May 01, 2003

Bradford Is Annoyed I

I find myself annoyed beyond reason by two short passages in William Hitchcock's otherwise very nicely done Struggle for Europe (William Hitchcock (2002), The Struggle for Europe (New York: Doubleday: 0385497989)):

The first is a truly bizarre passage on the post-World Wa II Soviet-backed coup in Czechoslovakia:

p. 114: Now events followed the pattern visible in Poland and Hungary.... Communist propaganda spewed forth from the Ministry of Information.... Three democratic ministers... received mail bombs... police and trade unions... moblized to intimidate..... Communist... Interior Minister Nosek had begun a purge of non-Communist police officers... democratic parties demanded their reinstatement... Nosek refused... democratic ministers... resigned en masse on 20 February. In France and Italy, this move had been the preliminatry to a reformulation of governments that excluded the Communists. This is what the ministers hoped [President] Benes would now do. He did not... Communists staged immense rallies... mobilized... police, unions, and army leadership... declared that they would resort to violence if they were not given control of the government. Benes was caught on the horns of a dilemma. He could reject the demands of the Communists, overrule the results of the 1946 election (in which they had freely won a majority), and court civil war and Soviet intervention. These were serious concerns: there were 250,000 pro-Communist demonstrators in the streets of Prague, and the Soviets had sent Deputy Foreign Minister Valerian Zorin to the city to "confer" with Gottwald. Or Benes could concede to the Communists and let Gottwald form a Communist-dominated government. Either way, democracy in Czechoslovakia would be ruined. The frail and elderly Benes, in a decision that forever tarnished the reputation of this good man of peace, relented, and offered Gottwald what he wanted. On 25 February, Gottwald was again named prime minister.... By their precipitate resignations, the democratic ministers enabled Gottwald to take power by constitutional means. There was no coup in Prague; there was only a turbulent but legal transfer of power to Communist hands...

Surely the people who had voted for the Communists in the 1946 election had not intended that it be the last free election in Czechoslovakia? Surely they had not intended to give Klement Gottwald and company the power to purge the police and security services of all non-Communist members? Surely less respect was paid to the results of the 1946 election by Benes conceding power to Gottwald than would have been done by Benes's naming a non-Communist government? Surely no constitution is ever a suicide pact? And surely the naming of a non-Communist government would not have been the end of democracy in Czechoslovakia--that would have depended on what risks Stalin was willing to run and what orders Stalin was willing to give, and I don't think William Hitchcock knows--I don't think anybody knows--whether Stalin was willing to back Klement Gottwald to the hilt or was just letting him run a bluff.

I find it rather pathetic that William Hitchcock thinks that it is appropriate to claim that there was no Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, but only "a turbulent but legal transfer of power to Communist hands."

Posted by DeLong at May 1, 2003 09:53 PM | TrackBack


I disagree, strongly.

A consitution is a suicide pact for democracy if the people vote so. For what is the alternative? To deny a democratic vote if you don't like the result? Is that really what you're urging - that govts should not hand over power to their elected successors if the ousted govt doesn't want to?


Posted by: sean on May 1, 2003 10:44 PM

Suppose in the U.S. a party manages to gain control of 3/4 of the States and 2/3 of the Congress. Suppose that this party then manages to pass an amendment to the Constitution banning new elections and making the President (also of their party) dictator for life. The military intervenes and insists on new elections, according to the Old Constitution. Who has couped whom?

Posted by: Andrew Boucher on May 2, 2003 02:29 AM

Today's voters do not have the legitimate right to foreclose tomorrow's voters of their access to government by consent. Even if one discounts those future citizens who are having their access denied, the minority today that is unwilling to discard their access cannot legitimately have it denied, even by Constitutional measures, and some of today's citizens who are willing to discard access may change their mind tomorrow. This is the great weakness of those who dont' understand the paradox of democracy and Constitutional measures; they fail to grasp that democracy and Constitutional measures are only the beginning of legitimate government, and not even close to being the end. People are endowed with liberty, regardless of what a majority says, or whether Constitutional procedures are followed in depriving people of what is rightfully theirs. In answer to Sean's question, if a majority seeks to discard the processes by which future polities will lend consent to their government, the only legitimate course of action for the minority is revolution, and violent revolution if needed. If the armed forces of the nation side with the minority that seeks preservation of the means by which future citizens lend consent to their government, all the better, for this is truly the morally legitimate course of action.

Posted by: Will Allen on May 2, 2003 07:48 AM

To at least some extent, Brad's argument seems to be over having history represented the way one wants. The future was unknown to Benes. In the same way that he could not know how Stalin would react, Benes could not know that legitimate elections would come to an end - though he might suspect it. The choice to define "coup" as violent overthrow rather than intimidation doesn't change the facts of what happened, just how the would "coup", with all its baggage, is used. Hitchcock give the facts a certain look through his choice of words - he could have avoided raising the issue of whether there was really a coup - but it is hard to argue that he is misstating the facts.

Posted by: K Harris on May 2, 2003 09:21 AM

"Vigilance is the price of liberty," which, although it is an "inalienable right" is not in reality without cost. It does not matter whether the people knew that voting for the communists would result in the ending of political liberty and the establishment of a dictatorship, because "not knowing" is in fact an abdication of the responsibility of *paying* attention, and naturally when the price of a commodity is not paid that commodity soon becomes scarce.
If the people of a nation have a great desire, for whatever reason, to fool themselves about the nature and intentions of those who would lead them, then they will (unfortunately) reap the results. If no vigilance is paid to the corruption of critical institutions, then a spiral can be produced that in the end makes the transition to tyrany appear to be just another inconsequential political choice, until it is too late and the consequences become clear indeed.
Liberty may be an inalienable right, but it is often not a natural state. It is instead a fragile and hard earned prize.

Posted by: B Price on May 4, 2003 03:51 AM

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