The 1948 communist takeover of Czechoslovakia remains a trauma for many Czechs today. Could the country’s fall under Soviet domination have been prevented? Why did Czechoslovak politicians of the era so severely underestimate the threat of communism? These are some of the issues discussed in a new biography of the politician Prokop Drtina, one of the key figures of the brief period between the end of the war and the start of the communist regime.
The signature tune of the BBC’s war-time Czechoslovak broadcasts, a voice of freedom for many people in their-Nazi occupied country. One of the most popular commentators who appeared on the airwaves was Prokop Drtina, under the pseudonym of Pavel Svatý, or Paul Saint. Here is rare footage of Prokop Drtina addressing Czechs and Slovaks back home sometime in 1941.
After the Czechoslovak government in exile returned from London in 1945, Prokop Drtina went on to become a key member of the country’s pro-democracy forces, aligned with the Communists in a fragile coalition that ultimately ended in the communist coup of February 1948, followed by 40 years of totalitarianism. Prokop Drtina attempted suicide, and eventually spent 12 years in communist jails.
Historian Ondřej Koutek is the author of Drtina’s first ever biography entitled Prokop Drtina: The Fate of a Czechoslovak Democrat. He explains what made him study the life and work of the popular politician.
“In this history of Czechoslovakia, which was very short, only 80 eighty years, there are not that many politicians who would be so important for the development the Czechoslovak state, and who would at the same time be interesting on the personal level. Drtina was not an ordinary politician as we know them today; he was really devoted the Czechoslovak state and its idea.”
Prokop Drtina was a leading member of the National Socialist Party, a significant group that shaped pre-war Czechoslovakia’s political scene, and had close ties to the country’s second president Edvard Beneš. Ever since the atrocities committed by German National Socialists, or Nazis, during the war, the name of the movement has very sinister connotations. The Czech and the German National Socialist movements had similar roots and shared an accent on nationalism, but the Czech movement was naturally very different from the Nazi party. Ondřej Koutek explains.
“They were devoted to ‘Czechoslovakianism’; they believed that Czechs and Slovaks were only one nation. It was important for Czechoslovakia in that period because there were only some eight million Czechs and two million Slovaks; the rest were large German, Hungarian, Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish and other minorities. So the state was very difficult to manage, given the size of the minorities. And it was probably the main reason why this nationalism was so important.”
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Prokop Drtina, a native of Prague, was a close collaborator of President Edvard Beneš, and a friend of his. Mr Koutek says this was indeed a rare occurrence.
“Prokop Drtina became his personal secretary. It was the start of an interesting relationship between Drtina and Edvard Beneš because President Beneš did not really have many personal friends or colleagues; he would always let’s say lecture everyone around him. He wanted to educate everyone he was with, and that was not very popular with other people. So I’d say Prokop Drtina was one of very few people who could be considered Beneš’ friends – although perhaps not in the typical way.”
On his way from a presidential aide to one of the most significant members of the Czechoslovak post-war government, Prokop Drtina spent most of the war-time years in London where he continued to work as Beneš’ close collaborator. This had a crucial significance for his post-war political career.
“This was another important moment because he joined Beneš in his London exile, and he became his political aide there. He also started his career as a BBC speaker. He was very popular on Czech territory, known as the Protectorate, as a speaker. He used his own code name – Pavel Svatý – which he originally used to protect his family here, but soon everyone knew who that was.”
Prokop Drtina’s regular commentaries broadcast by the BBC to the occupied territory became very popular back home. Drtina in fact escaped to London after living in the Protectorate for a year, and his experiences struck the right cord with his listeners.
“For one year, he lived in the Protectorate and he knew what life there was like. He knew what people felt. That was the main reason. But he was also very educated; he knew a lot about Czech history and traditions, he was a great fan of Czech music for example, and all these aspects were present in his addresses. These were the things people back at home wanted to hear.”
While in London, President Beneš and the Czechoslovak government in exile made some crucial decisions that affected the future of the country for decades, and are in fact felt even now. One of them was the decision to expel Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking minorities in retaliation for them having embraced Nazism. Ondřej Koutek says that for the most part, Drtina shared the views of President Beneš.
