on the World Today
PRAGUE is full of people with a sense of loss. They have had to sacrifice some of their material standards and many of their traditions for no immediately visible domestic reason. Long friendly to parliamentary democracy, they find themselves today substantially under a one-party dictatorship, thinly veiled by a three-party façade.
The Communist regime draws some support from coal miners and workers in large factories, while members of the middle and high income groups are among its main opponents. But Czechoslovakia, unlike the Russia of 1917, is a counlry with a very strong middle class and a broad tradition of middleclass thinking among the many thousands of “small people” who have long aspired to middle-class existence.
Throughout this middle class there is a split that cuts across families and leaves brothers and sisters, office mates and school mates, on opposite sides. Alignments here do not follow income lines but personal experiences, the structure of each person’s expectations of the future and his previously accepted ideals or ideologies. The result is not a united nation opposing a foreign invader, but a people torn in ils very heart.
Shortages and rations
Most employed people have money incomes high enough to buy most things to which they are entitled. Purchasing power has been kept ahead of supplies. Under effective price ceilings this means empty stores with goods being bought up faster than they come in. During August hundreds of retail shops were closed, to enable the sales personnel to help with the harvest.
Wool is unobtainable, even to knit children s garments. To get a man s suit takes from six months to one year. Most cotton textiles are in extremely short supply. Shoes are in the show windows, bul in addition to ration points, one has to bring a written confirmation from the town hall, certifying personal need for each purchase.
One can buy gloves, ties, kitchenware, simple household goods, lamps, shopping bags, toys, costume jewelry, and books. There are even more bookstores than before the war, when Prague was one of the most book-loving towns in Europe. Books include a wide selection of Western authors and many hooks on art, besides the expected translations from the Russian and a flood of native publications on economics, statistics, and planning.
Food is strictly rationed and this includes bread, flour, potatoes, and meals in restaurants. Adults and children are each entitled to about two ounces of sweets a month, but chocolate candy is sold only on a diplomatic passport. Most people feel that the food rations are not quite enough to get along on. There usually are enough potatoes, but the distribution of them is irregular and there is risk of deterioration through inadequate storing. The black market is practically nonexistent. People supplement their food with parcels from friends and relatives in England and America, or with food obtained from a farmer whom one has helped to bring in the harvest.
Rations are determined by the type of occupation. Factory workers and miners get substantial rations as well as high enough wages to buy the food the ration allows them. Clerical and engineering personnel in mining enterprises get the same rations as the coal miner. This is done in order to attract personnel into the mining towns. Workers and office employees in larger enterprises get one cheap and relatively substantial meal daily in the works canteen. Absenteeism is thus reduced because missing a day al the plant means not only losing money but a meal as well.
Control of the press
The non-Communist parties have disappeared as effective political agents. About one half of the members of the Social Democratic Party have been admitted into the Communist Party. The National Socialist and People’s (Catholic) Parties have been left standing as hollow shells, purged of their active pro-Western leaders.
The press is unanimous in conveying the government’s views. The National Socialist and Catholic papers, which appear under their previous titles as a concession to the traditional loyalties of their readers, do not differ substantially from the Communist papers in content, although there is a difference in distribution of items and manner of presentation. All papers play down foreign news; the gravest pronouncements of Western spokesmen in the Berlin crisis are reduced to three-line bulletins in obscure places. “We think it is best for our papers not to excite the population,”says a Communist. “It is bad for work morale.”
Government by fear
Arrests and dismissals from jobs have had a farreaching effect. Sixteen professors were pensioned off at Charles University in Prague, but their pensions are meager under present conditions. Such treatment has made other teachers realize that they must be wary about placing confidence in “academic freedom.”
Many dismissals have been carried through by “action committees,”which seem to be everywhere. Even a Protestant minister may be a member of the “Action Committee for the Christian Churches.” And it was an “action committee” of the more leftist synagogue members that brought about the dismissal of one of the most active leaders of the Jewish community of Prague.
