SURVEY OF RECENT RESEARCH Historical and Political Studies on Czechoslovakia Since 1948

M.L. Sondhi

Reprinted from International Studies
Quarterly Journal of the Indian School of International Studies
New Delhi, Vol. IV, No. 4, April 1965

Czechoslovakia has been conspicuously involved in the significant events of our century. The materials available are so vast and of infinite variety that a comprehensive introduction to Czechoslovakia has either to overlook differences between different ideologies and traditions and provide a mere recital of events, or alternatively the writer allows the work to reflect his emotional views, and the objection can be brought against his book, that what he does not say is more important than what he does say. Among recent general works which are comprehensive, realistic, fair and readable, we can specially mention Professor S. Harrison Thompson’s revised edition of an earlier work Czechoslovakia in European History.1 This book should prove helpful to the student who is new to this area in developing insight into the important historical themes and the general ideas which are necessary to understand the evolution of Czechoslovak politics. Another work which is of considerable value as an introduction and can usefully supplement Thompson’s book is J. Lettrich’s History of Modern Slovakia.2 The author gives the history of Slovakia in modern times. His analysis of the separatist movement penetrates the surface of events, and shows altogether a balanced judgement.

Apart from these historical studies, Miss H. Wanklyn’s Czechoslovakia : A Geographical and Historical Study3 is an essential introductory work. A student of contemporary Czechoslovakia may find her treatment of economic history and political developments quite out-of-date; nevertheless, this excellently written work will compel attention and will provide him with the basis for a systematic study of the area. The maps in the volume are first-rate.


During the Narodni probuzeni (the National Awakening) in the first half of the 19th century there was remarkable progress in the field of social sciences which created the basis for high standards in scholarly research and criticism. It was only natural that freedom from foreign subjugation in 1918 should provide considerable stimulus to historical studies and to an increasing emphasis on the study of international relations. Czechoslovakia’s active role at the League of Nations also helped to develop a creative interest in the study of international relations in Prague and other centres of study in the country. The work of this period provides evidence of the coexistence of different philosophical systems in the academic world. The rise of Hitlerism and the convulsions in Europe after 1938 led to a series of changes in the political pattern of Czechoslovakia which have had their repercussions on the academic field. Three trends are specially significant. One relates to the consequences which followed from the impact of Nazi aggressiveness and its condonation in the initial stages by the Western governments. The second is the integration of the political, economic and social life of the country with Marxist ideology. Here it may be noted that the use of ideological terminology in academic work may sometimes impede objectivity, but does not in all cases rule out real progress in historical writing and in the analysis of international relations. The third trend is made up of the political forces and interests which involve Czechoslovakia in the Cold War. These provide serious difficulties in the delimitation of judgements based upon historical knowledge from the practical questions of possible political adjustments, which are of basic importance to the two power blocs. Czechoslovakia, as a small country, is still the object of great power politics.

A considerable amount of literature on the materialistic interpretation of history has been produced by Czechoslovak Marxists. Two of Zdenek Nejedly’s recent writings, Definy Soveikibo Svazu (History of the Soviet Union)4 and O Symslu ceskych dijin (On the Meaning of Czech History)5 give an adequate idea of his importance as a Marxist historian. Nejedly who died recently, made outstanding contributions to the social sciences as well as to the arts (particularly music) since the close of the last century, and invigorated the intellectual life of his nation. It is interesting to trace the development of his approach to history and politics from a position where he was close to the positivist views of his teacher Goll to a later frankly Marxian approach. Other prominent writers on historiography who are rigidly Marxist but lack the rich experience of Nejedly’s contact with a variety of historical methods are O. Riha, V. Husa, J. Macek, J. Cesar, F.M. Bartos, F. Kavka, P.Oliva, V.Kral, J. Krizek, A. Mika and Z. Solle.

