At 8:15 a.m. on 8 June 1950, LLD Milada Horáková entered a Prague courtroom with twelve others accused of political crimes against Communist Czechoslovakia. There, she was barraged with one vitriolic salvo after another as the frenzied prosecutors accused her of plotting the destruction of the republic, espionage, and conspiring with Western imperialists against the “people’s democracy”.

It was the culmination of an eight-day Soviet-style show trial – among the earliest and the most grandiose in Czechoslovakia after the 1948 Communist coup – in which political opponents of the regime were interrogated, beaten, tortured and when finally broken, forced to stand trial in a process carefully scripted to inflame a public made puerile by war-weariness and fear.

Despite international outcry, including from well-known intellectuals and politicians such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, Horáková was sentenced to death along with three other defendants in the same trial, making her the first and only woman officially executed for political crimes in Czechoslovakia.

But she was much more than just one of the countless victims of the first wave of Stalinist terror in Eastern Europe that would quickly calcify into a block of totalitarian regimes. She worked tirelessly for most of her life on the often besieged and always beleaguered project of an independent, democratic Czechoslovak state. From the early days of the First Republic ushered in by its first President T. G. Masaryk, as a young lawyer she helped draft legislation aimed at improving the status of women and worked to promote the ideas that would come to be seen by Czechs as indigenous to their concept of democracy.

During the Nazi occupation she coordinated resistance activities, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1940 and sent to concentration camps in Bohemia and Germany until the end of the war. After the war she was elected to Parliament, but stepped down following the Communist coup in February 1948, when she began helping to organise the political opposition.

Her life and work can be seen as a filament running through and electrifying the course of the struggle for a free and democratic Czechoslovakia, and when her light was extinguished, the energy of this movement was sapped for many years to come.

In a letter written to her family from the gallows of Pankrac prison in the days before her execution, she wrote:

… I read somewhere not long ago that a letter is like a beam of light from a star. It shines to those who read it and illuminates them often, even if the light source has long ago been extinguished and no longer exists.

Though this was written as a parting message to her loved ones, the life of this star that no longer exists can also illuminate a national history that was obscured and manipulated for decades. And, maybe more importantly, shed light on contemporary debates on the role of civil society, the connection between women’s equality and democracy, and justice for past crimes that her legacy continues to complicate.

Having come of age at a moment of intense patriotic fervour in the Czech lands when the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was shed after the First World War, it was inevitable that Horáková’s strong convictions about human rights, social welfare and equality would find a voice among her contemporaries also engaged in the heady task of state-building.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who had championed the idea of an independent Czechoslovak Republic abroad during the war years and was widely seen as the leader of the nascent state, was elected as its first President. The philosopher, sociologist and journalist had high-minded goals. He and his followers sought to construct a free and democratic country based on the principles of human rights and equality. Achieving this goal would mean drawing many nationalities – Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and others – under one umbrella. But since the ideology behind the concept of a democratic Czechoslovakia was so heavily informed by the Czech National Revival of the previous century and almost impossible to disentangle from the ideology of Czech nationalism, the other ethnicities newly incorporated into something called “Czechoslovakia” often felt their interests were disregarded.

Nevertheless, the project marched ahead. Habsburg laws incongruent with the new democratic mode were thrown out, new institutions were created, and universal suffrage was one of the first new freedoms approved. This was no mistake. Masaryk was convinced that women’s equal participation in the democratic process was not only right and just, but essential to the proper functioning of that process. Many of his followers took this one step further, arguing that women’s equality was a defining characteristic of Czech democracy in particular.

As essential as women’s equality may have been viewed by these visionaries of the new republic, actually improving the status of women and codifying their rights in law turned out to be much more complicated, both in philosophical and juridical terms.

Having trained as a lawyer and graduated in 1926, Horáková became engaged in the woman question early in her career. Her first job was with Prague’s Central Social Services Authority, and she later worked in the mother and child care department of Prague’s Municipal Authority. She became increasingly occupied with women’s issues as a result of her work with the Czechoslovak Red Cross, which, in addition to its public health works, set up counselling centres for mothers, as well as homes for orphaned children, and helped refugees and those left homeless after the First World War.

