Slánský trial

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The official 1953 protocol, printed in Prague in at least seven languages (pictured in German)

The Slánský trial (officially Process s vedením protistátního spikleneckého centra v čele s Rudolfem Slánským[1] English: "Trial of the Leadership of the Anti-State Conspiracy Centre Headed by Rudolf Slánský")[2] was a 1952 antisemitic show trial against fourteen members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), including several high ranking officials. They were falsely accused of organizing a conspiracy against the Czechoslovak Republic. First Secretary of the KSČ Rudolf Slánský was the alleged leader of the conspirators.

All fourteen defendants were found guilty, eleven of them were sentenced to death and executed, the remaining three received a life sentence.

Background[edit]

Waldheim Trial [de] in East Germany, 21 June 1950

After World War II, Czechoslovakia initially enjoyed limited democracy. This changed with the February 1948 coup, carried out by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia without the assistance of the Soviet Union.[3] According to literature scholar Peter Steiner, the one-party Communist state had to find or conjure up imaginary enemies from within to justify its continuing existence; this was the motive for show trials.[4] After the 1948 Yugoslav–Soviet split, a number of political trials against alleged Titoite and Western imperialist elements were carried out in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Albania, but these trials were not overtly antisemitic.[5] The anti-cosmopolitan campaign, a thinly disguised antisemitic campaign in the Soviet Union, began in the fall of 1948 and continued until the dictator Joseph Stalin's 1953 death. During this period, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee's leadership was murdered and antisemitic purges spread to other countries in the Eastern Bloc, including East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary.[5][6] The Slánský trial was immediately proceeded by the 1949 trial of Hungarian communist László Rajk and his co-defendants, the first show trial victims accused of organizing a "worldwide Zionist conspiracy". Although Rajk was not Jewish, six of the other defendants were. Linking Zionism with Trotskyism and Titoism, as Rajk's prosecutors did, defied logic because both leftist movements were noted for their anti-Zionism.[7]

Arrests and interrogation[edit]

The trial was orchestrated (and the subsequent terror staged in Czechoslovakia) on the order of Moscow leadership by Soviet advisors, who were invited by Rudolf Slánský and Klement Gottwald, with the help of the Czechoslovak State Security personnel following the László Rajk trial in Budapest in September 1949.[8] Klement Gottwald, president of Czechoslovakia and leader of the Communist Party, feared being purged and decided to sacrifice Slánský, a longtime collaborator and personal friend, who was the second-in-command of the party. The others were picked to convey a clear threat to different groups in the state bureaucracy. A couple of them (Šváb, Reicin) were brutal sadists, conveniently added for a more realistic show.[9]

Those put on trial confessed to all crimes (under duress or after torture) and were sentenced to punishment. Slánský attempted suicide while in prison. The people of Czechoslovakia signed petitions asking for death for the alleged traitors.[9][page needed] Apropos of the conspiracy theories of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, prosecutors claimed that a "Zionist-Imperialist" summit had taken place in Washington DC in April 1947 with President Truman, undersecretary of state Dean Acheson, former treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharret in attendance. The conspiracy charged that defendants were acting in accordance with a so-called "Morgenthau Plan" (not to be confused with the contemporaneous Morgenthau Plan plan for German heavy industry) to commit espionage and sabotage against Czechoslovakia for the US in exchange for American support for Israel. Czechoslovakia was seen as especially pro-Zionist due to their armament support for Israel during the Palestine War. Ironically, most of the defendants were known to be ardent anti-Zionists.[10]

Trial[edit]

In November 1952 Slánský and 13 other high-ranking Communist bureaucrats (10 of whom were Jews) were arrested and charged with being Titoists and Zionists. The trial lasted eight days. Many of the defendants admitted their guilt and requested death.[11] On the last day of the trial, Rudolf Slánský, General Secretary of the KSČ, and other leading party members were pronounced guilty. Eleven, including Slánský, were hanged in Prague on 3 December,[12] and three were sentenced to life imprisonment. The state prosecutor at the trial in Prague was Josef Urválek.[9]

