chapter01

1945-1962
O
nce upon a time, the Red Army  swept across Eastern Europe in their tanks.

In 1945, I was six years old. My name is Karel Skodaček and I was born in the Bohemian town of Česky Krumlov on Jan Hus day (July 6th) 1938.

On the 9th of May 1945, my class stood on the streets of Prague with Soviet and Czechoslovak flags to watch the tank parade. On the train, our schoolmaster had told us how the Red Army had come to liberate us from the German Fascists. Dressed in shorts blazers, neck-scarves and caps, we sang 'Oh, if I could only express it in Sound' in Russian. I was told to stand in the front row because my father was killed when the Fascists invaded our country. Much later in my life did I become aware how my compatriots were glossing over the fact that Stalin's regime had let millions of Ukrainian peasants starve to death in the Holodomor of 1932 and yet we were a rural community. My compatriots also ignored for a while how Stalin's regime and Hitler's German fascists had carved up Poland in 1939. Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, and the war ended with Poland's borders getting shifted towards the West at the expense of German territories of Gdansk and Silesia. My compatriots were expecting our friends and liberators to return to the Soviet Union as soon as the celebrations were over. We waved flags and admired the Red Stars that defeated the Swastikas. After that memorable day, we took the bus back to our school near Lazebnicky Bridge. The US army came to our town and we waved US and Czechoslovak flags at them. They too had fought against the German Fascists. Stalin then let General Patton know that his armies were not needed in Czechoslovakia therefore the Americans retreated back to their garrisons in Germany and Austria. 

In April 1967, I was standing on Lazebnicky Bridge, and  I looked down to the river Vlatva that had become so familiar to me. The composer Bedrich Smetana once described the course of the river as follows: 'It flows through gentle pastures where a wedding is celebrated, passing medieval castles and arriving in the capital, broad and majestically calm. I had a new job in Prague and soon I would leave Krumlov and its gentle pastures. I was going to work as an administrative assistant assigned to a Professor of Literature from Leningrad. My workplace would be the Prague Charles University.  This sounded like a prestigious post yet doubts kept nagging me: my qualifications were mediocre so why was I chosen?  Šnabl at work quipped that this might have something to do with the fact the Prof was from the Soviet Union. He did not quite articulate the thought that our brothers from the Soviet Union had been staying in our country for the past twenty-two years. Šnabl apologized immediately because he was not supposed to tell such jokes. Had I been religious, I would have asked St John Nepomuk and Christ on the Cross for guidance. A logical idea because both men were put to death by an imperial power. The statues remained silent and I walked on.


In May 1945, President Edvart Beneš' government was not expecting the Red Army to stay in country. He had opposed the Nazis and changed the name of his party because after what Hitler did. No democratic party could ever name itself 'national socialist' even if the name implies social-democracy within a country's own borders. There are words that still send a shiver down people's spines, hence those words have become almost taboo in everyday language: 'Führer' (leader, guide, guide-book),'Anschluß' (annexation, train-connection) are the most obvious examples. Hardly anybody wants to name their children 'Adolf', nor trim their moustaches in a certain way. Even a religious symbol from India scares us. The ghost of the Bohemian Corporal haunts us. Max Brod poignantly said: 'I speak the language of my enemy'. In 1945, most German-speaking Jewish people were either dead or had emigrated, their children in exile had no family to return to. Beneš' government sought to eradicate traces of Fascism from Czechoslovakia. This also meant that bilingual signs and pockets of German language were taken away by the authorities. The region where I grew up used to be known in German as the Sudetenland/Sumava and our hamlet used to be called Lochau-Kostelec. 

According to local folklore, there used to be a Lochau family who built a chapel in the forest. The chapel has long gone and nobody in the village is called Lochau. Being a migrant who came to Lochau-Kostelec with his sister Maria in 1919, my uncle Nikola Koblar was questioned about his allegiances during the war. He explained to the authorities that he was born in Přzemysl in the former province of Galicia and had moved to Lochau Kostelec when Galicia became part of Poland. He had then married a Czech-speaking girl called Franci Jesinska and thus only needed the Czech language. Anton Skodaček his brother-in-law who spoke Czech and German was killed by the Henleinist Freikorps founded by the Sudetenland fascist Konrad Henlein.

