Eastern Bloc Politics - Political Systems - Party Control Through Purges and Show Trials

Party Control Through Purges and Show Trials

Further information: Uprising of 1953 in East Germany

In accordance with Soviet directives, "building communism" in the Eastern Bloc included liquidation of class enemies and constant vigilance against counterrevolutionaries, especially within the Communist parties themselves. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, more frequently after the campaign to route out "Titoists" after the 1948 Tito-Stalin split, protests occurred, with many of those taking part being workers, intellectuals, dissatisfied young men inducted into the peasantry as part of collectivizations and those who were originally most enthusiastic about Communist systems. In response, in Poland, the central committee held a "vigilance plenum" against nationalists. One of the methods of control involved several party purges between 1948 and 1953, including 90,000 purged in Bulgaria, 200,000 in Romania (about one third of party), 200,000 in Hungary, 300,000 in East Germany, 370,000 in Poland (about one quarter of party members) and 550,000 in Czechoslovakia (30% of the party). In Hungary, approximately 150,000 were also imprisoned, with 2,000 summarily executed. In the Estonian SSR, a purge of "bourgeois nationalists" from the Estonian Communist party occurred from 1949 to 1951. In Czechoslovakia, approximately 130,000 people were sent to prisons, labor camps and mines. The evolution of the resulting harshness of purges in Czechoslovakia, like much of its history after 1948, was a function of the late takeover by the communists, with many of the purges focusing on the sizable numbers of party members with prior memberships in other parties. Party leader Klement Gottwald's early claims that Czechoslovakia was different from the rest of the Eastern Bloc created jealousy and additional danger later when Stalin was showing an almost paranoiac desire for unity and uniformity.

Nine copies of reports, confessions and other documents in all countries' purges were circulated to Soviet and other Eastern Bloc leaders. In Poland, when the local leadership resisted Soviet pressure for show trials, the Soviets demanded the construction of more prisons, including one containing a special wing for high-ranking party members. The intensity of the purges varied by country, with thorough purges in places with a relatively popular party in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, and less thorough purges in places where the party was initially less well-established, such as Poland, Romania and East Germany.

Any member with a western connection was immediately vulnerable, which included large numbers of people who had spent years in exile in the West during the Nazi-occupation of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Many veterans of the Spanish Civil War were imprisoned or killed because they were tainted by their western experiences. Persons with western wives also were the targets of persecution. In addition to connections with Tito or Yugoslavia, persons who had previously belonged to non-communist parties merged in the Bloc politics process were also at risk, as were members from a non-working-class background.

In addition to rank-and-file member purges, prominent communists were purged, with some subjected to public show trials. These were more likely to be instigated, and sometimes orchestrated, by the Kremlin or even Stalin, as he had done in the Moscow Trials of the Great Purge in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. They included Koçi Xoxe in Albania and Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria, who were both purged and arrested. After Kostov was executed, Bulgarian leaders sent Stalin a telegram thanking him for the help. In Romania, Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu, Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca were arrested, with Pătrăşcanu being executed. Stalin's NKVD emissary coordinated with Hungarian General Secretary Mátyás Rákosi and his ÁVH head the way the show trial of Hungarian Foreign Minister László Rajk, who was later executed. The Rajk trials led Moscow to warn Czechoslovakia's parties that enemy agents had penetrated high into party ranks, and when a puzzled Rudolf Slánský and Klement Gottwald inquired what they could do, Stalin's NKVD agents arrived to help prepare subsequent trials. The Czechoslovakian party subsequently arrested Slánský himself, Vladimír Clementis, Ladislav Novomeský and Gustáv Husák (Clementis was later executed). Slánský and eleven others were convicted together of being "Trotskyist-zionist-titoist-bourgeois-nationalist traitors" in one series of show trials, after which they were executed and their ashes were mixed with material being used to fill roads on the outskirts of Prague. By the time of the Slánský trials, the Kremlin had been arguing that Israel, like Yugoslavia, had bitten the Soviet hand that had fed it, and thus the trials took an overtly anti-Semitic tone, with eleven of the fourteen defendants tried with Slánský being Jewish.

