How the West lost Czechoslovakia to the Communists

Could the United States and the West have saved Czechoslovakia from half a century of the communist yoke following the Second World War? Igor Lukes—the author of On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague and professor of history and international relations at Boston University—presents a compelling argument in the affirmative. Just as the surrender of half of Europe to the Soviets was not unavoidable (while Lukes does not venture this far, there is sufficient evidence to support this statement), neither was the second betrayal of Czechoslovakia within ten years to another totalitarian occupation inevitable.

Rather, the Sovietization of the democratic Central European nation was, as Lukes demonstrates, the result of political, diplomatic, and intelligence failure.

In the final months of the war in early 1945, as the Western Allies and Soviets closed in on Germany, the United States was still a hostage of the single-minded Roosveltian policy of naïvely appeasing one totalitarian (the Soviet Union) to defeat another (the Third Reich). Thus, in April 1945, when U.S. forces approached the mountainous German-Czech border, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower—the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe—refused to allow Gen. George S. Patton to drive forward and liberate Prague. (In the end, American troops freed the westernmost fringes of Bohemia, including the industrial city of Plzeň.) The Americans and their Western allies thereby needlessly handed the ancient Central European capital to the Soviets and their Czechoslovak Communist puppets, who squeezed the maximum public relations benefits from the Red Army’s entry into Prague which, in reality, was not a “liberation” but a mere swapping of occupations.

“Old Blood and Guts” understood well that the Soviet Communists were just as nefarious as the German Nazis, but it would take a while before many politicians and generals in Washington would be rudely awoken to this reality. At that point, i.e. around 1946-1947, the Soviets already consolidated their brutal, totalitarian grip on the Intermarium region of Europe. Even then, however, it might not have been too late to at least save Czechoslovakia from Sovietization had the West played its cards right, Lukes suggests. “Unlike Warsaw and other capitals in Central Europe, postwar Prague offered Washington an opportunity to compete with the Soviet Union on favorable terms. American was represented by smiling GIs whistling Glenn Miller tunes, whereas Soviet soldiers were reduced to thievery and were feared for their violence.”

In this context, it is important to remember that the Communists would not wield total power in Czechoslovakia until engineering a coup in February 1948, although they did win the 1946 election with 38 percent of the vote, the highest share ever captured by a Communist party in any (relatively) free election. Prior to this putsch the country was officially governed by a sham coalition government—a Soviet tactic (deception operation) to gradually take over the countries of Central and Eastern Europe—consisting of both communists and Soviet-tolerated non-communists. The former were sufficiently cunning to fight for the control of such “power” agencies as the military and police, which would naturally facilitate their crack down on the remaining vestiges of democracy. Nevertheless, the pre-coup period presented a window of opportunity for the American-led West.

One important element in a smart American strategy would have included the right diplomatic representation in Prague. Laurence Steinhardt, President Truman’s pick for ambassador to Czechoslovakia, apparently did not fit this definition. A New York City lawyer, Steinhardt had been appointed by F.D.R. to represent the U.S. in Peru, Sweden, the Soviet Union, and Turkey. Having initially maintained an “open mind” towards Communism, he was soon mugged by bitter reality while serving in Moscow and became quite anti-communist.

During his assignment in Prague, however, Steinhardt dedicated most of his time to his private business interests and romantic affairs, and was often absent from his post in Czechoslovakia. His mind preoccupied with personal matters, the ambassador failed to apply the lessons he learned in the Soviet Union. As a result, he naïvely underestimated the Czechoslovak Communists and the threat of the country’s Sovietization. Steinhardt, thus, not only neglected to conduct a pro-American public diplomacy campaign in Czechoslovakia but, even more seriously, fed his bosses in Washington misleading information, thereby preventing them from recognizing the grave condition of Czechoslovakia’s democracy and developing a strategy to counter the creeping Bolshevization. Perhaps, Lukes seems to ask, an ambassador more committed to his mission and better attuned to on-the-ground reality could have salvaged Czechoslovakia from the clutches of the Kremlin and its local agents?

A good intelligence network in Prague would have constituted another part of a successful Czechoslovak strategy. Information obtained by the local American intelligence station might have at least in part compensated for the excessively optimistic reports generated by an ambassador who simply wasn’t paying much attention. Yet, the American intel officers—however professional, knowledgeable, and dedicated—were outmaneuvered by the native Communist secret police, whose functionaries compensated for their amateurism by utilizing a much more cunning, aggressive, and ruthless approach. It is likely that they even succeeded in turning an important American intel officer in Prague. According to Lukes, “The Communist clandestine services were staffed mostly by amateurs. Yet they used every imaginable technique to recruit informers inside the democratic camp, the United States embassy, and the Military Mission. By contrast, the American intelligence professionals were satisfied with relaying gossip effortlessly obtained from democratic politicians and other casual contacts.” Thus, one of the first confrontations between the Western and Communist intelligence services of the Cold War demonstrated how much the “free world” had to learn to defeat their ultra-Machiavellian opponents.

