70 years ago the Czechoslovakian democrat and women’s rights activist Milada Horáková was executed after a Stalinist show trial
“I’m falling, falling, I’ve lost this fight, I’m going with honour. I love this country, I love these people, build their prosperity. I go without hatred towards you. I wish it to you, I wish it to you…” In the middle of the sentence her last words ended. Then the noose was tightened around her neck. In Czechoslovakia in 1950, she was still executed with the gallows – not a long fall from a high scaffold, which broke her neck and caused a quick death. Milada Horáková fought for almost a quarter of an hour on the morning of 27 June 1950 with death by slow strangulation – the most prominent victim of an infamous Stalinist show trial.
Right up to the end, prominent personalities such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein had tried in letters to persuade the country’s president, Klement Gottwald, to grant Horáková a pardon. But the dictator known as “Stalin’s devoted apprentice”, who had brought the communists to power with a clever coup in 1948, did not go along with this. With Milada Horáková’s execution he was able to get rid of an internationally renowned opponent of democratic integrity.
Hardly any other historical figure is as revered and even loved as she is today in the Czech Republic. Since the fall of communism in 1989, Prague has had several monuments in her honour, including one in front of the Parliament. One of the central transport axes is named after her. Václav Havel, the country’s first democratically elected president, awarded her the country’s highest order posthumously in 1991. The Czech-American docu-film Milada by director David Mrnka, which dramatized her life, became a box-office success in 2017 and received numerous awards. Horáková’s symbolic empty grave (cenotaph) at the National Cemetery – the communists had cremated her body in 1950 and scattered the ashes in an unknown place – is always covered with flowers and wreaths. She is posthumously what she was already during her lifetime: a symbolic figure of democracy and freedom in the country.
Women’s rights activist of the First Republic
Horáková had been politically active early on in the First Czechoslovak Republic, which emerged from the shattered Habsburg Empire in 1918, when women were still rare in politics. The doctor of law was one of the founders of the National Women’s Council (Ženská národní rada, ŽNR), the umbrella organisation of all women’s rights movements in the country. Together with its chairman Františka Plamínková, who shortly afterwards became the first woman to be elected to the Senate, she used her legal expertise to try to make the young republic a model country in terms of equal rights. Despite her close ties to the ruling Czech National Social Party (Česká strana národně sociální, ČSNS), which as a social liberal party should under no circumstances be confused with the German National Socialists, despite the similarity of its name, many of her progressive ideas for the emancipatory reorganisation of civil law remained unaddressed in the still male-dominated politics.
In Hitler’s Prisons
When Hitler’s armies marched into Prague in early 1939, the Women’s Council was particularly suspected by the new rulers of being enemies. In fact, Horáková, like other representatives of the Women’s Council, was involved in the bourgeois-democratic underground. The Gestapo reacted brutally. Plamínková was arrested after only a few weeks and executed in 1942 in retaliation for the assassination attempt on Reich Deputy Protector Reinhard Heydrich. Horáková was arrested in August 1940. Despite torture, she betrayed no fellow members of the resistance. After Heydrich’s assassination she was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, then in 1944 to Dresden, where she was put on trial. Thanks to her legal skills, she surprisingly escaped the death sentence and was sentenced to eight years imprisonment. In April 1945 she was freed by American troops in the women’s prison of Aichach in Bavaria and returned to her homeland, where under President Edvard Beneš an attempt was made to bring the country back on a democratic course. Although she denounced some of the human rights violations of the immediate post-war turmoil, she supported the government as a newly elected member of parliament for the resurrected ČSNS. For a new danger was looming: the communists, who had become the strongest party in the May 1946 elections, but were far from achieving a majority. Under pressure from the Soviet military power in the country, however, Beneš had to agree to the resignation of the bourgeois members of government allied with him at the beginning of February 1948, thus paving the way for the Communist takeover. Horáková protested vigorously against this in parliament. In addition, as the new chairwoman of the Women’s Council, she tried to protect it from being brought into line by the Communists. Neither of these attempts succeeded. In March 1948 she resigned from her parliamentary mandate. The non-communist parties were banned shortly afterwards or brought into line as “block parties”. In the Women’s Council she was replaced from above by the communist Anežka Hodinová-Spurná and immediately state authorities announced her official expulsion from all her public offices – symbolically even from those she never held.
