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The Theater of Cruelty

Report on the Murder of the General Secretary

by Karel Kaplan, translated by Karel Kovanda
Ohio State University Press, 323 pp., $39.50

After the events in Europe during the past year, it may seem almost quaint to discuss the Stalinist show trials of the early 1950s—trials that presented to the world crimes against communism, socialism, and indeed “humanity” in Hungary, Albania, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia—all allegedly committed by high Party members who confessed to selling out their brethren to the British and American imperialists. We have known for decades that the charges were trumped up, that interrogations were conducted using psychological and physical torture, that the victims sometimes felt that their love of the Party and its goals was unaffected by what was done to them, and that anti-Semitism had a large part in the entire process. The show trials and their horrors might seem relics of a vanished era.

Yet as the Czech historian Karel Kaplan asserts in his remarkable book:

Inasmuch as political trials constitute the truest picture of a Communist regime’s character, it is impossible to understand the system that generated them, or indeed to grasp the history of postwar Europe, without comprehending the trials themselves.

He has written the documented history of one of the most notorious of the trials—the trial of the “leadership of the antistate conspiratorial center headed by Rudolf Slánský” in Czechoslovakia. It was Europe’s largest show trial, produced with the close involvement of Moscow, and it condemned to death some of the officials who themselves helped to create the political machinery that put them on trial. Kaplan’s book is a detailed account, the result of more than a dozen years of research in secret Communist party files, research that was undertaken well before the revolutions of 1989.

Kaplan began his investigation into the postwar period more than thirty years ago. At first his work in the archives of the Czech Party (the CC KSC) was limited; all documents having to do with political trials were off-limits. Other files were also tightly controlled. Requests for permission to conduct research had to include an exact list of documents asked for. Photocopying was forbidden. Notes could be taken only on numbered sheets of paper bearing a stamp of the CC KSC; they all had to be returned.

But after about five years of work, in 1963, Kaplan was able to start examining the trial documents. Kaplan headed the research group of the Barnabitky Commission, one of four Czech Party investigative commissions that were established to try to overturn the verdicts of the trials and exonerate their victims. In 1968, Kaplan was also made secretary of the Piller Commission, which had the job of completing the rehabilitation—of “restoring,” in Kaplan’s words “Communist party membership, albeit posthumously, to show-trial victims.” Kaplan was in charge of drafting the final report of that commission. For a year he worked with several dozen historians, economists, and legal scholars analyzing the archive material, studying other commission reports, previously unknown documents, classified personal material, interviews, and depositions of former Party officials. Their final report filled 1,200 typewritten pages.

Kaplan is thus uniquely well-informed about the history of the period and the details of the trial. But his attempts to publish his findings have until now been thwarted. His first book on the subject was set in type in Czechoslovakia in 1969, but the plates were destroyed that April when a new Party leadership was installed. In 1970, after Kaplan was banned from working as a historian, some of his papers on the trial appeared in samizdat editions. Kaplan’s personal cache of notes and copies of documents was discovered by State Security in 1972, and much of it was confiscated.

In the late 1970s, having made his way to West Germany, Kaplan began to write this book, basing it on documents and manuscripts he managed to smuggle out of Czechoslovakia. It is one of several important works on Stalinist justice in Czechoslovakia, published in Czech by Sixty-Eight Publishers in Toronto, of which I am a partner, and by various publishers in West Germany and in France. It contains a nearly complete description of how the Slánský “conspiracy” was invented and the trial staged. Kaplan quotes interrogations, Party documents, and interviews; he chronicles the Party’s contacts with Stalin, the political rivalries within the Party; and he gives an almost day-by-day account—often in the victims’ words or in the words of informants in the prison cells—of the psychological and physical torture and humiliation that led, first to the seemingly sincere confessions of the victims, then to the memorized performances on the witness stand, and finally to the nearly uniformly humble pleas by the convicted that they be executed for their crimes.

In 1952, after the meticulously prepared trial, eleven men were sentenced to be hanged—men who were hardly innocent of evil, having themselves once sent others to such fates, but who were certainly innocent as charged; three others were given life terms in prison. The fourteen men were all high-level Party functionaries and life-long Communists. Many had risked their lives for the cause in Spain, in World War II, or had barely survived Nazi death camps. But they were presented to the rank-and-file comrades as diabolical subversives. The main trial was followed by a series of subsidiary trials of other high-level Communists in the Foreign Ministry, the security services, the Party apparatus, the army, the management of industry. Altogether some 250 prominent Marxists were sentenced to death or to long terms in prison. So crude were the plots attributed to the defendants that, were the trials and their aftermath presented on a theatrical stage, they would seem to have been based on the cheapest sort of comic-strip serials, catering to the taste and intelligence of eight-year-olds.