It would be a mistake to conclude that Lukes lays the blame for the Sovietization of Czechoslovakia solely at America’s door. On the contrary, he argues that “the greatest share of responsibility (…) rests with the Czechs (…) [who] tolerated and accepted in its midst the aggressive minority that had embraced Communism.” President Edvard Beneš and Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, along with other democrats, “underestimated the viciousness of their totalitarian opponents, treating them as legitimate partners in a shared patriotic enterprise. (…) they never tried to educate the public about the dangers of Soviet Communism. They believed that their own reasonableness, good will, and polite manners would civilize their ideological opponents and bring about a distinctively Czechoslovak form of socialism.” Unfortunately, the author failed to delve into the root causes of this naïvete and passivity in the face of Communism. Perhaps the more liberal and secularist Czechs succumbed more easily to the radical left (i.e. Marxists-Leninists) because of their progressive-leaning Weltanschauung than, say, the more conservative and religious Poles?

More problematic is Lukes’ discussion of the role of anti-German feelings in the Bolshevization of Czechoslovakia. He castigates the Czechs for their allegedly “irrational fear of Germany,” arguing that their anti-Germanism helped push them into Soviet camp. Yet, very few—including nations that had not suffered under the Nazi German occupation as the Jews and Slavs had—were willing to embrace the Germans right after the Second World War. It may be true that compared to the genocidal atrocities and terror committed by the Germans in other parts of Europe (e.g. Poland, Ukraine, Serbia) the Nazi occupation in Bohemia and Moravia was relatively mild. This was not the result of German humanitarianism, however. The Czechs did not escape unscathed—as the well-known massacre of civilians at Lidice testifies—and there is little doubt that had Germany won the war, the fate of the Czechs would have been the Germanization and enslavement of some, and the extermination of others. Given this background, can the Czech fear of Germany during the late 1940s really be deemed “irrational”?

In the same pro-German vein, Lukes strongly condemns the forced resettlement of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia to Germany (the Germans insist on using the more pejorative and lachrymose label of “expulsions”) without taking sufficient stock of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by most of the country’s Sudeten Germans (who were treated quite well by the interwar republic) in 1938 or of German war crimes and expulsions either conducted or contemplated by the Third Reich during the war. It is undeniable that the forced resettlement of Germans from Czechoslovakia and Poland was accompanied by atrocities, but removing it from its larger historical context poses its own set of ethical dilemmas and plays into the hands of German and neo-Nazi “revisionists.” The author also fails to acknowledge Prague’s concern of retaining three million Germans—quite a few of whom Hitler had infected with a racist contempt for Slavs—would eventually threaten Czechoslovakia with continued German irredentist pressure in the future was not completely paranoid. That Moscow and its Czechoslovak agentura strove to exploit this problem is true, but it should also be no less obvious that the German destruction and occupation of the Central European nation made the Communists’ job a lot easier.

Lukes goes even farther by asserting that “giving up some areas inhabited by Germans would have been a good idea for Czechoslovakia soon after World War I.” If by “some areas” the author means the Sudetenland then he is forgetting the geopolitical and military importance of the mountains ringing Bohemia. Had Czechoslovakia surrendered its only natural and defensible borderland to Germany then Prague would have become not a strong and independent nation, but an exposed protectorate dependant on the whims of a revisionist Berlin. In this context, Lukes’ claim that an “obsession with borders” was somehow the specialty of the post-Versailles “nationalistic successor states” in Central and Eastern Europe is quite a curious one.

The flaws pointed out above are relatively minor compared with the overall utility of the book and do not undermine its main thesis. On the Edge of the Cold War is a very insightful work. For historians, this is a useful contribution to the study of the postwar Sovietization of Central and Eastern Europe. For American policy-makers and strategic planners, it is a case study in missed opportunities. Given a more determined and purposeful integrated strategy, Czechoslovakia might have been saved at a time when America still enjoyed a nuclear monopoly and the Soviet Union was internally weakened by the war it had itself helped spark. Czechoslovakia’s accession to the anti-communist, American-led coalition might not have averted the Cold War, but it would have certainly strengthened the Western alliance’s strategic position in Central Europe, thereby possibly hastening the end of the Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Bloc.

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.