realized their attempt at freedom had failed and because of it became disheartened. Husak tried to lift the spirits of the people by giving mercy to the reformers. Instead of a great purge, Husak gained control a little more gradually…a little more quietly. Running on the success of the economy, the Communists in Czechoslovakia depended on the Soviets to keep them afloat. Inevitably, this economic system would not last. Without the free market system, Czech products could not keep up with the quality of foreign products. Even worse, to show the people that Communism was the answer, Husak refused all reform. Communism was making a futile last stand.
Like the water leaks of an old rusty pipe, an underground culture for civil rights began to emerge through the Communist barrier. Charter 77 and Vons led the way, formed by the people of Czechoslovakia to directly speak out against their repressive government. The intellectuals and youth generation were immediately put down. Again, it seemed as if Czechoslovakia would be stuck with a government that would not budge.
It wasn’t long before Husak (and his younger partner Milos Jakes) was holding the country together with the only action under his control: creating fear. With Gorbachev leading the Soviets, Husak probably began to see the end of his regime. What Gorbachev started, reformers from the inside finished. The pipes burst, and reform from Charter 77 and Vons (and even more radical groups) spread through the nation in July of 1989.
After the Prague Spring it began to look like Czechoslovakia would be able to hold onto its Communist past; inevitably the hard-liner government could not hold back the reforms that came both from the outside (with the Soviets) and the inside (with the reform movement). Whatever would happen in the future would happen without the leadership of the Communist government.
With Alexander Dubcek at the head of the Slovaks and Vaclav Havel leading the Czechs, a multiparty system arose in 1990 with seven parties having representation in the Federal Assembly. With an end to Communist rule, the Czech-Slovak marriage began to crumble. In the early 90’s the disagreement over what to do with this state is what eventually drove it apart. The Czechs wanted a strong central government and unification while the Slovaks realized they would never be fairly represented until they were separated. A rise in Slovak nationalism combined with economic fears of an “uncompromising proponent of federation and market economy” led to the official split on January 1, 1993. It was on this day where the history of one nation became separate.
In the newly formed Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel held the position of head of state from since 1993. It was under his rule where reform was made towards the privatization of business and the lessening of state control. As a result, The Czech Republic has had more success with more foreign trade and less unemployment. It was this success that led to membership in NATO and the beginning of negotiations into the EU.