The Slansky Trial: the rehearsals

Author: 
Stan Crooke

At the centre of the supposed conspiracy was Rudolf Slansky, a lifelong member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CPC). He had joined the party at its inception in 1921 and been elected to its Central Committee in 1929.


The Slansky trial: contents.
Elected to the Czechoslovak National Assembly in 1935, Slansky fled to the Soviet Union after the German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1944, taking part in the Slovak National Rising, and was elected CPC General Secretary the following year.

Following the CPC putsch of 1948, in which the non-CPC parties were driven out of what had previously been a coalition government, Slansky was the most powerful person in the country, second only in name to President Klement Gottwald.

The official celebrations which marked Slansky’s 50th birthday, in July of 1951, appeared to underline his grip on power. He was awarded the Order of Socialism (the highest state decoration). An avalanche of the obligatory laudatory articles appeared in the press and his collected works were published.

But it would not be long before Slansky was playing the lead role in a Czech version of the show-trials which swept through Eastern Europe in the years following 1948.

In response to the onset of the Cold War and the rift with Tito’s Yugoslavia in June of that year, Stalin had clamped down on the satellite states’ Communist Parties. The subsequent Moscow-inspired and orchestrated purges and show trials sent out a warning to the leaders of the “fraternal” Communist Parties that any dissent was punishable by death.

In 1949, the Albanian Interior Minister Koci Xoxe and Traycho Kostov, Bulgaria’s President of the Council of Ministers, were executed, both accused of espionage on behalf of the US and UK. However, it was the trial and execution in October of the same year of Hungarian Interior Minister Laszlo Rajk for being “a Titoite spy” and an imperialist agent which triggered what would become the Slansky Trial.

In mid-1949 the Hungarian Communist Party General Secretary, Matyas Rakosi, provided Gottwald with a list of around sixty Czech officials who had been named by Rajk’s co-conspirators as supposed collaborators. Arrests of whom began in November.

Initially, the interrogations pointed in the direction of a show-trial of Slovak “bourgeois nationalists”, but later became focused on anti-Zionism.

In late 1950 and early 1951 the arrest and interrogation of another 60 officials was approved by Gottwald and Slansky. Around the same time a new — and much more imaginative — script for an eventual show-trial was drafted. In this version Otto Sling (CPC Brno Regional Secretary) and Marie Svermova (CPC Central Committee Secretary) were the leaders of an underground Trotskyist organisation, recruited from CPC veterans of the Spanish Civil War and CPC members who had spent the war in exile in London.

With the support of Slovak “bourgeois nationalists”, they had been preparing a coup aimed at removing Gottwald, Slansky and Zapotocky (the Czechoslovak Prime Minister) from their positions of power.

In February 1951 a meeting of the Central Committee approved a report on the plot, which had by then been confirmed by the forced confessions from those arrested at the turn of the year. According to the report, Sling had become an agent of the Anglo-American intelligence service in the 1930s. In 1948 he had been instructed to “develop nefarious activities (in Czechoslovakia) similar to Rajk’s in Hungary and Kostov’s in Bulgaria.”

Sling’s plan was to convene a special conference of the CPC at which his supporters would oust Slansky. The report continued:

“They already had a candidate in the wings (Svermova) to take over the position of the General Secretary. This candidate had to know Sling as a cynic, a thug, a criminal, and a murderer of his own mother.... The party will therefore also treat M. Svermova without remorse as a criminal enemy.”

But even as this report was being adopted by the CPC Central Committee, a third script was being drafted. In this version Slansky was not the victim but the plot’s prime mover, and the ideological driving force was Zionism.

In March, the state security services in Moscow, which received reports of the interrogations of the alleged plotters in Czechoslovakia, identified Slansky as being responsible for placing “unreliable persons and enemies” in high-ranking positions in the CPC and Czechoslovak government, and as the possible leader of a conspiracy. Czech interrogators were encouraged by their Russian advisers — who had begun to arrive in Czechoslovakia from late 1949 onwards — to accumulate more material incriminating Slansky.

The absurdity of the new role attributed to Slansky was particularly obvious to those who had only recently confessed to involvement in the Sling-Svermova conspiracy. Svermova herself later recalled:

“The same interrogators who used to call [Slansky] a Bolshevik whom I and my faction wanted to eliminate now forced me to confess that I had always aided him in his criminal activity against the party and the state.”

But the absurdity of the script did not prevent the interrogators’ victims from making the required “confessions”. By the early summer the interrogators had amassed a substantial collection of similar confessions, all incriminating Slansky. Despite such confessions, Stalin held back from ordering Slansky’s arrest.

He did, however, find that Slansky had been at fault in his selection of people to fill government and CPC posts. In July Stalin told Gottwald that Slansky should be stripped of his post of General Secretary. Meeting in September, the Central Committee carried out Stalin’s instructions. As compensation, Slansky was appointed Deputy Prime Minister.