It would be a friendship, however, that would have the most profound influence on Horáková’s contributions to women’s causes. As a young law-student she met one of Czechoslovakia’s most fiery proto-feminists, Františka Plamínková. “Plamka”, or “little flame” as she was known, for her sharp wit and keen debating skills, was a teacher, journalist, politician, and one of the earliest Czech crusaders for women’s rights.1 Though more than a quarter century Horáková’s senior, the two women were very close, and Plamínková hoped her friend would take up the mantle for the next generation of Czech women’s rights activists.

Together they worked on draft legislation that would abolish restrictions on women in the workforce, including the practice known as celibát which prohibited married women from working in the civil service. The contemporary arguments against married women in the workforce came from both religious and secular sources. It was thought that even if women must be allowed to participate in public life for the vibrancy of the democracy, their public activity must never disadvantage family life.2  The case for women in the workplace would become even more difficult to make in the early 1930s, when the economic depression affecting most of Europe would lead to a shortage of jobs, and married women earning a second income that supplemented their husbands’ wages were seen as cheating men out of their only means of supporting their families.

In addition to advocating married women’s right to work, Horáková also drafted legislation improving the legal status and conditions of unmarried women and children born out of wedlock.

Plamínková and Horáková argued for equality for women in the workforce on the basis of Article 106 in the freshly drafted Czechoslovak Constitution of 1920. Article 106 ensured that the state “would not recognise privileges of sex”. The law was eventually passed and enjoyed the support of another of Plamínková’s close friends, the President of the Republic T. G. Masaryk.

Despite the backing of influential politicians, Plamínková felt Czechoslovakia needed a national organisation dedicated to enforcing women’s hard-won equality. She founded the Women’s National Council (Ženská národní rada) in 1923 and led it until her death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942, passing on the helm to Horáková before she died.

In addition to serving as a watchdog to ensure women’s rights in the public sphere were upheld, the Women’s National Council also campaigned for equalising the status of women in family life, a much more contentious undertaking in a country where many women, including some of the most progressive thinkers, embraced traditional patriarchal relations in the home, however progressive their views might be of women’s roles in society. Under the Habsburg-era civil code still in effect, husbands had a great deal of control over their wives, including managing their property and allowing or forbidding them to work outside the home. The Women’s National Council cleverly welded the need for women’s equality in the family to a patriotic imperative to throw off the shackles of the old monarchical structures and create modern and democratic “Czechoslovak” norms in the family.

While Horáková was a leader in the largest national women’s rights organisation, she was also influential within the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party (Česká strana národně sociální, no relation whatsoever to Germany’s Nazi Party). Also the party of Plamínková and Czechoslovakia’s second President, Edvard Beneš, the CSNS was steeped in Czech nationalism, a fact that prevented the party from ever garnering much support among Slovaks and Germans, but it was also probably the party most dedicated to furthering Masaryk’s goal of an independent, democratic Czechoslovak state.3 The Socialist party before the Second World War was more concerned with advancing international socialism, whereas the CSNS began focusing on opposition to Austro-Hungarian rule quite early, aligning with Masaryk’s Progressive Party in 1908 in joint protest of the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some of the other major parties had narrower agrarian or religious constituencies, and none were so much viewed as consistently loyal to Masaryk’s ideals.

Horáková, who was elected to Parliament on a CSNS ticket after the Second World War, and Plamínková, who was a Senator before the war, were not alone in attaining leadership roles in the party. The CSNS platform emphasised women’s rights and increased social welfare, and also usually fielded more female candidates for political office than other parties.

Outside of politics, Horáková had her husband Bohuslav Horák and their daughter, Jana, born in 1933, but the tranquillity of family life would be continually interrupted from the mid-30s on, as the tension with the Sudeten German community in Czechoslovakia and the threat of Nazi invasion grew in tandem with the need for her work and political engagement.

The Sudeten crisis was exaggerated and exploited by Hitler as a pretext to annex the territory of Czechoslovakia with ethnic German majorities. The terms were set in the Munich Agreement signed in September 1938 with the conspicuous absence of any representative from Czechoslovakia. Since the signatory countries France and Britain had previously signed accords with Czechoslovakia promising to come to the country’s aid in the case of an attack, the agreement became known to Czechs as the “Munich betrayal”.

