February 1948 in Prague
Six Days that Determined the Republic
This wording, which so aptly characterised the last round of the struggle for power in Czechoslovakia at the end of February 1948, appeared on a propaganda poster of the artist Jiří Kodejš referring to the 25th anniversary of 'Victorious February'. It was one of the cardinal moments of Czechoslovakian history that adumbrated the entire second half of the 20th century. The circumstances of the stimulation of the coup in Czechoslovakia must be understood in the context of after-war political changes, as a consequence of the inclusion of Czechoslovakia in the influential sphere of the contemporary Soviet Union and the enormous growth of the membership base of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The populist programme, supported by social agitations and pro-Soviet post-war pathos, brought a swift first success after the national committee elections in May 1946 where the communists achieved the highest representation in the newly elected local national committees (communists – 108 members, national socialists – 92, social democrats – 89, People's Party – 54, without party affiliation – 23).
A year later, the communists received 36% of the votes in the elections for the National Assembly which made them the strongest party in Prague. With the number of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) members (140,000 members in March 1947) steadily increasing, their influence in the structures of Prague industrial enterprises strengthened as well as in the management of armed forces and police services which turned into the main means of the struggle for power with non-communist parties. On 10 September 1947, the unsuccessful assassination attempt of three ministers (Petr Zenkl, Jan Masaryk, and Prokop Drtina), referred to as the Krčmaň Affair, aroused public interest. Although the independent investigation initiated by the Minister of Justice, Prokop Drtina, proved a connection with the communists at the KSČ secretariat in Olomouc, the Minister of the Interior, Václav Nosek, made efforts to thwart it.
This and other politically motivated cases (e.g. the Most Affair) prompted Minister Nosek to issue a secret order on 12 February 1948 to dismiss the last eight non-communist heads of the National Security Corps in Prague and replace them with communists. When Nosek ignored the appeal of the non-communist ministers to annul the order, the representatives of the Czech National Socialist Party, People's Party, and Democratic Party decided to boycott the government session scheduled for 17 February and notify the Prime Minister about their intended abdication unless a report on the misuse of security corps would be debated. President Edvard Beneš was to support them, as he could appoint a caretaker government, announce a snap election, or refuse their resignation. In the meantime, Prime Minister Klement Gottwald informed the president about the plan of non-communist ministers to declare a caretaker government which Beneš refused and insisted on the existing composition of the government.
A government session was scheduled for Friday, 20 February, morning; however, only communists and social democrats participated. The ministers of other parliament parties did arrive at the Straka Academy but instead of taking part in the session, Minister Petr Zenkl presented a request to Prime Minister Klement Gottwald to debate the government resolution of 13 February. In his prompt answer, Gottwald referred Zenkl's group to Minister Václav Nosek who might explain this matter. Gottwald did not respond to the next report. The present non-communist ministers representing three parties agreed on submitting their resignations to which they also invited Jan Masaryk, Minister of Foreign Affairs. Masaryk refused, similar to the social democratic ministers. At noon, Minister Zenkl reported the decision of the ministers of the three parties to submit their resignations to the president. During the afternoon meeting of the communists, Klement Gottwald proclaimed their clear goal: to accept the resignations of the ministers and use the governmental crisis for the decisive encounter and definitive takeover of the power in the country. The action committees of the National Front were mobilised as one of the tools to establish the communist power monopoly. Minister Nosek commanded that 2,000 members of the National Security Corps be on alert. According to the historian Karel Kaplan, 460 people were arrested in the following five days, mostly regional functionaries of non-communist parties. In the following days, President Beneš was confronted with a difficult dilemma: offer resistance to the communist coup and risk armed intervention of the Soviet army or partake in the takeover of the power by communists in the spirit of an anti-constitutional coup ...
A letter of Klement Gottwald to Petr Zenkl in which the Prime Minister invites him to the government session. Text reproduction, 20 February 1948. MMP H 198 576; Reproduction of the resignations of the ministers Petr Zenkl, Hubert Ripka, Jaroslav Stránský, and Prokop Drtina addressed to Edvard Beneš. Text reproduction, 20 February 1948. MMP H 198 577.
On Saturday, 21 February, a mass demonstration instigated by the communists assembled in Old Town Square in Prague at which Klement Gottwald made a speech from the Kinsky Palace balcony, presenting the programme of the party and the settlement of the governmental crisis. The speech was broadcasted on the radio and functioned as an appeal for similar events in other cities. On that day, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia instructed to establish the armed forces of Workers' (later renamed People's) Militias which appeared in the streets shortly thereafter. From early morning, Prague Castle was swarming with telegrams and resolutions of enterprises calling for the confirmation of the ministers' resignations.