Executions[edit]

Many Czechoslovak citizens were in favor of harsh measures against the supposed traitors. Czech poet Ivan Skála [cs] infamously called for "a dog's death for [such] dogs" (Czech: Psovi psí smrt!).[13][14]

Eleven, including Slánský were publicly hanged at Pankrác Prison on December 3, 1952.[11]

Reaction[edit]

Domestic[edit]

A Czech worker sent to attend the trial reported that the defendants did not display any emotion. He wondered why they were not afraid for their lives.[citation needed] On 14 December 1952, a few days after the execution, Zdeněk Nejedlý, Minisiter of Education, denied rumors that the confessions had been obtained with torture or drugs. Instead, the defendants admitted to their crimes because of the overwhelming evidence against them and because of their shame and guilt.[15]

After the deaths of both Stalin and Gottwald in March 1953, the harshness of the persecutions slowly decreased, and the victims[who?] of the trial[which?] quietly received amnesty one by one, including those who had survived the Prague Trial. Later, the official historiography of the Communist Party was rather quiet on the trial, vaguely putting blame on errors that happened as a result of a "cult of personality". Many other political trials followed on, sending many innocent victims to jail and hard labour in Jáchymov uranium mines and labour camps.[8][page needed]

The full transcript of the trial was released in 1953; Steiner described it as "an utterly indigestible book, crammed with so many names, dates, and particulars that I had a hard time finishing it and remembering all the details."[16]

International[edit]

The Israeli government considered suppressing Maki, the Israeli communist party, even to the point of throwing communist activists in concentration camps. Golda Meir and Pinhas Lavon were opposed, and the cabinet eventually decided that Maki was not a significant threat to the political order.[17]

Raphael Lemkin considered the trial an example of judicial murder and, along with the Doctors' Plot,[clarification needed] a potential precursor to the genocide of Jews in the Soviet bloc. He asked the United Nations to launch an investigation into the alleged genocide of Jews in the Soviet bloc.[18] In Commentary, Peter Meyer wrote that "the Prague trial with its lurid tale of a 'Zionist conspiracy' recalled the Czarist-invented and Nazi-popularized legend of the Elders of Zion".[7]

Defense of the American Jewish Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg surged in November and December 1952 and was organized by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union[19]—confirmation of which occurred with the publication of KGB documents obtained by Alexander Vassiliev in 2011.[20] Proponents of clemency argued that the Rosenbergs were actually "innocent Jewish peace activists".[21] According to American historian Ronald Radosh, the Soviet Union's goal was "to deflect the world's attention from the sordid execution of the innocent [Slánský trial defendants] in Prague".[21]

Modern interpretations[edit]

Martin Wein noted that although Slánský was not guilty of the charges he was forced to admit, he was guilty of mass murder as a Communist apparatchik.[clarification needed] In Wein's opinion, because all of the defendants (except Simone) occupied high positions in the Czechoslovak Communist regime, they had command responsibility for crimes committed by it.[22] Wein further noted that the three reprieved defendants all came from an upper-class background, while all of the middle-class and working-class defendants were executed. He hypothesizes that this was because if an upper-class person was a traitor to the Communist party, he was not a traitor to his class.[23] According to Stephen Norwood, the Slánský trial was the "clearest illustration yet of state-sponsored antisemitism in the Soviet bloc" and "a secularized version of the Spanish Inquisition’s racialized antisemitism", because it insisted on that Jewish origin was an indelible defect which would pass to all descendents (similar to the guilt of Jewish deicide).[24]

In popular culture[edit]

Bust of Clementis in Tisovec, Slovakia

The Slánský trial was dramatised in the 1970 film L'Aveu ("The Confession"), directed by Costa-Gavras and starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. The film was based on the book of the same name by Artur London, who was a survivor of the trial.[25][better source needed]

