Klement, You Were the Weakest Link!

Photo credit: che, from Wikipedia

Photo credit: che, from Wikipedia

All visitors to Prague will eventually encounter Vítkov Hill (pictured here), which forms one part of the boundary between Prague 8 (Karlín, on the south bank of the Vltava river, to the left side here) and Prague 3 (Žižkov). You can’t miss it because 1) It’s a massive, stand-alone hill near the center of town covered almost entirely by trees, and 2) At its western end (that is, closest to the city center, that we can see here), it features a massive equestrian statue – the largest in the world – of Jan Žižka, the one-eyed general of the Hussite Wars.

Just beyond that statue is another gigantic building, the National Mausoleum, intended to be the resting- (and exhibition-) place for the remains of Czechoslovakia’s leadership throughout the glorious thousand-year epoch of Communist brotherhood that was supposed to have been inaugurated by the coup d’état in Prague culminating on 25 February 1948. Much like Lenin in Red Square, the mummified body of the leader of that coup , Klement Gottwald, was in fact exhibited at the National Mausoleum from shortly after his death in March, 1953, until 1962 – when it had reached such an advanced state of decay due to the mishandled mummification process that it had to be cremated.

To the outside observer, there is an important clue there in the gaping contrast between the ostentatious facilities built to celebrate Gottwald’s legacy and the ultimate messy disposal of his remains – although the Czechs themselves long ago dismissed him as merely a stooge for Stalin, affording him little to no respect (unless required to by their position) even back when he was the country’s president. Now, just after the commemoration of the 61st anniversary of that coup, comes an article in the largest-circulation Czech broadsheet newspaper Mladá fronta dnes disclosing that things were even worse than most Czechs had assumed: for most of his presidency, Gottwald was in fact a serious alcoholic completely incapable of carrying out his presidential functions.

The article is by MFD reporters Jan Gazdik and Ludĕk Navara, although it is based almost entirely on recent research carried out in the Czechoslovak Army’s formerly top-secret archives by Prof. František Hanzlík of the National Defense University, and the title gives an idea of how far gone things had become: “For a bottle of vodka president Gottwald would sign anything.” That is precisely what his Defense Minister Alexej Čepička adopted as a tactic to – shall we say – lubricate the process whenever he needed the president to sign something (so wrote deputy Central Committee Chairman Zdĕnek Fierlinger in a strictly-top-secret memo that was never intended to see the light of day): whether it was approval to begin jailing Czech military personnel who had fought for the West during World War II, to name a mere well-connected twenty-five-year-old a full colonel, or simply more routine matters, a bottle of cognac or vodka guaranteed a presidential signature without any questions.

It’s a laughable situation – particularly if it’s not the history of your own country that is at issue – but the authors provide enough additional context from Prof. Hanzlík’s research that you almost feel for the guy. For it seems that Gottwald was in Stalin’s doghouse almost from the very time that he engineered that February 1948 coup that brought a Communist dictatorship to power, since he neglected at the time to call for any “fraternal” assistance from the Red Army which would have provided the excuse for the establishment of a Soviet military presence within Czechoslovakia. (This was not rectified until the August 1968 invasion to crush Alexander Dubček’s “Prague Spring.”) But such a military presence was not really necessary, as it was the Russians who retained control over the Czech secret police and not the Czech Communist Party, as Gottwald found out to his dismay after he had engineered his take-over. He remained on the bad side of the Soviet leader, who for the rest of his life harbored a low opinion of the political and military reliability of the Czechoslovak state, calling it “the weakest link in the system of people’s democratic [i.e. Soviet satellite] states.” Such a status had consequences, of course: Czechoslovakia was notorious for the vicious show-trials it conducted in the early 1950s against officials throughout the Czechoslovak Communist Party apparatus of control, including the very top (most infamously Communist Party General Secretary Rudolf Slánský), sentencing many to death and hundreds of thousands to long imprisonment on trumped-up charges. President Gottwald could only keep to the side as these proceedings were stage-managed by Soviet operatives – indeed, he had no assurance that he would not find himself to be the next up on trial.

Sadly, that remainder of Stalin’s life corresponded almost precisely to the remainder of Gottwald’s life, as he died shortly after returning to Prague from Stalin’s funeral of a “heart aneurysm” – aggravated by the alcoholism and syphilis that virtually no one was allowed to know about at the time. Could the sheer relief at Stalin’s passing have been too much for his diseased constitution?

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