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Council of Free Czechoslovakia

Martin Nekola 30 January, 2018

Exactly one year after the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, on February 25, 1949, the Council of Free Czechoslovakia (Rada svobodneho Ceskoslovenska) – Umbrella Organization of the Anti-Communist Exile was founded in Washington, D.C. The governments of twenty-one countries recognized its establishment. Initially, the Council claimed to be a kind of representative umbrella organization for the democratic Czechoslovak exile, but this idea quickly proved unworkable. Many different political groups and stubborn personalities were present, and it appeared almost impossible to unify them with any single platform indefinitely.

 

Council of Free Czechoslovakia dinner, July 4, 1952, New York City

 

Assembly of Captive European Nations logo

 

Indeed, disputes over concepts and objectives soon arose, as well as attempts to rehash postwar developments in Czechoslovakia and to bring a new point of view to controversial topics, such as the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans, the degree of guilt and collaboration with the Communists, and the future of the Slovak nation within Czechoslovakia. After a promising start, the Council – particularly its twelve-member Executive Committee consisting of former politicians, diplomats, journalists, high governmental and military officials – soon suffered from such fundamental fragmentation and contradictions that it could not effectively provide leadership. The exile leaders had a naive expectation that the Council would receive recognition comparable to that which the government-in-exile had had during the Second World War. Some tension still hung in the air, the result of the defeat in February, 1948, and subsequent loss of Czechoslovak democracy; there were, additionally, frustrations, fears and, unfortunately, also a settling of old scores between political rivals who were not able to understand they were no longer in power.

 

Chairman of the Council for Free Czechoslovakia Petr Zenkl (left) and Vice-chairman Jozef Lettrich in front of the new headquarters in Manhattan, February 1953

 

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Council floundered in crisis; it crumbled and reunited again, and rapidly lost public support from the exile community and its American supporters and patrons from the National Committee for Free Europe, an anti-communist propaganda organization founded by the CIA. Due to insistence from the Americans, the headquarters of the Council moved from Washington, D.C. to 12 E. 72nd Street, close to Central Park in Manhattan, in February 1953. It received messages of good will from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, Mayor of New York City Vincent R. Impellitteri and others. Later the Council moved its office again, to the Sokol building at 420 East 71st Street, to be in the very heart of the Czech neighborhood in New York City. The headquarters officially returned to D.C. in the 1960s, but it was by then only a small one-room office filled with archive materials and correspondence. The real core of the Council´s activities remained in Manhattan.

 

The Council of Free Czechoslovakia also had the right to send delegations to the Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN). The efforts of the State Department and the CIA to coordinate the anti-communist activities of the leading bodies of exiled Czechs and Slovaks, Albanians, Bulgarians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Romanians and Poles resulted in the creation of the ACEN in New York, which saw the light of day on September 20, 1954, as a non-incorporated, non-profit company. ACEN was intended to act as a “shadow” counterbalance to the United Nations, and was meant to coordinate the management of anti-communist campaigns, publicize news from behind the Iron Curtain, and generate international support for the liberation of Soviet-ruled parts of Europe. The structure of ACEN generally followed the structure of the United Nations. It consisted of a general assembly, a general committee, and several working committees (political, legal, social, economic, information and cultural). The general sessions were held once a year, usually in September, and these functioned as the sanctioning assemblies through which resolutions were announced and the members of the general committee were elected. Each of the participating nine “captive nations,” through their respective national committees, sent a sixteen-member delegation to these sessions, where lectures and situational reports on developments in individual countries behind the Iron Curtain were presented, and voting on resolutions and protests notes took place. The ACEN assemblies, which took place in New York to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly sessions, were frequently also coordinated with public demonstrations to raise their profile and increase the volume of their message. From 1956 to 1963, ACEN rented a two-story building owned by the Carnegie Endowment on First Avenue, directly opposite UN headquarters. Hence, the UN delegates from communist countries could not avoid the unpleasant view of posters and billboards displayed across the street alerting passers-by to the ongoing “red terror” and “Soviet imperialism.”

 

Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN) building at 1st Avenue in Manhattan

 

ACEN Assembly, September 1956, New York City

 

After the gradual retirement and death of the exile “old guard” in the 1970s, the younger generation revived the Council of Free Czechoslovakia. It had to deal with the massive influx of the new wave of émigrés from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in August 1968 and many operational and administrative difficulties. But it coped with all of this, re-gained its authority among the exile public, established communication with dissenters at home, joined the Helsinki peace process and, finally, assisted as an advisory body to President Vaclav Havel immediately after the collapse of the Communist regime.

 

The history of the Council of Free Czechoslovakia should not be forgotten. Nor should the stories of the other Czech and Slovak exile and compatriot bodies, based in New York for many decades.

 

ACEN exhibition Soviet Empire, Grand Central Station, 1958, New York City


All images courtesy of Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota.

 


Dr. Martin Nekola, Ph.D. received his doctorate in political science at the Charles University in Prague. His research is focused on non-democratic regimes, the era of Communism, and the East-European anti-communist exiles in the United States during the Cold War. He is the author of numerous articles and has published nine books, the most recent of which are Petr Zenkl: Politik a člověk (Petr Zenkl: Politician and Man), 2014, Krvavé století (Bloody Century), 2015, and České Chicago (Czech Chicago), 2017.


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