When Joseph Stalin died on March 5 1953, it sent shockwaves round the world. In Czechoslovakia his personality cult had been almost as overwhelming as in the Soviet Union itself. At the time of his death, work was already well under way to build the biggest statue of the Soviet dictator in the world – unveiled two years later in Letná Park. Stalin had a close ally and kindred spirit in the Czechoslovak President, Klement Gottwald, and Gottwald ignored warnings from his doctors in order to attend his friend and protector’s funeral. Before leading the Czechoslovak delegation to Moscow, he had a few words for his country’s citizens.
“I believe that when we stand in front of Lenin’s mausoleum – now Lenin and Stalin’s mausoleum – in Moscow, we shall be able to make a confident promise to these two greatest geniuses of humanity, in the name of all the people of Czechoslovakia, that we shall follow to the end, the path which they have shown us, and under the banner of Stalin and Lenin, we shall strive onwards towards the goal of socialism.”
President Gottwald himself was to survive the man to whom he owed his career by just nine days, dying of a burst artery on March 14 1953. This had probably been brought on by the stress of the trip to Moscow. Once again it was a time of pomp and ceremony, with Czechoslovak Radio’s Antonín Zíb providing a commentary on the huge state funeral in melodramatic style.
“The coffin, with the body of Klement Gottwald, is being carried past the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, shrouded in the black of mourning. The party says farewell to its dearest comrade. It was Klement Gottwald, who built and consolidated a party of a new, Leninist-Stalinist type… Klement Gottwald has not died, because the party lives on. The great, fraternal Soviet Union is with us, our powerful shield and support.”
In an atmosphere that echoed Stalin’s funeral, the deputy Prime Minister, Zdeněk Nejedlý, described the scenes of public mourning, as the coffin was borne through the city’s streets.
“They brought him so many flowers, wreathes and bouquets: the courtyard of Prague Castle, the bridge to the castle, even down in the city, all around the front steps of the National Museum - a flood of flowers, such as we had never before seen in this country.”
With the deaths of Stalin and Gottwald, the darkest episode in Czechoslovakia’s post-war history came slowly to an end, perhaps most symbolically in 1961, when the 22 metre-high statue of Stalin that towered above Prague was dismantled – with the help of nearly a tonne of explosives.
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