Title page of Rudé právo on 21 February 1948. A report on the attitude of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and call for a demonstration. MMP HNS 000 099/061.
The morning in the Aero Letňany enterprise – the employees are leaving for the demonstration in Old Town Square. 21 February 1948, MMP H 198 578; Selected snapshots of processions heading for Old Town Square. 21 February 1948, MMP H 044.098/010 and H 200 247/003.
Prime Minister Klement Gottwald arrives on the Kinsky Palace balcony with communist ministers and invited guests. MMP H 200 247-006; The mass of people during the speech of Klement Gottwald. 21 February 1948. MMP H 085 794.
The Kinsky Palace balcony during the Old Town Square demonstration. 21 February 1948. MMP H 085 824; The mass of people during the speech of Klement Gottwald. 21 February 1948. MMP H 044 098/012.
Original unretouched picture of the speech of Klement Gottwald at the Old Town Square on 21 February 1948. In the back from left: Minister of Foreign Affairs Vlado Clementis and photographer Karel Hájek, MMP H 085 795; Klement Gottwald during his speech on 21 February 1948 in Old Town Square; photo by ČTK. Two people have been retouched behind Klement Gottwald (photographer Karel Hájek and Minister of Foreign Affairs Vlado Clementis who was executed on 3 December 1952. After Clementis was rehabilitated 10 years later, the original picture was re-permitted.), MMP H 085 778.
On Sunday, 22 February, the main stage relocates to the Industrial Palace for a coordinated congress of works committees and trade union groups (ROH) which adopted a motion of confidence in Gottwald. During this meeting, a general strike was agreed upon for Tuesday, 24 February. Besides other matters, the congress debated the necessity to continue in the business nationalisation process. Based on a fabricated report about a planned coup, several opposition politicians were arrested. People's Militias occupied the prominent public areas and strategic buildings in Prague including those of radio and television. Information arrived from the Soviet Union articulating definite support of the actions of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which is published in the Czechoslovak press the next day.
Klement Gottwald speaks at the national congress of works committees in the Industrial Palace. 22 February 1948, MMP H 044 098/017; Antonín Zápotocký delivering a speech at the national congress of works committees in the Industrial Palace. 22 February 1948, MMP H 044 098/016.
The congress of works committees in the Industrial Palace in Prague. Image of the main stand during the speech of Antonín Zápotocký, deputy and chairman of the Central Trade Union Council. 22 February 1948, MMP HNS 000 263/060.
Snapshots from the national congress of works committees in the Industrial Palace. 22 February 1948, MMP H 044 098/018.
Workers are informed about the resolution of the national congress of works committees at the Tatra Smíchov national enterprise, MMP HNS 000 264/060; Current political events and responses to them in Rudé právo newspaper. 23 February 1948, MMP HNS 000 921/061.
On Monday, 23 February, house searches continued as well as arrests of some non-communist politicians. In the early morning, the National Security Corps members encircled the secretariat of the Czech National Socialist Party at Wenceslas Square in the building of the Melantrich Publishing House. The local personnel were asked to leave their workplace. Information about anti-state activities of non-communist politicians were publicly broadcasted; here is a sample of a retrospective commentary from the book Vítězný únor ve fotografii (Victorious February in Pictures) of 1949: 'While subversive materials and weapons were detected in secretariats and flats of the republic enemies, the righteous representatives of all parties formed the Central Action Committee of the National Front.' The representatives of justice who participated in the investigation of the Krčmaň and Most Affairs were arrested. At 11 am, Gottwald and Beneš met where the president called for the preservation of the original National Front, yet to no avail. At 4 pm, the president met with the national socialist ministers to assure them that he would not yield to the communist pressure. At 7 pm, national socialist university students gathered at the Municipal House to assemble for a procession of more than 10,000 people to walk at 8 pm to Prague Castle in support of President Beneš.
Roundup in the secretariat of the Czech National Socialist Party in the Melantrich building at Wenceslas Square, MMP H 044 098/019 – cut-out.; Meeting of the Central Action Committee of the National Front. 23 February 1948, MMP H 044 098/019 – cut-out..
The communist repressions were now aimed against the People’s Party as well. Under threat of arresting the ministers who submitted resignations, the president was urged to accept the resignation of the government. At 12 o’clock, the one-hour general strike began which was organised by trade unions and works committees under the patronage of the Communist Party. A procession formed by tens of thousands of workers to support Klement Gottwald marched through the centre of Prague. A dispute culminated among the social democrats because of diverging opinions on the support of the communist coup. Eventually, the communists occupied their secretariat and Lidový dům (People’s House), and the party accepted participation in the future government under pressure.
