Czechoslovakia (Brief Histories)

Czechoslovakia (Brief Histories)


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Rakosi actually told Gottwald of his lack of confidence in Clementis and
in Vaclav Nosek, Minister of the Interior, and helpfully supplied the
Czechoslovaks with a list of suspects to arrest. Stalin, too, was in the last stages
of paranoia, and, together with the leaders of the other satellite states, seems
to have manufactured the theory that Czechoslovakia was the weakest link in
1 948: Communist Coup and Stalinist Rule 95
the socialist bloc and therefore must be the centre of an international con-
spiracy. Both the political leadership of the Soviet Union and the staff of the
red army expressed lack of confidence in the Czechoslovak army command
and in particular in General Ludvik Svoboda, Minister of Defence. Accordingly
Svoboda was investigated, and after the Slansky trial was stripped of all his
posts and sent to work as an accountant on a collective farm.
Eager to please their Soviet masters, Gottwald and Slansky requested
Russian 'advisers' from the Kremlin in September 1949. These creatures of
Beria, Stalin's notorious secret policeman, were responsible to him rather
than to the Czechoslovak authorities. They provided the Czechoslovaks with
accounts of the interrogations and show trials of the 1930s in the Soviet
Union; evidently these were to serve as a template for what followed. Indeed,
at the Slansky trial Minister for State Security Ladislav Kopriva would compare
the accused Czechoslovaks explicitly with Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin and
other 'disruptive elements' who had infiltrated the Soviet party.
The testimony of Artur London shows that the interrogators were unsure
of the identity of the 'Czechoslovak Rajk' and were also uncertain as to what
kind of treason they were searching for. Initially, much was made of the
'Trotskyism' of those Communists, like London and Sling, who had served in
the international brigades during the Spanish civil war. Doubtless Stalin
feared that they might reveal his cynical manipulation of the Spanish left dur-
ing the conflict. Later in the questioning Spain became less important, as it
seemed likely that Slansky himself might fill the role of arch-traitor.
The actual indictment at the trial in November 1952 accused Slansky and his
'co-conspirators' of being 'Trotskyist, Titoist, Zionist, bourgeois-nationalist trai-
tors and enemies of the Czechoslovak people'. In the service of American imperi-
alism they had formed an 'anti-state conspiratorial centre', and among other
nefarious activities had 'undermined the people's democratic constitution,
sabotaged the building of socialism, damaged the national economy, commit-
ted acts of espionage'.2 Twelve of the 14 accused were described (in many cases
untruthfully) as being of bourgeois origin. Eleven of them were 'of Jewish origin'.
Indeed, there was more than a hint of anti-Semitism in the trial. Slansky
himself (who was red-haired) was described in more than one newspaper
article as 'Judas'. Besides native nastiness, this anti-Semitism was rooted in
the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and its satellites, which was inimical
to Israel and favoured the Arab states; and in Stalin's own paranoid hatred
of Jews, which had recently resulted in the uncovering of the murderous
'doctors' plot' in Moscow.
All the accused pleaded guilty as charged. Eleven of them, including
Slansky, Clementis, Sling and Svab, were sentenced to death, while three,
96 Czechoslovakia
including London, were given life sentences. The executions were carried out
in a matter of days. The ashes of the dead men were put in a sack, driven into
the country and sprinkled on a slippery cart-road. The chauffeur of the car
later joked grotesquely that never before had he driven 14 people in a
Tatraplan, three of them alive and 11 in a sack.
Why did these men have to die? Possibly Gottwald feared them as rivals
and, like Stalin before him, wished to write them out of history so as to glorify
his own role in events. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
opens famously with an ironic summary of the fate of dementis. The scene is
the snowy balcony in Prague from which the drunken Gottwald is proclaiming
the Communist victory in February 1948. As it is snowing, dementis consid-
erately gives his leader his own fur (Russian bearskin) hat. After the elimin-
ation of Clementis by Gottwald he is airbrushed from the historic photograph;
so that all that is left of him and his role, remarks Kundera, is his hat.
Slansky was obviously a potential rival to Gottwald, and his persecution
of non-Communists had revealed him to be utterly ruthless. Certainly
Gottwald's fellow 'Muscovites' had to be purged; at the same time history
had to be rewritten to show that only the Soviet Union and its faithful
Czechoslovak followers had been responsible for the liberation of the country
from Nazi tyranny. Thus Otto Sling, the Communist dictator of Moravia who
was tried and executed with Slansky, was accused of being a British spy
because he had spent the war in London and had married an English wife. The
implication was that all such 'Londoners' had been corrupted by the British to
work for the downfall of Czechoslovakia.
The more illustrious the victim's past, the more the need to eliminate them
from public life. Thus Marie Svermova, widow of the Communist Slovak parti-
san hero Jan Sverma who had died during the Slovak national uprising of
1944, sister of Karel Svab, and herself a Communist since the party's founda-
tion in 1921, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1954 for alleged anti-state
conspiracy with the late Otto Sling. She did not receive the death sentence,
and as she in fact only served two years of her sentence, Svermova got off
lightly compared with the fate of other victims of the show trials.
Immediately after its liberation in 1945 the governance of Slovakia had
been entrusted to a board of trustees and the Slovak National Council; these
were composed of both Communists and democrats. (The Communists had
originally called for the proclamation of Slovakia as a Soviet republic, but on
Stalin's instructions this was quickly dropped, as were plans for a loose feder-
ation of Slovakia and the Czech lands.) This system endured for a time as the
'asymmetrical model', since there were no corresponding governmental bodies
for the Czech lands, only the central government and national assembly in
1948: Communist Coup and Stalinist Rule 97
Prague. The Slovak Communists would be natural targets of Gottwald and his
allies for a number of reasons. First, socialism demanded that both politics
and the economy be rigidly centralised. Second, the Slovak national uprising
gave the Slovaks some claim to the direction of their own affairs, since they
had at least tried to overthrow the Tiso state. Finally, Slovak politicians like
Gustav Husak knew of the negative role played by the Soviet Union (and the
exiled Czechoslovak Communist leadership) in that rising.
As early as June 1948 the 'problem' of Slovak 'petit-bourgeois nationalism'
was mentioned at a meeting of the presidium of the Czechoslovak Communist
party. Indeed, long before the trial of Husak, Novomesky and other leading
Slovak Communists on the charge of 'bourgeois nationalism', there were two
legalistic attacks on Slovaks. First, between 30 August and 2 September 1950
sixteen Czechoslovak and Yugoslav citizens were tried in Bratislava. They were
accused of'Titoism', espionage centred on the Yugoslav embassy and involving
the British and Americans, and Slovak 'bourgeois nationalism'. Second, a group
of Slovak partisans was tried in Bratislava between 18 and 20 October 1950.
This case was a blatant attempt to discredit the Slovak national uprising of
August 1944; five out of the eight defendants were Communists.
In April 1954 the trial of the chief'Slovak bourgeois nationalists' was staged
in Bratislava. Most ominously, the old story of the Slovak