* November 25, 1895 Hroznatin
† September 20, 1979 Prague
Czechoslovak general and Communist politician
During the World War I he was a member of the Czech Legions in Russia. He participated in the battles at Zborov and Bachmac as well as in the Siberian adventure. On returning home he spent two years managing his father's farm. As of 1922 he was an officer in the Czechoslovak army and held various positions: deputy commander of a battalion in Carpathian Ruthenia, teacher of Hungarian at the Military Academy in Hranice - where in the days of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy he had graduated as commander of a battalion in Kromeriz. In the course of mobilization in September 1938 he was commander of an infantry regiment.
At the beginning of Nazi occupation he became a member of a resistance organization Defence of the Nation. In June 1939 he illegally escaped to Poland where he commanded a Czechoslovak unit - the legion in Cracow which was being established. In September 1939 he was captured by the Soviets and was interned together with his soldiers. Already before he went into exile he had collaborated with the Soviets as a spy. He continued these activities in Moscow and that saved his life. One of the branches of the Soviet NKVD spy organization considered him to be a spy and took him into custody and sentenced him to death. Svoboda succeeded in persuading the judge to phone a number in the Kremlin. After this call the sentence was immediately quashed and Svoboda spent the rest of that day with his judges - over vodka. Later he interpreted this event as a proof of the warm-heartedness of the "Soviet people", who, when they are convinced of having committed an error, face facts.
After the Nazi aggression against the Soviet Union in 1941, Svoboda became a commander of the First Czechoslovak independent battalion in the Soviet Union which as of March 1943 participated in battles at the front line. Thanks to support from Soviet authorities and also the boundless trust in him of Gottwald's communist émigrés in USSR, he was speedily promoted to higher commander functions and military ranks (commander of the 1st independent battalion, 1st independent brigade, 1st army corps; 1943-45 brigadier general, May-August 1945 Division General, as of August 1945 Army General). Svoboda's deputy, or chief of staff, was Bohumir Lomsky, later Cepicka's successor as Minister of Defence.
Svoboda returned to the Czechoslovak Republic as a "non-political" Minister of Defence. He held this government post from April 4, 1945 until April 25, 1950. The nation hailed him as hero of Sokolovo, Dukla and other battles in which above all Czechoslovak soldiers of "the East Army" risked their lives. In spite of many bitter experiences they trusted that their advance "Onward to Prague" that they were actually marching "With Svoboda [meaning Freedom] to liberty". The leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party considered Svoboda's party "indifference" as a great advantage. It not only meant an additional ministerial position, but above Communist influence in a decisive department of power.
Svoboda's role in February 1948 has been the subject of many discussions and interpretations. Svoboda always rejected the claims of some military historians that the army in those days was "neutralized". He was right. His military order during those February days prevented some units, which were not under the command of Communists, from being directed against the State National Security and Czechoslovak Communist Party pressure groups. He proved that the army commanders took an active part in the power takeover. He described his attitude in February 1948 in the following manner (he obviously did so for the first time at a conference of historians at Liblice in 1963):
"When the Czechoslovak Communist Party convened a founding meeting of the Central Action Committee of the National Front in the Municipal House in Prague on the evening of February 23, comrade Gottwald asked me whom do I side with. I answered that it is obvious. 'But, Ludvicek, I want to hear a clear answer,' said Klema. I answered: 'I go along with the people.' Whereupon Gottwald asked me to come to the meeting in the Municipal House. 'I'll come with all my medals and orders on my uniform and on the dot,' I replied. 'Not that, Ludvicek, you must come about ten minutes late.' 'We soldiers are punctual,' I said. 'I know,' the prime minister answered, 'but everyone will be anxious to know where the army stands, they'll be nervous, uncertain. Therefore if we keep them on tenterhooks waiting for your arrival you'll be the centre of general attention and this will be our greatest triumph.'"
And it came to pass according to the wishes of Gottwald, the great intriguer and master of political games. Svoboda, heavily adorned with medals arrived at the political performance at the required belated time and he was not alone. He was accompanied by the heroes of the resistance, Generals B. Bocek and K. Klapalek, who were later sent to prison by Communist courts.
After February 1948 there was no longer a need to pretend being "apolitical" and Svoboda became a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. As of the early eighties he gradually fell into disfavour. In April 1950 A. Cepicka took over his office of Minister of Defence. From 1950 to 1951 Svoboda served as Deputy Premier and chairman of the State Committee for Physical Training and Sport. By the end of 1951 he was stripped of even these functions and a year later he was imprisoned for a brief spell. After he was released he worked for some time on a co-operative farm in Hroznatin. In 1954, apparently on the request of prominent Soviet authorities, maybe Chrushchev himself, he gradually made a political comeback: member of the presidium of the National Assembly (1954-64), for many years Vice-Chairman of the Union of Anti-fascist Fighters. In the army, too, he garnered commanding functions - 1955-58 Chief of the K. Gottwald Military Academy in Prague, subsequently Chief of the Military Historic Institute in Prague. (It was then that he wrote with the help of employees of the Institute his memoirs whose first edition was published under the title "From Buzuluk to Prague" in 1960.)
At the time of the Prague Spring Svoboda was elected on March 30, 1968 President of the Republic. Until August 1968 he was acknowledged as a moderate and noncommittal support for the reformers. Following the Soviet occupation many legends were created regarding his actions. He acquired the gloriole of a man who refused to establish a collaborators' government of workers and farmers and saved the lives of the reform leaders who were abducted to the USSR. There was no need for particular courage in rejecting collaboration considering the all-nation resistance to the occupiers. Rather on the contrary. The Moscow negotiations which took place on Svoboda's proposal were held at a time when the inner political and international political plans of the intervention forces and collaborators had failed completely, Svoboda exerted severe pressure on the representatives of reform (A. Dubcek and others), to sign the submitted capitulation so-called Moscow Protocol. Simultaneously he zealously supported the decision of the Minister of Defence Martin Dzur whose command completely paralyzed any possible resistance on the part of the Czechoslovak army.
After August Svoboda played one of the chief roles in "normalizing" the situation. At first he became something of a legend as the saviour of the "post-January" developments, which impressed those sections of the nation who considered Svoboda to be a national hero. In fact nearly everyone praised his policy - both fanatics and the collaborators from Liben Cechie, whom it suited how Svoboda scolded newspapers and other media."
Svoboda continually warned against "incalculable consequences", which might be caused by non-compliance with the occupiers. He played a role in the removal of A. Dubcek from the latter's position as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and in pressing for G. Husak to take on this function. And in addition to holding the position as President he added to his function membership of the presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
As of April 1974 he was unable for health reasons to perform the function of President. But he obstinately refused to resign. In May 1975 a special law had to be adopted to remove him from office. He was replaced by the ever ambitious G. Husak. Actually Svoboda's post-February history just repeated itself. When the dirty work had been exploited sufficiently, when his reputation as a national hero and a wise, experienced man who "had prevented the very worst" had been exhausted, the ruling mafia sent him into retirement (nk)