1943: Julius Fučík, Notes from the Gallows

Add comment September 8th, 2020 Headsman

Czechoslovakian journalist Julius Fučík was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1943.

Nephew of a great composer of the same name, our Julius Fučík was an 18-year-old left-wing activist when the Social Democrat party he was a part of founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Fučík and his pen grew up in this world, together generating a substantial corpus of essays and analysis on pregnant years.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia drove his party and his work underground, which eventually resulted in his arrest.

He’d eventually be deported to Germany and hanged at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison, but Fučík made his lasting fame to posterity through the clandestine diary notes, bursting with anticipation for a bright Communist future, that he scribbled during his initial detention at Prague’s Pankrác Prison from 1942-1943.

After the war, these would be published as Notes from the Gallows — a text so scriptural in Communist Czechoslovakia that it weighed like manacles.

In Milan Kundera‘s The Joke, one of the characters standing trial is browbeaten by a prosecutor using Fučík’s words, while Fučík’s “fervent, pure” portrait gazes in judgment. (Consonant with the stature of Notes from the Gallows, its author was saluted via many street names, public monuments, and so forth. Quite few still remain today, in Germany as well as the former Czechoslovakia.)

“‘Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over …'” I recognized Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows.

“‘I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me …'”

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

“‘Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved …'” The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky’s sublime drawing to their memories of the living face.

Fučík, and the idealized Max Švabinský portrait of him — one of several times it’s been used on postage stamps.

Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: “‘And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions … He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them …'” Fucik’s handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: “‘They can take our lives, can’t they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we’ve longed for and fought for and I now die for?'” After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

In the post-Communist era Fučík has had a critical re-examination, with an updated version of Notes published now including for the first time the bits his widow had judiciously excised, wherein Fučík admits to breaking under torture — although he also records that he “confessed” only inaccurate information that would not endanger comrades. He’s also been knocked for failing to use his firearms on either his captors or himself at the time of his arrest.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1952: Rudolf Slansky and 10 “conspirators”

6 comments December 3rd, 2007 Headsman

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Russia,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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