Emigration is not easy. The border along the United States Zone of Germany is guarded, and a special permit is required for entering an area within several miles of the actual border. The permil involves securing a certificate of “ political reliability,”a requirement even for the city dweller who wants to gather blueberries in the forests near the border. Despite these regulations, it is still possible for determined opponents of the government to escape, judging from the number of arrivals in the United States Zone.
Permission to emigrate is granted more readily to those who can show overseas visas. The government frowns on people going to France or England, where they might continue to influence Czech politics, but seems more willing to let them go to the United States or some other overseas country. Volunteering for the armed forces of Israel is encouraged. Emigrants must leave behind most of their property, and the government will not provide foreign exchange for their transportation abroad. The Jewish community in Prague has obtained a sizable fund of foreign exchange, largely from American Jewish organizations which contribute to the maintenance of survivors of the Nazi terror in a home for the aged in Prague. This foreign exchange is available to Jews who wish to emigrate overseas. Since persons sponsored by the Jewish community seem to have no difficulty in emigrating, the chief Rabbi has been deluged with applications to embrace Judaism.
The new Communist Party
The mainstay of the present regime is the Czechoslovak Communist Party. In 1939 its organized membership totaled sixty-five thousand, many of whom were seasoned and indoctrinated functionaries. Of these sixty-five thousand Communists, fifteen thousand are estimated to have been killed by the Germans during the occupation or in the uprisings of 1914 and 1945; and another ten thousand are thought to have dropped out through old age, natural mortality, and the usual fluctuations in Communist membership. In all Czechoslovakia there are today, therefore, only forty thousand pre-war Communists in a party which contains two million members.
Invitations to join the Communist Party have been scattered throughout the country. “I am in great trouble,” relates the new administrator of a confiscated German farm in the Sudetenland (he was formerly a tailor who lost his flourishing business in Prague under the Nazi occupation). “They have invited me to join the Communist Party, and if I decline to join, they will think me unreliable and the government may take away my farm. But I can’t join the Communists because I am sure that their government will collapse, and how would I then look, having been a Communist?”
There seems no easy answer to the tailor-farmer’s dilemma, but it is notable that he spoke of “my” farm in referring to the property which he had got through an act of confiscation; and that the Communists apparently still are willing to take him into their party.
The Party network
The new members are expected to undergo intensive ideological training. In August, 1948, the Communists seemed to feel less worried about their hold on the industrial workers than about the need for extending their influence among the professional and middle classes.
In order to reach these people, they set up street or block organizations in the suburbs, and shop organizations in the nationalized big banks and offices. Experienced Communists are now being directed away from the big metal factories in Prague, and into the large white-collar firms and export organizations.
A number of intense new Communists have come up from the concentration camps, the underground work, and the partisan uprisings. For example, there is the young Slovak cotlager who spool several months in 1944 fighting the Nazis in the Slovak uprising and then hiding with his group in the snow in the woods near the timberline, while Nazis burned his house and almost shot his wife. The Communist Party means everything to him. He is directing high army personnel, and it would he unhealthy for any of them to criticize the regime.
The police is brand-new in political outlook, uniform, and personnel. It is called Guard of National Security, or S.N.B. after its Czech initials, Many of its members are recruited from the former Communist underground or from the partisans, and they are taught to put polities first.
What has been done with the police has been done to a great extent with the army, too. Both police and army units are being tied in closely with factories or communities which are solidly Communist so as to give the members of the forces the impression of a close link with a pro-Communist section of the people, and also in order to facilitate, in ease of need, the rapid deputizing of Communist or pro-Communist civilians as auxiliary forces.
The hard core of support
Behind these organized groups there are the government sympathizers among workers and miners some of the young new officials to whom the new regime has opened opportunities for careers, and a part of the youth who respond more readily than their elders to systematic propaganda, youth camps, and the like. If one totals up all these sources of support, the hard core of determined government adherents does not seem to go much beyond one fifth of the total population, with perhaps another 10 per cent on the periphery.
Not all of the opponents of the government are equally determined, and under present conditions many of them see little chance to fight actively for a restoration of democracy, because of Russian troops and the Germans at their borders. So they bear resentfully for the time being the things which have happened to their accustomed way of life.