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

Valery Panov
Valery Panov; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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