Political Trials of the 1950s

“Show trials held a special position among political trials. Their initiators and manufacturers designed them to have appalling effect at home, to shock. Their political impressiveness should cross the borders of the state and should gain international response. Both the political focus and the selection of victims, as well as the preparation and course of the trial, the fabricated rate of crimes and the severity of sentences corresponded with that. Among the most important Czechoslovak show trials were the trials of church leaders, of the so called Leadership of the Sabotage Plot (M. Horáková et al.), trial of V. Žingor et al. and of the so called Leadership of the Anti-state Conspiracy Centre (R. Slánský et al.). Court hearings, whether they were played out in courtrooms, in large halls or in staff canteens, have turned into a theatre. They took place based on a script prepared in advance and with a selected audience.”

(Translated from the book by K. Kaplan and P. Paleček Komunistický režim a politické procesy v Československu.)

The basic function of the political trials of the 1950s was to stabilize the power of the ruling party in the founding period of the people’s democratic regime. The trials were to justify the party and government measures not always taken by the population by consensus, to promote arguments in support of the party ideology, to introduce other effective measures to support the regime and at the same time to suppress all forms of resistance against the new people’s democratic regime. The psychological role of these trials and their continuous and subsequent use in propaganda struggle and intimidation was also not negligible. Thus, they became the toughest tool of intensified class struggle, either on a mere domestic party initiative or according to imported patterns from the USSR. Last but not least, they were an effective psychological tool for inducing mass hysteria (the search for the inner enemy) and the general spread of fear across the masses.

Their implementation was made possible mainly by a significant adjustment of the legal environment (especially in the period of the so-called legal biennial) and to some extent was the resultant of certain pressure from the side of the Soviet power, which had considerable experience with similar trials. From the point of view of the legal order, several fundamental legal norms were adopted and passed, including the Act on the Protection of the People’s Democratic Republic (No. 231/1948 Coll.), the Act on the State Court (No. 232/1948 Coll.), the Act on the Popularisation of the Judiciary (No. 319/1948 Coll.), new Administrative Penal Code, Legal Penal Code, and new Criminal Code (No. 86/1950 Coll.). An important novelty of the last legal norm was not only the possibility to qualify criminal conduct in terms of fulfilling the formal attributes of the facts of the case, but also to directly assess the danger of the act itself for a people’s democratic society. The Criminal Code also stipulated not only the purpose of criminal law, but also the purpose of punishment. Among the crimes, sabotage was included in the new law.

In the early 1950s, under the influence of a show trial in Hungary with Foreign Minister László Rajk (1909–1949), sentenced to death, a show trial in Bulgaria with the Communist Party Secretary General Traicho Kostov Djunev (1897–1949), also sentenced to death, and a show trial in Albania with the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Koçi Xoxe (1917–1949), also executed, a similar exemplary culprit of economic failures and allegedly anti-Soviet views, motivated by sympathies for “hostile Titoist” Yugoslavia, was also sought in Czechoslovakia as part of a declared thesis on the sharpened class struggle. In the end, this role, after a certain hesitation of the initiators, surprisingly fell to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Rudolf Slánský (1901–1952). The trial of him and his alleged conspirators, called the “anti-state conspiracy centre” by the then jargon, was conducted in the spirit of the current international situation as an anti-Zionist, anti-Titoist and anti-American trial, ending the era of show trials in the people’s democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. This trial, as well as a number of smaller ones, reacted also to the country’s economic failures associated with reckless and rapid restructuring of industry from light to heavy, with increasing pressure on further village socialisation, as well as to deal with party cadres, alleged enemies in the Communist Party. These were often people who, paradoxically, helped to build the people’s democratic system in the founding period, to promote the ideology of construction and then to defend it.

In the preparation of the trials, Soviet advisers and the implementation of such trials in the USSR before the Second World War played an important role. Initially, their activities within the Czechoslovak security authorities were secret even to many high-ranking party officials. They brought a number of new and infamous methods of investigation, continuous interrogations, a system of question protocols (as the basis of the so-called director’s book with questions for the main trial), methods of mental and physical terror. Later, according to Moscow orders, they themselves proposed the names of the defendants, determined the procedure and methods of further investigation, and even decided who was suitable for such an investigation from the Czechoslovak side and who was not. The entire process of investigation of an accused began with the preparation of interrogation plans, drawn up by investigators and advisors. The plan contained the main objective, a list of specific and formulated questions, and alternatively documents. Each plan contained a specific purpose for the interrogation, which determined the manner in which the person under investigation confessed. The task of the investigator was then to ensure that the interrogation (drawing up of the protocol with questions) of the accused corresponded as closely as possible to the given plan. The recorded statement was then checked by advisors, often requiring its clarification or extension and leading the investigators to achieve the set goal with the interrogated. Thus, it took the most time for the coercion of the investigated person to confess according to the assignment to what he or she was asked and what was predestined as a response. The protocols were translated into Russian so that the Soviet side would have a regular overview of the course of the investigation in Czechoslovakia or so that it could intervene in the current procedure. President Klement Gottwald (1948–1953) received directly for consideration most of the interrogation plans and a substantial part of the protocols and issued his own opinions on stated information as needed.

