Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic have never fully come to terms with the Slánský trial
30. 9. 2022 / Muriel Blaive
On 26 September 2022, filmmaker Ruth Zylberman presented at the French Institute in Prague her latest documentary film The Trial: Prague 1952. Several reels of the 1952 Slánský show trial, hours of new filming and audio material, were discovered in 2018. On their basis she revisits this trial in a moving and personal take by focusing on three of the accused: Rudolf Slánský, Rudolf Margolius, and Artur London, as well as on their families. As she explained in the discussion after the screening and in the academic debate that followed the next morning at the French Center for Research in Social Sciences (CeFReS), her aim was to present these “radioactive” visual archives to the public and, even more importantly, to turn them, by restituting the humanity of its protagonists, into the sort of material that can be appropriated by a wide audience.
Did the Czech public believe in the Slánský trial?
Some six hours of new filming material, even though already edited by the regime itself, indeed make for an incredible viewing. We already knew that the gravity of the accusations was so extreme as to be implausible, that the confession of all the accused was flawless as to appear improbable, that it was nigh impossible that the most fantastic conspiracy in Czechoslovak history could be dealt with in a mere eight days of trial with a verdict decided in a matter of minutes, or that none of the condemned saw fit to appeal their death sentence. We also knew from numerous testimonies that many members of the public did not believe these accusations and confessions, either upon hearing them or after a few days of reflection. But we had only a few minutes of reels to sample. Thanks to the duration of this new material, it now appears outright impossible that the public might have failed to notice that the scripts were learned by heart – and often forgotten – by the accused, or that the prosecutors’ main role was to be their prompters. As an 85-year-old member of the audience testified at the screening in Štěpánská, he and his 16-year-old apprentice mates immediately thought the trial was “a fraud.” We can use as an analogy the case of the Germans during the war: those who wanted to know knew that the Jews disappeared and were most probably led to a sinister end, while those who preferred not to know, often because they were strong believers in Nazism, didn’t notice. In Czechoslovakia, too, people reacted according to their degree of faith. Heda Margolius immediately understood that her husband, Rudolf Margolius, was reciting a fabricated confession; but Lise London believed the confession of her husband, Artur London, and Jiří Frejka believed his father Ludvík Frejka, so much so that the latter two demanded the highest appropriate punishment for their relative. We can imagine that a full spectrum of reactions and beliefs covered the families of the fourteen defendants.
These reels, and Ruth Zylberman’s film with them, do more than reinforce a feeling of incredulity. They bring a haunting measure of sadness. Rudulf Margolius’ “confession”, in particular, is heart-rending. Artur London appears overly nervous not to forget his lines. Rudolf Slánský appears resigned, although my understanding of his posture is not at all, as one of the participants to the discussion argued, that he was “almost relaxed”, but rather that he was relieved to get this trial over and done with – indeed all of the accused appeared to have a weight taken off their shoulders at the proclamation of the verdict, not because they were eager to die but because the many months of physical and psychological torture they had endured, trial included, were coming to an end.
Were the “confessions” sincere?
One of the greatest merits of the film is that it doesn’t limit itself to the trial but contextualizes the life of the accused. These men had hopes and dreams; they had a history, one that included almost inhuman personal suffering – Rudolf Slánský’s baby girl was kidnapped in Moscow in 1943 and the family never saw her again; Rudolf Margolius was deported to Auschwitz; Artur London was deported to Mauthausen. Their commitment to the communist order after 1945 cannot be understood if we don’t account for their desire to build a better society, including for their families. This is where this film is extraordinarily precious: contrary to so many pieces of academic or documentary history produced until now, the storyline continues long after the trial, in fact all the way to the present, insofar as the condemnation of the designated culprits left a trail of disoriented survivors. The result is immediate and incontrovertible: this film restores the humanity of husbands and fathers who had been sentenced by Stalinist judges, then often forgotten by public opinion.
The question of their sincerity was raised several times during the two debates. Did they believe in their own confession? An ambiguity has often been raised in the literature of the survivors, from Alexander Weissberg to Artur London, via Arthur Koestler (who was not a victim himself but spoke for those he knew), George Hodos, Evžen Löbl, and many others. These men often described how the torture they were submitted to, the way they were shouted at and called a traitor eighteen (or more) hours a day for months on end, combined with an organized lack of sleep, physical pain, and dismal surviving conditions, almost always succeeded in convincing them that they must indeed be traitors. Appropriate time and peace of mind to reexamine their own state of guilt was only ever granted to the survivors, who, once left alone, quickly came back to their senses.
The new material thus does not provide all answers. But when Rudolf Slánský was arrested, we learn in the film that his reaction was to say: “Ježíšmarjá, ježíšmarjá.” (Oh, my God, Oh, my God). There are only few cases in history of famous epizeuxes (repetition of the same word) that are doubles rather than triples. The most famous one we cannot not think of here is Joseph Conrad’s “The horror, the horror” at the end of Hearts of Darkness; and just like with Mr Kurtz, we are not sure what horror Slánský would have referred to: the horror of what was done to him, or the horror of what he did – or perhaps both.
Did they deserve their punishment?
