Czechoslovak top Communist Rudolf Slánský is a tragic figure of 20th century history in the classical sense of the word. In the end the fate of the once powerful and self made man was mapped out elsewhere as he became a victim of the state security system he helped create.
Slánský rose to the top of the Czechoslovak Communist party and played a key part in its seizure of power in February 1948. For some periods before and after the takeover he was probably more important than party leader Klement Gottwald who was increasingly hitting the bottle for alcoholic consolation.
But at the height of the power Slánský was toppled by Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s paranoid search for scapegoats and purge victims. The repressive state machinery which Slánský had helped put in place in Communist Czechoslovakia was turned against one of its creators.
After a week long show trial, the former all-powerful party secretary was hanged.. That ironical twist and Slánský’s cold and calculating personality have resulted in not many tears being shed about his fate in the following years.
Historians have already pieced together the story of the Slánský’s show trial – the most shocking event to hit the Communist Party in power up till then. Some say the party never really recovered from the revelation that such a trusted and top placed party member could have been a conspirator for the Imperialist, Titoist and Zionist enemies of the time.
Igor Lukeš is a professor of international relations and history at Boston University who has researched and written about Slánský’s trial and execution.
“The fact that Slánský was chosen has really no satisfactory explanation. He was of course a completely devoted Stalinist from his earliest moments in politics. From the early 1920’s when the party came into existence he was eager and willing to emulate the line that came from Moscow”
He thinks that Stalin’s clear belief in the Machiavellian principle that a prince should be feared rather than loved probably played a big part in deciding Slánský’s fate:
“It in fact seems to me that Slánský may have been chosen precisely because he was so loyal to Stalin. Because in killing him Stalin’s message to the rest of the East European leadership was that if he can die – if he is not safe – then nobody is. Perhaps the main motivation behind this and other similar show trials that swept across Eastern Europe was to terrorise East Europe’s Communist bosses into absolute and total submission.”
Rudolf Slánský was born in the village of Nezvěstice, south of Pilsen, in 1901. His elder brother Josef lent him Marxist books and he is reported to have taken part in his first political demonstration - against the Austrian Empire – aged 17. A talented student, he moved to the capital Prague to continue his studies but in the turbulent years following the creation of the new Czechoslovakia and evolving Russian revolution was increasingly sidetracked by politics.
As a 20-year-old in 1921 he was one of the founder members of the Communist Party. From 1924 he was a journalist on party papers, getting his proletarian baptism in the coal and steel city of Ostrava where he became party regional secretary. It was also in Ostrava that his friendship developed with future party leader Klement Gottwald. When Gottwald seized power from the party old guard in 1929 Slánský was also one of the main beneficiaries. He was appointed to the new central committee and politbureau and became party secretary for Prague.
But it was not all smooth sailing. The Communist Party was banned at the time and Slánský’s attempts to build up its underground network got him in trouble more than once with Moscow. In 1935 he was banished from the top party echelons for not promoting a strong enough common front against Fascism. He took the criticism badly but was back at the top a year later. In the aftermath of Munich in 1938, Slánský – like the other Czechoslovak party leaders – fled to Moscow.
Like other exiles, Slánský and his family were housed in the famous Hotel Lux – where Stalin’s secret police made nightly selections of who would be purged. Historian Igor Lukeš:
“The NKVD arrested on a daily – or rather nightly – basis. And the people who lived there – this has been well attested to by many participants – essentially could not sleep throughout the night because you could hear the arresting teams spreading throughout the building. All you could really do was just to listen to the steps whether they would stop in front of your door or whether that very night they would stop at somebody else’s door. I think these people went through absolute horror.”
The Nazi attack on the Soviet Union was a relief for the Czech Communist exiles because it curbed the purges. But Slánský faced further personal tragedy. His six-month old daughter disappeared in Moscow just before Christmas in 1943 never to be seen again. Whether it was a political act, the work of a deranged woman, or cannibals is not clear. Gottwald is reportedly said to have told Slánský at one stage afterwards to stop grieving for his daughter and make another one.
After taking part in the Slovak National Uprising in mid-1944 and a gruelling escape across the mountains to evade the Nazis - during which fellow party leader Jan Šverma died – Slánský returned to Czechoslavakia on the heels of the victorious Red Army.
The party was riding a popular wave and Slánský was at the top of that wave as the second most powerful man after Gottwald. Slánský’s task as party general secretary was to build the party at home. As its membership soared and influence developed, so did that of the general secretary. He picked most of the regional party leaders himself and became a central figure as it prepared to infiltrate and sobotage democratic parties and make a bid for power.
In the run-up to February 1948 Slánský’s managerial and organisational genius and Gottwald’s sporadic failure to manage his alcoholism meant he was at the zenith of his power. Igor Lukeš:
“Perhaps in the period 1945-1948, he may have been on occasion perhaps even more important than Gottwald himself – who became more and more dependent on alcohol and at times became nothing more than a simple drunk. It was therefore up to Slánský to prepare the party for the final confrontation with its democratic rivals. And it was Slánský who I think proved more than once in the period between 1945-1948 that he was a brilliant – if I can put that in quotation marks – “a brilliant tactician,” says Lukeš.
Once in power, the party increasing sought to have its say in running the country. Over time this put it on a collision course with the new Communist ministers in government and made the normally friendless Slánský even more enemies. He still however had his trump card – his close friendship with Gottwald. Gottwald’s elevation to the presidency pushed more power Slánský’s way. But there were clouds on the horizon. He began to be overshadowed by the young new rising star, Alexej Čepička, who was to marry Gottwald’s daughter.
The real threat however came from Moscow and Stalin’s real or artificial conviction that the new Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe were being undermined from within by top party officials. The first attempts to weed out a conspiracy at first cast Slánský – together with Gottwald - as a victim. But during the early months of 1951 his role began to be redrafted by the imported Soviet investigators as the mastermind of an anti-state conspiracy.
“If you actually look at the period of the last year and a half of Slánský’s life you discover that there was more than one occasion where Stalin demanded harsh measures be applied against Slánský - and he demanded it of Gottwald. I think that if there is one episode in this story it is how long Gottwald surprisingly resisted the pressure from Moscow for Slánský’s arrest and his demise and destruction,” Lukeš adds.
The pressure building up for that arrest probably became irresistible when a letter implicating Slánský as a Western agent – or the so-called great sweeper – was intercepted. It was a plant by an agent working for exiled Czechoslovak anti-Communist intelligence chief František Moravec. The arrest followed two weeks later after Slánský returned to his Prague villa from a reception. The process then began of moulding Slánský’s testimony for the show trial that was being prepared. Here, unlike many of his colleagues he resisted for a long time and narrowly failed to take his own life in prison. Mr Lukeš again:
“He in fact behaved in a rather courageous way. He confessed to things that had only been confessed to already by his colleagues and he tried as hard as he could not implicate unnecessarily others.”
But as Slánský probably knew from the Soviet purges and the ones which
he had helped organise at home against generals, politicians and priests
seen as threats to the Communist regime – there was no real possibility
of changing the script and end that had been planned in advance. The trial
sparked a wave of anti-Jewish hatred – Slánský and most of his alleged
fellow conspirators were Jewish. He was hanged on December 3, 1952, at
Prague’s Pankrác prison.