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  • Date: 16 Jul, 2007 at 8:36AM,
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  •  KEY WORDS: political psychology, Stalinism, show trials, socialism

    By Jana Svehlova

    With the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 — at the end of World War I — the Allies recognized the efforts of Czech and Slovak leaders to form a Czechoslovak Republic. This new republic’s large educated middle class adopted a constitution based on an American model. Prague’s University Professor Tomas Garrigue Masaryk became the first president of the newly formed Czechoslovakia.

Except for the period of German occupation between 1939 and 1945, the Czech lands maintained a thriving economy, compared to its neighbors within Central-Eastern Europe. The Czech people have not been considered an agricultural society since the beginning of the twentieth century (Musil, 1993). Czechoslovakia was the sixth most industrialized country in Europe before World War II, and was considered among the ten most developed states in the world in the 1920s and 1930s (Cornej, 1992).

At the end of the War, General Patton with his American troops was not far from the capital city. Nevertheless, the postwar world order designed by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta conference in 1945 resulted in liberation of Prague by the Red Army rather than American troops. A Czech woman, by then released from a Nazi concentration camp, remembers how “we looked up to them. For years I cherished the memory of riding into Prague on a Russian tank in May 1945” (Kavan, 1985). At that time the media did not play the role it does today, therefore Stalin’s crimes were not widely known, and he was seen by many as a savior.

In the closing stages of World War II and its immediate aftermath, the political ideological rivalry intensified between the Soviet Union and the Western allies — especially the United States. In February 1948, the Czechoslovak Communist Party provoked a crisis that led to the formation of a government dominated by communist leaders.

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was born in 1921, as a split from the social democrats. Modeled after the Soviet Union, it interpreted the Marxist-Leninist theory as championing the working class against the capitalist bourgeoisie. During the First Republic period between World Wars I and II, the Communist Party was third or fourth largest among eight major parties. Following World War II, the Communist Party achieved immense popularity. This was largely due to the widely felt disappointment over the West’s “selling” of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, followed by the official liberation of the country by the Soviet army.

The first free elections in Czechoslovakia were held in 1946, just following World War II. Persuasive rhetoric by the communists won 38 percent of the votes and secured several key positions for the party. Governing control was gained of the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Information, and — most importantly — the Ministry of Interior, which included the police apparatus. Not insignificantly, “the Czechs at least did not think of the Communist party as a foreign element, alien to the national tradition” (Burks, 1976).

Decline of communist electoral strength in Czechoslovakia began in 1947. The population perceived the mistakes and economic inadequacies of the government to be the fault of the communists, since they were the government’s main party (Simons, 1991). Czechoslovakia’s interest in the Marshall Plan increasingly displeased Stalin. The Marshall Plan, viewed by the Soviet Union as “the Trojan horse of American capitalism” (Capka, 1998), called for U.S. sponsored funding of economic assistance for Eastern Europe — including the Soviet Union.

Prompted by the Soviets, the Czechoslovak Communist Party radicalized its maneuvers, pretending that a “reactionary plot” against the people’s republic was imminent. They campaigned for nationalization of private enterprise, and land reform that would confiscate land holdings larger than a specified size. With the Ministry of Information refusal to allow non-communist parties to broadcast their agendas, the Ministry of Interior control of the police apparatus and “people’s militia,” and the resignation of the non-communist President Edward Benes, the communist takeover was completed in 1948.

All political institutions outside of the Communist Party’s control were banned. The communist takeover in 1948 resulted in reshaping institutions, as well as values, to conform to the Soviet style system that required suppression, and even destruction, of certain loyalties and identities; coercion was used to pressure individuals to hold the state’s interests before family alliance (Post, 1993). The communist propagandists introduced the notion of “people’s democracy” that was to build socialism and, ultimately, communism.

What is especially relevant here is the sociocultural transition from a remarkably democratic tradition — dating from 1918 — to the introduction of Stalinism, a totalitarian system for which the fundamental hallmark is a system of terror (Tucker, ed., 1977). Part of the sociocultural innovations of the Stalinist system of terror were the political show trials of the 1948—1953 that served “to nip every possibility of an independent road to socialism in the bud. That is how they [Gottwald — the first communist Czechoslovak president — and Stalin] succeeded in establishing the Soviet model…” (Pelikan, 1976).

The paradigm of Stalinism within the Czech context is particularly paradoxical. As Skilling suggests, its effects continued long after Stalin’s death; its intensity within Czechoslovakia was greater in the scope and magnitude of terror than elsewhere (Tucker, ed., 1977). More people were executed for political reasons in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s than in any other of the European communist countries. There is not one satisfactory answer to the question why “The political trials in Czechoslovakia from 1950 until Stalin’s death and after… were on a larger scale than in any other East European country” (Brown and Gray, eds., 1977).

“There is little doubt that by the time of Stalin’s death, Czechoslovakia had gone much farther than any other East European country” in adopting the Soviet model (Cohen and Shapiro, eds., 1974). The zenith of the Stalinist terror is unique to the era referred to as “the fifties.” Its legacy, however, persisted until the Czechoslovak Communist Party aimed to create “socialism with a human face.” This endeavor became known as the Prague Spring of 1968. Stalinism within the Czechoslovak context receives far less attention than the Prague Spring period of reform.

