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Whoever digs a pit …

The Slánský Trial: New Material

The defendants in the Slánsky trial, flanked by policemen, awaiting the verdict on 27 November 1952. Photo: Česká televize.

New material on the Slánský trial was discovered in the spring of 2018, and now it has been used to produce an interesting documentary on Slánský and his time...

Czech historians could hardly believe their own eyes one day in March 2018 when they were invited to inspect material discovered at the site of a recently bankrupt metal research company in Panenské Břežany, near Prague. What they saw were extensive film and voice recordings of the notorious Slánský trial in 1952 when fourteen former leading communists in Czechoslovakia were convicted of espionage, sabotage, and treason, eleven of them subsequently being hanged. Since then the historical footage, some of which was damaged, has been carefully restored and repaired. At an international film festival on European totalitarianism, ‘Unbroken and Sacrificed,’ in Prague on 10–14 November 2021 I was invited along with other members of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience to the screening of a new documentary by Czech film producer Martin Vadas on Rudolf Slánský, Whoever digs a pit …. A partner in the film festival, the Platform had its annual meeting in Prague on 11–13 November. It is devoted to the victims of totalitarianism in Europe, trying to keep their memory alive.

No Objective Moral Standards

As Secretary General of the Czechoslav Communist Party, Rudolf Slánský was one of the most powerful men in the country after the communist coup of February 1948. He was a close personal friend of Party Chairman Klement Gottwald, President of Czechoslovakia shortly after the coup. They had both lived in the Soviet Union during the war. But in 1951 Gottwald came under pressure from Stalin to find ‘traitors’ within the Communist Party and to conduct show trials similar to those which Stalin had previously staged in the Soviet Union. In order to divert unwanted attention from himself, Gottwald decided to sacrifice Slánský. Stalinist show trials served a double purpose: first, to explain the failure of communist policies as the sabotage of malevolent individuals and not as the logical consequence of flaws in the policies themselves; and second, to keep up discipline within the party by provoking fear. It did not matter that the men indicted were innocent of the charges brought against them. By torture and promises that they would not be executed and that their families would not suffer (promises later broken), confessions of heinous but totally imaginary crimes were extracted out of them. The Slánský trial was also held at a time when anti-semitism was on the rise in the communist bloc, thinly disguised as opposition to ‘cosmopolitanism’, and the trial certainly had anti-semitic overtones. Of the fourteen defendants in the dock, eleven were Jews. 

In his famous novel Darkness at Noon Anglo-Hungarian author Arthur Koestler offered an additional explanation of the compliance and confessions of leading communists in show trials, in particular the 1938 trial of Nikolai Bukharin and other ‘Old Bolsheviks’ in Moscow. It was that communists had abandoned all objective moral standards when they went into the service of the inevitable Revolution. Everything was morally right which promoted the Revolution; everything was morally wrong which delayed it. The Communist Party was the sole arbiter of right and wrong, and if the Party decided that you had committed a crime, you had indeed committed a crime. It was not necessarily the very legal violation of which you were accused, but the crime of working against the Revolution. This was essentially what Bukharin and his fellow Bolsheviks confessed to in 1938, and this was also what took place in the Slánský trial. One after another the accused in Prague took the stand, confessed to various plots to overthrow the communist regime, and asked, even begged, themselves for the ultimate punishment, death by hanging. Not one of them departed from the script.

The Mysterious Otto Katz

Koestler commented on the Slánský trial that one of the co-defendents, Otto Katz, also known as André Simone, a former editor of the party organ, had in his last address to the court obliquely referred to Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Before the war, Katz had worked with Koestler under the communist propaganda chief Willi Münzenberg, and he had certainly read Koestler’s novel. In his address Katz said: ‘The only good service I can still render is to be a warning memento to those whose origins, character, and temperament could tempt them to take the same hellish path which I took. The sterner the punishment, the greater the warning.’ Koestler took this to mean Katz was telling the world that he was innocent, but that as a loyal servant of the Party he accepted his verdict and hoped it would further the revolutionary cause. It was, Koestler believed, ‘a camouflaged message, to indicate that he, too, had been brought to confess to crimes as imaginary as Bukharin’s’ (Invisible Writing, New York: 1954, p. 405). In the roaring 1920s, Katz, a clever, charming, German-speaking Jew from Czechoslovakia, had been prominent in Berlin cultural life. He had been Marlene Dietrich’s lover and possibly a model (with Münzenberg) for the communist Bayer in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains. Two other literary characters may have been based on Katz, the communist Kurt Muller in Lillian Hellman’s play Watch on the Rhine and Victor Laszlo in the film Casablanca.

Perhaps surprisingly, Katz had previously had a small impact in remote Iceland. His 1941 propaganda tract, Men of Europe, was translated into Icelandic in 1943 (Evrópa á glapstigum). Moreover, Katz’ translation from Czech into German of a novel by the communist writer Ivan Olbracht, Anna proletářka, or in German Anna: Das Mädchen vom Lande, was an inspiration for Icelandic Stalinist writer Halldor K. Laxness whose Anti-American novel The Atom Station, published in 1948, was closely based on Olbracht’s work, as I have pointed out to the chagrin of the Icelandic Left: Prague becomes Reykjavik, and the Social Democrats selling out to the capitalists after 1918 in Olbracht’s novel are replaced in Laxness’ novel by the Icelandic conservatives selling out to the Americans after 1945. Otherwise the plot is almost identical.

Hanged for Buying Fish from Iceland!

Even more surprisingly, another defendant also had a connection to Iceland. Dr. Rudolf Margolius, who had been Assistant Minister of Foreign Trade, was accused of having made unfavourable trade deals with foreign countries, including Iceland. Shortly after his execution, the leading conservative daily Morgunbladid asked nonplussed on 6 December 1952 why on earth anyone should be hanged for buying fish from Iceland. The editor of the Icelandic communist organ, Magnus Kjartansson, crossly responded that the trial had been public while  the accused had been confronted with such overwhelming proofs of their misdeeds that none of them had even challenged them: instead they had all confessed. When I wrote about the Slánský trial in my book on Icelandic Communists, 1918–1998, Ivan Margolius was kind enough to provide me with a photo for it of his father, Rudolf.

The Revolution Devours Its Children

Only three of the defendants in the Slánský trial were not sentenced to death. One of them, Artur London, was later able to move to France. He wrote a book about his ordeal, The Confession, which Costa-Gavras turned into a film with the same title, L’Aveau in the original French, with Yves Montand as London. It is a melodrama skilfully made, but the documentary by Vadas that we watched in Prague presents a better assessment of what really happened. The communist experiment had not produced the plenty promised, and the blame had to put somewhere, not on communism itself, but on individuals, on sabotage. The defendants were no angels, nevertheless. Perhaps with the exception of Margolius and a few other technocrats, they were hardened Stalinists who had committed odious crimes during and after the communist coup. They fell into the pit they had dug themselves, as Vadas indicates. They were the exception rather than the rule: executioneers becoming victims. La révolution dévore ses enfants, as Jacques Mallet du Pan exclaimed, the Revolution devours its children. The problem is that it also devours others.