General Tomáš Sedláček, a World War II veteran who spent nine years in communist jails, died on Monday aged 94. A respected soldier, he fought both on the western and eastern fronts of the war before landing a life sentence by Czechoslovakia’s communist court. But his faith in freedom and democracy never waivered, and after 1989, he took up the cause of those who suffered under communism.
A military career seemed to be on the cards for Tomáš Sedláček from an early age: born in Vienna in 1918 into a family of an army officer, he left school at sixteen to enrol in an officer training course. By the autumn of 1938, under threat from Nazi occupation, the young lieutenant participated in the mobilisation of the Czechoslovak army as he recalled in a 2010 interview for Czech TV.
“I’m glad that I took part in the mobilization and that I could experience the nation’s last effort to hold on to freedom, and its readiness to defend it. When the Munich agreement came and then the occupation, it was a huge blow for us. But looking at it in retrospect, knowing what happened in Poland in France, I think fighting against Germany would have been a gesture of non-surrender but the consequences would have been terrible.”
After the Nazi occupation of his country, Sedláček fled to France and later to England, where he served in the Czech exile forces before being transferred to the Eastern front where he saw some of the heaviest fighting in the Dukla Pass. He was then dropped behind enemy lines to assist the Slovak National Uprising.
After the war, Sedláček continued his military career and took a teaching post at the military academy in Prague. But in 1951, he was tried and convicted of high treason and espionage in a show trial.
“When I heard the sentence at the show trial, I had to laugh. It was so incredibly absurd that I couldn’t take it seriously. But it was indeed serious. I was sentenced along with one of my subordinates, Josef Kučera. Unfortunately, the prosecutor appealed his verdict and he got the rope. I only caught a glimpse of him later before he was executed.”
Sedláček himself served nine years in prisons and labour camps. After his release he worked in various jobs until his rehabilitation in 1989. He later became involved in the post-communist justice campaigns of the Confederation of Political Prisoners, always speaking out for the need for justice and remembrance. But he said he did not feel hatred for his jailors.
“I said this before – I despise those people. What we want is the court to say – this man did this. We don’t care if they are given two years in jail or just a suspended sentence. I say that as long as we breathe, it is our duty towards those who died in the camps or were executed to speak out and say, ‘it has happened once and there is no guarantee it can’t happen again’. People should realize that the freedom that we enjoy so naturally was gained at huge sacrifice and hardship, and that we have to cultivate our freedom and not forget. Not forget – that’s the important thing.”
Those that knew him have described him as quiet and modest. He took the time to give thoughtful interviews and speak out about his past until the very end of his life. President Vaclav Klaus, who awarded him the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, described him on Monday as „a true soldier“.