International conference on 1950s political trials underway

Le procès contre Rudolf Slansky

This week the Czech Prison Authority has been housing not only prisoners but also a group of international scholars - who, it should be said, have not broken any laws. They have, instead, come to Prague's Pankrac Prison for a conference examining the political trials in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. The most infamous of these trials was against the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Rudolf Slansky, who was executed in the gallows of Pankrac Prison in December 1952.

More than one hundred scholars from all over the world have come together at Prague's Pankrac Prison this week to discuss the context of the political trials in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, and the causes, events and consequences of the Slansky trial in particular. The trials purged elements of the Czechoslovak Communist Party that were considered to be insufficiently supportive of Stalinism, and historians also regard the Slansky trial as a manifestation of Soviet-style antisemitism - considering that Slansky and seven of the nine co-accused were Jewish.

Although the conference is mostly attended by historians, the idea to stage it came from Harold Paumgarten, an American businessman who has been interested in the Slansky case for some time:

"When I was young and growing up in Philadelphia in the late forties and early fifties, I would read about show trials in Eastern Europe, both in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It always fascinated me. And then, once communism fell, I remembered a few years ago, when I was up at Columbia at some symposium, that the fiftieth anniversary of the Slansky trials was about to begin."

Among the academics attending the conference is Bradley Abrams, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York. Professor Abrams told Radio Prague that he believes the conference is particularly significant for it focuses on a period of Czech history that the Czech public has not shown much interest in for many years:

"Let me put it this way: Erazim Kohak, who was an emigre philosopher who left after 1968, he wrote at one point - and I'm paraphrasing his quote - that you can judge a nation more by how it deals with the shadowy side of its own past, than how it deals with the sunny sides. And this - the entire era from 1948 through the 1950s - clearly belongs more to the shadowy side of Czech history. It's certainly an area that needs much more research, and I think that there are those among the younger generation of scholars who are becoming more interested in it."

One of the most interesting aspects of the conference is its location: the participants are accommodated in a building right next to Pankrac Prison, and that they have the opportunity to see the prison gallows where Rudolf Slansky and other victims of the political trails were executed.