On the last day of July 1951, the veteran Czechoslovak communist leader Rudolf Slánský (1901–1952) celebrated his fiftieth birthday. Citizens from around the country sent congratulations to the Communist Party secretary general. Czechoslovak president Klement Gottwald bestowed Slánský with the "Order of Socialism" and had a factory named after him. Amid this wave of adoration, however, there was an ominous sign: Soviet leader Joseph Stalin failed to send a congratulatory note. Sixteen months later a Czechoslovak court sentenced the former secretary general to death together with ten other leading members of the country's Communist Party. Although a small fraction of the hundreds executed and thousands imprisoned by the Czechoslovak communist regime, the show trial of Slánský arguably represented the zenith of Stalinist terror in the country. For if the party's secretary general was not safe, then no one was.
The February 1948 communist coup d'état in Czechoslovakia was followed by a series of trials of noncommunist politicians, generals, and industrial leaders. After the split between Stalin and Yugoslav leader Tito (Josip Broz) in the spring of 1948, however, the Soviets, fearful that other satellites might follow Yugoslavia's lead, pressured East European communist regimes to seek out traitors within their own ranks. Leading figures used the opportunity to rid themselves of rivals, who were accused of being "Titoists" and Western spies. In Poland, the general secretary of the Communist Party, Władysław Gomułka, was purged. In Hungary, Interior Minister László Rajk was tried and executed. In Bulgaria the same fate was meted out to Traicho Kostov, secretary of the Central Committee.
Despite the purges raging in neighboring countries, the Czechoslovak Communist Party moved slowly to unmask alleged traitors within its own ranks. This reluctance to act most likely stemmed from the party's internal cohesion, a result of its successful coup d'état, executed without the direct support of Soviet forces. In the course of carrying out their own purge, however, the Hungarian secret police forced Noel Field, an American humanitarian who had been a double agent of the Soviets and Americans, to confess to contacts with alleged Western agents in the Czechoslovak Communist Party. The Hungarians passed on these names to Prague. Moscow generously offered to send Soviet advisors to help Czechoslovakia overcome its dissatisfactory inaction.
In response, the Czechoslovak secret police established a special unit to uncover antistate elements within the party. Headed by Karel Šváb, the uniťling, a regional leader of the Communist Party. Šling fit the profile of later defendants: he had fought in the Spanish civil war, had spent World War II in London, and was "of Jewish origin." Under extended and repeated torture, Šling confessed to being a saboteur and named accomplices. According to the secret police, conspirators led by Šling intended to overthrow Slánskýand replace him with Marie Švermová, the widow of a World War II communist resistance leader. With the arrest of several high-ranking communists, including the Slovak foreign minister, Vladimír Clementis, the Czechoslovak Communist Party's leaders were satisfied. Moscow, however, was not.
Research by Igor Lukes has demonstrated that the trial was not entirely a secret police creation arrested Otto S from behind the Iron Curtain. When Czechoslovak exiles in the West became aware that Slánský had fallen into Stalin's disfavor, they sought to encourage the communist leader to defect. If that failed and the plot was exposed, the exiles hoped that their attempt would nonetheless cause a crisis within the communist leadership. The plan was to contact Slánský through his alleged mistress, but the courier the exiles chose had already been uncovered and turned by the Czechoslovak secret police. As a result the letter, addressed to the "Great Sweeper" (i.e., purger), never reached its intended recipient. Instead, once the secret police figured out the true identity of the addressee, the letter became evidence in the fabricated plot against Slánský.
Although Gottwald initially resisted Stalin's demand to arrest Slánský, Soviet pressure and the Great Sweeper letter quickly wore the Czechoslovak leader down. At 1 a.m. on 24 November 1951 Slánský was arrested as he returned to his house from a dinner at the home of the country's premier, Antonín Zápotocký. After six months of torture and a failed suicide attempt, Slánský confessed. He admitted to being a Titoist, to working with the Freemasons, and to supporting Zionism. In the months before and after the secretary general's arrest, dozens of other leading communist officials were detained, tortured, and forced to confess to made-up crimes against the party and state.
On 20 November 1952 Slánský finally went on trial along with thirteen others. In addition to the former secretary general, the accused included the former foreign minister (Clementis), two former deputy foreign ministers (Vavro Hajdů and Artur London), two former deputy ministers of foreign trade (Evžen Löbl and Rudolf Margolius), the former deputy ministers of national security (Šváb), nationaľich Reicin), and finance (Otto Fischl), a former party deputy secretary general (Josef Frank), and several less prominent figures in the communist apparatus (Bedřich Geminder, Ludvík Frejka, André defense (Bedřling).
