Rudolf Salzmann Slánský (1901-1952) was one of the founding members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and played a leading role in the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. In the purges of "national Communists" ordered by Joseph Stalin, he was hanged, charged with treason and other crimes in 1952.
Slánský was born on July 31, 1901, in Nezvěstice near Pilsen, in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He came from a Czech-Jewish middle class background; his father was a small village trader. Slánský himself was educated at the Commercial Academy in Pilsen. After World War I he moved to Prague, capital of the new state of Czechoslovakia, associating with other leftist intellectuals in the so-called "Marxist Club" and joining the Czechoslovak Communist Party when it was established in 1921.
Thereafter, he rose rapidly in the party hierarchy, concentrating his efforts in youth activities and journalism. He became editor of the party's newspaper, Rudé Právo (Red Right), and in 1924 he was appointed party secretary in the heavily industrialized northern region of Moravská Ostrava. In 1929 he was elected to the central and executive committees of the party. In the same year, at the Fifth Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, he was raised to membership in the party's presidium and politburo. At the congress he sided with the party faction led by Klement Gottwald, helping the latter retain his post of secretary general.
For several years Slánský, charged by the Czech government with high treason for his illegal underground activities, was forced to live in hiding in interwar Czechoslovakia. Elected a deputy to the National Assembly in 1935, he received parliamentary immunity from arrest. He served in the assembly until 1937. After the infamous Munich Agreement engineered by Adolf Hitler in 1938, Slánský, considered an indispensable Communist leader, was flown to Moscow, where he spent the World War II years from 1939 to 1944. In the Soviet Union he directed the Czech broadcasts of Radio Moscow, helped organize Czechoslovak military units on Russian soil, and trained partisan groups for action in the Czech and Slovak lands. With Gottwald and others, he planned the restructuring of the postwar Czechoslovak government with the Czechoslovak president-in-exile, Eduard Beneš, when the latter visited Moscow in 1943. In 1944 he became the Czechoslovak representative to Partisan General Headquarters in Kiev, then was sent to assist the short-lived Slovak national uprising against the clerico-fascist government of the Slovak Republic, the puppet state set up by Nazi Germany. When the uprising was crushed, Slánský stayed on to lead the remaining partisans in the rugged Tatra Mountains through the forbidding winter of 1944-1945.
After the war Slánský became one of the two top leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, second in status only to his long-time comrade, Gottwald. At the Eighth Party Congress in March 1946 he himself became the party's secretary general, administering its complex internal affairs. Gottwald assumed the newly-created rank of party chairman, retaining general supervision of the party's policy but concentrating on the party's growing role in the government of Czechoslovakia. Slánský also reentered the Czechoslovak parliament in 1945, becoming chairman of the National Assembly's defense committee. In September 1947 he was a delegate to the conference at Wilczagora in Lower Silesia that set up the Cominform, the new Communist international organization.
In February 1948 Slánský, together with Gottwald, led the Communists in their seizure of power in Czechoslovakia through a bloodless coup d'état. Honors flowed to him. On his 50th birthday in July 1951 the regime announced that Slánský's "collected works" were to be published. Four months later, in November, after the post of party secretary general had been abolished and its functions assumed by Party Chairman Gottwald, Slánský was promoted to the rank of vice-premier in the government.
Shortly afterward, on November 27, 1951, it was announced that Slánský had been arrested. He was charged with having organized a "Titoist" conspiratorial center, of being the ringleader of a "Jewish" plot to assassinate Gottwald and overthrow the new Communist regime with American and British assistance. Once the Communists had securely established their rule in Czechoslovakia, intra-party rivalries and hatreds reappeared and coalesced as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered purges of "bourgeois nationalists," "Titoists," "Trotskyists," and "Zionists" and "dual loyalists" (Jews) throughout the Soviet bloc. Within the Czechoslovak Communist Party two major factions contended, one led by Gottwald, the other by Slánský. Slánský's middle-class, Jewish background made him a likely target, as did his systematic machinations to infiltrate crucial offices within the party and governmental apparatus with his own trusted henchmen. Gottwald, on the other hand, came from Czech (Moravian) peasant stock, had widespread popular support, and, as a devoted supporter of Stalin's policies in the Comintern since 1928, had the Soviet dictator's favor as well. The Soviets, who directed the purge process in all of their satellites, backed Gottwald and abandoned Slánský.
After prolonged police interrogation and the calculated application of physical and psychological pressure, the entire technique supervised by Soviet "advisers," Slánský and 13 other co-defendants (11 of the 14 were Jews) were prosecuted publicly in the notorious "Slánský Trial" held before a "people's court" in Prague from November 20 to 27, 1952. After duly reciting their carefully memorized confessions of high treason, espionage, and sabotage, all were found guilty. On December 2, 1952, Slánský and ten other prominent Czech and Slovak Communists (notably Vladimír Clementis, the eminent Slovak Communist and one-time Czechoslovak foreign minister) were sentenced to death, the three others to life imprisonment at hard labor, including work in Czechoslovakia's uranium mines.
Slánský was hanged the next day, cremated, and his ashes unceremoniously sprinkled on an icy winter road. Slánský's wife, Josefa, was also briefly imprisoned until April 1953. His brother, Richard, was arrested in 1951 while serving as deputy ambassador to Poland, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was released in 1958 and "rehabilitated" in 1963.
After Stalin's death in 1953 and the resulting "thaw" in political conditions throughout the Soviet Union and the entire Soviet bloc, public demands were made in Czechoslovakia, as in the other satellites, for the reinvestigation of the fabricated charges and convictions of the early 1950s. In 1963 Slánský and all of his co-defendants were officially "rehabilitated" legally and as citizens. In May 1968 they were fully rehabilitated and exonerated of their alleged crimes, though none of them were reinstated as members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
Further Reading on Rudolf Salzmann Slánský
Victor S. Mamatey and Radomír Luža, editors, A History of the Czechoslovak Republic, 1918-1948 (1973) is a detailed survey of the country's history from its founding to the Communist coup. There are also two authoritative studies of the rise and triumph of Communism in Czechoslovakia: Josef Korbel, The Communist Subversion of Czechoslovakia, 1938-1948: The Failure of Coexistence (1959), and Paul E. Zinner, Communist Strategy and Tactics in Czechoslovakia, 1918-1948 (1963).
There is no English-language biography of Rudolf Slánský, and biographical material on him is generally scarce. Josefa Slánský's Report on My Husband (1969), written by Slánský's wife during the liberal "Prague Spring" period in 1968, includes some intimate personal detail. The documents and accompanying text are especially revealing of the harsh treatment of Slánský's family at the time of his trial and after his execution. Two of the three co-defendants of Slánský who were sentenced to life imprisonment and later released and "rehabilitated" have written their own accounts of their arrest, interrogation, trial, and incarceration: Artur London, The Confession (1970), and Eugen Loebl, Stalinism in Prague: The Loebl Story (1969). They provide gripping and illuminating, if painful, reading. Jiří Pelikán, editor, The Czechoslovak Political Trials, 1950-1954 (1971), is the full report (later suppressed) of the official inquiry into the Stalinist purges in Czechoslovakia launched by the ephemeral reform government of Alexander Dubček in 1968.