The Prague Spring of 1968 was perceived by the Soviet politburo as a threat to the Soviet block’s cohesion. This initiated the Soviet led armies’ invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. The sweeping efforts on the part of the Soviets to restore intimidation of the population were referred to as the era of “normalization.” The term “normalization” was used for the reestablishment of an authoritarian regime, and repression of the new freedoms recently initiated by the Czech communist reformers. Nevertheless, the post-1968 oppression never reached the severity of the Stalinist system of terror of the 1950s. According to a public poll conducted under the communist regime in July 1968 — prior to the Soviet led army invasion of Czechoslovakia — only five percent of Czechoslovaks wanted capitalism, whereas 89 percent wanted socialism with a human face (Rosenberg, 1995).

Twenty one years later — following the fall of communism in neighboring German Democratic Republic, Hungary and Poland — the Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership resigned and non-communist government was created. This bloodless transfer of power has been coined the Velvet Revolution. Vaclav Havel became Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president in December 1989. Ten years after the Velvet Revolution, President Havel reminded us that “Whoever denies the past, or casts doubt upon it, is equally dangerous to democracy, be it an American neo-Nazi, a member of the German Witiko-Bund or a Czech skinhead.”

Political Culture

In examining political-historical processes, cultural factors cannot be ignored, since these processes involve human relations. Stalinism as a totalitarian era cannot be viewed without including the role of culture. Using political culture as a complementary perspective on the relationship between regime and society contributes to our understanding of the social system (Jowitt, 1992). There is, however, no general consensus as to the definition of political culture. From a perspective of Kultur, Erikson’s notion of “historical and geographic reality amplifies familial patterns and…in turn, these patterns influence a people’s interpretation of reality” cannot be ignored (1993).

When Erikson refers to creatures of culture with collective identity and its psychological problems, he is speaking of a pattern such as subservience to superiors and a “sense of dignity in voluntary obedience” (1993) in contrast to nations having experienced democratic revolutions. There is, what Erikson calls, “something” that came with revolutionary ideals and created the concept of “free man” (1993).

The Show Trials at Kafka’s Birthplace

“We are often told lately not to ‘rub salt into wounds’. This is usually being said by people who suffered no wounds,” as pointed out by Andrei Sakharov when urging people not to ease off in the analysis of Stalinism (Dallin and Breslauer, eds., 1970). Stalinism here refers to the era of terror symbolized by the show trials and persecution of families of the arrested in Czechoslovakia during the 1950s.

The hallmark of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe were the political “show trials” to eliminate the alleged enemies of the state. The Czechoslovak style of Stalinism was comparable to the Soviet Union: “under Stalin the whole nation was urged to become an informer. It was a way to show your loyalty. It became a means of settling old scores, of taking your boss’s job, or the flat of a friend; even, it was said, someone else’s wife or husband” (Lewis and Whitehead, 1990).

Between 1948 and 1953, arrests for “anti-state” behavior were common occurrences, motivated by unsubstantiated reports from state security agents (StB), their informers, or testimonies — usually coerced — from previously arrested individuals (Kaplan, 1999). Communist President Antonin Zapotocky is quoted in 1956, “here, it was enough to have a grudge against somebody; inform on him and he was done in” (Kaplan, 1999). The hysteria of the time and place concerning impending war by Western imperialists served as a convenient framework for such activities.

Accusations of treason, resulting in arrest, might easily be based on an individual's contact with friends who emigrated to the West, expressing disagreement with government policies; farmers’ refusal to join state-owned farms made them vulnerable. Those who were imprisoned or executed were even individuals who demonstrated a readiness to cooperate with the regime (Kaplan, 1985).

Prague, the birthplace of Franz Kafka, proved to be a true Kafkaesque stage for the show trials that debuted in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. The KGB-trained Czech interrogators used methods that inevitably resulted in confessions to false charges and implications of others. The goal was to break prisoners’ resistance. Public confessions often rang of absurdities. Sentences were determined even before the trial began. The Ministry of Interior, rather than the judiciary apparatus, conducted the proceedings (K. Kaplan, personal communication, September 1999).

Stalinist show trials created terror within the population because, “if the people affected by the purges cannot see why they are being arrested, and if others live in fear because of the apparently indiscriminatory nature of such arrests, then the regime has become one of terror” (Holmes, 1986). Political terror disrupts traditional patterns of established behavior as well as interpersonal relationships. The phenomenon of vigilance against the enemies of the state led to a transformation of society “similar to a viral infection, spreading rapidly through all the internal organs” (Horvath, 19982).

Accused individuals were coerced with unspeakable torture into admitting to crimes for which they were sentenced to years of slave labor, or were executed. Because most of the charges brought against the accused individuals were fabricated, the term “trial,” as defined in the English language, is a misnomer.

This historical fragment is unlikely to be discussed by “semi-active participants” of the communist regime who gained social status or broke off friendships and love relationships to eagerly assume positions left vacant when the so-called enemies of the state were arrested (Staub, 1989). Yet, it cannot be ignored that fear of being identified as guilty-by-association with the alleged enemies of the state played a role during the political terror.

With the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989, life for many individuals in post-communist countries became full of contradictions. Communism’s legacy includes a political culture consisting of a distrustful society “habituated to … rumor as a mode of discourse that works against sober public discussion of issues…” (Jowitt, 1992).

The aim here is to initiate the much needed discussion about our recent past…

©Jana Svehlova