After I experienced the commemoration of Prague Spring, 1968 in the Czech Republic, my interest in the history of communism in this country peaked. One of my friends from class mentioned that she wanted to go to the Museum of Communism downtown, and I immediately asked to join. What I was about to learn would change my life.
I had always known that communist governments were repressive. But, the extent to which they repressed their citizens was unknown to me. I had a fictional picture of communism in my mind: an Animal Farm-like reality in which nobody could trust anybody, wealth was extremely difficult to accumulate, and freedom was nonexistent. But, this fictional idea never was real to me. I imagined the real version of communism to be less harsh--that Czechoslovakia wasn’t repressed that much. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Communism in Czechoslovakia was extreme. It robbed people of everything they had, including their consciences, personalities, and ability to trust. It made each person just a number in a system, forcing them to act as cogs in the machine rather than human beings. The following is what I learned at the museum:
Although it wasn’t until after WWII when the Communist Party officially took control of the country, many citizens sympathized with communism in the early 1920’s. Leading up to the establishment of the Communist Party in the Czechoslovakian government in 1921, Czech lands suffered from droughts and poverty, and thus communism appeared to offer a solution to their problems. By 1928, the party had gained a substantial amount of followers, making it the second-largest party in the Communist International party.
After WWII, the USSR dictated the government in Czechoslovakia. Socialist parties were abolished, and the Communist party gained control. Once in control, the Communist Party leaders initiated massive eradications of dissenters. At the start of Communist control in Czechoslovakia, 23,000 people were found guilty of crimes. Of the 23,000, 713 were sentenced to death immediately.
In 1945, 75% of industry was in the government’s control, and in 1948, the government put to use the taking of others’ property, or “legalized theft.” Although Klement Gottwald was the president of Czechoslovakia, he had limited control himself. Most of the decisions were dictated to him from the USSR. Thus started what the Museum of Communism calls the “Communist Dictatorship.”
From 1948-1968, Czechoslovakia was subject to extreme poverty, doctrination, and oppressive control. The Communists created a new ideal for their citizens: Homo Communism. The new socialist man was the laborer. He volunteered for his community, loved the army, and waved the soviet union flag. To showcase this ideal, the government created many banners and paintings glorifying Homo Communism, including the huge painting attached at the bottom of this article. Because labor was valued so much, and because the Communists in Czechoslovakia thought that the bulk of the community relied on physical labor, the government sponsored many uranium mines. Working in these plants was extremely unhealthy, and the stress of gathering uranium left huge environmental issues in the country, as well as economic.
To compensate for the government’s overinvesting in industry, it decided to change the value of its currency overnight and lower its debts. Although a few days before doing so government leaders promised that the money value would not change, they changed the value regardless on June 1, 1953. Imagine going to bed with $50,000 dollars in your bank account, to wake up to only $1,000. The reform made paupers out of the citizens, while it decreased the debt of an extremely inefficient government system. Cash lost about 80% of its value. The West referred to this reform as the “great swindle,” which it surely was. 130 anti-communist strikes occurred as a result of the reform, to which the government acted violently to repress.
Additionally to the Homo Communism ideal, and all of the problems it brought with it, communism hacked away at Czech culture. Baby Jesus, who traditionally brings presents on Christmas Eve, was replaced by Grandfather Frost. The Scout program--an important extracurricular program for many Czechs--was replaced with the Pionyr program. The Communists tried desperately to thwart religious practices. Many faithful Catholics could not hold jobs where they had the possibility of affecting the culture. Among many Catholics thus persecuted, Dr. Radomir Maly, a former historian for a museum in the town of Kromeriz, was forced to quit his job and work as a menial worker because he would have had too strong of a religious effect on those around him. Dr. Maly’s story of persecution is a common one for faithful Christians in Czechoslovakia; from 1948 to 1968, the number of priests in the country decreased in half. Many practicing Christians were forced to either stop practicing their religion, or turn to illegal, underground meetings. The persecution of Christians has a lasting effect in Czech Republic. In 1921, about 82% of Czechs identified as Roman Catholic, but by 2011 only 10% of Czechs identified as Roman Catholic.
The Communist policies were bad. Taking away freedom anywhere is a violation of human rights. But the ways in which they were enforced are close to unimaginable. The StB was the Czechoslovakian secret police who monitored their neighbors all while remaining under cover of ordinary citizens. StB infiltrated all parts of life. In every avenue of work, members of the StB monitored their neighbors and coworkers. StB kept records of the people they watched. They listened in on phone conversations at switchboards, bugged rooms, and set up secret cameras. If these records hadn’t been burnt, they would have covered several soccer fields, piled a few meters high.
In the 1950’s, 422 labor camps were created, in which lived 11,026 residents. Dissidents and non-dissidents alike of the ‘Communist Dictatorship’ were systematically placed in these camps. The Ministry of Justice predetermined how many people they wanted to imprison. Thus, many of the imprisoned had not been loud dissidents of communism, and some hadn’t even committed any crimes. The StB had two rules regarding the placement of people into the prison camps: 1. The people arrested were the only witnesses to their crimes, and 2. The StB could never free someone they arrested. Breaking any of these rules would undermine the StB authority. The StB had several ways of forcing confessions out of their imprisoned: they would torture the arrested by not allowing them to sleep well, waking them every 15 minutes from their cells, they would beat them up physically, inject drugs into their systems, and not let them live until they forced a confession.
Travel was hardly an option for Czechoslovakians. Either they travelled to the West illegally (and never returned), or they travelled to the USSR on highly supervised trips. When Czechoslovakians visited the USSR, KGB was vigilant in never letting its visitors see the true face of communism. Escape from Czechoslovakia into Western countries was nearly impossible. Huge barriers and barbed wire fences were built along the borders, and sand plains led up to the barriers to highlight the dark bodies trying to escape against the white sand. Many were killed while trying to escape.
Communism was indoctrinated in schools. Children were taught to tell on their parents if their parents ever talked poorly of communism. My grandmother, who grew up in communist Prague, said that she had to be very careful with what she told her children. She admits though, that her children were smart and knew not to say anything, and that most of the other children understood not to talk about communism, too. Additionally, children were taught that wealth was evil. If someone acquired wealth, they were against the common man. The subject of their education was likewise made up of propaganda. For example, children had to write essays on the benefits of their liberators, the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly, if they questioned the essay prompt, or the USSR, they were met with grave repercussions.
Thus, Czechoslovakians lived very tough lives. Their commemoration of Prague Spring, 1968 weighs much more when seen with the knowledge of what Czechoslovakians were trying to escape. The goal of the commemorative movement--that the nightmares never go grey--was met with me. The commemoration made me interested in Czechoslovakian history, and made me question my previous knowledge. Now that I know this “Communist Dictatorship” started with the approval of the people, I will be much more skeptical about politicians in my own country, and vigilant that none try to take away my freedom. I hope that learning about communism in Czechoslovakia has the same effect on you, too.
Stay tuned for the second part: Prague Spring 1968-Post Communism
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Jessica De Gree
Jessica teaches English as a second language in Spain and plays basketball professionally there. She recently received her Bachelor's degree from Hillsdale College, one of the nation's top Liberal Arts schools in MI. At Hillsdale, she played basketball and studied English and Spanish. Some of her hobbies include reading, writing, painting, surfing, and playing the piano.