PART ONE: THE REHEARSALS
2012 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the “Trial of the Anti-State Conspiratorial Centre led by Rudolf Slansky”, staged in the Czechoslovak capital of Prague.
Sixty years ago, The Slansky Trial was one of a series of Eastern European post-war Stalinist show-trials in which leading Communist Party members confessed – after prolonged physical and psychological torture – to being longstanding agents of imperialism.
But the trial also broke new ground. It was the first show-trial in which state-sponsored anti-semitism played a central role. As the “New York Times”, reporting on the trial under the headline “Tragi-Comedy in Prague”, put it:
“If this were only a re-hash of the Zinoviev and Kamenev ordeals of the 1930s (Stalinist show-trials), we might regard it as a purely Soviet farce playing a return in a new adaptation. But there is something new in this latest trial.”
“The charge (is) that Slansky and the majority of his fellow-defendants, who are of Jewish origin, were members of a vast Jewish conspiracy, betraying their country to ‘American imperialism’ in order to serve the state of Israel.”
“Here we have the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but in the Stalinist version. So the Prague trial is not merely a comedy; rather it may well mark the beginning of a major tragedy as the Kremlin swings further and further towards anti-semitism masked as anti-Zionism.”
At the centre of the trial – and the supposed conspiracy – was Rudolf Slansky, a lifelong member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CPC) who had joined the party on its creation in 1921 and been elected to its Central Committee in 1929.
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 nominally the second most powerful person in the country, after President Klement Gottwald.
In reality, however, he was frequently a more decisive political actor and a more powerful political figure than Gottwald.
The official celebrations which marked Slansky’s fiftieth 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 (“For the Victory of Socialism”) were published.
A telegram from Gottwald informed Slansky: “Our entire party and all working people greet you as their faithful son and warrior, suffused with love for the working people and fidelity to the Soviet Union and the great Stalin.”
But the script was already being written for Slansky to play 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 Communist Parties in the Soviet Union’s satellite states.
The subsequent Moscow-inspired (and Moscow-orchestrated) purges and show trials sent out a warning to the leaders of the ‘fraternal’ Communist Parties that any dissent from the Kremlin’s policies was punishable by death.
In June of 1949 the Albanian Interior Minister Koci Xoxe was executed. He had been accused of ‘Titoism’ (and of being an agent of US and British imperialism).
The Hungarian Interior Minister Laszlo Rajk was executed in October of the same year, after having been accused of being ‘a Titoite spy’ (and an agent of western imperialism).
December of 1949 saw the execution of Traycho Kostov, Bulgaria’s President of the Council of Ministers. He had variously been accused of spying on behalf of the British, American and Yugoslav secret services, sabotaging the Bulgarian economy, and undermining relations with the Soviet Union.
It was the Rajk Trial which acted as the trigger for what eventually became 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 by the Czechoslovak security services of some of those named on the list began to take place from November of 1949 onwards. Initially, the interrogations pointed in the direction of a show-trial of Slovak ‘bourgeois nationalists’.
(Such a show-trial did eventually take place, but not until April of 1954, and with a focus on ‘anti-Zionism’ as much as on ‘Slovak bourgeois nationalism’.)
In late 1950 and early 1951 the arrest and interrogation of another 60 officials were 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 of 1951 a meeting of the CPC Central Committee approved a report on the ‘plot’, the substance of which had now been confirmed by a series of ‘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 (Marie 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, with the full support of Slansky, a third script was being drafted. In this version Slansky was not a prime victim of the conspiracy but its prime mover.
And in the final version of the script Zionism would replace Titoism, Slovak bourgeois nationalism and Trotskyism as the conspiracy’s ideological driving force.
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, in order to assist in preparations for a show-trial – to accumulate more material incriminating Slansky.
(At this stage there were in fact two factions amongst the interrogators. One faction favoured the Sling-Svermova conspiracy. The other backed the Slansky conspiracy. Another six months would pass before the latter faction emerged victorious.)
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 him (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’. Artur London, for example, who was to be one of the defendants in the Slansky Trial, ‘confessed’ in July:
“After five months of silence I have decided to exculpate my crimes, at least partially, by fully confessing. The Trotskyite conspiracy in Czechoslovakia is headed by Rudolf Slansky, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party.”
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 CPC General Secretary.
Meeting in September, the CPC Central Committee carried out Stalin’s instructions by scrapping the post of General Secretary. As compensation, Slansky, who was not yet completely disgraced, was appointed Deputy Prime Minister.
The same meeting also marked the introduction of ‘anti-Zionism’ (in reality: anti-semitism) into the preparations for the eventual show-trial.
While Gottwald made no more than a passing reference to the high number of arrested CPC members who “did not grow from the roots of our country and our party,” the party’s ideologue, Vaclav Kopecky spoke at length about the dangers of ‘cosmopolitanism’ and Zionism:
“Cosmopolitans should in principle not be posted in leadership positions. This truly is an issue of cosmopolitanism, not a racial question. There are people of Jewish origin who are firmly rooted in our nation. What we are concerned with here is those people who are strangers to us, who are not true internationalists.”
“The people of this background mostly come from very wealthy strata. In many instances they also had a very religious upbringing, which only fortified their Zionist tendencies.”
“Today we know that the attitudes of many people of Jewish origin to the working class have changed.”
“Hitler persecuted the Jews because they went with us; but now the Jews are drawn to Anglo-American imperialism, which is supporting Israel and using Zionism as a disintegrative agent within the parties of the popular democratic regimes and within socialism.”
