The same meeting also marked the introduction of “anti-Zionism” (in reality: anti-semitism) into the preparations for the eventual show-trial.
The Slansky trial: contents.
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... 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.”
Under Stalin’s instructions, on 23 November, Slansky was arrested. The following day a meeting of the Central Committee approved a report on the arrest which named him as 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.
In the meeting, Kapecky continued to lecture on the threats which cosmopolitanism and Zionism posed:
“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”, overwhelmingly of Jewish origin.
The anti-semitic element of the trial became increasingly pronounced as the script for the trial was finalised in the 12 months between Slansky’s arrest and the staging of the trial itself, part of the wider pattern of anti-semitism promoted by Stalin in the Soviet Union and its satellite states between 1945 and his death in 1953.
In late 1947 and early 1948 the Soviet regime unleashed a policy of suppressing Yiddish culture and Jewish identity, beginning 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 1949, for example, the Hungarian Zionist Union was dissolved by the Hungarian government. Later the same year the government reduced and then stopped completely the issuing of emigration passports for Jews wanting to move to 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.
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 to heavy industry to supply the exports the Soviet Union demanded.
By the close of 1952 — just one year before the end of the 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 — 10 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 trial’s prosecutor in his opening address:
“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, 10,000 export licences were issued, by means of which Czechoslovak national property worth nearly 6,000 million Czech crowns was illegally exported.”
In addition to this very public statement of anti-semitism, the arrested Jews also experienced religious abuse at the hands of their captors.
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... 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 [or] 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:
“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 10 yards deep.’
“Soon after my arrest, I thought [anti-semitism] 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 drew an analogy between the Czechoslovak state’s “anti-Zionism” and Nazi anti-semitism. He told his cellmate that the fight against Zionism which his interrogators spoke of was no different from Nazi anti-semitism.
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 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, such as graffiti reading “Out With the Capitalists and the Jews”, and people identified houses owned by 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“ so they could “prove their attitude to the regime”, following complaints about the number of Jews in high-ranking positions. Some CPC branches went even further and demanded that all Jews be removed from public office.
In the 12 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.
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!... No questions from my lawyer! That was not provided for in the script!”