WORLD FOCUS: Flashback to witnessing a coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia

While watching the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump on Jan 6. 2021, on TV, I had a vivid flashback on the Communist coup d’etat in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

In late February 1948, the Communist party of Czechoslovakia, with Soviet backing, performed a coup d’etat, taking control of the government of the country.

This was the onset of four decades of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Cold War.

I was there, witnessed and reported on every aspect of the Communist takeover of the country.

Following World War II, the Communist party of Czechoslovakia had a favorable reputation in the country. Its wartime record was clean, it cooperated with non-Communist parties and its identification with the Soviet Union, the country’s main liberator from the Nazis, was advantageous.

Thus, in the 1946 free election, the Communist party won 38% of the vote. This was the best-ever performance by a European Communist party. President Edward Benes, not affiliated with any party, invited Klement Gottwald, the chairman of the Communist party to form a coalition government.

The government had a non-Communist majority, but the control of the police and armed forces, as well as key ministries such as information, education, social welfare and agriculture was in Communist hands. And they systematically consolidated their power.

Subsequently, Communist ministers overplayed their hands and alienated whole blocs of voters. By the summer of 1947, it became obvious to the Communist party that in the forthcoming free election they will lose their majority. Retaining power by any means become their goal.

The Communist party created an atmosphere of mounting tension, coupled with massive Communist-led demonstrations. They created “action committees,” organized and armed trade union militias, whom they sent into the street to threaten anyone expressing anti-Communist sentiment.

The non-Communist ministers resigned from the government and Prime Minster Gottwald demanded from President Benes to permit him to form a new government of his choosing.

On Feb. 25, 1948, Benes, fearful of civil war and Soviet intervention, capitulated. The Communist party achieved its goal without its militia firing a shot. In the ensuing election, the Communist party and its fellow travelers received over 80% of the votes.

The Iron Curtain descended around the country and it was not lifted until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Watching the storming of the Capitol by President Trump’s supporters, I was reminded, how democracies perish.

What happened in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, was not the action of a headless mob. Its purpose was to nullify the 2020 presidential election and pressure Vice-President Pence and Congress to reject President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

The storming of the Capitol was called insurrection, sedition and domestic terrorism. Legal experts prefer to call it an attempt for a coup d’etat. Such efforts have succeeded many times in many countries.

It is to the credit to our country that within hours after the Capitol was stormed and evacuated, Congress reconvened and President-elect Joe Biden’s victory was ratified.

Former Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger, while Chancellor of the College of William & Mary, in a conversation at the Reves Center of International Studies, was talking about the fate of nations. He said, “Yes, nations, just like individuals can go crazy. It happened in Germany.”

(Frank Shatz is a former Lake Placid resident and currently lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns.)