By November Stalin had decided the time had come to arrest Slansky. Soviet Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan passed on Stalin’s instructions to Gottwald during a visit to Prague the same month. On 23rd November Slansky was arrested.
The following day a meeting of the CPC Central Committee approved a report on the arrest.
According to the report, Slansky was the head of a Zionist group, consisting of CPC veterans of the Spanish Civil War, Slovak nationalists, and CPC exiles who had spent the war in London. The goal of the group was to usurp power in Czechoslovakia.
The meeting also heard a further exposition from Kapecky on the threats which ‘cosmopolitanism’ and Zionism posed to the ‘people’s democracies’:
“While unmasking the Sling malefactors it was pointed out that most of them were from wealthy Jewish families. Our party has not yet grasped seriously enough the problem of struggling against cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan thinking of the great part of people with a Jewish origin has been forgotten.”
“Zionism has become a very serious danger in recent years. It has become an important instrument of American and British imperialism. The international Zionist organisation is linked with the Jewish State of Israel. Advocates of Zionism figure that in the people’s democracies Zionism can be transformed into a species of Titoism.”
Another wave of arrests soon followed. Those arrested were chosen for their suitability for a role in the Slansky-led ‘Zionist conspiracy’: they were overwhelmingly Jews.
The anti-semitic element of the trial became increasingly pronounced as the script for the trial was finalised in the twelve months between Slansky’s arrest and the staging of the trial itself.
This anti-semitism was part of the wider pattern of anti-semitism promoted by Stalin in the Soviet Union and its satellite states between the end of the Second World War and his death in 1953.
In late 1947 and early 1948 the Soviet regime unleashed a policy of suppressing Yiddish culture and Jewish identity. It began with the murder of Shlomo Michoels, the Jewish actor who had been the chair of the wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC), by the secret police.
This was followed by the dissolution of the JAFC, on the grounds that it had become “a centre of anti-Soviet propaganda”, and by the execution of another two dozen leading Jewish Soviet writers and poets in 1952, amidst accusations of a plot to transform the Crimea into a Jewish region which would be home to a US military base.
In early 1953 the burgeoning anti-semitic campaign – in which “rootless cosmopolitan” was the thinly disguised codeword for “Jew” – reached its climax in the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’: a number of Jewish doctors were accused of having abused their positions of trust to murder members of the Soviet elite and to plot the murder of Stalin.
The same anti-semitism, rebranded as ‘anti-Zionism’, was also evident in the Stalinist satellite states.
In March of 1949, for example, the Hungarian Zionist Union was dissolved by the Hungarian government. Later the same year the government cut back and then stopped completely the issuing of emigration passports for Jews wanting to leave for Israel.
The Rajk Trial had also contained an anti-semitic undercurrent. According to the Hungarian press, “Trotskyism, fascism, Zionism and anti-semitism” were the “family circle” which nourished Rajk and his ‘co-conspirators’.
The judge in the trial emphasised the Jewish names of four of the defendants, And when one of Rajk’s ‘co-conspirators’ was questioned about his alleged role in a secret Zionist organisation, he replied:
“Ferenc Vagi and Gyorgy Demeter were members of the Zionist movement. In this connection I know that in general the Zionist movement maintained very close co-operation with the American secret service.”
The anti-semitism of the Slansky Trial was therefore not a uniquely Czechoslovak phenomenon. It was part of a broader pattern of anti-semitism, of varying degrees of intensity, pursued by the Stalinist states in the post-war years.
The trial’s anti-semitism also served a domestic, and more traditional, purpose: it allowed Jews to be scapegoated for the economic difficulties which the Czechoslovak population was experiencing at the time.
By the late 1940s Stalin’s policy of ‘reorganising’ the Czechoslovak economy (and the economies of the other satellite states) to meet the needs of the Soviet Union had plunged the country into an economic crisis.
Agricultural output declined as collectivisation proceeded and labour was transferred from agriculture to industry. At the same time, the production of consumer goods slumped as the government gave priority the development of heavy industry (which produced the exports demanded by the Soviet Union).
By the close of 1952 – just one year before the end of the country’s first Five Year Plan – repeated pay cuts had been imposed, even basic foodstuffs such as milk were in short supply, the chemicals industry was on the point of collapse, and energy production fell well short of demand.
That the blame for this economic crisis lay with Slansky and his 13 co-conspirators – ten of whom, along with Slansky himself, were Jewish – and with the Czechoslovak Jews who had emigrated to Israel in the post-war years was to be a major theme of the trial.
According to the prosecutor in his opening address to the trial, for example:
“After the founding of Israel the plotters, above all Slansky and Fischl, by protecting and supporting capitalist elements and on the pretext of Jewish emigration to Israel, organized the illegal flight of a large number of capitalist and hostile elements from Czechoslovakia and the neighbouring popular-democratic countries, and allowed them to take wealth amounting to thousands of millions out of Czechoslovakia.”
“Gold, silver, jewellery and the most varied tools and machinery were exported against the law and in secret. According to incomplete statistics, ten thousand export licences were issued, by means of which Czechoslovak national property worth nearly six thousand million Czech crowns was illegally exported.”
Before the trial itself provided a public platform for anti-semitism, albeit in the guise of ‘anti-Zionism’, the Jews who had been arrested and were being physically and mentally tortured into making the required ‘confessions’, experienced anti-semitism first hand.
