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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

315) 100 Years at Prague: Igor’s Story (Part II): the turmoil that the Czech Republic went through during Igor’s lifetime based on his impression of historical events:

315) 100 Years at Prague: Igor’s Story (Part II): the turmoil that the Czech Republic went through during Igor’s lifetime based on his impression of historical events:

(For Part One of this post titled "100 Years at Prague: Historical changes at Prague in the 20th Century illustrated through coins reflected on Coins and Stamps", please click on the following link: "100 Years at Prague: (Part I)")

Ahoj, I am Igor.  I was born in 1914 in a small town on the outskirts of Praha (One may call it Prague in English).... I turned 102 years old last year….

I’ve lived my entire life at Prague…. and most of you would say that I do not know enough about the world….

Augustine of Hippo had said “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  Well, this might be true for others… but despite having stayed at one place... I have lived in 5 countries…. experienced 4 radically different political ideologies…. used coins of 6 different currencies… and waiting for the seventh one to be introduced…. I have loved the varied experiences and truly believe in what another good man had said…. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ― Marcel Proust.

Prague is a beautiful city and lies at the heart of the world... well, if you consider Europe to be the fulcrum of the world, Prague would be its heart... Prague lies on the banks on the Vltava... Even before I was born, Prague had seen a long history of over 1000 years… Due to its strategic location, Prague had been a political, cultural, and economic centre of Central Europe with waxing and waning fortunes during much of its existence. Founded during the Romanesque and flourishing by the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, Prague was the seat of two Holy Roman Emperors and thus also the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It was an important city to the Habsburg Monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire…. my story begins here onwards….

Prague in 1914 – 1919:

  •     Capital of the State of Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire
  •         Government – Constitutional Monarchy
  •       Emperor -  Francis Joseph I (1867–1916)  followed by Charles I & IV (1916–1918)
  •      Currency - Austro-Hungarian Krone, sub-unit Heller (German), filler (Hungarian) (This part of Igor’s narrative can be accessed in Part 1 of this post)

-      The year 1914 when I was born, was the start of a very tumultuous period…. World War I had commenced…. I do not have any recollections from this time, but my parents tell me that it was a somber period…. there was a rise of Czech Nationalism and a desire to break away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire… Austria-Hungary was an ally of Germany in WWI.

Prague in 1920 – 1938:

  •      Capital of the First Czechoslovak Republic
  •      Government – Parliamentary Republic
  •       President -  Tomáš Masaryk (1918–1935) followed by Edvard Beneš (1935–1938)
  •      Currency – First Czechoslovak Koruna (This part of Igor’s narrative can be accessed in Part 1 of this post)

-      This was a golden period of development for the country and city of Prague, where I spent most of my childhood, adolescent and young years of my life.  Tomas Masaryk had liberated our country and led us to democracy.  After the devastating war, there was peace, but alas not for long.

-      After 1933, Czechoslovakia remained the only functioning democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, but the clouds of Nazi Germany were soon to upon us.

-      After the end of World War I and defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary, both monarchies were abolished and Czechoslovakia was created as a new Republic.  The independence of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed on October 28, 1918, by the Czechoslovak National Council in Prague.

-       Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected the country's first President in 1920. He was re-elected in 1925 and 1929, serving as President until December 14, 1935 when he resigned due to poor health. He was succeeded by Edvard Beneš. Tomas Garrique Masaryk passed away in 1937. A grieving Nation brought out a commemorative coin in the denomination of 20 Korun to honour his life time and the contributions made to steer the country towards freedom and development:

The above is an image of the Reverse of the 20 Kc (Koruna czech) coin depicting Tomas Masaryk, facing right. On the left periphery is mentioned his life years – “1850-1937”, while on the right periphery is mentioned his name “T.G.Masaryk”.

The above is an image of the Obverse of the 20 Kr coin depicting the Coat of Arms. The denomination of the coin “20K” is mentioned on the upper periphery while commencing from the right periphery (clockwise) is the country name “REPUBLIKA CESKOSLOVENSKA” (spelt in Czech).

