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Ludvík Svoboda

Ludvík Svoboda (born November 25 1895, Hroznatín, Moravia - died September 20 1979, Prague) was a Czechoslovak national hero who fought in both World Wars and was later the president of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

Early life

In World War I Svoboda deserted from the Austro-Hungarian army, while on the Eastern Front, and fought for the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia. He took part in the legendary battles of Zborov and Bakhmach and returned home through the famous "Siberian anabasis". He then worked at his father's estate before launching his military career in the Czechoslovak army.

In the early 1930s he taught at a military academy. After the German occupation in the spring 1939 he became a member of a secret underground organization Obrana národa ("Defence of the nation"). It is supposed that at the same time he established connection with the Soviet intelligence. In June 1939 he fled to Poland, forming an initial Czechoslovak military unit in Kraków, before falling into Soviet captivity during the "Fourth partition of Poland", however escaping a certain death after - as he put it in the postwar era - asking his captors to call a phone number in Moscow where they could obtain a personal information about him; this worked. After the outbreak of the German offensive against the USSR Svoboda became head of the Czechoslovak military units on Eastern front. The unit fought the Germans for the first time in March 1943. Due to the trust he enjoyed on the part of Klement Gottwald´s exile leadership and Soviet functionaries he quickly climbed the military ranks becoming army general in August 1945.

Post-war political career

In World War II a substantial part of Czechoslovakia was liberated by the Red Army and the First Czechoslovak Army Corps under the leadership of Svoboda. Svoboda was appointed Minister of Defense while being welcomed as a hero of the Eastern Front. The Soviet Union enjoyed a great popularity among the population and in the elections of 1946 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CCP) won 38% of the vote nationwide.

On February 22 1948 after the abdication of cabinet ministers from three democratic parties in protest against Communist practices the Communist dominated Trade Union Congress voted unanimously to replace the 12 government posts with Communists. As armed workers and the People's Militias took to the streets, Svoboda refused to quell the insurrection with military force, saying "the army will not march against the people". Two days later (and one day after a general strike in which 2,5 million citizens participated either out of fear or creed) the then Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš accepted a solution asserted by Gottwald and filled the vacant government posts with Communist candidates, thus creating a 25-seat government with 13 Communist ministers. The takeover was completely bloodless. Svoboda, whose label had been that of an "apolitical" minister since the first days of his term, then joined the Communist Party whose de facto Trojan horse he had been all the time and was elected a deputy to the National Assembly. Svoboda was forced out of the army (in which he had reached the rank of General November 1945) in 1950 under pressure from Stalin. He was deputy Prime Minister of the Czechoslovak government in 1950 and 1951. In the purges which followed Svoboda was imprisoned, and released in the Khrushchev period, subsequently heading the Klement Gottwald Military Academy.

In 1946 he was awarded the title People's Hero of Yugoslavia, in November 1965. Svoboda was also awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union (on November 24 1965), and of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (being awarded the latter title again in 1970 and 1975). He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize (1970).

Presidency

After the ending of the Antonín Novotný regime, in the period known as the Prague Spring, Svoboda was elected President of Czechoslovakia on March 30 1968, on the recommendation of Alexander Dubček, the First Secretary. Svoboda then gave a mild consent to the reform process of the new Party leadership until the Soviet intervention in August 1968. He refused to appoint the so called peasant-workers´government against Leonid Brezhnev´s pressure. He also secured the release of Dubček when the latter, and other members of the Czechoslovak government were abducted to the Soviet Union in August 1968.

His performance actually helped Brezhnev force the Czechoslovak representatives to sign the notorious Moscow protocols, which meant a factual capitulation as they were kept secret and provided the Warsaw pact armies with a factual licence to a "temporary stay" (as it was called later at an October parliamentary session) in Czechoslovakia. The protocols also obliged the Party leadership to promote political, cultural and other changes to stop the reform process. Svoboda also supported then Minister of Defence Martin Dzúr who ordered the Czechoslovak army to not show any resistance. Given the public outrage and resistance, Svoboda's arbitrary action was in fact in line with Brezhnev´s intents and against the wishes of the public.

Normalisation period

Svoboda survived the removal of reformist Communists in Czechoslovakia while passively witnessing the Party purges and suffocation of former civic liberties. He even helped silence the disobedient press and also contributed to Dubček's ouster from his post in April 1969. He did not stop to believe that his submissive conduct helped save thousands of lives from "immense consequences" and pointed to his memories of a soldier of war horrors.

After resisting stubbornly the attempts of Gustav Husák´s new leadership to oust him from the presidential office, he had to be forced to retire in 1975 through a constitutional act paragraph 64 Nr.143/1968 Sb., stating that the Federal Assembly may elect a new president provided that the existing one has not been able to perform his office longer than one year; this was true on grounds of his ill health.

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