To speak of these events as horrifying stage plays is not to indulge in metaphor. As Kaplan makes clear, in the Slánsky trial, from the first arrests to the multiple hangings, the actions of interrogators, prosecutors, witnesses, judges, and behind-the-scenes directors resembled script conferences rather than legal procedures. The peculiarly fictitious character of the trials is apparent even from official Party instructions on how such affairs should be conducted.

Although they do not explicitly state that these court proceedings are plays, the instruction booklets treat them as such:

The courts constitute an important tool in the struggle of the working class against its class enemies…. The vehicles for attaining these tasks include well-prepared public trials, properly used for propaganda purposes…. Many trials lack the necessary political polish and therefore yield less political capital than they could and should.

The preparations for the trial of Rudolf Slánský and his codefendants benefited from lessons learned throughout Europe in a series of trials—acts, one might say, in a five-part tragedy written by Stalin. The goal of these trials was first to eliminate varieties of European nationalism, such as those that had led to Yugoslavia’s idiosyncratic declaration of independence from Moscow; and then to destroy any remnants of bourgeois liberalism that might have survived the war years. Act One of this drama was staged in Bucharest in 1949: a former Justice Minister, Lucretiu Patrascanu, was condemned to death and years later, in 1954, actually executed—the lateness of justice apparently caused by inexperienced stage management. The next three acts followed in quick succession: Act Two in Albania where a former interior minister, Koçi Xoxe, died on the scaffold on June 11, 1949; Act Three in Hungary where Foreign Minister László Rajk was the chief victim and six others followed him to the gallows; Act Four in Bulgaria where a top-level apparatchik, Traicho Kostov, was put to death, convicted of fictitious crimes. Act Five, set in Poland, was never produced, thanks to the stubborn refusal of the accused, Wladyslaw Gomulka, to learn his lines. He was released without trial in 1955. The production of the finale was therefore entrusted in 1951 to the Czechoslovak comrades.

This final act not only had to succeed in its pedantic and propagandistic purpose, it had to surpass all preceding acts. The leaders could also not delay in its production, nor could they pretend this was anything less than a life-or-death struggle for the future of communism; any hesitation might indicate that they were insufficiently vigilant themselves, perhaps even candidates for some future indictment.

But such a staged drama could not seem to be just a means for consolidating power and frightening opponents. There were theoretical underpinnings, elaborate constructions, that gave the dramas their seeming objectivity. One of Stalin’s several theoretical fictions, which he claimed to be developments of Marxist-Leninist theory, was that after a revolution, the class struggle doesn’t weaken but, on the contrary, becomes more intense. The enemy is even more desperate than he was before and fights with the vilest of means: he fights from within, infiltrating the Party from bottom to top. In the medieval thought-system of Stalinism, a doctrine of this kind was simply asserted by the Supreme Authority; it was up to the low-ranking comrades to supply the missing evidence. Since such evidence could not be found in reality, it had to be manufactured. The faithful knew that evidence must exist; they regarded its absence not as a proof of the untenability of the Boss’s theory, but as a demonstration of their own incompetence. “Unmasking too few enemies,” Kaplan writes, “was considered a weakness.”

Stalin sent me here to prepare a trial,” wrote one of the twenty or so Soviet envoys who supervised the Czech trial rehearsals,

and I have no time to waste. I didn’t come here for discussions. I came to Czechoslovakia to see heads roll. I’d rather wring a hundred and fifty other necks than lose my own. I don’t care where you get [the information] and I don’t care how true it is. I’ll believe it, and you leave the rest to me. What do you care about some Jewish shit, anyway?

The interrogators, their advisers, and their Party bosses accordingly invented plots and subplots, motives, and victims. They invented because they could not discover. Only the stars of the show were what remained of the real world in this drama; and only their deaths were truly “objective” facts.

The writing of the Slánský drama went through two main drafts. The first involved a conspiracy to assassinate the general secretary of the Party—Slánský himself. Otto Sling, a Party secretary from the Moravian capital of Brno, was cast as the mastermind of the plot. Sling was well hated for his “innovative” (and cruel) methods of administration, and was the first to be arrested—on October 6, 1950. Under the nervous gaze of the Party leadership, eager to appease the authorities in Moscow by tossing them an appropriate victim, Sling was subjected to six months of “interrogations.”

By the end of that period, Sling had learned his lines and the scenario read as follows: Sling headed a group of high-ranking Party officials, all of them camouflaged class enemies, who managed to infiltrate the Party. They did so first in the Spanish war, when they joined the volunteer brigades as Trotskyites. Then, as exiles in wartime London, they successfully worked their way into the power apparatus of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and established contacts with various Western agencies serving the capitalists. After the takeover of 1948, they decided to assassinate the Party’s first secretary, Rudolf Slánský. “We opposed him,” Sling confessed on February 4, 1951, “especially because he was a serious obstacle in our struggle to overthrow the entire people’s democratic policy of building socialism.”

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