Milada Horakova

It's time now for this week's edition of Czechs in History, and this week Nick Carey takes a look at the life of Milada Horakova, who was executed by the Communist regime in 1950.

I'm standing on Milada Horakova Street, a busy thoroughfare in the Prague six district. The street was named after Milada Horakova following the Velvet Revolution. Although she is not one of the best-known Czechs in History abroad, Milada Horakova has come to represent the sufferings of a great many people under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, especially during the 1950s. A woman renowned for her courage and conscience, she was hung by the Communists for treason and espionage almost fifty years ago to the day...

Milada Horakova was born in Prague on Christmas Day 1901, the daughter of a pencil factory owner. She attended high school in Prague during the First World War, and she entered the law faculty of Charles University in 1921, only three years after the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic. She graduated in 1926, and became director of the welfare department for the Prague City Council. In the same year she joined the Czechoslovak Nationalist Socialist Party, which was a far cry from the German party of the same name. Milada Horakova was also an active member of various groups caring for both the young, and for women's rights.

After the occupation of the Czechoslovakia in 1939, Milada Horakova and her husband, Bohuslav Horak, joined a resistance movement and were both arrested by the Gestapo in 1940. Milada Horakova was sent to the transit camp at Terezin. In 1944, she was sentenced to life in prison. She was sent to the concentration camp at Ainach near Munich, where she was liberated by Allied forces in May 1945, and she promptly returned to Prague.

Now, this may seem a swift rundown of the first forty-five years of a woman who did live to the age of forty-nine, but it is the last few years of her life that have had the greatest significance in recent Czech history.

When she returned to Prague in 1945, Milada Horakova rejoined the National Socialist Party, and became a Member of Parliament, where she remained until the Communist take-over in February 1948, when she resigned her position. With her experience of the resistance movement against the Nazis, Milada Horakova soon joined an illegal group of former members of the National Socialist Party, which held meetings regularly. Until, that is, Milada Horakova was arrested by the Communist secret police on September 27th, 1949, along with many other members of the same group, and with the help of two prosecutors from Moscow, set about preparing a case against them.

According to Jiri Stransky, who was himself imprisoned for many years during the totalitarian regime, the Communists' reasons for Milada Horakova's arrest and trail were pragmatic: In the lead up to the trial, Milada Horakova and her fellow resistance members were subjected to horrific forms of interrogation. These included being forced to stand waist deep in water for twenty-four hours at a time, and even worse, being stuck in tiny rooms, often measuring little over one square metre, with no heat, no light and no food for several days, until emotionally and physically exhausted, starving and completely disoriented, they were willing to confess anything. And they did, especially to charges of treason and espionage.

In the belief that the Communists would not hang a woman, Milada Horakova confessed to many of the charges levelled at her co-defendants.

The trial of Milada Horakova and twelve other resistance group members began on May 31st, 1950. From start to finish it was a show trial, based on the Russian show trials of Stalin's purges of the 1930s. It was even broadcast by radio to the nation: Alone amongst all of the defendants, Milada Horakova stood erect and argued with her accusers, but to no avail. On June 8th, 1950, Milada Horakova and three of her co-defendants were sentenced to death. Despite calls for clemency from such people as Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein, the Czechoslovak president Klement Gottwald confirmed the sentences.

In her last letter to her sixteen-year-old daughter before her execution, she wrote:

"When you realise that something is just and true, then be so resolute that you will be able to die for it."

On the morning of June 27th, 1950, Milada Horakova was executed by hanging.

In the years following Milada Horakova's death, many other members of similar resistance movements were either hanged or received long sentences in uranium mines dotted around Czechoslovakia. The trials eventually petered out and little more was heard until the Prague Spring in 1968, when there were attempts to rehabilitate Milada Horakova, but unfortunately these attempts came to nothing: It was not until one year after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that rehabilitation came for Milada Horakova. In 1991, President Vaclav Havel posthumously awarded her the Order of T. G. Masaryk First Class, and the busy thoroughfare in Prague 6 was renamed in her honour. We have heard something of the personality of Milada Horakova, but this is how Jiri Stransky summed her up: