Rosamund Johnston

Comrades in Arms: A Global History of Czechoslovakia's Weapons Industry, 1954-1994

Czechoslovakia, rarely thought of as one of the Cold War’s major players, was perhaps the biggest exporter of small arms to Africa throughout the 1960s. And lurking in the background of Cold War crises—from Guatemala and Suez in the 1950s to Angola and Afghanistan in the 1980s—were Czechoslovak weapons. To study the country’s weapons industry is therefore to tell the global history of Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century. Moreover, it reveals the sovereignty of Soviet “satellite” states during the Cold War and socialist internationalism’s shifting forms.

Comrades in Arms places Czechoslovakia’s Cold War history in its imperial, democratic and wartime context, acknowledging the importance of the weapons industry and trade relations established prior to the Communist takeover in 1948. It thus qualifies claims that socialist Czechoslovakia simply followed Moscow’s orders in its weapons sales. While showing how leaders drew on past practices when deciding who to sell arms to, however, this study is attentive to the new set of power relations that elites navigated as the Cold War crystallized.

Focusing in turns on the state’s leaders, arms dealers, munitions workers, international students and the general public, I show the complex web of interactions upon which Czechoslovakia’s international weapons trade relied. I use corporate archives and oral histories to chart how the connections that arms dealers fostered extended beyond guns, and how arms workers were encouraged to understand themselves as part of a larger socialist world.

My study then turns to how the history of Czechoslovakia’s weapons industry was shaped by non-human actors. Comrades in Arms recognizes the “autonomous power” of weapons technologies themselves. Cold War historiography frequently describes goods from Eastern Europe as poor quality and defective. As arms workers knew, this was historically not the case for Czechoslovak weapons, nor was it so for much of the socialist period. By the end of the 1980s, however, Czechoslovak manufacturing was losing its international sheen. Despite the best efforts of persuasive sales agents, backfiring weapons failed to inspire confidence and secure sales.

Following the flow of commodities from the Czechoslovak provinces to the Cold War’s flashpoints, I link the local to the global, excavating the role played by Czechoslovak arms in shaping global conflict in the twentieth century. Conversely, I examine how global conflict shaped class configurations and gender relations on the factory floor. Considering, for example, how the protracted boom of the Cold War may have feminized Czechoslovakia’s weapons industry, Comrades in Arms reveals how enmeshed Central Europeans’ Cold War sensibilities and experiences were with the hot wars that “weaponized” the conflict outside Europe.

The Cold War is often thought of as a nuclear conflict thankfully averted. But Comrades in Arms changes this picture by reflecting upon the types of weapons that were most prevalent and most destructive during these years. These “special materials,” as they were euphemistically known, represented different things to different people. A source of disproportionate influence in global politics for the state that exported them; security, socialist belonging and/or frustration for the fighters who used them; pride, shame or patriotism for those who made them; and enrichment for many of those involved in their trade.

Thanks to regime change and the declassification of documents after 1989, Czechoslovakia presents a unique glimpse into a state’s national security history and its arms trade. At a time when gun debates turn largely on questions of personal ownership, responsibility, and choice, I shift the focus towards institutional actors, arms producers and state governments, asking how they historically navigated the ethics of the weapons trade. Understanding the historic means and motivations of Czechoslovak arms dealing—particularly to states such as Syria, Yemen and Somalia—Comrades in Arms furthermore offers a clear-eyed view of what lies behind the contributions of third parties to conflicts today.