Many people in Czechoslovakia greeted the communist coup of February 1948 with enthusiasm, in the belief that the horrors of the war should never be allowed to happen again. But following the model of Stalin’s Soviet Union, it was not long before a period of political terror began, with thousands of arrests and then a series of political show trials. The most horrific symbol of the period was the trial and execution of Milada Horáková. She had been one of the most enlightened politicians of the pre-war Czechoslovak Republic, a champion of democracy and women’s rights, and had spent most of the war in Nazi prisons and concentration camps.
After the liberation, Milada Horáková resumed her political career. Here she is in July 1945, honouring those who had resisted the Nazis during the occupation. In typical spirit, she points to the role of women:
“Women were everywhere. They were in the concentration camps, in prisons. Mothers of small children walked out bravely and unfaltering, as they were taken out for execution. They fought as partisans, they fought as members of our army, and their battle reached its climax in the last hours of the war, during our revolutionary struggle as they fought on the barricades.”
By a grim irony, Milada Horáková herself was executed almost exactly five years later, showing throughout the trial the same courage that she had pointed to in others. After the 1948 coup she had resigned her seat in parliament and 18 months later she was arrested, accused, without a scrap of evidence, of heading a group that was trying to overthrow the regime.
The trial was broadcast on newsreels and radio, a warning to anyone who might dare to doubt the merits of the new order in public. The state prosecutor was a man called Josef Urválek, whose rhetoric and tone were eerily reminiscent of Josef Goebbels, and whose style of cross-examination was nothing short of vicious:
“The accused Horáková is the criminal mastermind of this entire terrorist conspiracy that stands here on trial. She is linked to a whole reactionary underworld that comes flocking to her from all sides.”
Milada Horáková remained unbroken and calm throughout the trial. Here is a short extract from her speech in her defence that puts the fanaticism of her prosecutors into sharp focus and points to her faith in the principles of Czechoslovakia’s first two presidents:
“I have stated to the organs of state security that I remain, on principle, firm in my convictions, and that I remain so, because I have built these convictions on the opinions, points of view, speeches and information of people who I have respected. Among them I include our country’s two greatest figures, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, both of whom were an inspiration to me throughout my life.”
The court sentenced Milada Horáková to death for treason. In spite of petitions, signed by Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, she was hanged on June 27 1950 at the age of 48.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on October 9, 2008.
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