In 1955 Doubek, one of the pre-trial interrogators, recalled how anti-semitism had been encouraged by the Soviet advisors who had arrived in Czechoslovakia from 1949 onwards:
“They pointed out (to the Czech interrogators) the growing influence of Jewry in the international arena. They pointed out Rockefeller, Rothschild and Du Pont and put this in connection with what Slansky and the Jews were doing here, saying there’s a danger that the Jews will end up as masters of everything.”
“They also pointed out the role of the state of Israel and tried to prove that precisely the Jews are the main representatives of international imperialism. Comrade Boris (one of the advisors) even said that Jews are not interested in political offices in capitalist countries lest their intentions of mastering the world become apparent.”
When Eugene Loebl, the first of the trial’s defendants to be arrested, was brought face-to-face with one of the Soviet advisors, the latter told him:
“You are not a communist, and you are not a Czechoslovakian. You are a dirty Jew, that’s what you are. Israel is your only real fatherland and you have sold out socialism to your bosses, the Zionist imperialist leaders of world Jewry. Let me tell you, the time is fast approaching when we’ll have to exterminate all of your kind.”
In his book about the trial Artur London, one of the three defendants not sentenced to death, described similar experiences with some of the Czech interrogators:
“Four men were standing in front of me. One of them seized me by the throat and shouted with hatred: ‘We’ll get rid of you and your filthy race. You’re all the same! Not everything Hitler did was right, but he destroyed the Jews, and he was right about that. Too many of you escaped the gas chamber. We’ll finish what he started. We’ll bury you and your filthy race ten yards deep.’”
London commented on the incident:
“This was the first time in my adult life that I was insulted because I was a Jew and was held to be a criminal because of my race, and that by a man from the state security of a socialist country, a member of the Communist Party.”
“Soon after my arrest, when I was confronted by a virulent Nazi-type of anti-semitism, I thought it was limited to a few individuals. ... But I now realised that even if this mentality only appeared sporadically during the interrogations, it was nevertheless a systematic line.”
Slansky himself also drew an analogy between the Czechoslovak state’s ‘anti-Zionism’ and Nazi anti-semitism. He told his cellmate (a security service agent who ‘worked on’ Slansky between interrogations) that the “fight against Zionism” which his interrogators spoke of was no different from the anti-semitism of the Nazis.
Such anti-semitism was not confined to the Soviet advisors and Czech interrogators, nor to party ideologues such as Kapecky.
Andrej Keppert, who replaced Karel Svab as a state security chief after the latter had himself been arrested in preparation for the trial, had never hidden his particularly rabid anti-semitism.
He used to tell his colleagues that when he saw someone with a big nose, then he either opened a file on them or opened the prison gate. One of Keppert’s first acts after replacing Svab was to set up a special unit to track down Zionists.
Publicity about the forthcoming show-trial also encouraged popular displays of anti-semitism. Anti-semitic graffiti appeared on houses owned by Jews: “Jewish Owned”, “Jews Live Here” and “Out With the Capitalists and the Jews”.
CPC branches demanded that “citizens of Jewish origin” should be banned from party membership, and that the party should “transfer Jews from office jobs to manual labour, at which they will be able to prove their attitude to the regime.”
Party members also complained that “Jews sit in high positions and do nothing”, and that Slansky gave official positions to “people of his own origin”. Some CPC branches went even further and demanded that all Jews be removed from public office.
In the twelve months between Slansky’s arrest and the opening of the trial Slansky and his co-accused were ‘coached’ in the roles they were required to play.
It was not enough for them to have signed self-incriminating confessions. They were also required to learn their lines to perfection, as too were the trial’s judge and prosecutor.
Auditions took place during the mornings and afternoons of every day. An interrogator would read out the questions which were to be asked in court, and the accused had to recite word-perfect the scripted answer. The prosecutor and judge took part in similar rehearsals.
London later recalled:
“The questions which the prosecutor and the judge asked (during the trial) were exactly where they had been inserted in the script of my speech. Word for word, they repeated what I knew from my text.”
“Not one word was different! They had properly learnt their words as well. No questions from my lawyer! That was not provided for in the script!”
PART TWO: THE PERFORMANCE
On 20th November 1952 the Slansky Trial finally opened in Prague.
Court documentation published in preparation for the trial emphasised the fact that this was not a trial of ‘ordinary’ Czechoslovak nationals: the names of eleven of the fourteen defendants were followed by the words “of Jewish origin.”
Where the name was deemed not to sound sufficiently Jewish, the original name of the accused was also included: Slansky alias Salzmann, Frejka alias Freund, and Andre Simone alias Otto Katz.
Slansky and his thirteen ‘accomplices’ were accused of “high treason, espionage, sabotage and military treason.” More specifically, as the prosecutor explained in his opening address:
“As Trotskyite-Titoite, Zionist, bourgeois-nationalist traitors and enemies of the Czechoslovak people, of the popular-democratic social order, and of socialism, they formed an anti-state conspiratorial centre in the service of American imperialism and controlled by hostile western intelligence services.”
“They undermined the popular-democratic social order, disrupted socialist construction, harmed the people’s economy, carried out espionage activities, and weakened the unity of the Czechoslovak people and the defence capabilities of the country.”
“They did so in order to tear the country away from its solid alliance and ties of friendship with the Soviet Union, to liquidate the popular-democratic social order in
Czechoslovakia, to restore capitalism, to again drag the country into the camp of imperialism, and to destroy its autonomy and independence.”
Slansky, the lifelong CPC member who, until recently, had been its General Secretary, ‘confessed’ that he had become a police spy in 1924/25. Within three years he had joined a Trotskyite faction, and by 1930 he had been recruited by the US intelligence services.
