Gottwald, Klement (Czech Republic)

Reference work entry


Klement Gottwald was the Communist President of Czechoslovakia from 1948 until his death in 1953, having previously held the positions of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. A hard-liner and staunch Stalinist, his rule was punctuated by purges of his enemies. His death preceded a short period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia but his rule ensured that his country remained a Soviet satellite state.

Early Life

Gottwald was born in Dedice, Moravia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now located in the Czech Republic) on 23 Nov. 1896. He went to Vienna as a 12 year old to work as an apprentice to a carpenter before leaving to serve on the Eastern Front during World War I. Having deserted to Russia he returned to the recently established state of Czechoslovakia and was instrumental in setting up the Czechoslovakian Communist Party (KSC) 3 years later.

After a period of editing the party newspaper he was elected to the KSC Central Committee in 1925. From 1928 onwards he served on the executive committee of Comintern and in 1929 he became Secretary General of the KSC, immediately setting about putting the party at the disposal of Stalin. When in 1938 Germany began its occupation of Czechoslovakian territory, Gottwald fled to Moscow, once again editing a communist publication and retaining contact with the underground in his homeland. In late 1943 he met with Czechoslovakia’s exiled President Edvard Beneš and returned to Prague in the aftermath of World War II to act as Deputy Prime Minister in Beneš’s government.

Career Peak

In 1946 Gottwald was made Chairman of the KSC and, following general elections in which the Communists won 38% of the vote, he was installed as head of a coalition government. A falling out with Stalin occurred in 1947 after Gottwald accepted US aid via the Marshall Plan. By 1948 the KSC was not in an electorally strong position. Gottwald tried to force Beneš to accept a Communist-dominated parliament but Beneš, refusing to cave into the demands, instead resigned the presidency on 7 June 1948. A week later Gottwald took his place.

He embarked on the systematic Stalinization of the economy and society at large, until the Communist party came to dominate all elements of the country’s life. From 1950 onwards he began purges of his enemies, the most notable of which was in Dec. 1952 when the Interior Minister, Rudolf Slansky, and 11 of his supporters were executed. In total around 180 executions, preceded by party show trials, were carried out during Gottwald’s tenure. On 9 March 1953 Gottwald visited Moscow to attend the funeral of his mentor Stalin. Afflicted by the inclement weather, Gottwald developed pneumonia and died back in Prague on 14 March.

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