-      The new Nation had a population of over 13.5 million. It had inherited 70 to 80% of all the industry of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the porcelain and glass industries and the sugar refineries; more than 40% of all its distilleries and breweries; the Skoda Works of Pilsen (Plzeň), which produced armaments, locomotives, automobiles, and machinery; and the chemical industry of northern Bohemia. Seventeen percent of all Hungarian industry that had developed in Slovakia during the late 19th century also fell to the republic. Czechoslovakia was one of the world's 10 most industrialized states.

Prague in 1938 – 1939:
  •     Capital of the Second Czechoslovak Republic
  •       Government – Parliamentary Republic
  •       President -  Emil Hácha (1938 – 1939)
  •      Currency – First Czechoslovak Koruna (This part of Igor’s narrative can be accessed in Part 1 of this post)

-      The beginnings of war…. and the weakening of a great country… what more can I say about this period….

-      The Second Czechoslovak Republic was the result of the events following the Munich Agreement, where Czechoslovakia was forced to cede the German-populated Sudetenland region to Germany on October 1, 1938, as well as southern parts of Slovakia and Sub Carpathian Ruthenia to Hungary.

-      After the Munich Agreement and the German government making it clear to foreign diplomats that Czechoslovakia was now a German Client State, the Czechoslovak government attempted to curry favor with Germany by banning the country's Communist Party, suspending all Jewish teachers in German educational institutes in Czechoslovakia, and enacted a law to allow the state to take over Jewish companies. In addition, the government allowed the country's banks to effectively come under German-Czechoslovak control.

-      The Czechoslovak Republic had become a shell of its former self and was now a greatly weakened state. The Munich Agreement had resulted in Bohemia and Moravia losing about 38% of their combined area to Germany, with some 3.2 million German and 750,000 Czech inhabitants. Lacking its natural frontier and having lost its costly system of border fortification, the new state was militarily indefensible. Hungary received 11,882 square kilometers in southern Slovakia and southern Ruthenia; according to a 1941 census, about 86.5% of the population in this territory.

Prague in 1939 – 1945:

  •       Government – Autonomous Protectorate of Germany
  •       President -  Emil Hácha (1939 – 1945) 
  •     Capital of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
  •      Currency – Bohemian and Moravian Koruna

-      The Czechoslovak Republic was dissolved when Germany invaded it on 15 March 1939 and annexed the Czech region into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

-       On the same day as the German occupation, the President of Czechoslovakia, Emil Hácha was appointed by the German government as the State President of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia which he held throughout the war.

-       Hácha remained as technical Head of State with the title of State President, but Germany rendered him all but powerless, vesting real power in the “Reichsprotektor”, who served as Hitler's personal representative.  The SS assumed police authority; Reichsführer-SS and Reich police chief Heinrich Himmler named the former Sudeten German leader Karl Hermann Frank as the Protectorate's police chief and ranking SS officer. The new authorities dismissed Jews from the civil service and placed them outside of the legal system.

-      The population of the Protectorate was mobilized for labor that would aid the German war effort, and special offices were organized to supervise the management of industries important to that effort. The Germans drafted Czechs to work in coal mines, in the iron and steel industry, and in armaments production; some young people were sent to Germany. Consumer-goods production, much diminished, was largely directed toward supplying the German armed forces. The Protectorate's population was subjected to strict rationing.

-      This was a period of pure callousness, senseless killings and brutal oppression by the Germans.  I lost countless friends and family to the war... none of my Jewish friends survived this holocaust.  I too served the German war effort working in the coal mines and somehow survived through this period.

-      In 1942, Prague was witness to the assassination of one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany – Reinhard Heydrich – during Operation Anthropoid, accomplished by Czechoslovak national heroes Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. Hitler ordered bloody reprisals.

-      At the beginning of 1945, Praguers rebelled when Hitler threatened to annihilate the capital city. In early May, the Prague Uprising took place as Czechs rebelled by destroying German street signs. Tram conductors would no longer accept German currency or announce stops in German. Czech flags fluttered from windows. The Germans tried to take control of Prague’s radio station, but after much fighting the Czechs were victorious. When Germans still did not give up, Czechs set up about 1,600 barricades.

-      At the end of the war, Prague suffered several bombing raids by the US Air Force planes. Over 700 people were killed and over 1,000 people were injured. The raids led to some of buildings, factories and historical landmarks being destroyed.  Many historic structures in Prague, however, escaped the destruction of the war and the damage was small compared to the total destruction of many other cities in that time. According to American pilots, it was the result of a navigational mistake.