The Soviets directed show trial methods, including a procedure in which confessions and "evidence" from leading witnesses could be extracted by any means, including threatening to torture the witnesses’ wives and children. The higher ranking the party member, generally the more harsh the torture that was inflicted upon him. For the show trial of Hungarian Interior Minister János Kádár, who one year earlier attempted to force a confession of Laszlo Rajk in his show trial, regarding "Vladimir" the questioner of Kádár:

Vladimir had but one argument: blows. They had begun to beat Kádár. They had smeared his body with mercury to prevent his pores from breathing. He had been writhing on the floor when a newcomer had arrived. The newcomer was Vladimir’s father, Mihály Farkas.

Kádár was raised from the ground. Vladimir stepped close. Two henchmen pried Kádár’s teeth apart, and the colonel, negligently, as if this were the most natural thing in the world, urinated into his mouth.

After this trial, Kádár later rose to General Secretary of the ruling Hungarian Working People's Party when Imre Nagy was executed. Once in the interrogation room, the inquisitors made no pretense about attempting to seek real evidence, making it clear that their only task was to extract a confession that would be used to convince other people of the defendant's guilt. Many dedicated party members accepted the argument that they could perform one last service to the party by allowing themselves to be convicted of crimes that they had not committed. Even after the party reneged on a deal that was supposed to have spared László Rajk, Rajk allegedly yelled just before his execution "long live the party!" For those not executed, degradation and humiliation continued for years in prison or labor camps.

The evidence was often not just non-existent but absurd, with Hungarian George Paloczi-Horváth’s party interrogators delightedly exclaiming "We knew all the time—we have it here in writing—that you met professor Szentgyörgyi not in Istanbul, but in Constantinople." In another case, the Hungarian ÁVH secret police also condemned another party member as a Nazi accomplice with a document that had actually been previously displayed in glass cabinet of the Institute of the Working Class Movement as an example of a Gestapo forgery. The trials themselves were "shows", with each participant having to learn a script and conduct repeated rehearsals before the performance. In the Slánský trial, when the judge skipped one of the scripted questions, the better-rehearsed Slánský answered the one which should have been asked.

Some of the notable show trials in the Eastern Bloc after 1944
Member Party Notes
László Rajk Hungarian Working People's Party Hungarian Foreign Minister; orchestrated by Mátyás Rákosi, Joseph Stalin and János Kádár; tried with seven others; executed with two others
János Kádár Hungarian Working People's Party Beaten, mercury poured on skin, and mouth urinated in; eventually became General Secretary
Rudolf Slánský Communist Party of Czechoslovakia General Secretary who was tried in the Slánský trial with fourteen other mostly Jewish defendants; eleven executed; roads paved with ashes
Vladimír Clementis Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Minister of Foreign Affairs; hanged; erased from photograph with Klement Gottwald
Solomon Lozovsky Communist Party of the Soviet Union Chairman of Sovinformburo; tried in anti-Semitic Doctors' Plot; executed with thirteen other Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee members
Solomon Bregman Communist Party of the Soviet Union Deputy minister of State Control; tried in anti-Semitic Doctors' Plot; died in jail purportedly of heart disease after severe beatings
Aaron Katz Communist Party of the Soviet Union General of the Stalin Military Academy; tried in anti-Semitic Doctors' Plot; after beatings, he was released following Stalin's death
Traicho Kostov Bulgarian Communist Party President of Council of Ministers; tried with ten others; executed
Koçi Xoxe Party of Labour of Albania Defense and Interior Minister; forced to admit conspired with Josip Broz Tito; hanged
Rudolf Margolius Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade; executed
Bedřich Reicin Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Deputy Minister of National Defense; hanged with ten others
Otto Šling Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Regional Party Secretary; executed; wife imprisoned during trial
Milada Horáková Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Parliament member; show trial of Horáková and 12 others broadcast on radio; hanged
Arthur London Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; sentenced to life in prison
Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu Romanian Workers Party Central Committee member; possible Securitate torture; one leg amputated before trial; executed
Ana Pauker Romanian Workers Party Foreign Minister; charged with "cosmopolitanism" (Pauker was Jewish); released after Stalin's death; purged after later trial on other matters
Teohari Georgescu Romanian Workers Party Interior Minister; wife and two children also arrested; admitted guilt, but released
Vasile Luca Romanian Workers Party Minister of Finance; sentenced to death, but sentence commuted to life imprisonment and hard labour; died nine years into term

Read more about this topic:  Eastern Bloc Politics, Political Systems

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