She, who had already survived torture by the Nazis, did not give up. She courageously refused the opportunities offered to her to flee the country. In September 1948, she secretly met in the old rectory of the remote Prague district Vinoř with four well-known representatives of the now defunct democratic parties to discuss possible joint action under the conditions of the new dictatorship. The result of the meeting was rather meagre. The question of violent action was not even considered. Even the idea of founding a coordinating umbrella organisation of the various resistance cells, as had been done under the Nazis, was rejected. It was only agreed to exchange views again later.
Nevertheless, the meeting was her undoing. In September 1949 she was arrested by the State Security, who had got wind of it. Using fabricated evidence, the meeting was transformed into part of a conspiracy that was to end in insurrection, assassination attempts, subversion and incitement to war. It was a far-fetched story. In prison, Horáková and a number of resistance fighters, some of whom had been added quite indiscriminately, were tortured for weeks in order to prepare them for the upcoming show trial. At this time, some “trials” among the communists were already known and they were already expecting an unfair trial and harsh prison sentences. But at this trial the communists planned something bigger, something that should be understood as “popular justice”. For the first time such a trial was to be choreographed and broadcast on the radio. Excerpts were prepared for the newsreels in the cinemas. The death sentence was not only to be handed down by the Central Committee of the Communists behind closed doors and then secretly but bindingly “slipped” to the compliant judges. Instead, the communist functionaries began to get the “working class” to petition in the factories and also in assemblies, demanding the death of the accused. Some 6300 of such petitions reached the court as a well-organised expression of the “spontaneous” will of the people. When, after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, one of the judges responsible for the verdict against Horáková, Ludmila Brožová-Polednová, went on trial for the judicial murder, she defended herself cynically by saying that, given the clear will of the people, she could not have judged otherwise.
The trial against Horáková and 12 co-defendants took place from 31 May to 8 June 1950. The accused only had to recite ready-made confessions of guilt, while they were showered with sometimes adventurous accusations and mockeries. Horáková was quite resolute compared to the other defendants, and in her closing statement she added that in the end only God would judge her opposition to the rulers. She and three other defendants were sentenced to death, four others to life imprisonment and five others to prison sentences between 13 and 28 years. Milada Horáková, however, was to remain the only woman executed during the show trials in Czechoslovakia.
The Final Death Row Letter
Horáková was the only one of those sentenced to death who refused to submit a request for pardon to the president. There would have been little point, because the other condemned who did so were executed anyway. Above all, she did not want to be submissive to a person like Gottwald. In the days before her execution she was only allowed to see her daughter Jana briefly in prison once. When she wanted to embrace her one last time, she was prevented from doing so by a guard. She wrote several letters, the last of which, written to her daughter the evening before her execution, is the most powerful and moving. In it she exhorts her daughter to be ready to make sacrifices for her ideals and to always be open to ideas: “Don’t be ashamed to admit a truth you have come to realize, even if you proclaimed the opposite a little while ago; don’t become obstinate about your opinions, but when you come to consider something right, then be so definite that you can fight and die for it.” And she goes on: “I have lived a good life. I accept my punishment with resignation and humbly submit myself. I accept my punishment with resignation and humbly submit myself. My conscience is clear and I hope and believe and pray that I will pass the test of the highest judgment, God’s.”
The communists’ henchmen had promised her to hand over the letter to her daughter after her execution. As expected, they did not. It was only after the Velvet Revolution that it was found in the files of the State Security. It was delivered to the daughter decades later and is now on display in the Prague National Monument on Vítkov – as a heartfelt human testimony to the memory of the horrors of communism in the country.
The trial and execution marked not the end but the beginning of the communist judicial terror. Until the end of the immediate Stalinist phase in 1953 (when both Stalin and his admirer Gottwald died), there were 35 such major show trials. In the final stage, starting in 1952, they were no longer directed solely against democratic opposition members such as Milada Horáková, but against “dissenters” in the Communist party ranks. The trial of the former General Secretary of the party, Rudolf Slánský, accompanied by ugly anti-Semitic tones, which ended with the death sentence for him and 10 co-defendants, was the climax of these purges.
Recently, there has been a tendency in many countries to put the horrors of communism into perspective again. It is a task of history education to call injustice and terror out as what they are – no matter in which guise they come along. Tortured and imprisoned by the Nazis and executed by the Communists – Milada Horáková’s political activities and her end are a memorial to the victims of totalitarianism of every kind. And for the courage that is sometimes needed to defend freedom.
Dr. Detmar Doering
Project Director, FNF Central Europe and the Baltic States