In a rare mood for conversation, this is what Uncle Nikola told me:

“I explained to the government official that the family came to Kostelec when the Czechoslovak Republic was founded in 1919 because they believed that they would find a new home there. I only had served the last year in the Austrian Imperial Army. During the war, I made many Czech, Slovak, Jewish and other friends. I felt that racialist talk and therefore Fascism was a lot of dangerous nonsense. Hitler did not serve with our army, they had declared him unfit so he fought the war with the Bavarian unit of the German army. Braunau, The Austrian town where he was born is just behind the Bavarian border. ”

In 1947, there was the rude awakening when our country realised that it was not as free as it thought. President Beneš idea of neutrality was challenged when the USSR advised him in 1947 to refuse an offer from the United States to join a European economic recovery programme known as the Marshall-Plan. Subsequently, the Soviet Union laid down their own proposal which became known as the COMECON. A year later, the Czechoslovak Communist party (KSČ) led by Clement Gottwald won the parliamentary elections with 38% of the votes. Edvart Beneš' Social Democrats formed a coalition with the Communists. The coalition broke down when Jan Mazaryk died under suspicious circumstances. The foreign secretary and son of the founder father of the Republic, had allegedly committed suicide. Shortly afterward President Beneš resigned. He was old and said to be broken-hearted. He died a few weeks later. Some compatriots had spent the war years in England and fought with the 1st Czechoslovak Armed Brigade, they went back to England as they saw no future under Gottwald's pro-Stalinist regime.

Under Clement Gottwald, the country mutated into a satellite of the Soviet Union. This new government aligned its policies with the Kremlin and did away with the legacies of the First Republic. Tomás Mazarýk's vision of a plural state was eradicated. Opposition parties were no longer tolerated. Milada Horakova from Beneš's Social-Democratic Party was executed for treason in 1950. The borders to the Federal Republic of Germany were reinforced and became part of the Iron Curtain. There was effectively also an Iron Curtain on the border to Austria, although, ideologically-speaking, its neutral status was accepted. Gottwald's government also made economic reforms. Three laws were passed, in 1948, 1955 and 1959 - effectively outlawing private enterprise – any member of the liberal professions had to be part of a Union, and without the Union , the professional could neither earn money, nor manufacture/sell goods or services, nor publish anything. As a result there was a black market despite the harsh penal code.  The state also decided if a young person was a suitable candidate for university. The Marxist term 'Collectivization' inferred that land and property was confiscated from farmers and private owners. Co-operatives were created and the state would impose quotas. The industry and services sectors worked in the same way. The aim was to achieve an egalitarian society and industrialise the economy.

“It was humiliating.” Uncle Nikola commented “ I had to give all my savings and the deeds to my lands to the administrator in charge. As far as I am concerned, they are a bunch of blasphemers who worship their 'Revolution' as a God. I realized that I was sitting opposite an authority that did not care a jot about the needs of the Proletariat but expected the Proletariat to chant phrases and songs learnt by heart. I have never argued with tyranny.” 

Collectivization meant that the lands were taken from the farmers – or Kulaks – and became government property. The Koblars were used to the vagaries of tyrannies: Under an imperial regime, Nikola's parents too had their small property confiscated in Galicia. The subsequent Polish owners must have been expropriated too when Galicia became part of the Ukraine and it is quite possible that the farmers there perished during the Holodomor of 1931-1932.  So who knows, what fate they escaped.  The new Co-operatives were called J.Z.D. (Jednotné Zemědělské Družstvo) and had to fulfil state quotas. Some of these quotas were absurd and oblivious to farming common-sense. Farming is about creating wealth from a plot of land. Intensive farming harms the soil because of monoculture, and its chemicals poisons the useful insects. and exploits the land rather than cultivating it. As time went on, the JZD-farmers realized that it made more sense to produce goods that are needed by the population rather than having too many crops of one kind, most of which was exported. In 1953, as there were still food shortages in the shops, President Zapotocky addressed the nation. He told farmers that they would be allowed to leave the JZD if they wanted to engage in private farming. The First Secretary Novotny dismissed the idea as reactionary, arguing that such concessions would subvert Marxist principles. In the end, agriculture declined because the wages in the industrial sector were one third higher. 

Nikola Koblar's career as a linen farmer ended when he retired in 1962. His wife worked at the brewery, where she typed for the warehouse administrator.  I grew up with Nikola, Franci and their son Rudolf in a dilapidated and isolated cottage on the outskirts of Kostelec until I joined the army.

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