-      On May 8, 1945, the Germans retaliated by demolishing Prague’s Old Town Hall, its tower and astrological clock. Czech resistance fighters hanged Germans from lampposts and burned their bodies. A day earlier, US General George S. Patton was ordered to stop at Pilsen as the Soviets arrived to free Prague on May 9, setting the country on a different, though just as bleak and dismal, path that triggered 40 years of Communist terror. 

-       For the Czechs of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, German occupation represented a period of brutal oppression. Czech losses resulting from political persecution and deaths in concentration camps were estimated between 36,000 and 55,000.  The Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia (118,000 according to the 1930 census) was virtually annihilated, with over 75,000 murdered.  Of the 92,199 people classified as Jews by German authorities in the Protectorate as of 1939, 78,154 perished in Holocaust, or 84.8 percent.

Montage showing the Prague Old Town Hall before WWII (15-Mar-1939), after WWII (09-May-1945) and today; Republic Square on the day of annexation (15-Mar-1939) and today and the Bohemian and Moravian Protectorate Coat of Arms

Prague in 1945 – 1948:

  •     Capital of the Third Czechoslovak Republic
  •       Government – Parliamentary Republic
  •        President -  Edvard Benes (1945 – 1948)
  •        Currency – Second Czechoslovak Koruna
-      After World War II, we looked favorably on the Russians, who had liberated us. In fact, the Communist Party had had a solid following in the country from the 1920s, when the nation was democratic. Eduard Beneš, who became the postwar President, had signed a friendship treaty with the Soviets while working with the government-in-exile during 1943.

-       The Czechoslovak army and local government structure were modelled after those in the USSR.  The results of the May 1946 elections demonstrated the popularity of the Party, as it cornered 38 percent of the vote.

-       From May 1946 until July of 1947, things seemed to be running smoothly in Czechoslovakia. Then the nation wanted to obtain Marshall Aid.

-      However, the USSR intervened and forbid their ally from accepting US help, stating that it would breach the existing friendship treaty.  Economic difficulties, farmers’ objections to collectivization and disappointment with the fast pace of industrialization were additional reasons why citizens then began to see the Communist Party in a different light.

-      Communists reacted strongly to the criticism.  A public opinion poll in January 1948 showed that the Communists’ popularity had dropped to 25 percent and that they did not have much student support.  We were again headed down a dark tunnel...

-      To say that President Beneš found himself in a difficult situation is a gross understatement.  He was afraid the Soviets would intervene or that a civil war would start. Beneš made a big mistake by hesitating and not trying to convince the non-Communists to take action. Only some students had openly stood up to the Communists and had been physically beaten up on Prague’s Nerudova Street.

-      Besides, Beneš wanted the USSR to be a significant role player in Eastern Europe because he did not want Germany to gain power again. He also was convinced that USSR-style Communism would be moderate, by no means extreme.

-      Then Gottwald, the Chairman of Communist Party, threatened that there would be a general strike and also presented Beneš with a list of so-called reactionaries who would be punished if he did not sign the Communist government’s set of proposals.

-      President Beneš accepted Gottwald’s proposal for a new government that gave power to the political party which would cause so much suffering and pain and destroy so many lives for more than 40 years.  The aftermath of the coup was telling.

-       Only days later, democratic Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Masaryk, the son of first Czechoslovak president Tomáš G. Masaryk, died a mysterious death. He either fell or was pushed off a balcony of the Czernin Palace and was found on the pavement below his office.

-       A constitution modelled after that in the USSR became law, although Beneš refused to sign it. No opposition to the Communist Party was allowed. Many citizens were fired or arrested. A frail and sick Beneš resigned on June 6, 1948.

-      Gottwald became President while Antonín Zapotocký took up the post of Prime Minister. Beneš passed away September 3, 1948 and with him the democratic hopes, dreams and tradition of Czechoslovakia died as well, only to be miraculously resuscitated during November 1989.