Workers of ČKD Company in Vysočany during the general strike on 24 February 1948, MMP H 198 580 a MMP H 198 579.
Title page of Rudé právo newspaper on 25 February 1948 bringing information about the national general strike, MMP HNS 000 102/061; Old Wenceslas Square at noon on 24 February 1948. All transportation was ceased for an hour during the strike, MMP H 119 546.
The procession of workers marches across Wenceslas Square. 24 February 1948, MMP H 044 098/029; A collection of agitation photographs featuring Workers’ (later People’s) Militias and National Security Corps units, MMP H 044 098/029.
Wednesday, 25 February, marked the last day of the government crisis. Representatives of national socialists and communists met with President Beneš separately. Klement Gottwald, Antonín Zápotocký, and Václav Nosek submitted a document of the new government to the president. Beneš promised to make a decision the same day. Since the early morning, there had been a mass demonstration at Wenceslas Square in Prague attended by over 100,000 people. It served as a warning voice of the people in case the president would hesitate to support the communists. Later, President Beneš confided to Jan Masaryk, Chancellor Smutný, and his physician that he would accept the resignations of the ministers. In his words, it was too late for open action against the communists; moreover, he expressed his worries concerning further chaos and repressions. At 5.30 pm, another short meeting was held between Beneš and Gottwald. The president accepted the resignations of the ministers and completed the government according to Gottwald's proposal. Another procession of university students to Prague Castle, against which the National Security Corps and People's Militias take action, could not reverse the decision. Klement Gottwald first informs the leaders of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia about the result of his meeting with the president and only then arrives at Wenceslas Square to be frenetically welcomed by the mass of excited people.
Negotiating the proposed resignations of the non-communists at the round table in the president’s office at Prague Castle. From left: Edvard Beneš, Antonín Zápotocký, Klement Gottwald, Václav Nosek, MMP H 240 247; PPrime Minister Klement Gottwald and President Edvard Beneš having signed the resignations of non-communist ministers, MMP H 200 247/021.
President Edvard Beneš signing the resignations of non-communist ministers, MMP HNS 000 304/00d.
Copy of the document with the proposal of Gottwald’s new government composition, MMP HNS 000 895/061 a HNS 000 896/061 a MMP HNS 000 899/061.
Rudé právo newspaper on 26 February 1948. The title page with the list of the new government members, MMP HNS 000 103/061; Prime Minister Klement Gottwald and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Rudolf Slánský, approach the crowd, MMP H 044 098/034.
The crowd waiting for Prime Minister Klement Gottwald arriving from the negotiations with the president. 25 February 1948, MMP H 044 098/034; mprovised stand on a lorry platform at Wenceslas Square, MMP H 044 098/031.
Prime Minister Klement Gottwald informs the public that President Edvard Beneš accepted the resignations of non-communist ministers. 25 February 1948, MMP H 198 751; In the presence of his party co-members, Prime Minister Klement Gottwald informs the crowd about the results of his meeting with President Edvard Beneš, MMP H 044 098/035.
Minister Václav Kopecký speaks to the crowd at Wenceslas Square. 25 February 1948, MMP H 044 098/032; Zdeněk Nejedlý greets the people at Wenceslas Square. 25 February 1948, MMP H 044 098/033.
Collage of pictures from the evening parade of the People’s Militias at Wenceslas Square. 25 February 1948, MMP H 044 098/037 a /038; View of the demonstrating crowds at Wenceslas Square in the evening of 25 February 1948, MMP H 198 584.
Further events soon followed the crucial six days. On 27 February, the president accepted the new government members who were sworn in. On 11 March, a day after the still unclear death of Jan Masaryk, the newly composed communist government was authorised. On 9 May, a new constitution was adopted which anchored the People’s Democratic Republic as a new political system. On 30 May, there were elections for the National Assembly which enabled to vote in only the candidates of the National Front which was fully controlled by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Klement Gottwald achieved the climax of his political career when President Edvard Beneš abdicated for health reasons on 2 June. Twelve days later, who else but the current Prime Minister Klement Gottwald was elected to replace him.
The newly composed Gottwald’s government is being sworn in by President E. Beneš. 27 February 1948, MMP H 198 585/001.
Double sheet from the book by Vilém Kún – Victorious February in Pictures, Prague 1949.
