Heirs to the Great Traditions of the Nation

  • Walter A. Kemp


A great deal has been written about the process of Communist takeovers in Eastern Europe.1 The Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia is no exception.2 In published studies, however, there is an area usually marginalized: namely, the attempts by the Communist parties to gain legitimacy through portraying themselves as the heirs to the great traditions of the nation.3 This is the topic of the present chapter. In order to focus on this issue more precisely, the case of Czechoslovakia from 1945 to 1953 will be used, although where appropriate the examples of other countries will be drawn upon.


Communist Party Political Culture Postage Stamp National Tradition Great Tradition 
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  1. 1.
    The definitive book on the subject is Thomas T. Hammond, The Anatomy of Communist Takeovers (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975). See also a special edition on the anatomy of Communist takeovers in Studies of the Soviet Union, 11/4 (1976) and Hugh Seton-Watson, The East European Revolution (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See in particular V. Chalupa, Rise and Development of a Totalitarian State (Leiden: H.E. Stenfert Krose N.V., 1959); Karel Kaplan, The Short March: The Communist Takeover in Czechoslovakia 1945–1948 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987); Josef Korbel, The Communist Subversion of Czechoslovakia 1938–1948: The Failure of Coexistence (London: Oxford University Press, 1959); and M. R. Myant, Socialism and Democracy in Czechoslovakia 1945–1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Some texts which look at the Party’s use of culture and national symbols and the wider issue of legitimacy and control are Chalupa 1959; Vladimir Reisky de Dubnic, Communist Propaganda Methods: A Case Study on Czechoslovakia (New York: Praeger, 1960); I. Gadourek, The Political Control of Czechoslovakia: A Study in Social Control of a Soviet Satellite State (Leiden: H.E. Stenfert Krose N.V., 1953); David W. Paul, The Cultural Limits of Revolutionary Politics: Change and Continuity in Socialist Czechoslovakia (Boulder, Colo.: East European Quarterly, 1979); Edward Taborsky, Communism in Czechoslovakia 1948–1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), chs. 18–20, and D. E. Viney, ‘Czech culture and the “New Spirit”, 1948–52’, The Slavonic and East European Review, 31/77 (June 1953), 466–94.Google Scholar
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    Peter Hruby, Fools and Heroes: The Changing Role of Communist Intellectuals in Czechoslovakia (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1980), p. xv.Google Scholar
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    As Mark Harrison points out in ‘GDPs of the USSR and Eastern Europe: towards an interwar comparison’, Europe—Asia Studies, 46/2 (1994), pp. 243–59, it is difficult to calculate accurately the GDPs of these countries during the inter-war years. Nevertheless, based on his figures, and others that he cites, Czechoslovakia unquestionably had the highest GDP in Eastern and Central Europe, and at just under $2000 per capita (international dollars at 1980 prices) it ranked 11th in Europe and 15th in the world — slightly above Argentina, Austria, Chile, Ireland and Italy.Google Scholar
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    ‘Ideova vychova a kulturni politika strany’, speech by Vaclav Kopecky to the 8th congress of the CPCz March 30, 1946, in Protokol VIII: Radneho Sjezdu Kommunisticke Strany Ceskoslovenska, p. 114.Google Scholar
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    For example, the National Front in Poland and East Germany, the Bulgarian and Yugoslavian Fatherland Fronts, the People’s Independent Front in Hungary and the People’s Democratic Front in Romania.Google Scholar
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    Carol Skalnik Leff, National Conflict in Czechoslovakia: the Making and Remaking of a State, 1918–1987 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 104.Google Scholar
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    Almost every major Czechoslovak politician was in attendance. Even Benes, who was seriously ill, sent his greetings. The gala concert was conducted by Rafeal Kubelik. For an interesting account of the day see ‘Jubilejni Zdenka Nejedleho’, Svobodne Noviny (10 February 1948), p. 2.Google Scholar
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    See for example, ‘Za lidovou a narodni kulturu’ [‘For the people’s national culture’], Var (1 April 1948), for Nejedly’s views on the greatest of Czechoslovak national culture.Google Scholar
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    Zdenek Nejedly, Kommuniste, Dedici Velikych Tradic Ceskeho Naroda [Communists, Inheritors of the Great Traditions of the Czech Nation] (Prague: Prace, 1978: first published 1946), p. 11.Google Scholar
  27. 39.
    As mentioned in Chapter 3, the theme of Communists being heirs to the great traditions of the nation was used by Stalin to rouse popular support during the Great Patriotic War. It is very possible that Nejedly, who, like many Czech and Slovak Communists, lived in Moscow during the war, was influenced by articles like Emel’ian Karoslavsii’s ‘Bolsheviks, the heirs of the best patriotic traditions of the Russian people’, which appeared in Pravda (27 December 1941). For more on that article and others like it see Lowell Tillett, The Great Friendship: Soviet Historians on the Non-Russian Nationalities (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), p. 62.Google Scholar
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    See e.g. the speech of Gottwald at the 7th Congress of the 3rd International in 1935, or his speech entitled O Klasickem dedictvi Ceske kultury (10 November), Nova Mysl 2 (1948), p. 523.Google Scholar
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    There is still a statue of Nejedly in Litomysl.Google Scholar
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    Dvorak wrote several works which Nejedly could have classified as patriotically socialist, had he been so inclined. They include a cantata called Heirs of the White Mountain and a Hussite overture. For more on how Dvoiak incorporated Czech musical and literary themes into his music see Leon Botstein, ‘Reversing the critical tradition: innovation, modernity, and ideology in the work and career of Antonin Dvoiak’, in Michael Beckerman (ed.), Dvorak and his World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 11–55.Google Scholar
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    Karel Kaplan, interview with the author, 3 April 1995.Google Scholar