During the war, Slansky continued, he had worked for both the American and British secret services. In the latter half of the 1940s he had then made contact with Yugoslav Titoites through Tito’s advisor Moshe Pijade and British Labour MP Konni Zilliacus.
Slansky’s links with Pijade were proof of his Titoism: “I made it quite clear to Pijade that I regarded the measures of the Tito clique as correct and assured him that my stand was identical with that of Tito and his accomplices and that I was pursuing a similar line in Czechoslovakia.”
His links with Zilliacus were an even more serious matter, given the role allocated to Zilliacus in the ‘conspiracy’ at the centre of the trial. According to the trial indictment:
“The hideous plans of the imperialist arsonists placed a special emphasis on the liquidation of the democratic system in Czechoslovakia and entrusted this important task to their trusted pimp, the master of deceit and provocation, Konni Zilliacus, one of the most successful agents of the British Intelligence Service.”
Slansky further ‘confessed’ that he had personally selected his 13 co-defendants for the positions which they had held at the time of their arrests and which they had used in order to “execute sabotage and espionage.”
In response to the judge’s instruction to “elaborate on your activity in infiltrating Zionists into important posts,” Slansky replied:
“I collaborated with the Zionists, whose diversionary tactics were part of their campaign to liquidate the popular-democratic regime in Czechoslovakia. ... Those Zionists for their part brought other Zionists into various sectors of our political and economic life. ... The Zionists were conducting hostile activity aimed at the liquidation of the regime in Czechoslovakia.”
The Zionists active in Czechoslovakia were part of an international conspiracy led by American Zionists:
“The whole world-wide Zionist movement was, in fact, led and ruled by the imperialists – in particular the US imperialists through the American Zionists. For American Zionists, who, as in other countries, are the financially most powerful and politically most influential Zionists, form part of the ruling imperialist circles of America.”
In order to stifle criticism of his promotion of the Zionist co-conspirators and his patronage of Zionist organisations, Slansky explained, he had falsely accused his critics of anti-semitism:
“I deliberately shielded Zionism by publicly speaking out against the people who pointed to the hostile activities of the Zionists and by describing these people as anti-semites – just as did my collaborators – so that these people were in the end
prosecuted and persecuted and sometimes excluded from the Party, as happened to certain members of the Central Secretariat.”
“I thus created an atmosphere in which people were afraid – even prominent officials in the state apparatus – to oppose Zionism and Zionist organisations.”
But even now the phantasies of Slansky’s scriptwriter had not yet exhausted themelves. Asked by the prosecutor if he had used other organisations apart from Zionist ones in his “subversive activities”, Slanksy responded:
“Yes. Freemasons. In its activities the Anti-State Conspiratorial Centre made use of Freemasons and their lodges as well as Zionist organisations. I myself had connections with Freemasons, for example with Mchon and Dr. Vancura, who were prominent officials of Freemason lodges.”
“I wish to stress that the hostile character of Freemason lodges was emphasised by the fact that Dr. Eduard Benes (the former Czechoslovak President), the imperialist agent, was also a member.”
Slansky had a simple explanation for his behaviour: “My past had already made me an enemy of the cause of progress and socialism. I was born into a middle-class Jewish family.”
Andre Simone, until recently the Foreign Editor of the CPC’s newspaper “Rude Pravo”, ‘confessed’ to having been a Zionist, a Trotskyist, a foreign intelligence agent in his own right, and also a conduit for the information which his co-accused supposedly passed on to the foreign secret services for whom they worked.
In France, he ‘confessed’, he had been “in close contact with the Jewish nationalist and French Colonial Minister Georges Mandel until 1939.” Thereafter he had “links with the Jewish nationalist and member of the US Supreme Court, Frankfurter” and also with “the agent of the American secret service, the Jewish nationalist Schönbrunn.”
In addition, Simone continued, “in October 1939 in the office of its agent Paul Willert in the George V Hotel in Paris I agreed to work for the British Intelligence Service. … I was at the service of the French, British and American espionage services.”
Simone’s scripted explanation for his treachery was:
“That lies in my personal characteristics, which resulted in my being an enemy of the working class and everything progressive.”
“As the son of a manufacturer, and educated in the spirit of bourgeois ideology I have always been alien to the working class. I considered a worker an inferior being and moved in circles close to my heart, among traitors to the working people: Trotskyites, Social Democrats, and Jewish bourgeois nationalists.”
(To ensure the nature of Simone’s “personal characteristics” was properly understood, his ‘confession’ was preceded by the following questioning by the judge: “Your name is Andre Simone. Was that always your name?” “My correct name is Otto Katz.”)
Geminder, former chief of the CPC’s International Division, ‘confessed’ to being “a Trotskyite and a Jewish bourgeois nationalist.” He had been the go-between for
Slansky and Zilliacus, as well as being Slansky’s intermediary for contact with Israeli and Yugoslav diplomats.
According to Geminder: “The United States imperialists sought by means of the Zionist agency in the Czechoslovak Republic and its representatives to destroy the political and economic foundations of the country.”
Asked by the prosecutor about his attitude towards the workers of Czechoslovakia, Geminder replied: “I was indifferent to the interests of the Czech people, and I have never felt any affinities with them. Their national interests have always remained alien to me.”
Quizzed by the prosecutor about which schools he had attended, Geminder dutifully explained:
“I went to the German school of Ostrava. I left Czechoslovakia in 1919 and ended my secondary studies in Berlin. At the end of my studies I frequented petty-bourgeois, cosmopolitan and Zionist circles, where I met people of German nationality.”