President Beneš fled to Paris soon after and later to London with other politicians to establish the Czechoslovak government in exile. Horáková stayed behind. She was dismissed from her position at the Prague Municipal Authority just before the invasion like most married women working in the civil service as a result of a back-pedalling of women’s rights during the “Second Republic”, the short period between the annexation of the Sudetenland and the occupation of Czechoslovakia. She began organising services for Czech refugees who had been expelled from the Sudetenland and later for the families of resistance fighters battling the Nazis abroad with the Allies.

She also helped organise the home resistance as a member of the group “We Remain Faithful” (Věrni zůstaneme; the original name was “We will remain faithful to the legacy of Masaryk”), which sought to sabotage the Protectorate by distributing anti-Nazi print materials, gathering intelligence for the Allied forces, and arranging illegal border crossings for resistance fighters and those passing information to the Allies.4

In July 1940 she was arrested with her husband, an agricultural engineer who had cooperated with the Czech government in exile by providing agricultural reports. She was held and interrogated for the better part of two years in Prague before being sent to the Terezín concentration camp and later to stand trial at a Nazi court in Germany which originally sentenced her to death, but later lessened the sentence to eight years of hard labour in prison in Germany. Much of her time in prison was spent in solitary confinement and under extremely harsh conditions.

After the liberation in 1945, she returned home as a heroine of the anti-fascist resistance and exponent of the battered and abused Czechoslovakia. At the urging of her friend and fellow National Socialist Edvard Beneš, who had been reinstated as President, she entered politics as a member of the Provisional National Assembly that same year.

Though Czechoslovakia was not nearly as ravaged by war as some neighbouring countries, the task of rebuilding was immense. One of the most difficult questions was what to do with the ethnic German population, which was largely seen as having welcomed the Nazi occupation.

The controversial Beneš Decrees, which were crafted by the Czechoslovak government in exile and ratified by the Provisional National Assembly in 1946, would see ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia stripped of their citizenship and property without compensation and deported. Though there were exceptions made for ethnic Germans who had demonstrated loyalty to Czechoslovakia during the war years, the majority were forced out. Estimates vary and are contentious, but certainly at least 2.4 million were expelled, and as many as 19,000 perished in the process.

This extrajudicial verdict of collective guilt for the war was handed down to other non-Slavic minorities, namely the sizeable ethnic Hungarian community in Slovakia, who also saw their citizenship revoked and property confiscated. Though the Western allies pushed back against the kind of full-scale expulsion of the Hungarians that they had conceded to with the Germans, nevertheless, thousands were forcibly deported.

The National Socialists, despite their profession of democratic principles, supported the Beneš Decrees. Horáková was insistent the decrees be implemented according to the rule of law. Unfortunately, they clearly were not.

After the savageries of the Nazis, it’s not surprising that there were cries for retributive justice, and on a practical level, any hope of creating a multiethnic state that included the German minority surely seemed lost. The idealistic construct of a multiethnic and uniquely Czechoslovak democracy had buckled under the burden of war. As even some Czech historians and politicians admit, the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia meets the criteria of a genocide, and the claims of the descendants of Sudeten Germans on property and lands in the former Czechoslovakia continue to periodically stymie Czech–German relations nearly 70 years later.

Elections were held in 1946 (only Czechs, Slovaks and other Slavic citizens were allowed to register to vote), and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPC) was victorious, wining over a third of the vote. The CPC had strived to align itself in the public’s eye with the liberating Red Army in the immediate post-war period, and touted its credentials as a party free from the influence of fickle, self-interested Western powers (à la Munich). Citizens soon began to baulk at the economic reforms backed by the CPC however, and their popularity dwindled5as a political crisis simmered.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the CPC began to plot a coup d’état under the direction of CPC chairman Klement Gottwald. In 1947 Justice Minister Prokop Drtina, Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk (son of T. G. Masaryk) and Deputy Prime Minister Petr Zenkl, a long-time friend of Horáková, received packages with explosives in the mail. When Drtina presented evidence to Parliament that the packages had been sent by CPC members, the Communists dismissed him as a reactionary. When they were pressured to reinstate non-Communists purged from the Ministry of Interior and police force, they stepped up their demonstrations and fanned public unrest, with the Soviet Army conveniently lying in wait to intervene and restore order if needed.