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    When Gottwald returned from being dressed down in Moscow he took heavily to drinking. This might suggest that he realized that the notion of a Czechoslovak road to socialism was now impossible. For more on the extent to which Gottwald was a national Communist, see Gordon Skilling, The Interrupted Revolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), pp. 22–5. Gomulka felt a similar sense of disillusionment in 1947. This seems to indicate that there were Communists who genuinely believed that it would be possible to balance national and Communist interests. It is worth noting that the chairman of the Estonian Communist Party, Johannes Vares-Barabus, committed suicide in 1946 as the result of the blatant contrast between his expectations for Estonia’s future, which motivated him to become the main architect of her sovietization, and the reality over the Soviet Estonia over which he presided. See Graham Smith (ed.), The Baltic States: The National Self-Determination of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994), p. 99.Google Scholar
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    Masaryk’s motivation for staying on is unclear. Unclear too are the circumstances surrounding his death on 10 March 1948 when he was either pushed or fell from his bathroom window in the Czernin Palace. For a fascinating account of the circumstances leading up to his death, see Claire Sterling, The Masaryk Case (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1969).Google Scholar
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    One of the most vivid examples of this was in the GDR which, in its 1949 constitution, declared itself to be the continuation of the Reich.Google Scholar
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    Francois Fejtö, A History of the Peoples Democracies: Eastern Europe Since Stalin (London: Pall Mall Press, 1971), p. 173.Google Scholar
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    Raymond Aron, ‘On polycentrism’, Survey, 58 (January 1966), p. 13.Google Scholar
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    Reports of these gatherings can be found in Svobodne Noviny (1946–48).Google Scholar
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    David I. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics and Power (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 45.Google Scholar
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    Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1978), p. 9.Google Scholar
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    Richard F. Staar, Communist Regimes in Eastern Europe (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1982), p. 64. Ironically, when Vaclav Havel became President in 1990 he was reluctant to move into Hradcany, as it symbolized the seat of the Communist President.Google Scholar
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    For more on the history of Sokol and the philosophy of Tyri, see Cas, 5 (June 1994).Google Scholar
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    Gadourek 1953, p. 152. Sokol members often wore distinctive falcon feathers in their caps.Google Scholar
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    As cited in R. W. Seton-Watson, A History of the Czechs and Slovaks (London: Hutchinson, 1943), p. 212.Google Scholar
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    Information taken from ‘Sokol takes flight again’, The Prague Post (4–10 May 1994), p. 4 and Cas, 5 (June 1994).Google Scholar
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    An analogous situation occurred in Poland, where the writings of Adam Mickiewicz were officially lauded and circulated in large quantities.Google Scholar
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    In the introduction to Jirasek’s Legends of Old Bohemia, printed in 1951 (beautifully illustrated with drawings by Mikolas Ales), Gottwald writes, ‘I declare my allegiance to Jirasek, who has much in common with us, much more than old capitalist societies. In his work, he masterfully comprehended which of our traditions lead forward, towards freedom and the flourishing of our nation. His work therefore teaches us the correct view of our past, it strengthens our national self-awareness and fills us with historical optimism and faith in the creative power of the people.’Google Scholar
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    See Vaclav Murdoch, ‘The age of John Hus in recent Czechoslovak historical literature, (1948–1960)’, in Miloslav Rechcigl Jr. (ed.), Czechoslovakia Past and Present (The Hague: Mouton, 1968), pp. 581–93; and Stanley Z. Pech, ‘The Marxist interpretation of the Hussite movement’, Canadian Slavonic Papers, 4 (1959), pp. 199–212.Google Scholar
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    See Andras Renyi, ‘Historical painting as a Hungarian paradigm’, in Peter Gyorgy and Hedvig Turai (eds.), Art and Society in the Age of Stalin (Budapest: Corvina, 1992), pp. 38–48.Google Scholar
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    Jiri Pelikan, The Czech Political Trials 1950–1954 (London: MacDonald, 1971), p. 89.Google Scholar
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    As cited in J. Macek, ‘Proti kosmopolitismu ve vykladu nasich narodnich dejin’ [‘Against cosmopolitanism in the interpretation of our nation’s history’], Nova Mysl, 8 (1952), p. 635.Google Scholar
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    This phenomenon was not limited to Czechoslovakia. Tibor Frank argues in ‘Nation, national minorities and nationalism in twentieth-century Hungary’, in Peter Sugar (ed.), Eastern European Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (Washington: American University Press, 1995), p. 236, that the systematic campaign of the Rakosi regime against the nation’s history, and the fact that it made discussion of the Trianon Treaty and its consequences on the Hungarian diaspora taboo, were ‘instrumental in bringing about the revolution of 1956’.Google Scholar
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    ‘Action programme of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’, in Robin Alison Remington (ed.), Winter in Prague: Documents on Czechoslovak Communism in Crisis (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969), p. 90.Google Scholar
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    See Otto Ulé, ‘Pilsen: the unknown revolt’, Problems of Communism, 14/3 (May—June 1965), pp. 46–9.Google Scholar
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    Adam Bromke, ‘History and politics in Poland’, Problems of Communism, 15/5 (September–October 1966), p. 71.Google Scholar
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    Zdenék Nejedly, ‘Za lidovou a narodni kultur’, Var (1 April 1948), p. 15.Google Scholar
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    Vaclav Kopecky, ‘0 socialistickém vlastenectvi a proletacskem internacionalismu’, Nova Mysl, 2 (February 1952), p. 86.Google Scholar

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© Walter A. Kemp 1999

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