On this date in 1952, eleven high-ranking Czechoslovakian politicians were hanged at Prague’s Pankrac Prison two weeks after a show trial purging unreliable elements from the Communist party.
One of the most infamous show trials in Czechoslovakia saw 14 high-ranking Communists — eleven of them Jews — railroaded for a “Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist activities in the service of American imperialism”. Three received life sentences. The other eleven went to the gallows.
While the roots of the persecution, especially the undertones of anti-Semitism, sink into the id of the Stalinist Eastern bloc, the most evident proximate cause was the USSR’s assertion of control over its satellite states at a time when Josip Tito was successfully charting a course of independent communism. Purges in Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary had taken place in the years before.
The Soviet agents rounding up suspects for Stalin did not trifle with small game. Rudolf Slansky was General Secretary of the Communist Party and therefore the second-most powerful man in the country; by the time he was tried, after a year in prison under torture, he was publicly denouncing himself.
Otto Sling, whose name became synonymous with forbidden heterodoxy, did likewise — “I was a treacherous enemy within the Communist Party … I am justly an object of contempt and deserve the maximum and the hardest punishment.”
And Vladimir Clementis, the Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, was erased from a photo taken with the Czechoslovakian President, a circumstance Milan Kundera reflected upon in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square … Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him.
The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall.
The hanged were rehabilitated in 1963.
Artur London, who received a life sentence and was released after rehabilitation, wrote about his experiences in The Confession, subsequently a 1970 Costa-Gavras film. The wife and son of Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade (and Auschwitz survivor) Rudolf Margolius have also both written memoirs covering the trial.
The younger Margolius in particular, who has staunchly defended his father as an essentially apolitical man and not a Communist apparatchik, has been in the thick of present-day disputes in Czechoslovakia’s successor states over whom is due sympathy and recognition for bygone political crimes.