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The Communist Period

 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

When the war ended, the victors essentially reestablished the prewar territorial status quo. Czechoslovakia reemerged as a unified state, regaining territory in eastern Slovakia that the Nazis had ceded to Hungary. (The one exception: Ruthenia, in far eastern Slovakia, was handed to the Soviet-controlled Ukraine.)

The new government immediately expelled the Sudeten Germans and deported 75,000 ethnic Hungarians, in exchange for ethnic Slovaks living in Hungary. These ethnic transfers, which represented score-settling from the war period, made the demographics of the second Czechoslovakia very different from those of the first. Whereas in the first state, Germans outnumbered Slovaks by one and a half to one, in the new state the Slovaks were by far the largest minority. By 1950, they outnumbered the next-largest minority, Hungarians, by nine to one.

Yet demographic gains did not translate into political ones. The Communists gained 38 percent of the vote in the May 1946 elections (40 percent in the Czech Lands, 30 percent in Slovakia). This was sufficient for the Communist leader, the Czech Klement Gottwald, to claim the premiership. Any talk of an autonomous Slovak state within greater Czechoslovakia quickly faded.

Part of the problem was Czech resentment of Slovak collaboration with the Nazis. "Arguments that the Slovaks had chosen the 'lesser evil' after the failure of Czech foreign policy in 1938 were largely dismissed, and a suspicion of Slovak nationalism developed that was still palpable in the 1990s," writes Henderson.

Another obstacle was Communist politics. Czech Communists such as Gottwald had spent the war in the Soviet Union, establishing relationships with Stalin. Slovak Communists tended to have spent the war fighting with the partisans in Slovakia. Stalin, historians assert, felt less comfortable with them, and thus did not promote their interests. Finally, Soviet-style Communism itself, which tended to centralize power and willfully ignore any plurality of interests, also worked against Slovak autonomy.

At any rate, with much more support in the Czech Lands than in Slovakia, the Communists slowly consolidated power in Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1948. In 1947, Stalin pressured the government to reject involvement in the U.S.-funded Marshall Plan for rebuilding war-torn Europe. Meanwhile, the party began to use the interior ministry and the state-security apparatus, known as the ŠtB, to keep tabs on opponents.

In February 1948, several non-Communist ministers resigned from the government in protest against actions of the ŠtB. They meant to trigger reform; instead, because of bad communication between the ministers and President Beneš, the Communists took complete control over the government, backed by mass demonstrations.

Reprisals began soon after. As early as April 1948, high officials in the opposition Democratic Party were put on trial, convicted, and handed long jail terms. In May, the government held new elections. As in Slovakia under Tiso, voters were confronted with a single list of candidates, which they could accept or reject. Beneš resigned from the presidency in June, to be replaced by the Communist Gottwald.

Slovak autonomy was minimal. A system of "asymmetry" developed: the Slovak Communist Party existed as a quasi-independent entity, but it had no Czech counterpart. Instead, there was a Czechoslovak Communist Party - based in Prague and generally dominated by Czechs. So while the Slovak CP could theoretically make policy for Slovakia, its power was greatly subordinate to that of the Czechoslovak CP.

This was the era of Stalinisation in Eastern Europe, and Czechoslovaks received a vigorous dose of it. The party targeted an institution dear to most Slovaks: the Catholic Church. The government closed all monasteries in 1950, and all convents soon after, sending many of their denizens to labor camps. The Greek Catholic Church, a major institution among eastern Slovakia's Ruthenian minority, found itself absorbed into the Orthodox church after more than three centuries under the wing of the Vatican.

And having purged itself of non-Communists, the government moved to settle scores among its own ranks. Though purge trials swept through the entire Eastern Bloc, they were "particularly violent in Czechoslovakia, in part as a response to the country's strong democratic traditions," Henderson writes. Slovak partisan leaders of the National Uprising found themselves targeted as insufficiently loyal to the Party. This was ironic, given the vast number of monuments that were then being erected all over Slovakia to honor those anti-Nazi rebels.

If Stalinism in Czechoslovakia was particularly vigorous, it also proved impressively durable, surviving Stalin's death in 1953. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, introduced the "de-Stalinisation" concept in 1956 at his famous Secret Speech. "Ironically, de-Stalinisation was slowed by the fact that the Czechoslovak 'Little Stalin,' Gottwald, died shortly after Stalin's funeral. This allowed the party to install another leader, Antonín Novotny, who was actually no less hard-line than his predecessor, but who nonetheless escaped Soviet pressure to replace leaders tainted by having ruled in the worst period of Stalin's excesses," Henderson writes.

Thus it wasn't until 1961, when Khrushchev made his second de-Stalinisation speech, that the Party eased its grip. By then, however, economic stagnation had set in. In the 1950s, with its rapid collectivisation and industrialisation, Czechoslovakia experienced significant economic growth - particularly in the Slovak part. According to Henderson, Slovak "village life had been opened up: there were opportunities for regular, secure employment in new industries while commuting from village homes; the introduction of cooperative agriculture, after the initial shock of losing individual ownership of land, gave security and welfare benefits previously unknown; and young people were trained in technical professions necessary for industrial enterprises and large-scale agriculture."

But by the 1960s, growth began to dry up as the initial benefits of industrialisation were spent. By 1963, the economy began to shrink. And the young people trained in universities during the 1950s began to analyse the situation critically.

Meanwhile, the Communist leader Novotny began to lose his grip on power. Henderson paints him as an unreconstructed Stalinist who was also "deeply and offensively anti-Slovak." This eroded his support base in his own party, whose second-in-command was the Slovak Alexander Dubček. And Moscow, now under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, deplored Novotny's arrogance about real or imagined Czechoslovak achievements. In January 1968, Dubček replaced Novotny as party leader. Without anyone knowing it, a brief spring had dawned in Czechoslovakia's icy political culture.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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