On this date in 1950, Milada Horakova was hanged with three others in Prague’s Pankrac Prison as a spy and traitor to the Communist Czechoslovakian government.
Not (yet) as internationally recognizable as Rudolf Slansky,* the Communist General Secretary in Horakova’s time who would run afoul of Stalin and die on the same gallows two years later, Horakova (English Wikipedia page | Czech | the detailed French) is a potent symbol domestically of her country’s Cold War nightmare.
Lawyer, social democrat, and a prominent feminist in the interwar and postwar periods — her life’s work, rather overshadowed by an end that was memorable for different reasons — Horakova survived Nazi imprisonment and was a member of parliament when the Communists seized power in 1948.
She spurned counsel to flee the country, and found herself the headline attraction at a show trial for a supposed plot to overthrow the government. In a hopeless scenario, she distinguished herself with off-script defiance despite having broken under torture and signed a confession; Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt all pleaded in vain for clemency.
Horakova left the world clear in her purpose. In a letter to her teenage daughter awaiting execution, she justified her own dangerous choices:
The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children. But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good … by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. … Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight.
Hours before her hanging, she wrote a few last words for her loved ones:
I go with my head held high. One also has to know how to lose. That is no disgrace. An enemy also does not lose honor if he is truthful and honorable. One falls in battle; what is life other than struggle? (Both excerpts cited here)
The only woman among Czechoslovakia’s postwar political executions was abortively rehabilitated during the 1968 Prague Spring. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, her resistance to both Naziism and Communism — worthy of an opera (topical interview) and a forthcoming film — have elevated her into her country’s official pantheon.
As a result, this date is “Commemoration day for the victims of the Communist regime” in the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, Horakova’s now-octogenerian prosecutor Ludmila Brozova-Polednova, whose repulsive legal barbs at trial (“Don’t break her neck on the noose. Suffocate the bitch — and the others too.”) were probably the consequence of the foregone conclusion more than the cause, was convicted late last year for her role in the trial. That verdict has kept in the news these past several months — most recently, the Czech Supreme Court returned it for retrial after an appeals court overturned the sentence — a tangible symbol of the challenges inherent to confronting the past. (Brozova-Polednova, for her part, is unapologetic.)
* One of the goons who tortured confessions out of the conspirators in Horakova’s “terrorist center,” Karel Svab, was among those later hanged with Slansky.