The Slánský trial is a key element of the book Under a Cruel Star. A memoir by Heda Margolius Kovály, the book follows the life of a Jewish woman, starting with her escape from a concentration camp during World War II, up until her departure from Czechoslovakia after the Warsaw Pact countries invasion of 1968. Kovály's husband, Rudolf Margolius, a fellow Holocaust survivor, was one of the 11 men executed during the Slánský trial.[26] More encompassing information is available in the more recent book Hitler, Stalin and I, an interview of Heda Margolius Kovály by Helena Třeštíková published in 2018.[27] Wein was critical of the positive image of Margolius in Kovály's book and in other media (Igor Lukes described him as "a clean man in a filthy time"), which he felt downplayed Margolius' complicity with the Stalinist regime.[28]

The Slánský trial is the subject of the documentary A Trial in Prague, directed by Zuzana Justman (2000, 83 min).[29]

On 22 March 2018, it was announced that insolvency administrators discovered 8.5 hours of original footage from the trial at a factory near Prague. The film was heavily damaged, and restoration is expected to take several years, to be paid for by the Ministry of Culture.[30][31]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Czechoslovakia Státní soud (1953). Process s vedením protistátního spikleneckého centra v čele s Rudolfem Slánským (in Czech). Prague: Ministerstvo spravedlnosti. OCLC 4080331.
  2. ^ Trial of the Leadership of the Anti-State Conspiracy Centre Headed by Rudolf Slánský. Prague: Orbis. 1953. OCLC 85313194.
  3. ^ Lukes 2008, pp. 11–12.
  4. ^ Steiner 2000b, pp. 662–663.
  5. ^ a b Mendes 2011, p. 153.
  6. ^ Norwood 2013, pp. 146–148.
  7. ^ a b Norwood 2013, p. 151.
  8. ^ a b Margolius, Ivan (2006). Reflections of Prague: Journeys Through the 20th Century. London: Wiley. ISBN 0-470-02219-1.
  9. ^ a b c Kaplan, Karel (1990). Report on the Murder of the General Secretary. London: I. B. Tauris & Co. ISBN 1-85043-211-2.
  10. ^ Norwood 2013, pp. 155–157.
  11. ^ a b "Proceedings of the Trials of Slansky, et al in Prague, Czechosolvakia November 20-27, 1952 as broadcast by the Czechoslovak Home Service: Very good Wraps (1953) | Ground Zero Books, Ltd". www.abebooks.com. Retrieved 2020-05-18.
  12. ^ Brent, Jonathan and Naumov, Vladimir P., Stalin's Last Crime, John Murray (Publishers), London, 2003, page 191.
  13. ^ Steiner 2000a, p. 154.
  14. ^ Lukes 2008, p. 86.
  15. ^ Lukes 2008, p. 1.
  16. ^ Steiner 2000b, p. 663.
  17. ^ Wein 2015, pp. 161–162.
  18. ^ Weiss-Wendt 2017, pp. 180–181.
  19. ^ Radosh 2012, p. 83.
  20. ^ Radosh 2012, p. 85.
  21. ^ a b Radosh 2012, p. 84.
  22. ^ Wein 2015, pp. 158, 163.
  23. ^ Wein 2015, pp. 163–164.
  24. ^ Norwood 2013, p. 154.
  25. ^ London, Artur (1971). Confession. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-22170-2.
  26. ^ Margolius Kovály, Heda (2012). Under A Cruel Star - A Life in Prague 1941-1968. London: Granta. ISBN 978-1-84708-476-7.
  27. ^ Margolius Kovály, Heda and Třeštíková, Helena. Hitler, Stalin and I. Los Angeles: DoppelHouse Press. ISBN 978-0-9987770-0-9.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  28. ^ Wein 2015, pp. 169, 182.
  29. ^ See https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0259687/
  30. ^ Tait, Robert (8 April 2018). "Czechs discover hidden film record of Stalin's antisemitic show trial". the Guardian.
  31. ^ Johnstone, Chris (22 March 2018). "Restoring rediscovered film of Czechoslovak communist show trial to take years". Radio Prague. Retrieved 17 August 2019.

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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