Judging the political trials, fifty years on

Since the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Czech historians have been freed of the ideological burdens imposed upon them by the communist system. This has allowed them to approach topics in Czech history in a more open way - especially when dealing with particularly sensitive historical issues, such as the political trials of the 1950s.

These trials purged elements of the Czechoslovak Communist Party that were considered to be insufficiently supportive of Stalinism, and the most infamous of these trials was against the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Rudolf Slansky. Historians also regard the Slansky trial as a manifestation of Soviet-style antisemitism - considering that Slansky and seven of the ten co-accused were Jewish.

Rudolf Slansky was executed in the gallows of Prague's Pankrac Prison in December 1952 - that is, just over fifty years ago. Last April, more than one hundred scholars from all over the world came together at Pankrac Prison to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Slansky's execution. There they held a conference on the political trials in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, and the causes, events and consequences of the Slansky trial in particular.

Conferences such as this are indicative of the efforts being made by historians to assist Czech society in coming to terms with its past, by offering new information and perspectives on these controversial historical issues. Bradley Abrams is a professor of East European history at Columbia University in New York City who specialises in Czech history. He was at the Slansky conference, and I asked him what new information had come out of it:

"Well, I think that there are a few things that I can say about this. The first is that maybe nothing groundbreakingly new in a factual sense, no new information has come out particularly about the Slansky trial. But what could happen is that it might encourage people to think about the trials, and to think about them maybe in new ways. Particularly by putting the Slansky trial in such a context, as we're trying to do here. That was one of the things I was hoping to get out of this.

Beyond that, I think that there's an importance in revisiting this particular issue, because it is something that the Czech public and the Czech academic public have not shown much interest in for many, many years. But certainly it's time to raise some of these issues that now, we can say, really truly do belong to the past, and perhaps look at them and try and understand exactly what did happen here in the first decade or so after the Communists rose to total paper."

An academic who is contributing to these new perspectives is Professor Barbara Falk, from the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. She is working on a research project that examines the Cold War culture which spanned the East-West divide. In the context of the political trials, she has researched the Slansky trial and compared it to the Rosenbergs trial. The trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg took place in the United States in 1951, and they were tried for spying for the Communists. Professor Falk explains:

"On the surface level there seem to be a great deal of differences between the two trials. Obviously we have a trial in a real democracy versus a people's democracy. You have defendants who are accused of essentially trumped up charges, are found guilty, eleven of the fourteen are executed. And in the United States you have, ostensibly, a real trial, although I would argue that certainly the judicial independence of the judge was severely compromised, and I would also argue that there were other miscarriages of justice in that process. But it's obviously a very different type of scenario."

Professor Falk's work proved to be rather controversial when she presented it at the recent conference at Pankrac Prison, and she explains why:

"What I asked my audience to do - and I think they found it very difficult to do - was to suspend for a moment or put aside the question of guilt or innocence. And to take a look instead at the cultural and political production of such trials and the roles that they fill in a society: the role of the confession, the role of the informer, how trials assume a pedagogical role, how they are a microcosm through which we can look at Cold War culture.

Of course it's a very sensitive issue, because you have people in the room who are survivors or descendants of survivors who have in some way been affected by the trials, and the extent of the whole trial process in Czechoslovakia was intense and broad. So there is a concern that in investigating this kind of thing I am somehow making a moral equivalency argument between what happened in the United States during the McCarthyite period, and what happened during the Stalinist period in Czechoslovakia. That's not my goal. I'm really trying to look at the cultural side of the Cold War, and of course the Cold War was fought as much on civilian terrain as it was on any kind of military terrain. And that's really what I'm trying to examine."

While Czechs have had the opportunity since 1989 to contemplate different interpretations of their history than the one they were presented during the communist period, post-communist Czech society sometimes still finds it difficult to address some of the darker aspects of its twentieth century history. I asked Professor Abrams why he thought that this was the case, particularly with regards to the 1950s:

"I think that there are two things at work here. The first is - particularly here, and when we're talking about the 1950s, the early 1950s, and the period of high Stalinism - that this is a part of the past that the nation would like to forget. The main reason for this is that it was a terrible time for Czechs. This regime was a terrible regime, brutal, terroristic and so on. And this is something that no one wants to rehash as part of the national past.

But in a larger sense, I think, the Czechs and all of the other nations of Eastern Europe would like to excise the entire era of communism - not just Stalinism, but the entire era from sometime in the 1940s until 1989 - from their past as something that was aberrant, imposed by the Soviets and not true to the nation's ideals. This is more difficult for the Czechs to do than, say, the Poles, because the Czechs at least - this is leaving the Slovaks to the side - voted in their plurality: some forty per cent of the Czechs gave their vote to the Communist Party in the 1946 elections, elections which were regarded as free and fair even by leading non-Communist politicians.

Given that level of enthusiasm for communism - which was not aberrant at all in the Europe of the immediate post war years, Western or Eastern Europe - given that sympathy and enthusiasm for communism in those early post war years, it's harder for them, I think, to come to terms with the communism that they got, rather than the communism that perhaps they wanted, in the late 1940s."

How good a job do you think that the Czechs are doing now in coming to terms with this history?

"I think that they're doing relatively well. It's a very difficult past to come to terms with for all of these countries. The Czechs right now are coming to terms with two - in some sense -related aspects. One has to do with the so-called "odsun," or transfer or expulsion, of the country's German population, including Jews who came back from concentration camps and then were labelled as Germans and expelled from the country. And then the era of communism as well.

I think that there's a great deal more understanding and willingness to try and look at things dispassionately among the younger generation than there is among the older generation. Certainly when the issue of Czech-German relations comes to the fore, younger people are much more inclined to try and compromise, or try and reach a level of understanding with their German neighbours, than, frankly, people who remember the Second World War.

But I think that they're doing a reasonably good job. There are other countries that have a much harder road to travel than the Czechs - say, Romanians. And there are countries, such as Poland, that have an easier time in coming to terms with the communist past because of the particular way in which the society reacted to communism, which was much different from what happened here."