1950s – Show Trials
The Show Trials chapter includes materials regarding the first half of the 1950s, a period of consolidation in the Czechoslovak communist regime when it controlled the judiciary and eliminated its real and imagined opponents.
Historically, the term “show trials” is connected mainly with the fabricated court trials in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1930s, when Stalin’s competitors for power were removed, culminating in the “Stalinist revolution”. This type of trial appeared in all Eastern European countries where communist coups took place after the Second World War.
When discussing show trials, we do not only refer to the spectacular trials of highly placed Communist Party functionaries (see Looking for a Traitor), but also to trials of opponents of the communist regime, both ideological enemies and those who wanted to take a forceful stand against the regime . It is, of course, necessary to emphasise that guilt was often fabricated and resistance was often provoked by the secret police.
After the Second World War, the Communist Party was strong in Czechoslovakia, but it still served in the government together with other parties. Communist politicians gradually prepared to take power. In February 1948, at a protest against their violent and nondemocratic policies, the politicians in government submitted their resignations to the other parties, which the president accepted. He then entrusted communist leader Klement Gottwald with reconstituting the government, which Gottwald did with communist politicians or politicians from other parties who were loyal to the communists. This event is considered to be the start of the Communist Party‘s nondemocratic rule of Czechoslovakia. From the communists‘ perspective, it was a normal takeover of power, giving them a mandate to enact policies which gradually departed from democratic traditions. The whole process was controlled from Moscow, and Czechoslovakia was the last of the Central European countries where the communists took over, definitively dividing Europe into two opposing ideological and power blocs. All of the countries of the Eastern bloc used show trials, prepared by advisors from the Soviet Union.
In autumn 1948, laws were introduced in Czechoslovakia that made various kinds of behaviour illegal and could be employed to persecute anyone deemed a threat to the regime.
The defining principle of the show trials was the class struggle (see Ideology), which, according to the communist ideology, was taking place in Czechoslovakia. The rule of law was subordinated to the attempt to eliminate certain “social classes” – the bourgeoisie or landowners (see Collectivization of Agriculture) – and laws were created that either permitted harsh sentences for certain conduct or were abused for this purpose. There was no independent judiciary. Accusations and sentences were prepared in advance by party authorities and served to eliminate opponents and intimidate the public, while also legitimising the communist revolution. The judiciary and the defence only followed the orders of the Communist Party. The punishments were severe, and more than 250 people were executed in the show trials, most often for the crimes of espionage and treason (see In the Courtroom). Many others died in prison or in work camps.
The trials created the impression that Czechoslovakia was under threat, even on the brink of war, and that the Communist Party alone could dispose of the enemies of the people. Of course both categories – “people” and “enemies” – were creations of the communist ideology.
An important characteristic of the show trials was their public nature. Their preparation included a media plan, as society had to be informed about the power of the Communist Party (see Rewriting History). On the one hand, the show trials were meant to create a sense of fear, while on the other, they also served to mobilise society. Many people likely succumbed to the media manipulation and believed that their country was under threat from all sides and that the Communist Party and its policies were the one guarantee of order.
The show trials and their exemplary punishments are primarily a matter of the first half of the 1950s. After Stalin’s death, they were rather rare, with the last big trial of this kind taking place in 1954. In the second half of the 1950s and the beginning of the 60s, political prisoners were gradually released and some prosecuted communists were even rehabilitated. Trials of opponents of the regime of course continued even in later decades (see Normalisation – Dissidents) but never again took the form of the show trials.
A letter to prison
Diary of the artist
History at the opera
In the courtroom
Looking for a traitor
- Applebaum, Anne. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. London: Doubleday, 2012.
- Abrams, Bradley F. Struggle for the Soul of the Nation: Czech Culture And the Rise of Communism. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
- Kundera, Milan. The Joke. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.
- Lengyel, József. From Beginning to End. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.
- McDermott, Kevin and Jeremy Agnew. The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.
- Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1997.
- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago: An experiment in Literary Investigating, 1918 – 1956. 3 volvs. Boulder Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.
- Tismaneanu, Vladimir (Ed.). Stalinism Revisited: The Establishment of Communist Regimes in East-Central Europe. New York: Central European University Press, 2009.