The Guardian recently carried a brief obituary of Marian Fagan, widow of Otto Sling (1912-1952), one of the accused in the show trials that took place in the CzechoSlovak Republic (CSR) in 1950-1952 while under Communist rule. The obituary is written by their son, Karel Schling. Sling had been a communist party official, and was one of the 11 (of the 14) defendants executed. Fagan and her sons also spent time in prison as part of the investigations. The show trials were arranged at Stalin’s behest and took place throughout Eastern Europe, with the partial exception of Poland. The lead defendant in the Czech trials was Rudolf Slánsky, a Deputy Prime Minister who until shortly before his arrest had been Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC).
Apparently, the CSR President Clement Gottwald had initially resisted Soviet pressure to arrest Slánsky, especially because the two men were personally very close from their time in exile in Moscow. Only when threatened with arrest and deposition himself did Gottwald agree to order Slánsky’s arrest, while still delaying the execution of the arrest warrent. Sadly, an attempt by Czech emigre anti-communist intelligence organization Okapi to smear leading communist party officials by falsely associating them with western intelligence agencies resulted in an unsolicited letter being sent to Slánsky offering to help him to flee westwards (Lukes 1999), and this letter was then used as evidence for the Soviet allegations of treason against Slansky, forcing Gottwald’s hand. This false letter appears to have been sent without prior knowledge or consent of western intelligence agencies.
The dialogue of the show trial was scripted beforehand by Soviet advisors to the Czech intelligence agency, the StB. At least some of the accused had been promised lenient sentences if they followed the scripts provided to them, but these promises were broken. To ensure that none of the accused spoke off-script (as had happened, for instance, in similar trials in Hungary), the trials were even rehearsed. However, due either to independence of spirit or to memory lapses (the accused had been held in solitary confinement and tortured in other ways), not all the accused always followed their scripts: at times, defendants answered questions that had yet to be asked, for example. Because the trials were being broadcast live to the nation, the judges of the court – unable or unwilling to improvise responses – adjourned the trial proceedings immediately these off-script statements occurred.
Among those falsely arrested and convicted were some who were not even communists or ones not of long standing, including the economist Rudolf Margolius, Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade at the time of his arrest. Margolius only met his alleged fellow-conspirator, Rudolf Slánsky, at the trial itself. Despite a promise of a lenient sentence in exchange for following the trial script, Margolius was executed, along with 10 of his 13 co-accused. Three were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The injustice of this trial and the sentences imposed are not lessened by the observation that Rudolf Slánsky may also have ordered the trial if his and Gottwald’s positions had been reversed, or that others, such as Sling, had been brutal Stalinists when in power themselves. An innocent victim is still innocent even if he may, in some alternative universe, not be a victim. According to Lukes (1999), Czech StB agents were appalled by the torture used by their counterparts in Hungary and Poland. However, what strikes me as very interesting is that the Polish communist party leadership managed to mostly resist Stalin’s pressure to hold show trials and executions in this period, a subject deserving of another post.
Last month also saw the death of Sir Charles Mackerras, US-born, Australian-educated, British conductor and leading champion of Czech music.
UPDATE (2011-09-11): An explanation for Polish recalcitrance is provided by Stewart Steven, who argued that the post-war Eastern European show trials were the result of a sophisticated and cunning US intelligence operation, called Splinter Factor and using a Polish double-agent, to create suspicions between pro-Moscow and nationalist communists across the region. As with any writings on intelligence, the truth is hard to determine: there may or may not have been such a US intelligence operation with this goal prior to the trials; if it had existed, it may or may not have been important or catalytic in the creation of the trials; indeed, the publication of a claim of the existence of such an operation 20 years after the trials themselves may itself have been part of some later intelligence operation, and unconnected with the earlier events.
An interesting obituary of Marian Sling in The Independent is here. If nothing else, it shows that the petty vindictiveness of the stalinists who ran the CSR in the 1950s was not shared by ordinary citizens.
Igor Lukes : The Rudolf Slánsky affair: new evidence. Slavic Review, 58 (1): 160-187.
Heda Margolius Kovaly : Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968. New York, USA: Holmes and Meier.
Ivan Margolius : Reflections of Prague: Journeys Through the 20th Century. Chichester, England: Wiley. The Margolius family website is here.
Stewart Steven : Operation Splinter Factor. Panther (Granada, edition published 1976).