The mechanism for preparing political trials had usually stable form. On the basis of the criminal complaint and the investigation of the security authorities, the State Prosecutor’s Office prepared legal action in which it also defined the facts of the case, made a legal classification of the act and proposed a sentence. Its position at that time was stronger than that of the courts. The prosecution was subordinated to the Ministry of Justice. In the case of show trials, the prosecution generally called for the most serious charges derived from the Penal Code, such as high treason, coup plot, espionage, introduction of illegal investigative methods, or economic sabotage. The report prepared by the Prosecutor’s Office was then submitted to the Deputy Minister of Justice, supplemented by the opinions of the General Prosecutor’s Office and the President of the State Court, and then submitted to the Minister of Justice. He discussed the matter and then referred it to the judicial authorities for execution. High party representatives, especially the President of the Republic Klement Gottwald, the Action Committees of the National Front, the Party Control Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and, in addition to specialized offices, various security and criminal commissions could intervene in the preparation and conduct of the main trial. One of the most important roles in the trials was played by the State Security (StB), which after the end of the war performed not only the state security service, but also the intelligence service. It was to focus, besides other things, on the search for and detection of the enemies of the regime, while at the same time recruiting its collaborators and informers among the population and deploying its agents or agents provocateurs. It played a significant role in the preparation of political and other trials, as well as the designated party bodies and often independently of their preliminary decisions. In this way, it could also influence decisions of the leading political bodies. In addition to the StB, Defence Intelligence also participated in the preparation. Its task was to obtain and verify information on specific persons or groups of persons from all areas of activity, including party bodies. For these purposes, it therefore used a wide network of agents to carry out the intelligence game in order to create the necessary situation for the subsequent persecution of selected persons.

The position of the courts was in many respects dependent and also the verdict of the court was anticipated by a secret so-called pre-consultation, in which the prosecutor and the Presiding Judge discussed specific cases. In the case of show trials, this circle of people was even wider. For the main trial before the State Court, which has not yet taken place, the result of the pre-consultation was binding. The next pre-consultation usually took place after the end of the evidentiary proceedings and closing speeches. The very course of the main trial, especially in the case of show trials, was a public drama, but with a very carefully selected audience. The court session was to shake public opinion through radio entries. Such a trial was usually followed by trials of a smaller or local scale, again with a prearranged script.

The whole process of preparation of political trials went beyond the constitutional bodies and it was not possible to publicly intervene in it in any way. For a long time it lacked any control mechanisms. The criminal proceedings themselves were illegal, with the courts having to accept the role of the executor of party’s political will and pressure from the security authorities. The position of the prosecutor during the main trial was absolutely extraordinary. He had a decisive influence on the entire course of the trial and his proposals were usually binding on the judge. However, the prosecutor, in turn, was accountable to his superior party and, to some extent, to the security authorities and their advisers, or the instigators of the original intent of the legal action, which was incorporated into the official action. On the contrary, defence counsels had a completely marginal position during judicial proceedings, usually selected in advance and carefully examined. In essence, they did not question the speech of the prosecution or the procedure of the courts, so they did not defend their clients, as the chrages were already considered proven in advance, which must be followed by a court ruling on punishment. Thus, it could hardly be said that there was any independence of the judiciary, especially in the founding period of the people’s democratic regime. In the case of the main trial of the “anti-state conspiracy centre” headed by Rudolf Slánský, the infamous JUDr. Josef Urválek (1910–1979), who at that time already had some experience with similar trials, was appointed Chief Prosecutor. Transiently after the war, he represented prosecution in criminal proceedings against the representatives of the former National Fascist Community Radola Gajda (Rudolf Geidl, 1892–1948) and the lawyer Professor Rudolf Dominik (1889–1951), further against the botanist Professor Karel Domin (1882–1953), former Agrarian Minister of Defence František Machník (1886–1967) and also helped to prepare criminal charges in the trial of former Protectorate Prime Minister Rudolf Beran (1887–1954) and some members of his government (then still within the retributive judiciary). However, above all he became infamous as the State Prosecutor in the newly established state courts in the political trials of the 1950s: in a trial of the head of the Prague branch of the AP agency, American journalist William N. Oatis (1914–1997) “et al.” (1951), further in the trial of a twelve-member Josef Pavelka’s “gang of American spies and terrorists” (in 1952), in the trial of the male ecclesiastical orders in Czechoslovakia (1950) and especially in the trial of “the leadership of the sabotage conspiracy against the Republic,” headed by Dr. Milada Horáková (1901–1950) in 1950.

Based on:

BLÁHOVÁ, Ivana – BLAŽEK, Lukáš – BOŠTÍK, Martin – STARÁ, Tereza. Jménem republiky! Osm případů zvůle komunistické justice. Praha: Auditorium, 2015, pp. 17–79.

KAPLAN, Karel. Československo v letech 1948–1953. Pomocný studijní text pro gymnázia. 2. část: Zakladatelské období komunistického režimu. Praha: SPN, 1991, pp. 72–92.

KAPLAN, Karel. Sovětští poradci v Československu 1949–1956. Sešity Ústavu pro soudobé dějiny, vol. 14. Praha: ÚSD AV ČR, 1993, pp. 8–42.

KAPLAN, Karel. Zpráva o zavraždění generálního tajemníka. Archiv, vol. 66. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1992, pp. 11–269.

VAŠÁKOVÁ, Alžběta. Život Josefa Urválka [online]. Diploma thesis. Univerzita Karlova, Pedagogická fakulta, 2018, pp. 13–66. Thesis supervisor: Jan Županič [retrieved 2020-05-15]. Accesible at: https://is.cuni.cz/webapps/zzp/detail/178375/.

VOREL, Jaroslav – ŠIMÁNKOVÁ, Alena – BABKA, Lukáš. Československá justice v letech 1948–1953 v dokumentech. Díl II. Sešity úřadu dokumentace a vyšetřování zločinů komunismu PČR, vol. 9. Praha: ÚDV PČR, 2003, pp. 224–234.