“Operation K” - How the Communists wiped out Czechoslovakia’s monasteries in one brutal stroke

Names of 464 monks interned in Želiv monastery during 1950-1956, photo: archive of Memory of Nation

Exactly 70 years ago the Communist regime launched its nation-wide crackdown operation on Czechoslovakia’s monasteries. Known as Akce K (Operation K), it saw the mass incarceration of more than 2,300 monks and was part of a wide reaching mission to curb the power of the Church in the country. Many of the victims would end up serving long sentences, or used as forced labour.

Names of 464 monks interned in Želiv monastery during 1950-1956,  photo: archive of Memory of Nation

Marked out from the start

By 1950, the Communist Party had gone a long way in consolidating power since its coup d’etat brought it absolute power over the country two years earlier. This position did not come about through bullying and Soviet influence alone. The party had won 93 seats in the lower-house of Parliament in the more or less free elections of 1946, when it got nearly twice as many votes as the second placed Czechoslovak National Social Party.

However, despite its many supporters the Communist leadership saw a clear threat that needed to be eliminated. In a state that demanded total faith in one idea, there was a well-organised and still popular alternative institution that had a reputation of supporting the poor - the Catholic Church. What is more, it was led from the Vatican, a base whose perceived sinister intentions and power seem to have been put on par with those of Britain and America.

Operation K,  photo: archive of Moderní dějiny project
The perception of the Church as a political power, rather than simply a spiritual institution, had been present among the Czechoslovak Communists for some time already. This manifestation of the “opiate of the masses” would not be allowed any political influence, whether real or perceived and a taste of what was to come came just two days after the Communist coup d’etat in 1948, when the Party passed a resolution ending the circulation of leading Catholic periodicals, citing “lack of paper” as its excuse.

Nevertheless, the Communists first tried carrots in their approach to dealing with the Catholic Church. In March 1948 the Central Action Committee of what was still officially the country’s ruling coalition of parties issued a declaration that “the freedom of religion and the performance of religious ceremonies is one of the fundamental principles of [Czechoslovakia’s] popular democratic regime”.

A special Committee for Church and Religious Questions was instituted, led by rising star and Stalin favourite Alexej Čepička, who presided over a council that also featured two priests.

What followed were months of negotiations during which the Church tried to maintain its institutions and coexistence within the state, while the Communists tried to bring it under their control. It was also during this time that requests for the closure of monasteries were first voiced within the committee.

The plan was to isolate the Church leadership by splitting it in two and Čepička repeatedly called on Czechoslovak Church leaders to proclaim their loyalty towards the state. Secretly, the Party picked out those among the cloth who it perceived as “loyalists”, while others would be marked out as “reactionaries”.

In the meantime, the state apparatus began suppressing education facilities, societies and those sections of the press associated with the Church. The most outspoken monks were arrested. Laws were prepared which would strengthen state control of religious organisations as well as limit their resources and attempts were made to portray the Catholic Church as the servant of a scheming Vatican.

Perhaps the most famous example of the latter is the propaganda documentary Alas for the One through Whom the Umbrage Comes, which sought to unveil a miracle that took place in the Eastern Bohemian village of Číhošť in 1949 by portraying it as a hoax organised by the Holy See.

The birth of Operation K

It was also during 1949 that the party leadership began planning an operation that would both bring monasteries under the control of the state and crack down on the various holy orders in Czechoslovakia. The plan was given the codename “K”, which is short for the Czech word for monasteries - “kláštery”.

Communist planners believed that speed was essential in such an operation, as it would prevent any of the monks escaping, or hiding anything of value that could otherwise be confiscated. It was for this reason that the entire operation was eventually worked out to contain just two phases, spread over three weeks, during which 219 monasteries were to be raided.

The man in charge of “K” was Communist Party General Secretary Rudolf Slánský. At the time, Slánský was arguably the second most powerful man in the country after president Klement Gottwald. During the opening phase of Communist power consolidation he masterminded many of the notorious show trials through which the party used to remove its rivals and create a public perception that failed targets were the result of foreign conspiracies rather than mismanagement. In a karmic twist of fate Slánský himself, a Jew, would end up being the victim of a show trial just months after carrying out Operation K. His head was demanded during the last mass blood-letting of Stalinism which followed the Tito-Stalin split and Israel’s orientation towards the West.

Another reason behind the emphasis on the swiftness of “K” may have been fear of a possible protest reaction from parts of the populace. Many in Czechoslovakia, particularly those in the rural regions, were still practising and often devout Catholics, who trusted their priests and Church dignitaries.

