A Look Back at the Years 1945 - 1955
Much of the news has been recently dominated by the trials of former officials in the former Communist regime, including those accused of torturing political prisoners in the 1950s. The news has raised renewed interested in a period in history that it is impossible to close the door on. Jan Velinger has the story.
Just over two weeks ago the Czech Prison Service completed a third conference in as many years on the role of prisons in the period between 1945 - 1955, one of the most painful and regrettable eras in Czechoslovak history. The conference brought together the work of historians, sociologists, and prison officials in an attempt to properly map, as well as to come to terms with, the past.
Czechoslovakia's first Communist president Klement Gottwald addressed the crowds on St Wenceslas Square, after the Communists came to power in 1948. In a short period the Communists would unleash a wave of repression against all possible dissenters; more than 200,000 individuals would be arrested, lives that would be changed for ever, most beyond repair. The country's prison service became one of the many pawns of the totalitarian regime, a prison service that sociologist Dr Ales Kyr says had previously respected human rights.
"I am not sure, even today, what kind of impression people in the United States, or western Europe, have about the Czech Republic: you know, in the 30s Czechoslovakia was, I believe, the 7th most developed nation in the world, and this was the case in the country's prison system as well..."
Dr Kyr says the first blow to the normal running of the Czechoslovak Prison Service came after the Second World War, when president Eduard Benes issued Decree No. 16, dealing with the punishment of Nazi criminals, collaborators and traitors. Although Dr Kyr feels that the move was vital in order to punish those who hurt others, he says the task was "taken up by the wrong people", whose disrespect for even the most basic human rights would pave the way for Communist tactics soon after.
"The first enemies were the Germans as a whole, and not only members of the SS or the Nazi Party were deported: there was a witch-hunt on all Germans who lived within Czechoslovakia's borders before the war. Intern and labour camps were created, where women, children, and men were held. All of this was organised by people whose moral and professional qualities were very poor, who were recruited from the ranks of revolutionary guards and quasi-military groups. During the process there was an unnecessary emphasis on violence, which was justified by the argument that revenge was the only answer for the terrible damage inflicted upon the Czech nation. It was in this period that the Czech Communists, together with Czech Nationalists, lumped together capitalism with Nazi ideology, as they prepared a springboard for their vision of a class enemy."
Lumping together capitalism with Nazism was a successful strategy for the Communists: when their vision of a class enemy came to the fore in 1948, they were able to pass legislation with the marked support of much of the population, in spite of the fact that the new laws broke the spine of the country's democratic principles.
"The nation was fooled into believing that a class enemy existed, and that this enemy was preparing to take away their freedoms and comforts, and that is was necessary to strike back. In 1948 two important laws were passed, No. 231, the law for the defence of the republic, which allowed the non-Communist political opposition to be criminally charged, and law No. 247, on forced labour camps, which allowed people to be imprisoned for two years without ever facing trial. Besides that, many prison camps were prepared for so-called class enemies, also known as enemies of the state".
With the passing of the laws and the founding of prison camps, the stage was set for a campaign which would bring immeasurable misery. The tools for persecution were many: worst of all, the communists had the judiciary under their thumb. The country's intelligentsia and business leaders were among the first to feel the brunt:
"Political prisoners were the worst off, they were the so-called class enemy, and it wasn't only the case of the country's most successful capitalists, who made up only 3 percent of Czechoslovak society, but in particular the judiciary focused on the middle-class, not only small business owners and entrepreneurs, but also bureaucrats, intellectuals, scientists, and teachers, as well as doctors, lawyers, artists, and religious figures. In short, people whose social function was to cultivate the nation. Individuals lost their social standing and of course the final blow was a long prison sentence."
In 1949 nineteen year-old Frantisek Zahradka was one of the first to feel the full crush of the new regime:
" Just before Christmas 1949 a state court in Prague sentenced me to 20 years in prison, and I was jailed in places like Bory, Jachymov, Pankrac, as well as many other prisons and labour camps..."
As a member of a Scout group Mr Zahradka had befriended members of the 310th pilot squadron, part of the large group of Czech pilots who had served in the RAF during WW II after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. These were men who were discredited by the communists: most lost their rank, many were imprisoned, while others were sent to do manual labour. Mr Zahradka's sympathy for them was just one aspect of his crime: he and twenty three others were charged with high treason, for printing and disseminating pamphlets against the state, as well as for helping anti-Communists cross the country's borders, into Germany and back. Mr Zahradka was found guilty and received twenty years. Had he been twenty years old at the time, and not eighteen, he might have received the death penalty: all examples of the methodology of the new communist regime. In the end Mr Zahradka was imprisoned thirteen years before he was let out, and his mother did not live to see his release. The period between the Forties and Fifties is probably a period most people like Mr Zahradka would like to forget, were it not for one thing: the question of justice and compensation. Once again sociologist Dr Ales Kyr:
"It is not easy for me to say, but those guilty of maltreating and torturing political prisoners were never punished, for the simple reason that bringing them to justice only became possible in 1990, and in effect, most of them have already died. Those that are still alive today are between eighty and ninety years old. What is important is that those who are still alive do not die without a verdict being passed. Many are guilty, many have crimes on their conscience".
These are apt words as the Czech media mulls over the case of Alois Grebenicek, a former investigator in the former regime, accused of torturing political prisoners in the 1950s. His trial has been repeatedly delayed for reasons of ill health, although sceptics in the country will tell you that it is because many former high-ranking figures under the Communists have retained important posts even today, and that there is simply no real interest to come to terms with the past. This is yet another reason why the Czech Prison Service must not let the years 1945 - 55 die, and is documenting them page by page, recalling the events inside the interrogation rooms, the prisons, and the labour camps, in order to bring to light a period in the country's history that victims of the Communist regime say must never be forgotten.