The question of guilt immediately brings to the fore the question of whether the accused deserved their fate. “I got what I deserved”, said Rudolf Slánský while being led to the scaffold. Did he, though? Could anyone deserve to confess to crimes they hadn’t committed? My unambiguous answer is no. What some of the accused did deserve was both to be put on trial for the “crimes” they, as early architects of the terror regime, did commit, and to have the crime committed against them by way of this trial appropriately examined by a court of law. To take a normative shortcut by claiming that they “got what they deserved” is to hold the wrong trial. All the accused in the Slánský trial were victims in their own right.
In view of this context, I would argue that, to this day, the Czech Republic badly needs a historical reexamination of this trial. As Hannah Arendt analyzed it, the silent are indeed complicit. For, as she wrote, “Where all are guilty, no one is.” It’s not just to say: “The communist regime was bad, all communist elites were bad, so the accused at the Slánský trial deserved their fate.” Obedience, or passivity, hides in fact consent. Hence the question, says Arendt, that should be asked – but was never asked in post-1989 Czechoslovakia – “should never be, ‘Why did you obey’ but ‘Why did you consent.’” Why did the whole country consent to this trial, from President Klement Gottwald to the lawyers, judges, clerks, journalists, the public, to the archives which hold until today, as the film shows, private papers of the accused’ families that were confiscated by the secret police? Why should Françoise London’s childhood vaccination certificate lie in archival boxes rather than be in her possession? Moreover, the two main interrogators (Doubek and Kohoutek) spent inappropriately little time in jail and Chief Prosecutor Josef Urválek continued in his profession. In the Horáková trial at least, one of the prosecutors, Ludmila Brožová-Polednová, was sentenced, even though it was almost sixty years later. But no such state reckoning occurred in the case of the Slánský trial. The fact that the trial was ordered and directed by Stalin and his Soviet “advisors” does not absolve their Czech enablers and accomplices of responsibility. And that Slánský and his co-acccused were rehabilitated in 1968 does not exonerate the Czech state today from questioning it.
I believe that over the past decades, those within Czech society who still remember that this trial took place have known that what happened was not completely fair. Yet a collective feeling that a wrong was somehow made right with this trial seems to have taken hold, including perhaps even of Slánský’s daughter Marta and her own son David, who spoke in the film and during the screening: Rudolf Slánský might not have been guilty of what he was accused of, but he was guilty of what he inflicted upon others before being arrested, so they “leave it to historians to condemn him.”
This offer of the Slánský family to endure collective sacrifice at the price of a private reckoning with their own pain (my subjective interpretation) stems from the heart and is generous, admirable, and eminently respectable as such. But it raises two problems: first, it is not up to historians but to a court of law to “condemn” anyone; and second, the accused at this trial, including Rudolf Slánský, were unequivocally innocent. The new Czech state, which was quick to condemn communism as a system and communist party members as a group, accepted the legal heritage of communist Czechoslovakia. Therefore, the new democracy started out on the foundation of a double historic miscarriage of justice. It does not “amount to the same” if people are condemned for crimes they did not commit on the assumption that the crimes they probably committed were never punished (notwithstanding that some, particularly Rudolf Margolius, might not have committed even those.) This might work as a parable, but this is not the way formal justice works. Such a form of “universal justice” is no adequate substitution for the rule of law. The new, democratic Czech state needs to state clearly and publicly that the accused at the Slánský trial were innocent, and that many of the dictatorial measures ordered or implemented by some of the accused – Slánský, Geminder, Šling, or Šváb particularly come to mind – were never punished either, so that most of their real actions and victims were little acknowledged. Only by owning up to its heritage can the Czech state build a serene democracy, having emptied its cupboards of their skeletons. As a French citizen, I can testify to the toxic power of painful pasts that my state has long refused – and sometimes still refuses – to face. To ignore or to hide past crimes has never promoted the dignity of any society.
Yet another invisible suitcase
One last element of notice in both events accompanying the presentation of the film The Trial was the skepticism of several members of the audience concerning the competence of a non-Czech, Ruth Zylberman, to speak about the history of this country, a suspicion compounded by the fact that she does not speak the language. In reality she is fluent in interwar and postwar Czech culture, especially of its Jewish component. To reproach to her details (for instance that the film gave the impression that radio listeners could follow the trial live whereas the broadcasts took place only one day later) without suspecting that she might have been aware of such trivial distortions but took license with them for the sake of efficacy and time management, or to politely thank her for her “vision from the outside” and use as an argument that she “thinks like a French” as thinly disguised attempts to downplay her legitimacy, is an enterprise which fails to acknowledge that to speak as an outsider is not a disadvantage but an epistemological benefit, what Marci Shore calls ostranenie – which is exactly why we started our series in Britské listy on the “invisible suitcase.” What Ruth Zylberman did was much more relevant than to provide details about who found the tapes and where. She raised a question that should make any citizen of any democratic state uneasy: is it acceptable to condemn political leaders for the wrong reason, thereby omitting to question their real responsibilities? Scrutinizing their role in the establishment of the communist dictatorship would certainly implicate many more people and institutions. It would also question the responsibility of a state that not only failed to bring justice at the time both for and against the Slánský trial defendants, but to own up to this failure until today.
The great historical novelist Hilary Mantel, who died last week, wrote that “Evidence is always partial. Facts are not the truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth.” What Ruth Zylberman has achieved here is to produce not facts, but questions. Such an achievement makes this film a worthy contribution to Czech historiography.