He had not spoken German for a long time, he explained, but he knew it well, and spoke German as well as Czech. The prosecutor’s scripted response was: “So, you can’t really speak any language properly. You are a typical cosmopolitan. As such, you sneaked into the Communist Party.”
Otto Fischl, one-time Deputy Finance Minister, ‘confessed’ that he had been a Gestapo agent and had assisted Nazi exploitation of the Czech economy during the war. In the post-war years he had been an agent of the Israeli secret services and had played a central role in recruiting Zionists to Slansky’s conspiratorial centre.
As Czechoslovak Deputy Finance Minister he had agreed trade deals with Israel which were disadvantageous to Czechoslovakia, and had also played the main role in allowing Jewish emigrants to drain 6,000,000,000 crowns from the Czechoslovak economy.
Fischl had been nicknamed ‘the Jewish Himmler’ in Israel because of the difficulties which he placed in the way of Jews taking their possessions with them when emigrating from Czechoslovakia. But now he ‘confessed’ that this was just a cover to conceal his true purposes:
“My strict attitude towards the poor Jews was intended to conceal the fact that I was helping the bourgeoisie by approving the export of their wealth. … I did nothing to prevent this organized flight of the Jewish bourgeoisie and the export of their wealth.”
“I even covered up for such actions. The main purpose of my speeches at that time (attacking Jewish emigration) was to conceal my hostile activity. … I identified with the interests of the Jewish bourgeoisie and supported them.”
Bedrich Reicin, previously a Deputy Defence Minister, ‘confessed’ to having been recruited as a Gestapo agent during the war, in which role he had then betrayed leading members of the underground CPC to the Nazis.
As a reward for his treachery the Nazis had allowed him to ‘escape’ to Moscow, where he joined Slansky’s group and secretly collaborated with western military attaches in post-war Czechoslovakia.
Ludvik Frejka, ex-chief of the Economic Department of the President’s Cabinet, ‘confessed’ to having been an American secret services agent recruited by Allan Dulles, brother of the US Secretary of State of the same family name.
He had abused his government position in order to sabotage Czechoslovak industrial development and economic relations between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and artificially boosted trade with the West in order to assist imperialism in frustrating the first Czechoslovak Five Year Plan.
Frejka accepted responsibility for the prevalent shortages in the country: “The fact that there are still shortages today and that there are still food ration cards in Czechoslovakia – for that I alone bear the responsibility, I alone bear the blame for this.”
Eugene Loebl and Rudolf Margolius, two former Deputy Trade Ministers, ‘confessed’ to having been recruited as agents of the American secret services during the war – Loebl ‘confessed’ that he had also worked for the English, Austrian and Israeli secret services – and to having collaborated with Israeli politicians in attempts to undermine economic relations between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union:
“By means of foreign trade we endeavoured to bind the economy of the Republic to the West in such a way that this country would be completely dependent on the capitalist states and a toy in the hands of Western imperialists.”
They had also sabotaged the Czechoslovak economy by making trade agreements with Israel under which the latter paid 17% less than it should have done for goods which it imported from Czechoslovakia.
Otto Sling, one-time CPC Brno Regional Secretary, ‘confessed’ to having been part of a British espionage organisation and to having prevented accurate information about anti-Czechoslovak conspiracies from reaching Gottwald.
Sling also outlined the role of the “conspiratorial centre” in the event of war:
“Our anti-state conspiratorial centre was a fifth column in Czechoslovakia, constituting the internal offensive of American imperialism against Czechoslovakia.”
“In the event of war, our conspiratorial centre would have been an internal basis for their attack, meaning that it would have contributed to the defeat of popular-democratic Czechoslovakia.”
Vavro Hajdu and Artur London, both of whom had previously held the post of Deputy Foreign Minister, ‘confessed’ to having undermined relations between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and to having abused their posts in order to appoint “Trotskyites, Zionists and other bourgeois nationalists” to domestic posts and to diplomatic posts abroad.
London ‘confessed’ that he was “a Trotskyite and a United States intelligence agent.” Hajdu ‘confessed’ that he was a Zionist who had been recruited to work for British intelligence while living in England in 1941 – by the “chief of police” in the “police headquarters” in Wiveliscombe (a village in Devon).
The ‘confessions’ of the three non-Jewish defendants – Vladmir Clementis (former Foreign Minister), Josef Frank (former CPC Deputy General Secretary) and Karel
Svab (former Deputy Minister of National Security) – corroborated those of their co-accused.
Clementis ‘confessed’ to being a “Slovak bourgeois nationalist” who had joined the Slansky conspiratorial centre in 1948. He had been an agent of the French intelligence services, organised an espionage ring in Hungary, and supplied Czech state secrets to the French, British and American ambassadors in Prague.
He had also co-operated with the American ambassador (Laurence Steinhardt) to facilitate the emigration of wealthy Czechoslovak families such as Schwarzenberg and Lobovitz.
Frank ‘confessed’ that he had tortured to death Soviet and French prisoners of war in Nazi concentration camps. After the war he had undermined Czechoslovak foreign trade by selling goods cheaper to capitalist states than to the ‘people’s democracies’, and by overfilling orders to the former and under-supplying orders to the latter.
Svab ‘confessed’ that he too had tortured prisoners of war in Nazi concentration camps. After the war he had infiltrated “Zionists and other hostile elements” into the Czech security services, and had also sabotaged the investigation of a spy ring in Czechoslovakia after the Rajk Trial in Hungary.
