On November 20, 1952, the trial of Rudolf Slansky, former general secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and 13 colleagues got under way in Prague. The Moscow-directed purge of the group, whose members were accused of plotting a “Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist” conspiracy at the behest of the United States, ended with the conviction of all 14. Eleven of them, including Slansky, the supposed ringleader, were Jews.
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Slansky was born in 1901 in Nezvestice, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He became interested in leftist politics as a teenager, and in 1921 was a founding member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, in whose ranks he rose quickly, together with his friend Klement Gottwald. During the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, beginning in 1938, both men were granted asylum in Moscow.
Slansky was a Stalinist who believed that the political struggle justified all means, and he would do most anything to remain within the party’s good graces: When he was in power, Slansky was as brutal as the regime that later ran roughshod over him.
During the family’s time in Moscow, Slansky's infant daughter, Nadia, was kidnapped, while her 8-year-old brother babysat her in a park. It was clear that the abduction of Nadia, who was never heard from again, was officially sanctioned, but her parents accepted her fate, and kept quiet.
After the coup of February 1948, in which the Communists overthrew their partners in the coalition government, Gottwald became the country’s president, and Slansky was his number two. At the latter’s urging, the state set up political concentration camps and began imprisoning suspected enemies of the party. Although he and Gottwald initially resisted pressure from Moscow to purge the party itself of purported Western agents, eventually they requested Soviet help in rooting out traitors, and, in 1949, built a new interrogation facility for the purpose – Ruzyne prison.
Recent research by historian Igor Lukes revealed that U.S. intelligence, in its effort to destabilize the Czech Communist regime in the early '50s, sent Slansky a message inviting his defection to the West. The message was intercepted before it arrived, but it confirmed Stalin’s own paranoia, and sealed Slansky’s fate. Just months after Slansky’s 50th birthday had been a subject of national celebrations and tributes, his longtime comrade Gottwald ordered his arrest, in November 1951. Historians are divided on whether Gottwald acted out of fear for his own neck, or because of a growing rivalry with Slansky. Another 13 officials were rounded up at the same time, representing nearly every part of the party leadership.
Slansky was imprisoned and subjected to ongoing torture at Ruzyne, the same detention center he had built two years earlier. He and his fellow defendants all eventually confessed to all the charges – of “high treason, espionage, sabotage and military treason” -- with their trial starting a year after the arrest, on November 20, 1952.
Anti-Semitism, in the guise of anti-Zionism and anti-cosmopolitanism, became a central theme in the purge. As Gottwald explained it, “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….”
Slansky attempted suicide several times during his imprisonment, but without success. In the interim, he and the other defendants spent much of the year being coached to recite the lines assigned them in a carefully written script for their trial.
Slansky confessed to leading a Zionist conspiracy meant to weaken the country’s economy, and attributed his treachery to having been “born into a middle-class Jewish family.”
The trial lasted eight days, and in the end, all of the rootless cosmopolitans were found guilty of all the charges. Eleven of them, including Slansky were sentenced to death, the remainder to life imprisonment. Slansky was hanged on December 2.
In the months that followed, Jewish officials were purged from key party positions and from jobs in municipal authorities. Additionally, all public Jewish cultural activity was banned, and a number of other “Zionists” were tried for treason.