Josef Smrkovský was born into a farmer's family in Velenka, in the Kingdom of Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic). As an adult, he began working as a baker and soon became a secretary of the Red Trade Union (1930–32) and was involved in the communist movement. He joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) in 1933 and went to study at a political school in the USSR. When he returned, Smrkovský began to work as a secretary of the KSČ in Brno (1937–38).
World War II
During the Second World War, Smrkovský worked for the illegal communist resistance to Nazi occupation and eventually became a member of the central committee. In May 1945, as a member of the Czech National Council, he negotiated an agreement for the Nazi units in Prague to surrender. He is notorious (and often quoted) for preventing the US Army from liberating Prague via Plzeň – a claim he himself made publicly in the 1960s.
Victorious February and political imprisonment
Although the Czech National Council was dissolved and its members unpopular with Soviet authorities, Smrkovský was co-opted into the presidium of the Central Committee of the KSČ. He worked as a chairman of the Land Property Fund, and in 1946 was elected as a member of the National Assembly. During the government crisis in February 1948, he served as a commander of the Lidové milice (People's Militias) and helped support the successful communist coup d'état. He then found work in the Ministry of Agriculture.
In 1951, Smrkovský was suddenly arrested and condemned to life imprisonment for cooperation with a "conspiring centre" around Rudolf Slánský. He was released in 1955 and considered fully rehabilitated in 1963.
After his release from prison, Smrkovský worked as a head of an agricultural cooperative (JZD Pavlovice). In 1963, he was assigned to work in various lower ministries, finally becoming Minister of Forestry and the Water System.
Smrkovský contributed to the reform movement of 1968 in a peculiar way. Not only did he support the removal of Antonín Novotný from his post as Communist Party leader, but Smrkovský's public announcement ("What Lies Ahead") at the end of January 1968 demonstrated the real impact of Alexander Dubček's election as First Secretary. Smrkovský was designated chairman of the National Assembly in April 1968, and as a talented speaker became (together with Dubček) one of the most popular politicians of the era. He was in favour of democratic reforms but maintained communist ideology, and continued to support the leading role of the KSČ in the state.
"If someone thinks we are manoeuvred by the Soviets they are badly off base," said Smrkovský in the summer of 1968. His assessment proved incorrect. The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia took only one day. Smrkovský and the other leading exponents of reform were deported to Moscow where they were instructed to sign the so-called Moscow Protocol (only František Kriegel refused). Upon his return, Smrkovský tried unsuccessfully to keep the Stalinist wing from taking control. He was demoted at the request of Gustáv Husák, suspended from KSČ, and widely denounced. In 1971 he took part in the birthday celebration of Bohumil Hrabal. He died in 1974, and was buried under police control. The obituary letter sent by Dubček to Smrkovský's relatives was published in Italian daily Giorni - Vie Nuove and reprinted in Le Monde or New York Herald Tribune.
- Czech Who's Who: Josef Smrkovský (Czech)
- Biographical Timeline  (Czech)
- “What lies ahead,” by Josef Smrkovský, February 9th, 1968 (English)
- Zdeněk Koňák: Jak šla léta  (Czech)
- Literární noviny 2008-11 p.7  (Czech)
- Bohumil Hrabal Timeline  (Czech)
- Antonín Benčík: Otazníky nad osudy Josefa Smrkovského - description of the funeral (pdf)  (Czech)