Propaganda poster published for the 6th anniversary of Victorious February (1948–1954), MMP H 200 100/010; Poster for the 25th anniversary using a photomontage from the speech of Klement Gottwald in Old Town Square in Prague on 21 February 1948. Created by Fr. Kraus. Published by Svoboda for ÚV KSČ, 1973. Printed by SG 2, MMP H 088 949.
Poster for the 25th anniversary of Victorious February (1948–1973). Created by K. Kroupa. Published by Svoboda for MK ČSR, 1973. Printed by VČT 01, Pardubice, MMP H 088 939; Jan Čumpelík, At Dawn of a February Day. Reproduction of a painting from 1950 for the propaganda materials for the 25th anniversary of Victorious February (1948–1973), MMP H 091 120.
Poster for the 25th anniversary of February (1948–1973) with the motto ‘Guard and Develop the Revolution Legacy of February, Build and Solidify the Socialist Country’,1973. Created by J. Figer, MMP H 088 937; Poster for the 25th anniversary of Victorious February (1948–1973). Six Days which Determined the Republic. Created by J. Kodejš,1973. Printed by SG 2, MMP H 088 944.
Poster for the 25th anniversary of February (1948–1973) with a quote from Klement Gottwald’s speech (text in the red field). Created by P. Matoušek,1973. Printed by VČT 01, Pardubice, MMP H 088 942.
Poster for the 25th anniversary of Victorious February (1948–1973) with a quote from Klement Gottwald’s speech (text in the white field). Created by P. Matoušek,1973, Pardubice, MMP H 088 943/001.
Poster for the 25th anniversary of Victorious February (1948–1973), MMP H 088 949/006; Poster for the 25th anniversary of Victorious February (1948–1973). Created by Vl. Hájek, MMP H 091 120/008.
Poster for the 25th anniversary. Propagation of the People’s Militias. Motto: People’s Militias – Firm Guards of Socialism. Created by J. Sádlo, MMP H 091 120/014; Poster for the 25th anniversary of Victorious February (1948–1973). Created by V. Šťastný, MMP H 091 120/015.
Poster for the 25th anniversary. Created by J. Lidral. Published by Svoboda. Printed by SG 2, MMP H 088 946; Poster for the 25th anniversary. Motto: People’s Militias – Firm Guards of Socialism. Created by Z. Filip, MMP H 091 120/011.
Poster for the 25th anniversary. Agitation slogans about working intelligentsia, MMP H 091 120/017; Poster for the 25th anniversary. Agitation slogans about happy young people, MMP H 091 120/018.
Poster for the 29th anniversary. Created by J. Lidral. Published by ÚV NF ČSSR at Svoboda,1977. Printed by VČT 01.; Poster for the 30th anniversary of Victorious February published for the 15th Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Created by J. Procházka, 1978, Pardubice, MMP H 118 544.
Poster for the 27th anniversary of Victorious February (1975), MMP H 103 168/001; Reproduction of a painting by Vilém Nowak, February 1948, oil on canvas. National Gallery in Prague. Published by Odeon, nakl. krásné literatury a umění v Praze in 1978. Printed by Severografia Děčín, MMP H 117 165/001.
Poster February 1948. Forward, not a step backwards! From the collection of communist posters 1945–1948 published by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the Museum of Klement Gottwald in 1978. Printed by Severografia Děčín, created by A. Zábranský, MMP H 118 061; Poster for the 36th anniversary of Victorious February (1948–1984). Created by J. Lidral. Pardubice, MMP H 129 672.
Poster February 1948–1978. Published for the 30th anniversary with the slogan: We greet the 30th anniversary of Victorious February through our work success!, 1978, MMP H 204 229; Poster for the 38th anniversary. Created by F. Kraus, published by MV KSČ at Svoboda, printed by Stráž 101 Plzeň, MMP H 129 670.
Poster with the title We Are Proud of February 1948. Unsigned, no date (1980s), MMP H 118 543.
Poster for the 33rd anniversary. Published by MK ČSR at Svoboda, January 1981. Created by J. Chadima. Printed by MTZ 30, MMP H 204 229; Poster for the 40th anniversary. Created by P. Šejd, published by MV KSČ at Svoboda, printed by Mír 3 Praha, MMP H 139 028.
Poster for the 34th anniversary. Created by K. Míšek. Published by MK ČSR at Svoboda. Printed by MTZ 30, MMP H 118 497; Poster for the 40th anniversary with the inscription For Socialism and Peace with the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the Lead. Created by R. Werner, MMP H 139 151.