Slánský's fellow defendants shared several characteristics beyond personal and professional ties to the former party secretary general. First, a number had lived in or had contact with the West and thus were suspected by the Soviets of "foreign contagion." They had fought in the Spanish civil war, spent World War II in London, and/or were connected in some way to the conduct of Czechoslovakia's foreign affairs after the war. Second, several of the defendants had held economic positions in the government and, thus, could be blamed for the difficulties that had resulted from collectivization and industrial mismanagement. Finally, eleven of the fourteen defendants, including Slánský, were described in the indictment as being "of Jewish origin." Stalin's growing anti-Semitism, which culminated in the 1953 Doctor's Plot, hit surprisingly fertile soil in Czechoslovakia. Although Czechoslovakia had been known as the region's most tolerant state in the interwar period, the trial unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic hatred in a country largely bereft of Jews. Clementis, the former foreign minister, also faced charges based on ethnicity: he stood accused of "bourgeois nationalism" for his alleged support of Slovak separatism.
The prosecutor charged the fourteen men with a litany of crimes and demanded the death penalty for all. According to the indictment: "The accused, as Trotskyite, Titoite, Zionist, and bourgeois-nationalist traitors created, in the service of the U.S. imperialists and under the direction of Western espionage agencies, an anti-state Conspiratorial Center, undermined the people's democratic regime, frustrated the building of socialism, damaged the national economy, carried out espionage activities, and weakened the unity of the Czechoslovak people and the Republic's defensive capability in order to tear it away from its close alliance and friendship with the Soviet Union, to liquidate the people's regime in Czechoslovakia, to restore capitalism, and to drag the Republic into the imperialist camp once again and destroy its national sovereignty and independence."
The trial was a rehearsed show, with hand-picked participants and a captive national audience. The defense attorneys were chosen by the secret police only one week before the trial began and had to submit their closing arguments for approval. All but three of the thirty-five witnesses were held in prison prior to the trial. As for the defendants, they were instructed that their fates depended on their performance. In the weeks before the trial interrogators repeatedly rehearsed the cross-examination with the defendants. These practice sessions were taped so that if one of the accused deviated from the script, state radio could immediately cut off the live broadcast and play the prerecorded version to the country. Ultimately, the beaten-down actors learned the script too well: twice the prosecutors skipped a question by mistake and a defendant gave the correct answer to the missing query.
After seven days, according to plan, the court sentenced eleven of the defendants to death and handed down life sentences to Hajdů, Löbl, and London. In response to this surprising "lenience," the public sent thousands of letters demanding capital punishment for all. After President Gottwald rejected their pleas for clemency, the eleven were executed by hanging before dawn on 3 December 1952. Their remains were cremated and discarded in an unknown location. (According to rumors, secret police officers cast the ashes onto a muddy road to help dislodge their truck.) In subsequent years the condemned were erased from the country's history books and public press.
Although Czechoslovakia experienced relatively weak destalinization following Khrushchev's rise to power in the Soviet Union, the country's communist leadership still felt obliged to investigate the show trials of the early 1950s. The commission they established, however, was little more than a whitewash that established that Slánský had been guilty of an "anti-state conspiracy." A later commission, set up in 1962, admitted that the conspiracy charge had been a fabrication but exonerated the communist leadership and blamed Slánský for other crimes. It took till the 1968 Prague Spring for a government commission to admit, privately at least, that the Slánskýtrial had been a lawless fabrication committed with the knowledge and even direction of the Communist Party's leadership. The report (Pelikán, 1971), however, was tabled and then suppressed after the Soviet invasion of August 1968 and only published abroad.
London, Artur. The Confession. Translated by Alastair Hamilton. New York, 1970.
Pelikán, Jiří, ed. The Czechoslovak Political Trials, 1950–1954: The Suppressed Report of the Dubček Government's Commission of Inquiry, 1968. Stanford, Calif., 1971.
Kaplan, Karel. Report on the Murder of the General Secretary. Translated by Karel Kovanda. Columbus, Ohio, 1990.
Kovály, Heda Margolius. Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968. Translated by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein with the author. Cambridge, Mass., 1986.
Lukes, Igor. "The Rudof Slánský Affair: New Evidence." Slavic Review 58, no. 1 (spring 1999): 160–187.