Witnesses called to give evidence at the trial – many of whom received lengthy prison sentences in a subsequent round of show-trials – confirmed the substance of the defendants’ ‘confessions’.
Two of the witnesses were Israeli nationals: Mordecai Oren, a leader of the Israeli (pro-Soviet) Mapam party and a member of the Knesset, and Shimon Orenstein, an assistant trade attaché in the Israeli Legation in Prague until 1950.
The former was arrested in Prague while travelling back to Israel from a ‘peace congress’ in Berlin. The latter was arrested while visiting Czechoslovakia as a private businessman.
Described by the prosecutor as “the notorious Zionist deceiver”, Oren ‘confessed’ that he had been one of Slansky’s go-betweens with English Labour MPs, American capitalists, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Marshall Tito:
“In the interests of Zionism and of British intelligence I had meetings with the Tito fascist clique. In conversation with them I learned of Rudolf Slansky’s collaboration with this clique.”
“I was requested to transmit to Slansky all documents concerning the attitude of Titoists regarding the decisions of the Cominform and the workers’ parties.”
Orenstein ‘confessed’ to having been present at a secret meeting held in Washington in 1947, attended by leading American politicians and industrialists and leaders of the future Israeli state.
At that meeting, according to Orenstein, the future Israeli leaders promised: “Zionist organisations would be available for espionage and other subversive activity in the people’s democracies in exchange for United States support for the Zionists’ aims in Palestine.”
Leading American-Jewish politicians and financiers, Orenstein explained, were part of a huge international Zionist conspiracy which had its financial centre in the Zurich offices of a Dr. Pausner, a head office in Washington, and branches in London and Paris.
The ‘confessions’ of Oren and Orenstein thus corroborated allegations about Israeli subversive activities contained in the trial’s indictment:
“The former Israeli ambassador to Czechoslovakia as well as embassy officials established an espionage network with Geminder and Fischl. Israeli diplomats in the service of American intelligence committed, together with the plotters, acts of sabotage and wrecking which caused heavy damage to Czechoslovakia.”
What distinguished the Slansky Trial from its predecessors was its anti-semitism. But it would be remiss not to mention another of the trial’s innovations.
During the Soviet show-trials of the 1930s it was not unknown for the children of the trials’ victims to have to raise their hands when schoolteachers demanded of their classes that they support a motion in favour of the death penalty for the ‘people’s enemies’.
The scriptwriters of the Slansky Trial went one better. On the fifth day of the trial the judge read out a letter from the teenage son of Ludvik Frejka:
“Dear Court! I demand the ultimate penalty for my father – the death penalty. I have realised that this creature, who cannot even be described as a human being, because he lacks even a trace of emotion and human dignity, has been my greatest and bitterest enemy.”
“I pledge that I will always work as a loyal communist. I will strengthen my hatred of all our enemies, who want to destroy our life which is becoming ever richer and happier, and above all I will never allow my hatred of my father to die away, so that I can work all the better for the communist future of our people.”
“I request that this letter be presented to my father, or that I be given the opportunity to say to my father’s face what I have written. Thomas Frejka.”
Frejka’s son did not live up to his pledge to be a loyal communist. After Czechoslovak radio had announced his father’s execution, he hanged himself.
A second letter read out by the judge was from London’s wife, Lisa Londonova:
“My husband was a traitor to his party and a traitor to our fatherland. That is a terrible blow for me and my children – never before has a traitor lived in our family. My children have promised me to behave as loyal communists throughout their lives.”
“But as a communist and as a mother I am happy, for the sake of the Czechoslovak people and world peace, that the band of traitors has been exposed and rendered incapable of inflicting further harm.”
“I can do no more than join all honourable people in demanding the ultimate penalty for the traitors.”
PART THREE: THE ENCORE
The Slansky Trial lasted just eight days. In his concluding speech the prosecutor stressed the important role which the trial had played in revealing the supposedly true nature of Zionism:
“I must deal in detail with the so-called Zionist movement. That’s because the defendants include eleven alumni of Zionist organizations who entered the service of American imperialism. And also because the trial shows all Communist and workers’ parties the danger of Zionism as an agency of American imperialism.”
“The Zionist movement is not a system of ideas, it is not even a fallacious ideology. The Zionist movement consists of the Zionist organizations in America, plus the ruling clique of the state of Israel, plus the Zionist capitalists all over the world, linked by the intimate ties of their factories, companies, and business deals with American imperialists.”
“It is self-evident that Slansky put only Zionists into high positions, that he received the diplomatic representatives of Israel, that he protected their criminal activities. That was because Slansky himself was, by his very nature, a Zionist. Slansky himself was a Zionist-Trotskyite.”
The prosecutor and the accused alike demanded that the judge impose the death penalty on all defendants.
“I am guilty of the most heinous crimes that a man can commit,” said Slansky. “For me there cannot be any extenuating or mitigating circumstances, nor any mercy. I rightly deserve only contempt. I deserve no other end to my life than that proposed by the prosecutor.”
Simone agreed: “I was a writer. There is a fine saying according to which the writer is an engineer of the human soul. But what kind of an engineer have I been – I who poisoned souls? An engineer of the soul such as myself belongs on the gallows.”
In a letter to Gottwald written after the verdicts had been announced, Svab wrote: “I consider the verdict fully justified and I shall pass away with the knowledge that this solution is the only correct one.”