         President Edvard Benes and President Gottwald

Prague in 1948 – 1960:

  •     Capital of the Third Czechoslovak Republic   (The official name was changed only in 1960)
  •        Government – Unitary People’s Republic (single party government)
  •       President(s) -  Klement Gottwald (1948 – 1953), Antonín Zápotocký (1953 – 1957)
  •      Currency – Second Czechoslovak Koruna (until 1953) followed by the Third Czechoslovak Koruna (This part of Igor’s narrative can be accessed in Part 1 of this post)

-      During the beginning of the brutal and nightmarish 1950s, Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin directed the Czechoslovak Communists to carry out purges, and the nation held the largest show trials in Eastern Europe.

-      Over a six-year period, from 1949 to 1954, the victims included military leaders, Catholics, Jews, democratic politicians, those with wartime connections with the West as well as high-ranking Communists. Almost 180 people were executed. There was no such thing as a fair trial as judges cooperated with the country’s leadership. The defendants, branded guilty before the trial began, even had to rehearse their testimonies in advance, as if it all were some cruel play performed on a stage instead of in a courtroom.

-      The economy worsened and the value of the currency also declined.

-      A particularly drastic Currency Reform was undertaken in 1953. At that time, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had to deal with the fact that there was a double market in the country: a fixed market ensuring basic food availability a remnant of the postwar quota system, and a free market, in which goods were as much as eight times more expensive but better quality.

-      The Currency Reform was in effect from 1st June 1953 and new banknotes printed in the Soviet Union began getting distributed. The next day, citizens were allowed to change up to 1,500 old Korunas for new Korunas at the exchange rate of 5 old to 1 new koruna and the rest at the rate of 50 to 1.

-      All insurance stock, state obligations and other commercial papers were nullified. The economic situation of many people got worse insofar as many petitions and demonstrations broke out, the largest of which took place in Plzeň, where 472 people were arrested.

Prague in 1960 – 1990:

  •     Capital of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
  •       Government – Marxist-Leninist one-party state
  •       President -  Antonín Novotný (1957 – 1968), Ludvík Svoboda (1968 – 1975),  and Gustáv Husák (1975 – 1989)
  •      Currency –Third Czechoslovak Koruna (This part of Igor’s narrative can be accessed in Part 1 of this post)

-      This was the height of the communist period.  Farmers, especially wealthy ones referred to as “kulaks” were enemies of the Communist regime. During the years of Stalinization, farms were nationalized in what was called “collectivization”. No one could own more than 50 hectares of land. Communists blackmailed farmers and threatened them with imprisonment if they did not join cooperatives. Such farmers were publicly denounced and found themselves without supplies. Yet collectivization was inefficient and failed.

-      Still, farmers were not the Communist Party’s greatest rival – religion was.  The Communists took over Church property, closing down all 216 monasteries in the country during 1950 and most of the 339 convents. Some clergymen were murdered, while others found themselves sharing prison cells with murderers or the insane, or they were sent to labor camps or placed in the army.

-      Under Communism workers were worshipped as heroes and exploited as propaganda for the regime. Miners, for example, received excellent pensions and comfortable housing. Workers had better salaries than university professors. The working-class employees who obeyed Communist doctrine were rewarded with holidays abroad – in Bulgaria, Romania, the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia rather than in the West.

-      Communist ideology permeated the politically-based education system. Students had to study subjects such as Marxism-Leninism.

Prague Spring, 1968:

At the beginning of 1968, a breath of fresh air blew into Czechoslovakia when Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.  On January 5, 1968, Dubček replaced Novotný as First Secretary.

In February 1968, Dubček made a speech emphasizing the need for reforms. True to his word, in April, he instituted greater freedom of speech, the press, and movement. He believed that Czechoslovakia should be divided into two countries; he also spoke of the need to limit the power of the secret police. He foresaw a period of ten years bridging the gap between things as they were, and the ultimate goal of democratic socialism. It was a startling announcement.

The Soviet Union did not approve of Dubček’s plan for reform.  At first, the Soviet Union attempted to negotiate amicable terms with Dubček.  On reaching a stalemate, the Soviet Union decided to invade any Warsaw Pact member state that showed signs of returning to a Capitalist System.

On August 20–21, 1968, Soviet armour rolled into Czechoslovakia.  The troops made their way to Prague, and took over the airport.  72 people died in the invasion while 702 were injured.  Dubček himself was arrested and taken to Moscow, where he was forced to sign the Moscow Protocol and his reforms were abolished and it business as usual under communism.