Historical writing in Czechoslovakia has profited in the spheres of economic and social history on account of the emphasis on Marxian historiography. It is to be regretted, however, that in political history some works have appeared which are merely polemical in nature. Although some parts of M. Gus’s Americki imperialisti – inspiratori Mnicbovskej politiky (American Imperialists – Instigators of the Munich policy)6 and J.S. Hajek’s Wilsonska legenda v dejinacb CSR (The Wilson Legend in the CSR History)7 are skilfully written, such books cannot be regarded as presenting objective analyses.

One would welcome some rethinking on the question of periodisation. An idea of the general approach of Marxist historians can be had from V. Husa’s Epochy ceskych dejin (Periods of Czech History).8 If historical trends in neighbouring Poland are any guide, it may not be unexpected that in the future we may get some proof that conflicting tendencies have been at work within the Marxian framework of Czechoslovak historiography.

Historical Analysis

The Hussite period (14th and 15th centuries) has continued to attract the interest of Czechoslovak and foreign scholars and there are several new works which have added to the understanding of historical details as well to the evaluation of religious, political, social and economic doctrines which influenced this important period of Czech history. A useful reference book for sources on the Hussite period is J. Macek’s Ktoz jsu bozi bojovnici (Ye warriors of God).9 Macek’s two other books, Husitske revolucni hnuti (The Hussite Revolutionary Movement)10 and Tabor v busitskem revolucnim hnuti (Tabor in the Hussite Revolutionary Movement)11 deal with the roots of the Hussite movement and the assessment of its significance in the context of anti-feudalism. He also analyzes it as a national liberation movement and makes many interesting observations on the character of Hussite culture. The significance of Hussitism for other countries is also pointed out. The value of this work from the academic point of view is somewhat diminished on account of certain parts where the author seems to be anxious to show the connection between the Hussite tradition and the inspiration of the socialist ideology of present-day Czechoslovakia.

A very objective analysis of the Hussite period is found in the writings of Professor R.R. Betts of London University. Among his recent contributions are two short studies: Social and Constitutional Development in the Hussite Period12 and Some Political Ideas of the Early Czech Reformers.13 Professor Betts’s work in guiding research in Czechoslovak studies at London University is altogether a unique and valuable contribution.

The aftermath of the Hussite Wars was marked by a period in which a movement called the “Unity of Czech Brethren” developed. It expressed the political and social ideology of Petr Chelcicky who is included among the greatest names in his nation. The social radicalism of Chelcicky brings to mind a later day comparison, that of Gandhi in India. Up till now the later part of the Hussite century was neglected by foreign scholars. P. Brock has filled a gap by producing an excellent study, The Political and Social doctrines of the Unity of Czech Brethren in the fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries.14 This book is also of value for the student as an example of good use of primary and secondary source materials in Czechoslovak studies.

This Unity of Czech Brethren had one of its illustrious leaders in J.A. Komensky, known to the world as Comenius, a truly great humanist and pedagogue. The greater part of his life was spent in exile, and belongs to general European history. Some works dealing with the life and work of Komensky have appeared recently in Czechoslovakia to which attention may be invited: Jan Amos Komensky by J. Kopecky, J. Patocka and J. Kyrasek;15 Knizni dilo Jana Amose Komenskeho (Work of Jan Amos Komensky) by J. Brambora;16 and a commentary on Komensky’s Public Counsel on the Reform of Human Affairs entitled Jana Amose Komenskeho Cesta k vseneprave by J. Popelova.17

The Thirty Years War and the circumstances and events leading to the loss of freedom of the Czech nation have been the subject of several new studies. Significant among these are two works by J. Polisensky. In Anglie a Bila hora (England and White Mountain)18 he assesses the significance of the Bohemian war for British foreign policy and relates it to the nature of the social and economic struggle in the Bohemian estates. In Nizo-zemska politika a Bila hora (Dutch Policy and White Mountain)19 we have a fairly skilful analysis of the Dutch policy in the same context. A third volume dealing with Spanish policy (which was not accessible while this paper was written) promises to be of the same high level as its predecessors.

