An antisemitic show trial in 1952, involving high-ranking politicians of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Political terror was an inherent component of the Stalinist reign in Eastern Europe following World War II. While the first trials focused on political opponents of the Communists, the schism with Tito’s Yugoslavia (i.e., inside the Communist bloc), which started in 1948, led to a hunt for alleged enemies within the Communist parties and produced a series of trials involving Communist politicians in East European countries. The campaign was designed to demonstrate a widespread “imperialist” conspiracy within the Communist movements and to prevent any further disobedience in the Soviet bloc.
Czechoslovak authorities investigated an alleged conspiracy and imprisoned a number of Communist officials. Initially antisemitism played no major role, but in 1951—under Soviet influence—the construct of a Zionist conspiracy came to dominate plans for an upcoming trial, with Rudolf Slánský (1901–1952) as its main target. Slánský had begun his career in the Communist Party in the 1920s and had followed Czechoslovak Communist leader Klement Gottwald into exile in Moscow during World War II. Members of Slánský’s family died during the German occupation. After the war, Slánský assumed the powerful position of secretary-general of the Communist Party, organized the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, and ruthlessly promoted the initial purges and the later political trials.
In November 1951, under pressure from Stalin, Gottwald agreed to have Slánský imprisoned; later, other Jewish Communists were also arrested. Under extreme psychological pressure, accompanied by torture plus sleep and food deprivation, these loyal Communists were forced to confess to absurd crimes: conspiracy against the Communist regime; cooperation with “imperialist” intelligence services; Titoism; Trotskyism; and so forth.
A strident anti-Zionism distinguished the Slánský trial from earlier purges in other East European countries. Of 14 individuals accused, 11 were Jews and were labeled as such in the indictment. They were forced to confess to being part of a Zionist conspiracy, with Zionism understood as a proxy for Western imperialism. The anti-Jewish character of the Slánský trial was part and parcel of the late Stalinist turn toward antisemitism and was introduced into the case by Soviet advisers, who encouraged Czech investigators to stress the dangers of a purported world Zionist conspiracy.
Antisemitism was also visible within the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Officially deplored by the Communist regime, anti-Jewish sentiment took form as a struggle against Zionism and cosmopolitanism. Among the leadership, the party ideologue Václav Kopecký distinguished himself with antisemitic diatribes. He repeatedly spoke out against Zionism and cosmopolitanism—depicting Jews as foreign, bourgeois, and unassimilated—and denounced their presence in party positions.
The Czechoslovak Communist regime gradually revised the positive postwar attitude it had displayed toward the Jewish population and the State of Israel. The government increasingly restricted the activities of Jewish communities, ordered the offices of foreign Jewish organizations to close, and dissolved Zionist organizations in Czechoslovakia. The Ministry of the Interior monitored Jewish communities and produced card files and lists of Jews. Almost no Jewish emigration was allowed. In compliance with Soviet policy, Czechoslovakia ceased to cooperate with Israel. During the Slánský trial, the Israeli embassy in Prague was presented as a nest of “imperialist” spies.
The trial, which took place in November 1952, was modeled after Soviet political trials: during the tribunal’s sessions the defendants as well as the attorneys and judges had to follow a prepared, memorized script. Court proceedings were broadcast live on the radio and transcripts appeared in the press. Eleven defendants (including Slánský) received the death penalty—and were executed without delay—while three received life sentences.
Even though a general antisemitic campaign had preceded the Slánský trial, its openly antisemitic character came as a profound shock to many Czechoslovak Jews. Following the arrest of Slánský and during the trial, petitions requesting harsh punishment—and, in many cases, the elimination of Jews from party positions—poured in from tens of thousands of Communist cells, labor unions, and other organizations. The trial and accompanying antisemitic propaganda marked all Jews as possible traitors and Western agents; as a result, Jews became the target of numerous denunciations. The Slánský case and several antisemitic follow-up trials put the Jewish population—especially Jewish Communists—in constant danger of being arrested. The antisemitic campaign created a sense of disillusionment among those Jews who had embraced Communism as an answer to Nazi racism. Many of them participated in the reform efforts of the 1960s and eventually emigrated following the suppression of reforms in 1968 by Warsaw Pact tanks.
Meir Cotic, The Prague Trial: The First Anti-Zionist Show Trial in the Communist Bloc (New York and London, 1987); Karel Kaplan, Report on the Murder of the General Secretary, trans. Karel Kovanda (Columbus, Ohio, 1990).