Twelve non-Communist ministers resigned in February 1948, not enough to dissolve the government, and when Gottwald, with his armed “action committees” mobilised around the country, threatened to call for a general strike if the vacancies were not filled with people hand-picked by him, Beneš caved in and accepted the resignations as well as the replacements Gottwald demanded.

Horáková and other non-Communist members of Parliament resigned, and the terror began in earnest. Non-Communist politicians and democrats who had opposed the CPC were put under surveillance and intimidated, forcing many to flee to the West. Others were arrested. Jan Masaryk, who had a reputation for being emotional and suffering bouts of depression, was found dead in the courtyard below his bathroom window in his pyjamas. It was ruled a suicide, but the mysterious circumstances of his death led to a persistent belief among many Czechs that he was murdered by the Soviet secret police.

While not targeted immediately as Masaryk may have been, Horáková was under pressure, and many of her friends encouraged her to leave the country as well. Instead, she stayed behind and helped others escape. She maintained her contacts with friends and colleagues who had emigrated. She was also part of a group of National Socialists and other democratic-minded politicians who met to organise a political opposition to the authoritarian regime that had bullied its way into power under threat of a Soviet invasion and had already begun to either dismantle the democratic institutions of the state or repurpose them for its pernicious aims.

In the budding police state that Czechoslovakia was becoming, her activities did not go unnoticed. She was arrested on 27 September 1949. Her husband, who the state security was also looking for, managed to escape.

Under the guidance of Soviet advisors experienced in breaking the will of the defendants in preparation for a show trial, the state security tortured Horáková and the others who were tried with her. Typical interrogation methods of that era included forcing prisoners to stand waist-deep in cold water for up to 24 hours at a time, depriving them of food, heat, light or sleep in cramped spaces for days at a time. Their families were threatened and were interrogated relentlessly.

The effects of this brutality are plain to see in original documents from the security service archives. In an “initial testimony” dated 9 November 1949, Horáková articulately expresses her dissatisfaction with the current political situation, but insists she was “openly opposed” to any “illegal or underground activities”. A sample from her “question record” dated four months later on 14 March 1950 contains robotic responses in a style alien to Horáková and is sprinkled with specialised state security terminology.6

There were different versions of the script written for the show trial, but the version that was chosen depicted Horáková as the leader of a “fifth column” engaging in espionage with Western imperialists and treacherously inciting an invasion. Selected parts of the “trial” were broadcast on state radio in a way meticulously staged to incite public fear of a conspiracy to bring war to Czechoslovakia once again. The CPC organised letter-writing campaigns, including for school children, to call for harsh punishment for Horáková and her co-defendants.

To the chagrin of the prosecutors assailing her on the witness stand, she broke from the script multiple times to carefully explain her reasoning. At one point an embarrassed procurator angrily commanded her to “stop using legal formulations”!

In her closing speech, she made one last stand expressing her clear conscience and continued faithfulness to her beliefs.

I maintain my beliefs because I relied on the opinions and information of people I consider authorities, above all the two presidents of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Dr Edvard Beneš, who have had an effect on me my whole life.

But this statement, along with several others she made over the course of the trial, diverged from the script the defendants had been given and was never aired. It wasn’t until 55 years later in 2005 that historians at the National Archive discovered three reels of recordings from the trial that had never been played. The reels contain 58 minutes of sound from the trial, including Horáková’s closing speech.

Among the passages cut by the censors was one insisting on her non-violent philosophy, “As a woman and a mother, I personally never wanted war”, because it contradicted the whole foundation of their prosecution – that she had conspired to destroy the “People’s Republic” by bringing about another catastrophic war.

The discovery of the reels ignited a renewed interest in Horáková among Czechs that continues to this day and has inspired several documentaries, plays and historical investigations.

She was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death along with three other prisoners. The sentence was carried out on the morning of 27 June 1950 and her remains were never returned to her family.7

During the Prague Spring, the short period of liberalisation that was quashed by a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion, attempts were made to rehabilitate her image, but the truth about Milada Horáková was not really allowed to be told until after the Velvet Revolution overthrew the Communist regime in 1989.

In 2007, the last surviving prosecutor in Horáková’s show trial, Ludmila Brožová- Polednová, was convicted as an accomplice to murder and sentenced to eight years in prison. She was later pardoned, however, by President Václav Klaus, who cited her age and poor health as cause for her reprieve.