The Break-up of Austria-Hungary and

The Emergence of Czechoslovakia

The transition from the tutelage of the Czechs and Slovaks under Austria-Hungary to an independent republic can be traced at various levels. Z.A.B. Zeman’s The Break-up of the Habsburg Empire 1914-191820 provides the background for a study of the changes resulting from the conflicting nationalistic tendencies at work in the Austro-Hungarian empire. C.A. Macartney and A.W Palmer in their recent work Independent Eastern Europe21 have provided a very informative introduction for this period in the early part of their book. The Czechoslovak nationalist revolution can also be viewed in terms of a wider perspective of Slav-German relations. H. Kohn who is well known for his monumental work on nationalism has provided a new study: Pan-Slavism: its History and Ideology.22 The three parts of this work are “Pan Slavism and the West 1815-1860”; “Pan Slavism and Russian Messianism 1860-1905”; and “Pan Slavism and the World Wars 1905-1950.” A perspective on Pan-Slavism is useful but it is doubtful if this approach can provide help in understanding the historic changes which were influenced by many political, economic and military and ideological factors. Some writings from Germany, like E. Lemberg’s Volksbegriff und Staatsideologie der Tschen (the Concept of the People and the State Ideology of the Czechs)23 incline towards uncritical generalizations, and so do not reveal an adequate understanding of the resurgence of national feeling in the Czech lands.

Historical writing in Czechoslovakia has contributed significantly to the development of an interesting hypothesis about the emergence of the Czechoslovak State in terms of social and political change derived from basic economic changes. O. Riha, whose earlier work Hospadarsky a socialne-politicky vyvoj Ceskoslovenska (The Economic and Socio-political Development of Czechoslovakia)24 is well known, has provided a study with the description focussed on the behaviour of industrial and pre-industrial classes on Marxist lines in his O Narodnim hnuti a narodnostni otazce (About the National Movement and the National Question).25 Another example of analysis from a Marxian standpoint is found in J. Krizek’s Prispevek k dejinam rozpadu Rakouska-Uberska a vzniku Ceskoslovenska (Contribution to the History of the Disintegration of Austria-Hungary and the Birth of Czechoslovakia).26

An excellent book on diplomatic history which includes a well-documented account of the attitude of the United States towards the emergence of the Czechoslovak State is The United States and East Central Europe : A Study in Wilsonian Diplomacy and Propaganda by V.S. Mamatey.27

The Masaryk Era

At one time T.G. Masaryk had a secure image in the minds of all his countrymen irrespective of their ideological persuasion, much in the same way as Gandhi in India or Sun Yat Sen in China. There has been a spate of writing in Czechoslovakia which attempts to reduce seriously the record of his achievements. There is relentless criticism of Masaryk in two books by J. Krizek – T.G. Masaryk a cesca politika (T.G. Masaryk and Czech Politics)28 and T.G. Masaryk a nase delinicka trida (T.G. Masaryk and our Working Class)29 It would seem to an outside observer that genuine research is always impeded when historians and political scientists become ardent and uncritical admirers or ceaseless detractors. There is reason to regret the obsessive concern with the accumulation of evidence that Masaryk was a counter-revolutionary. Two collections of documents which were published fail to impress: Dokumenty a protilidove a protinarodni politice T.G.M. (Documents on the anti-Popular and Anti-National Policy of T.G.M.)30 and Dokumenty o protisovtiskych piklech ceskoslovenske reacke: z archivinibo materialu o kontra-revolucni cinnosti Masaryka a Benese v letech 1917-1924 (Documents on the anti-Soviet Conspiracy of the Czechoslovak Reactionaries : from the Archives on the Counter-Revolutionary Activities of Masaryk and Benes in the years 1917-1924)31.

It is not easy to anticipate the future attitude towards Masaryk in Czechoslovakia. The new course initiated by N.S. Khrushchev in the USSR retains its momentum and has its repercussions in Czechoslovakia. It is probably fair to hope that future Czech historians will one day approach Masaryk’s life and work with an academic temper and avoid both excessive admiration and hysterical hatred. As a matter of fact, Z. Nejedly’s biographical work on Masaryk remains a model of true scholarship whose balanced criticism should be emulated by some of the younger writers of today who tend to write exclusively in a tendentious and polemical manner.