Geminder wrote, also in a letter to Gottwald following the announcement of the verdicts: “I am walking to the gallows with a heavy heart but relatively calm. The air is becoming purer and one obstacle along the victorious road to socialism is being removed. The party is always right, which my case corroborates once again.”
Eleven of the defendants were condemned to death and executed on 3rd December. The other three (Loebl, Hajdu and London) were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The trial had been an unprecedented exercise in state-sponsored and state-orchestrated anti-semitism.
It had invented the kind of ‘imperialist conspiracy’ which had figured in other show-trials. But in this case, beneath a thin veneer of the new Stalinist political orthodoxy of ‘anti-Zionism’, the ‘conspiracy’ incorporated traditional anti-semitic stereotypes.
The Jewish defendants were outsiders to the community in which they lived. They were rootless cosmopolitans. Given any position of authority, they abused it to the
benefit of themselves and other Jews. They accumulated wealth through the fraud and deceit of their compatriots.
By virtue of their personal characteristics they were schemers and plotters, incapable of loyalty to their fellow citizens, ready to sell themselves to the highest bidder, and participants in an international Jewish conspiracy.
When challenged about their misdemeanours, they responded with bogus accusations of anti-semitism in order to intimidate their opponents. In pursuing their destructive activities they allied themselves with Freemasons. If Jews had been poisoners of wells in the past, now they were poisoners of souls.
Stalinist ‘anti-Zionism’ gave this traditional anti-semitism an appropriate ‘socialist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ colouration.
The Jewish defendants’ personal values were antithetical to those of socialism. They were therefore incapable of empathising with the humanist values of socialism, and equally incapable of contributing to its construction.
And the international conspiracy in which they were involved, centred on the imperialist outpost of Israel (which, Slanksy claimed at one point during his trial, aimed at “re-establishing the Jewish kingdom from the Nile to the Euphrates”) was part of an international capitalist-imperialist conspiracy directed at the Soviet Union and the ‘people’s democracies’.
Communist Parties in Western Europe and the United States loyally heaped ridicule on the idea that the trial was an exercise in anti-semitism. (The ‘real’ anti-semitic show-trial, they claimed, was the recently concluded trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in America.)
Sam Russell uncritically reported the trial’s proceedings for the British “Daily Worker” (predecessor of today’s “Morning Star”). Interviews he conducted with Czechoslovak Jews on the occasion of the trial portrayed a life of bliss for Jews in the country. As one of them was quoted as having said:
“Does it mean that because I am a Jew I am in the same category as those criminals like Fischl and Reicin who betrayed Jews to the Nazis and the Gestapo during the war? Of course not!”
“And as for anti-semitism, I, as a Jew, know that if anyone did make an anti-semitic remark, I would have the full support of the State Security Police in taking action against them – which is more than any Jew in Britain or America can say.”
In the United States “Jewish Life” (nominally independent, but in reality a front publication of the Communist Party) published a pamphlet on the trial, “The Truth About the Prague Trial”, which explained at length the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism:
“The trial record refers to men not as Jews but as adherents of an ideology held by some Jews and opposed by other Jews as well as many non-Jews. ... The target was not Jews but adherents of an ideology, which is only one of a number held by Jews.”
“Zionism is an ideology that is held by some Jews – and, it must be emphasised, opposed for a variety of reasons by many others, including certain Jewish religious
groups, thousands of Israeli citizens, and even by bourgeois assimilationists among wealthy Jews all over the world, and also by communists.”
“Hence, it is simply untrue to equate anti-Zionism with anti-semitism, for what anti-Zionism opposes is an ideology and not Jews as such. To assert otherwise is to assert something as absurd as ... ‘to be anti-Tory is to be anti-British’.””
And the very fact that the trial’s defendants had all pled guilty to the charges against them, the pamphlet concluded, was proof of the probity of the trial’s proceedings:
“When 14 men, some of whom were Zionists and others of whom deliberately used Zionism for their illegal purposes, all confess to an interlocking conspiracy of great complication in details, attested by documents and witnesses, it is irrational to charge that the conspiracy is a fabrication.”
Media coverage of the trial in Czechoslovakia itself sought to whip up popular anti-semitism, albeit in the guise of ‘anti-cosmopolitanism’ and ‘anti-Zionism’.
On a daily basis Czechoslovak radio and the press publicised the confessions of the accused, emphasising that the majority of the defendants were “of Jewish origin.”
Press reports referred to Slansky as “a Judas”. An editorial in the 24th November edition of “Rude Pravo”, devoted to the supposedly Zionist aspect of the trial, abounded in expressions such as “huckstering”, “profiteering”, “blood-sucking”, “alien” and “scum with a dark past.”
According to an article published in “Rude Pravo” on the last day of the trial:
“The State Court is trying eleven typical cosmopolitans, men without honour, without character, without fatherland, without any friendly ties to the Czech and Slovak nation and their people, predatory, merciless individuals who care only for power, for their career, for business, and, of course, for money, money, money.”
“We hear the awful Czech they speak and the majority of them, even when they talk Czech, betray that it is not their mother tongue. … No, these are not human beings.”
(Only two days earlier an editorial in the same newspaper had indignantly rejected any suggestion that the trial was an exercise in anti-semitism: “Our Party, as a consistently internationalist Party, has always fought against anti-semitism.”)
In her memoirs the widow of Rudolf Margolius recalled the impact of such media coverage:
“I skimmed down to the list of the accused. There were 14 names, eleven of them followed by the note ‘of Jewish origin’. Then came the words ‘sabotage’, ‘espionage’, ‘treason’, like salvoes at dawn.”
