Exactly 57 years ago, on 25 February 1948 the Communists seized power in post-war Czechoslovakia. This marked the beginning of more than four decades of hard line communist rule, brought to an end by the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Czechoslovak Communist leader Klement Gottwald on that fateful day in 1948 announced on Prague's Old Town Square that the resignation of several non-communist ministers had been accepted by the president. Even though the change to a totalitarian system did not happen just overnight, this event was symbolic of the start of one-party rule. I met historian Jan Rychlik and asked him what happened on that cold February day to make it so important in the Communists' rise to power.
"What happened was a crisis of the government when ministers of three coalition parties: the National Socialist Party, the People's Party and the Slovak Democratic Party, submitted their resignations. This happened because the Communist Minister of the Interior Vaclav Nosek refused to re-hire some police officers who were dismissed for political reasons. When these ministers resigned, the Communists called for massive rallies and forced President Benes to accept their resignation and to appoint a new government which in fact was a government under the total domination of the Communist Party."
So was it just these political steps that led to the change of the system or were there also military forces involved?
"Military forces were not involved. But, despite the fact that the coup was bloodless and carried out in a peaceful way - it should be noted that the Communists had strong support among a substantial part of the officers and of the staff. This meant that if President Benes didn't agree to appoint the new government, the army wouldn't support him, and he would remain without any real power, because the police were already totally in the hands of the Communists. So the army was behind the scenes, ready to act if necessary. It was not involved, but if the coup had not gone along the lines prescribed by the Communists, it probably would have intervened."
Of course, Czechoslovakia did not become a Communist country just overnight; it was also a matter of the international situation. Can you say how the coup was affected or influenced from abroad?
"In September 1947 the so-called 'Information Bureau of the Communist Parties' was established, which was the renewed version of the pre-war 'Communist International' - the 'Comintern'. The Czechoslovak Communists were criticised by the Soviets for Liberalism and 'deviation from the right revolutionary path' and they were secretly ordered to prepare a seizure of power - if necessary by a coup. Otherwise the Communists before that counted more on the elections and they believed that with the help of the left Social Democrats they would be able to seize power in a democratic way. So the concrete form of the coup was in fact improvisational and was also influenced from outside."