The Munich Days

The twentieth anniversary of the Munich pact in 1958 was the occasion for the publication of documents and studies relating to the assessment of the crucial events preceding the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. The joint publication by the foreign Offices of Prague and Moscow of the New Documents on the History of Munich32 touched off a controversy. Soviet and Czech historians assailed the West for not supporting the Czechoslovak democracy and claimed that Soviet help was available although not utilized by the Benes government. In opposition to this, two studies appeared which pointed out deficiencies in the New Documents: an article by William Wallace33 who had earlier been allowed the use of the Foreign Office archives at Prague and another by F. Vnuk, Munich and the Soviet Union34 based on documents found in the German Foreign Office after the fall of Nazi Germany.

To enable the scholar to grasp the significance of the role of the main participants in the Munich conference, earlier writings like J.W. Wheeler-Bennett’s Munich: Prologue to Tragedy35 and R.G.D. Laffan’s Survey of International Affairs 193836 should be supplemented by personal accounts which have now become available like Memoirs of Dr. Edward Benes: From Munich to New War and New Victory37 and Fin d’une Europe by G. Bonnet.38 Other important books are Europe in Decay by Sir L.B. Namier,39 and Germany’s Eastern Neighbours by E. Wiskemann.40 B. Celovsky’s Das Muncbner Abkommen 193841 is the most comprehensive work available on the subject.

There are a considerable number of books and articles whose main concern is to sympathize with a particular standpoint. These works should be used with care. Among these, we can mention: Ian Macleod’s Neville Chamberlain,42 W. Jaksch’s Europas Weg nacb Potsdam43, H. Raschofer’s Die Sudetenfrage – Ibre wolkerrecbtliche Entwicklung vom ersten Weltkriege bis zur Gegenwart.44

A Snejdarek’s writings about this period are based upon a critical analysis of original sources. One of his articles deserves a special mention: “The Participation of the Sudeten-German Nazis in the Munich Tragedy” in Historica.45

V. Sojak has edited a study on the foreign policy of the Czechoslovak government in the inter-war period, O Ceskoslovenske Zabranicni politice v letech 1918-1939 (About Czechoslovak Foreign Policy in the Years 1918-1939)46 which is a skilfully written survey of the international politics of the period as they affected a small European Power. The events of Munich are viewed, however, mainly in terms of a failure of foreign policy which is criticized for being “western-oriented.” T. Prochazka’s “La Tchecoslovaquie de Munich a Mars 1938”47 brings out more successfully the insuperable difficulties which the Benes government faced in its attempts to pursue a genuine policy of peace.

On the wider subject of Czech-German relations, there are numerous studies. It is to be regretted that most of these are highly tendentious in their interpretation of primary sources.

The German occupation is the subject of several first-rate studies. An excellent work is V. Kral’s Otazky hospodarskebo a socialnibo vyvoje v ceskych zemich 1938-1945 (Questions of Economic and Social Development in the Czech Lands 1938-1945).48 The programme of aggression and ruthless exploitation of the Nazi leaders is not perhaps fully comprehended in a good part of the contemporary world. It is, however, inevitably a part of the experience of the Czechoslovak people and old fears and hatreds are not forgotten if a Cold War continues to cast dark shadows of uncertainty over the future.

An area of partisan polemics is the subject of the Slovak Rising during the War. The orthodox Communist point of view is found in J. Dolezal’s Slovenske narodni povstani (The Slovak National Uprising).49 Vedecka konferecia o Slovenskom narodom povstani (Scientific conference on the Slovak National Uprising)50 edited by M. Kropilak provides additional material for this interpretation. The opposite point of view is found in an article by I. Duchacek51 and in B.A. Toma’s Soviet Strategy in the Slovak Uprising.52 There is still a need for an objective study which could assess the significance of this glorious, through tragic happening in Slovak history.