“I think that in this period, his opinions were very similar to those of President Beneš. There was one controversy between them but it was not related to the issue of the Soviet influence but rather to the issue of Czech and Slovak relations.
“In 1944, Prokop Drtina went to Slovakia during the Slovak National Uprising and he saw with his own eyes what was happening. Slovakia was an independent state, and he saw that Slovaks wanted to be Slovaks, not Czechoslovaks. They wanted to be part of Czechoslovakia without having to become Czechoslovaks.”
Another issue had to do with the country’s future relations to the Soviet Union; some historians argue that the 1943 agreement between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union paved the way for the communist domination.
“He shared those concerns but he believed that the Soviet influence was only temporary. He in fact thought the same of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party. He believed the post-war years was only a revolutionary period, and when it was over, Czechoslovakia would return to a normal democratic life.
“But he was not the only one with such illusions; all the non-communist politicians thought they would be able to handle the situation, they thought it would be possible to win the elections and that the Communists would gradually become a small party that would present no threat for Czechoslovak democracy.”
Some politicians, particularly those affiliated with non-socialist parties, realized the danger the Soviet Union and its fifth column within Czechoslovakia, the Communist Party, presented for the future of their country. Prokop Drtina had been to Moscow on several occasions and had first-hand experience with the Soviet regime. But Ondřej Koutek says that Drtina, just like President Beneš himself, was too naïve when dealing with the Soviet dictator.
“He was there in 1944, 1945 and for the last time in 1947 when he was a member of the Czechoslovak delegation that met with Stalin to hear that the country should not join the Marshall Plan. So he was there several times and I think he saw the situation in the right perspective. But I think he was mistaken about Stalin himself.”
Drtina along with his colleagues were apparently deeply impressed by the dictator even though Stalin’s opposition to Czechoslovakia’s joining the US Marshall Plan was a clear signal that the country’s independence was at risk.
“He was very surprised by Stalin. The Soviet leader was very amusing and friendly with Czechoslovak politicians. He simply knew how to charm whoever he wanted, and make them feel he wanted them on his side.”
After the exile government left London and returned to Prague – characteristically via Moscow – Prokop Drtina became the justice minister, and oversaw the trials with Nazis and Nazi collaborators. Prokop Drtina was ultimately responsible for many judicial errors and even judicial murders, but he was still criticized by left-wing extremists for being too soft.
This was an argument the Communists used very skilfully to their advantage. Along with other non-communist politicians, Prokop Drtina made the mistake of not recognizing a real threat, preparing for the previous war - as the saying goes.
“They believed that Germany was still the main enemy, rather than the Soviet Union. That was a serious mistake by this political wing, and I think the Communists knew very well how to turn this argument to their advantage.”
The Communists won the general elections in 1946, and Drtina was a minister in a government run by the communist prime minister, Klement Gottwald. With a clear mission and backed by the Soviet Union, they worked little by little to dismantle democracy in Czechoslovakia that had already been mutilated by the expulsions of Sudeten Germans and limitations imposed on its political life.
“The Communists were very good at getting power, although not at using it. But they knew exactly what they were doing, and I think Prokop Drtina and his political collaborators very seriously underestimated them. Drtina and his colleagues were responsible for the end of the pre-communist regime because they helped the Communists to win their coup.”
During the coup in February 1948, Prokop Drtina was high on the communist hit list. He made preparations for exiting the country like many of his colleagues and friends; but his plans failed and Prokop Drtina saw only one way out. Three days after the new, communist-controlled government took office, Drtina jumped out of the window of his Prague villa in an attempt to kill himself.
“I think it was a demonstrative suicide. He wanted to show that he couldn’t live in the new regime, and thought that his death would show the people that something was wrong. But he was also scared; he was under the supervision of the communist secret police; he feared being arrested, and he thought that death was a solution.”
Prokop Drtina was taken to hospital and a later to jail. He was sentenced to 25 years, and spent 12 of them in prison. After his release in 1960, Drtina wrote his extensive memoirs and three years before his death in 1980, he supported the human rights manifesto Charter 77.