Images from the Prague Spring of 1968 and then General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek and the new Socialist Coat of Arms, the ‘caged lion’ design as I call it

Prague in 1990 – 1992:
  •   Capital of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic (CSFR)
  •    Government – Federal Parliamentary Republic
  •     President -  Václav Havel (1989 – 1992)
  •    Currency –Third Czechoslovak Koruna (This part of Igor’s narrative can be accessed in Part 1 of this post)

-      November 17, 1989, is one of the landmark dates in modern Czech history, when the state was, once again, independent – this time, free of Communist rule.

-      In 1985, liberal-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took power, and increasing freedoms were introduced into countries under Communist rule. Widespread discontent with the status quo gave rise to more public grumbling – something once forbidden. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was destroyed by thousands of Germans, and footage of the destruction was broadcast worldwide.

-      Dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, often imprisoned for his views, was one of the key members of the Civic Forum established at this time. They demanded accountability on the part of the police for having beaten the non-violent students, as well as the release of all political prisoners. News spread; strikes became more popular. The Civic Forum gained power, and finally Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec met with Havel on November 26, 1989.

-      The following day, the Ministry of Culture allowed anti-Communist works/texts to be made available in libraries, after 41 years of censorship. On December 10, 1989, the first non-Communist government was sworn in. The ever-popular Havel became the first President of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia on December 29.

-      Due to its largely non-violent nature (the only violence was shown by the police), the Movement was dubbed “The Velvet Revolution”.

-       In 1992, Slovakia made the decision to split from the Czech Republic, which occurred on January 1, 1993. Fittingly, this division is known as “The Velvet Divorce”. 
Vaclav Havel and his portrait on a stamp of the Czech Republic

Prague between 1993 – Current:

  •       Capital of the Czech Republic
  •          Government –Parliamentary Constitutional Republic
  •        President -  Václav Klaus (1992 – 1998), Miloš Zeman (1998 – 2002)
  •      Currency –Czech Koruna ((This part of Igor’s narrative can be accessed in Part 1 of this post)

-      The Czech Republic was created after the Velvet Divorce.

-      The Nation possesses a developed, high-income economy with a per capita GDP rate that is 87% of the European Union average. The most stable and prosperous of the post-Communist states, the Czech Republic saw growth of over 6% annually in the three years before the outbreak of the recent global economic crisis. Most of the economy has been privatized, including the banks and telecommunications.

-      The country has been a member of the Schengen Area since 1st May 2004, having abolished border controls, completely opening its borders with all of its neighbors (Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia) on 21 December 2007.

  Prague as Capital of the Czech Republic in current day

Post Script:

I have loved my journey, and sooner or later I will depart to a heavenly abode... Am certain, change is bound to happen and maybe the Euro coins will also be introduced in the Czech Republic some day!!  Igor, “podpisem off” (meaning “signing off”)….…

  Blog Administrator’s Note:  (The above article has been contributed as a Guest Post for this blog by Rahul Kumar, an avid Numismatist based in Hyderabad who has an interest in the historical development of coins across the World. Apart from a detailed study of the subject, Rahul has supplemented his write-up with illustrative images of coins, stamps and maps in his collection.

     In addition, Rahul has written several detailed articles on the subject of Numismatics. He has earlier contributed a popular post for this blog as a Guest Contributor, titled “The British Empire: A Case of Numismatic Segregation” which makes for a very interesting study/read on this subject for Numismatists and Coin Historians. This post can be accessed through the following link:

    In addition, Rahul has given very interesting inputs in my earlier post put up on this blog in May 2011 titled “Independent India issues: The evolution of the one-rupee coin , the steady building block of the Indian monetary system”, supplementing his inputs with interesting charts. This post can be accessed through the following link:

    He has also contributed an interesting post, titled "Managing Currency Transition", which can be accessed at the following link:


  1. Ramchandra Lalingkar has commented:
    "I always read your posts which narrates the history of that particular 'subject' i.e. special postal stamp, coin/s etc. Thanks for sharing such a minute details about history of Czechoslovakia."

    1. Rahul Kumar has commented:
      "Thank you Mr. Lalingkar."

    2. Thank you so much, Lalingkar sahab - Rajeev

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