The Events of February 1948

The return of Benes to Prague after the liberation of Czechoslovakia was widely hailed. Czech foreign policy henceforth was supposed to aim at making Czechoslovakia a bridge between East and West. The triumph of the Communist Party as a result of a cabinet crisis accompanied by public demonstrations had a marked impact on world opinion. This event undoubtedly exacerbated ill-feelings in the East-West contest and became a turning point in the Cold War. The literature on the February events in particular and on the post-war presidency of Benes is extensive. The most detailed analysis from the non-Communist point of view is in J. Korbel’s recent book, The Communist Subversion of Czechoslovakia.53 Korbel’s account is well-documented. It has, however, to be borne in mind that the author was Private Secretary to President Benes and his sympathies are clearly evident. Korbel, however, tries to prove a controversial theme, namely to interpret the Communisation of Czechoslovakia as the failure of her policy of co-existence. The exposition of this point of view is neither consistent nor convincing. Other Western accounts which should be referred to include H.G. Skilling’s articles: “The Break-up of the Czechoslovak Coalition 1947-48”54 and “The Prague Overturn in 1948,”55 and H. Seton-Watson’s The East European Revolution.56

The Communist justification for the February events is found in several books and innumerable articles. J. Vesely’s Kronika unorovych dnu 1948 (The Chronicle of the February Days of 1948)57 and G. Spurny’s, Unorove dny (The February Days)58 portray the role of the Communist Party in a favourable light. It is necessary to examine the views of two of the chief participants on the Communist side, which are found in Gottwald’s Kupredu, Zpatky ni krok (Forward, Not One Step Back)59 and A. Zapotocky’s Revolucni odborove bnuti po unoru 1948 (The Revolutionary Trade Union Movement after February 1948)60

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia

The development of Czechoslovak communism is part of the history of Czechoslovakia as an independent state. The study of the Party’s history involves consideration of its relationship with the Soviet Communist Party, its participation in trade union activity, its appeal to the intellectuals, its attitude to the agrarian problems and an analysis of the role of its ideology in its struggle for power. Prehled Dejin komunisticki strany (An Outline of the History of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia)61 and other official publications of the Czechoslovak Communist Party are as can be expected, laudatory descriptions of all events in terms favourable to the present party leadership. V. Kopecky’s 30 let KSC (Thirty years of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia)62 and similar books present information which strictly conforms to the official point of view.

Information which can balance the above accounts is based chiefly upon narratives by those who participated actively in the struggle between the Communists and their adversaries and their evaluation can hardly be expected to be wholly objective. H. Ripka’s Le Coup de Prague,63 is obviously a book in this category when it is remembered that the author was a member of the previous government of Czechoslovakia.

Among the mot detailed studies on Czechoslovak Communism is E. Taborsky’s Communism in Czechoslovakia 1948-1960.64 He has consulted almost all sources that were available outside Czechoslovakia. The work, while useful and important cannot be said to constitute a definitive treatment of the subject. It is particularly deficient in placing the politics of the Communist Party in the perspective of the Munich period. Problems of theory in the Czechoslovak context are not examined in their relations to the inter-state system of the communist bloc.

There are several earlier studies which deal with the Stalinist period and its legacy. It may be said that most of these books reflect the fears and frustrations which have been reducing the chances of coexistence and peace and have failed to contribute to new thinking on basic policies. We have still to wait for an evaluation which can take into account the forces which are slowly but surely eroding the Stalinist ideology.

Two books which show a new and welcome direction in western writings on Communist rule merit close attention. R.V. Burkes in The Dynamics of Communism in Eastern Europe65 has broken new ground. Z.K.Brzezinski has provided an excellent study of the intricate pattern of politics in the Soviet bloc today in his book The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict.66 His book is an important contribution to the study of post-Stalin developments and is of invaluable help to a student of Czechoslovak politics. What he says in conclusion about the Soviet bloc countries applies as much to Czechoslovakia: “In effect, the internal processes of change, differentiation, ideological relativisation and erosion, pointing toward Communist polycentrism, are engaged in a race with the external expectations of the Communist elite.”

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