“I heard the woman in the bed beside me [Margolis was in hospital at the time] whispering to her neighbour: ‘You have to read this – it’s ‘Der Sturmer’ all over again!’”
“And then the voice of the lame news vendor in the corridor: ‘You have to read this to see how those swine sold us out to the imperialists, the bastards! They should all be hung! In public!”
The trial also helped consolidate ‘anti-Zionism’ as an essential element of the politics of the CPC. Addressing a CPC conference a fortnight after the end of the trial, Gottwald explained:
“The Zionist organizations and their American bosses disgracefully abused the suffering of the Jews under Hitler and other fascists. It can even be said that they tried to make capital out of the ashes of Oswiecim and Majdenek.”
“Normally a former banker, industrialist, estate owner, or kulak would find it difficult to become a member of the Communist Party and he would never reach a leading position. Yet with people of Jewish origin and Zionist colouration the class origin was often overlooked.”
“Before the war the danger was not so great, but after the war, when the Zionist organizations and the Zionists became agents of American imperialism, the situation changed fundamentally. Today Zionism is a dangerous and cunning enemy.”
The ‘anti-Zionism’ of the Slansky Trial was also taken up by other Eastern European Communist Parties.
In East Germany, for example, the press published the confessions and verdicts of the trial under the headline “The Elimination of the Slansky Band – A Victory for the Forces of Peace”.
This was followed by a spate of articles with headlines such as “Against Zionism – Determined Struggle!” in which Israel was defined as “the Zionist agency of American imperialism.”
In December the East German Communist Party Central Committee adopted a document on the “lessons” of the Slansky Trial: the trial had exposed the “criminal activities of Zionist organizations” and demonstrated that “the Zionist movement has nothing in common with the goals of humanism and true humanity.”
It was “indisputably clear“ from the trial that “through the state of Israel American imperialism organises and carries out its espionage and diversionary activities with the help of Zionist organisations in the popular-democratic states.“
Zionism, the document concluded, was “dominated, directed and controlled by USA imperialism, and exclusively serves its interests and those of Jewish capitalists.“
In the following months the files of all Jewish party members were vetted, prominent Jewish members of the party were dismissed from their posts, and Jewish employees of local authorities sacked.
Jewish community groups were also banned from staging cultural events and required to hand over to the authorities a list of all their members.
In Romania preparations for the country’s own ‘anti-Zionist’ show-trial were underway even before the Slansky Trial itself had been staged.
In May of 1952 Romanian Foreign Minister Ana Pauker had been sacked from her post. Stalin told Gheorghiu-Dej, the Romanian Communist Party leader: “Ana is a good, reliable comrade but, you see, she is a Jewess of bourgeois origin, and the
party in Romania needs a leader from the ranks of the working class, a true-born Romanian.”
In February of the following year Pauker was arrested as an agent of “international Zionism” and subjected to a series of interrogations in preparation for a show trial. (Romanian officials had even attended the Slansky Trial in order to observe first hand how a show-trial should be conducted.)
Pauker was an obvious target for an ‘anti-Zionist’ show-trial. She was Jewish. Her supporters in the leadership of the Romanian Communist Party were Jewish. Her husband had been executed in Moscow in the 1930s, and her brother had emigrated to Israel.
And at a time when Jewish emigration from the Stalinist states to Israel was no longer permitted, Pauker had allowed 100,000 Romanian Jews to emigrate to Israel.
After Stalin’s death in March of 1953 the plans for staging a show-trial around Pauker were abandoned. Stalin’s death also led to the abandonment of the bogus ‘Doctors’ Plot’ in the Soviet Union and a winding down of the broader ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign in the ‘people’s democracies’.
In Czechoslovakia, however, the ‘anti-Zionist’ offensive was slower to be abandoned and anti-semitic show-trials continued through 1953 into 1954.
In May of 1953 four officials of the Czech diplomatic service, three of whom were Jewish, were put on trial. Two of them – Slansky’s brother and a former Czechoslovak representative in Israel – received life sentences. The other two were each sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In August of the same year Orenstein, who had been a witness in the Slansky Trial, was given a life sentence. In October his fellow witness Oren was sentenced to 15 years in jail.
In all three trials the accused were convicted for their alleged participation in the ‘conspiracy’ which had been the focus of the Slansky Trial.
Another seven of Slansky’s supposed co-conspirators, six of whom were Jewish, were tried in January of 1954 and received prison spells of up to 25 years. They were variously accused of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” and using their “Zionist connections” to enrich themselves through the restitution of Jewish properties.
Two months later five former leaders of the CPC in Slovakia were put on trial. They were charged with having tolerated “Zionist activities” and having failed to take appropriate action against “Zionists”, “Jewish capitalist smugglers” and “agents of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)”.
(The JDC was a Jewish humanitarian organisation denounced during the trial as a branch of American military intelligence. Slansky had described it in his trial as “a branch of the American Zionists” of which the activities included:
“Abuse of the emigration scheme under which Jewish citizens left for the capitalist countries, thereby removing from Czechoslovakia unjustifiably large property values and causing grave economic damage to Czechoslovakia.”)
The ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ and ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign which had swept across the Soviet Union and its satellite states in the early 1950s would be revived by the Kremlin in 1967, in the aftermath of Israel’s victory in the Six Days War, and in a far more virulent and comprehensive form.
In its original version, however, it had been a patently absurd piece of fiction scripted for a Stalinist show-trial.