Czech Radio has managed to save material from recently discovered audio reels of one of the Czechoslovak Communist era’s biggest show trials – that of top party leader Rudolf Slánský and 13 co-accused. The salvaged sound has now been made public.
The surprise find of several kilometres of film and audio reels from the November 1952 Slánský show trial as well as communist central committee documents in a disused factory on the outskirts of Prague earlier this year was described at the time as one of the biggest contributions to modern history in recent decades.
But there was one major question mark. Much of the film and audio reels were in a poor state and it was unclear how much of it could be salvaged and used. As far as the sound tapes are concerned, the answer Is now clear with around 99 percent of the original material amounting to just over 60 hours of recording copied in digital form and made available to the public by Czech Radio.
Radio sound technician Miloslav Turek described the state of the audio reels that were handed over to him:
ʺAround a third of the reels were absolutely alright. A second third were in a bit of a worse state and we had to be especially carefully when we were putting the tape in the player because there was a chance that it might break up at any moment. And a third of the material was in a disastrous state. There were four reels we left to last because did not know if we could even unwind them. In the end we were able to deal with them all. One of the most damaged reels contained part of the opening speech of prosecutor Urválek and everyone appreciated it would be a big pity not to have that.ʺ
The material is punctuated by various breaks in the trial and Turek describes how some of these make clear how carefully constructed and rehearsed the eight day trial was with little left to chance:
ʺAt one stage the judge interrupts the witness and calls for a break. I think they took the witness aside and told him to express himself differently. And at another point after a break the judge turned on one of the accused, Otto Sling, and told him he should realise he isn’t at some public gathering but before a court.ʺ
Historian Petr Blažek, who has been closely involved in evaluating and saving the material, says the recordings were not made for public broadcast but for the general secretariat of the party and president Klement Gottwald to listen to and for the trail’s organisers to check that everything was going according to the pre-ordained plan and script.
Blažek says the main contribution of the salvaged sound is that it conveys the atmosphere of the era and how the accused, some apparently drugged, testified during the trial.