The last Stalinist show trial

The last Stalinist show trial took place in Prague sixty years ago this week. The defendants were Rudolf Slansky and thirteen other Communist ex-members of the government and former holders of senior positions in the hierarchy. Eleven of them were sentenced to death and executed on December 3. Three months later Stalin died and the Soviet Communist system changed irrevocably.

I have written a long piece on the East European purges and trials on another blog but, just to get people interested, here are the first and last paragraphs of the article:

One morning at the end of November, 1952 a five-year old Czech boy, Ivan, who was staying with cousins of his parents in Bratislava while his mother, who had seemed exhausted and unwell, remained in Prague, wandered into the kitchen, a little surprised and disappointed that the usual appetizing smells of baking were not noticeable. He found his grandmother’s cousin and her daughter sitting tensely at the table, listening to some boring official announcements on the radio. Ivan thought it was silly of them. Then, in response to something said by the boring official announcer, they exclaimed and clutched each other’s hands. One of them burst into tears. Ivan was puzzled. “I thought someone died.”- he said and the women looked at him in shock, then sent him away to play with cousins of his own age. About ten years later Ivan realized that what he must have heard was the announcement that his father, Rudolf Margolius, former Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade and one of the defendants in the last Stalinist show trial, the Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia, had been sentenced to death. Out of fourteen defendants, eleven received the death sentence, carried out on December 3.


I started with Ivan Margolius’s reminiscences; let me end with my own from several years later, when the system was falling apart. As small children who started school in Budapest in the autumn of 1956 we knew that things were uneasy but failed to understand exactly what was happening. It was morning school on October 6 (mornings and afternoons alternated week in, week out as there was insufficient school space) and we were walking home at lunchtime. I knew my parents would be out and somebody was coming to look after my brother and me. It was a grey day with intermittent rain, which had stopped producing a sort of crystalline clarity with the droplets in the atmosphere making everything look sharper and brighter. There were black flags everywhere. We were talking quietly. Some of us had been told that this was the first time for some years that the Day of Mourning, the anniversary of the execution of 13 Hungarian generals in 1849, was marked. Others had heard another name connected with the day: Rajk. My parents had gone to the reburial of Rajk and those who had been executed with him. (Slansky could never have been reburied as his and his co-defendants’ ashes had been thrown out of the car onto an icy road.) They had gone and had stood through the macabre rain-sodden ritual because they knew that it presaged something bigger. Just over a fortnight later, on October 23, they went to another major demonstration. By the time they returned from that, the city was in the throes of an uprising.

7 thoughts on “The last Stalinist show trial”

  1. A powerful paragraph Helen.

    I never saw – what was Eastern Europe – until 1992. Just a simple trip to Berlin – the wall had come down a couple of years earlier – bu looking from – I think – the Kufurstendamm – with magnificent stores from the KDW (a German Harrods) to Jewelry – to a Mercedes dealership with no car under $100,000 – I saw the still dull brown and grey buildings of what was East Berlin.

    The best analogy I have ever heard of crossing from east to west was watching a B& W movie – that suddenly turned to color.

    Beyond the wretched architecture (I could still see chips in the brick walls from WW2) – living under those regimes must have been soul-destroying.

    A good movie depicting that was The Lives Of Others.

  2. My Slovak wife’s father had been imprisoned essentially for being a Christian, but was released after a few months. There was a Nov. 17 memorial meeting in Bratislava, to honor the political prisoners and celebrate the downfall of that terrible commie regime.

    It’s too bad that much of the emotion behind communism is that of socialist “equality”, which feeds into destructive envy.

    The Russian farmer’s dream: that his neighbor’s prize cow … dies.

  3. I visited Czechoslovakia,Hungary,Romania and Bulgaria in 1968. What I remember was the smell of lignite and the dirtyness of everything. There was little in the shops that one would want to buy,except out of necessity. People went about their business,but did not seem to be happy at all. Depressing is the best word for it all. After that, Istanbul felt like Switzerland.
    After seeing this,one wonders how anyone could see “Socialism” as desirable.

    Thanks for this, Helen. We still have plenty to be thankful for.

  4. Helen – I didn’t realize as a child you were in Budapest. What things you have seen – many of which were best forgotten I am sure.

    Interesting write-up on the local communists vs Stalin’s – and Eastern Europe. What a vile, evil man – in many ways I think even worse than Hitler.

    I remember reading Solzhenitsyn – One Day In The Life…. and the Black Marias that would suddenly appear, picking up someone never to be seen again.

    I am wondering if Stalin was poisoned…Not something any of us can answer.

    Having studied a bit of the USSR and the Cold War at the University of Virginia, the recurring question among historians was whether he kept Eastern Europe out of a desire to have a buffer against future invaders, or a desire to spread communist ideology?

    Your write up on the show trials suggests the former.

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