Remembering a woman who was not for turning

29-05-2005

It's fifty-five years ago this week that one of the most grotesque show-trials in Stalinist Czechoslovakia began, a trial that exposed the cruelty of the regime, but also revealed the true face of heroism.

Milada Horakova is one of those rare figures in history who remained incorruptible in the face of torture. The new communist regime took its inspiration from Stalin - in fact special Soviet "advisors" were sent in to supervise the legal process, and during her year in custody before the trial, Horakova was interrogated using the latest Soviet methods. A particular favourite was sleep deprivation - with interrogations lasting several days and teams of interrogators working in continuous 8-hour shifts.

Before the war Milada Horakova had been a champion of women's rights, an admirer of Czechoslovakia's first President Tomas Masaryk, and a firm believer in the principle that it took hard work and not just words for the motto of the Czech nation "Truth will prevail" to be anything more than an empty slogan. During the war she helped to find shelter for people wanted by the Gestapo, and in return she was tortured and imprisoned by the Nazis. After surviving the war - for which she felt a sense of guilt with so many of her friends dead - she became a member of parliament. Not for the first time in history, high principles and a lack of interest in political intrigue were not a recipe for survival on an increasingly corrupted political scene. It wasn't long after the communist coup of 1948 that she was arrested.

The film footage from her trial in May and June 1950 is grim, but there is also something uplifting in this grainy, black-and-white film, that stands as damning evidence against who claimed to have justice in their hands. The row of judges and prosecutors opposite her are aggressive, arrogant and speak in the dreadful clichés of Stalinism. Milada Horakova stands alone in the middle of the court, and in this dehumanizing context, the impression of calm and dignity and the clarity of her voice, are so much the more striking. I find it hard to imagine where she could have found the strength to stand up with such calm authority after a year of imprisonment and total isolation. Through this old footage she is speaking to us today: the court condemned her to death, but when we look into her face, she is the one who comes across as the victor.

In the nationwide poll to choose the greatest Czech in history that was launched early this year Milada Horakova came 36th. For much of the younger generation she is remembered mainly because of the congested Prague street that's named after her, but I expect that if more young people knew a few details of her story, she would be somewhere right at the top.

Czech history is full of twists and turns and compromises, but what makes Milada Horakova exceptional is that she followed her own path without ever wavering, and she faced death in the same spirit.

29-05-2005