At the age of just 28, and with little formal legal education or experience, Polednová was tapped to be one of the five prosecutors (and the only woman) overseeing the case of Horáková et al. Historians have noted that it was key to the manipulation of public opinion that a trial with three female defendants, all well known in national politics, have at least one female prosecutor, thereby pre-empting any public sympathy for the women and exhibiting how much the Communist Party valued their female comrades. In fact, not only did Polednová participate in the trial despite a lack of credentials, she also delivered the closing speech for the prosecution – a hysterical denunciation of the defendants that was zealous to the point of farce.

With Soviet advisors having been consulted on all aspects of the show trial, it is easy to see Polednová’s prominent role in the proceedings against Horáková and the other women as a juxtaposition of the type of feminism proclaimed by the Soviets, and the ideals of Czechoslovak feminism, of which Horáková was a prominent proponent.

Undeniably, the Soviets were years ahead of most Western countries in terms of legislating women’s rights – universal suffrage, equal pay for equal work, legal abortion, and provisions for childcare were all codified into Soviet law in advance of most capitalist countries, and Soviet diplomats were later keen to tout these achievements when challenged about their rights record by Western countries. But for all the rights women had on paper, their ability to exercise them was, like almost every other aspect of public and even private life in the Soviet Union, dependent on demonstrations of party loyalty. Women’s advocates who pointed out persistent inequities and shortcomings in the day-to-day implementation of the laws were arrested, interrogated, and in some cases deported.

Polednová, by virtue of her prominence in the prosecution, would portray the Communists as sympathetic to their sister workers, and the only prerequisites were her loyalty and willingness to wield the hatchet.

Polednová’s case was just one of many examples of unfulfilled justice that will become more common as time runs out to punish those responsible for the crimes of this era.

But even as those potentially culpable in the actual crimes of the totalitarian regime pass unreproved into history, fresh denials of those crimes continue to surface, and with them a renewed struggle not only for control of the historical narrative, but for a pluralistic society with the fortitude to resist insidious ideas.

In April 2014, a criminal complaint was made by a state prosecutor against Marta Semelová, a member of Czech Parliament from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, regarding comments she made earlier in the year on a television news programme. On the programme she expressed doubt that Horákova’s confession was in any way coerced and said the trial was conducted, as far as she could tell, according to the rule of law. In the complaint, Semelová was accused of supporting a movement which suppresses human rights and freedoms, the penalty for which is up to 10 years in prison.

Semelová has stood by her statements, and said freedom of speech is not being upheld in the Czech Republic, and that if she is not able to share her opinion, then the state of Czech democracy is grave.

The debate over Semelová’s comments and the outrage over Polednová’s pardon that played out in the Czech press are just a few of the countless examples of contemporary discussions of Horáková in Czech media, the arts and education that show her murder still haunts the Czech consciousness as a grisly moment in their collective history under totalitarianism. But beyond the Czech borders, where her story is not widely known, it can be read as a letter from the past that can enlighten us in our continued endeavour for those same democratic principles.

1 See Barbara Reinfeld’s biography, “Františka Plamínková (1875–1942), Czech feminist and patriot”, published in Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, 25:1, 13–33, (1997).

2  For an excellent analysis of the celibát system and women’s status in the First Czechoslovak Republic, see Melissa Feinberg’s “Democracy and its Limits: Gender and Rights in the Czech Lands, 1918–1938”, Nationalities Papers, 30:4 (2002).

3  For a comprehensive history of the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party, see Bruce Garver’s “Václav Klofáč and the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party”, East Central Europe, 17:2 (1990).

4 For a detailed account of Horáková’s war time activities, see Markéta Doležalová’s biographical essay, “Milada Horáková (1901–1950)”, published by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

5 For a step-by-step breakdown of the events leading up to the 1948 coup drawing from diplomatic cables sent by both the American and Soviet missions in Prague, see Igor Lukes’ “The 1948 Coup d’état in Prague through the Eyes of the American Embassy”, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 22:431–449 (2011).

6 Original documents pertaining to the trial are kept at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague.

7 See Czech Television’s serial documentary about the trail, “Proces H”.

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