The date for the launch of the operation was therefore set for the night of April 13, 1950, just eight days after the conclusion of the show trial known as Machalka a spol. (Machalka and co.). This trial, which followed the “exposure” of what the Communists perceived as the fake miracle that took place a year earlier in Číhošť, focused specifically on representatives of holy orders of the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia. In line with the aforementioned Communist policy to discredit the Church, the aim of the trial was to portray the defendants as members of a grand spy scheme within the country, organised by the Vatican.

The ten accused men were either sentenced to life imprisonment, or years of hard jail. To turn national opinion in favour of the Communist view ahead of “K”, the trial was used in state propaganda.

However, not all went according to the Communists’ wishes. The man who was supposed to be the main defendant and target of the trial, Friar Josef Toufar from Cihost, died from the severe torture he received in order to get him to confess the village church had been subject to a false miracle.

In a speech following the trial Rudolf Slanský built on the capital established through the false confessions.

“The many monasteries in the country are increasingly becoming centres of anti-state activity. The recent trial with Machalka and co. has clearly shown the severity of crimes committed by some of the holy orders against the republic. It is necessary to expect that reactionary elements will try to resist and agitate among the faithful.”

The stage was now set for subjugating Czechoslovakia’s Catholic Church by force and Operation K could begin.

The crackdown

Josef Toufar,  photo: Czech Television
On Thursday night, April 13, a mix of State Security operatives, policemen and People's Militia units surrounded 75 Czech and 62 Slovak monasteries. During this first stage of the plan specific focus was put on the largest holy orders within the country. These included the Salesians, Jesuits, Redemptorists and Benedictines.

The surprised monks were told that “due to the will of the people” and their anti-state activities, their monasteries were being confiscated. They were told to get dressed, pack their essentials and were then transferred into predetermined concentration centres. Meanwhile, the monasteries were looted of their valuables.

In his paper on the subject, historian Vojtěch Vlček writes that the operation met with relatively little opposition from the Czech population, but considerable acts of protests in parts of Slovakia. It should also be stated that many people were not aware of what was taking place as the operation was secret and took place during the night.

Nevertheless, some isolated cases of outrage were registered even in the Czech lands.

For example, during the raid on the Petrine Monastery in the South Bohemian city of České Budějovice, the monks began singing a prayer as they were loaded onto trucks. Civilians began taking part in the chant. This led to consternation among the security operatives who then decided to select one of the monks, Martin František Vích, to stay in the monastery and serve mass so that the local population was kept in order.

In another case, around 80 to 100 locals from the Silesian village of Hodoňovice gathered to protest when the nearby Salesian Novitiate was being raided. However, they broke up after local officials were sent to calm them down.

A few weeks later, during the second phase, 13 remaining monasteries were confiscated, bringing the total number to 219 religious buildings and 2,376 monks. That same year, Operation K was followed by Operation Ř, which focused on the clearing out of nunneries.

The seeming lack of action within those monasteries which were hit in these later actions was explained by later witnesses through the fact that the sheer scope and brutality of the operation was hard to believe and many wondered whether this was not simply another case of the Communist authorities attempting to provoke them into an action for which they could be persecuted.

Human tragedies and stolen treasures

Internment camp ,  photo: Czech Television
The majority of those interned would be held in the specified centres for a period of two to three years, where some of them were violently abused, although the last of these internment camps was closed as late as 1960.

According to the late priest Antonín Huvar, who was himself serving time in incarceration at the time and met many of those interned, the nuns were often raped, while the monks were beaten and served 180 grams of bread and 1 litre of water a day. Sometimes these meagre rations were cut down from daily servings, to the same amount being served only once every two or three days.

Apart from daily abuse, the interned were forced into unpaid labour schemes in nearby factories, farms, or, as in the case of 350 of the younger monks, in the notorious Technical auxiliary battalions, which were used for hard, forced labour in construction or in the mines. The practice of religious rites was only allowed to those who received state authorisation.

Aside from the human tragedy, the crackdown on Czechoslovak monasteries also had a cultural cost. The mass confiscation of valuables contained within them saw some objects destroyed or simply disappear from the records. However, others did end up in national galleries and museums.

As for the buildings themselves, the majority did not end up being converted into hospitals or family homes as the authorities had promised, but instead were put under the administration of the interior and defence ministries. For example, Prague’s famous Břevnov Monastery, the oldest such site in the country, was converted into the Interior Ministry’s Central State Archive.

Operation K within the regional perspective

The crackdown on the Church was not exclusive to Communist Czechoslovakia, but rather took place in one form or another across the Central and Eastern European states of the Eastern Bloc. The hardest measures were taken in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The country’s northern neighbours Poland and the German Democratic Republic tolerated male monastic orders, albeit with restrictions.

What was common across all satellites were the crackdowns on any sort of wider influence that the Church and its holy orders had within the state, as well as their association in propaganda with treacherous and subversive activity aimed at undermining the state.