THE PARTY IS ALWAYS RIGHT: Karp and Slánský
Books are quietly resting in my bookshelves, year after year. When I look at them I wonder where and why I bought them, one day I will read them. When I few a weeks ago, travelled to Prague I brought with me One, a novel by David Karp, without any other thought than "now it may be the right time for me to read it".
I usually write my name on the first page, and when I saw that my signature was not as unreadable as it has become, I realized that I bought the book while I was still in high school. Maybe I had been tempted by the text on the cover:
You know what I intend to do with the Burden? I am going pulverize his identity, reduce him from one to zero, into nothing.
David Karp? Even if several of his novels had been published by the prestigious Penguin, a publishing house that even included One among its Modern Classics, Carp has now disappeared into the mists of the past. Between 1952 and 1964 he wrote eleven novels, only to leave this badly paid endeavour to devote himself to the writing of scripts for TV series and commercials.
David Karp seems in many ways to have been the archetype of a "typical, successful American". He was born in poverty on Manhattan, where he made a living as dish washer, street vendor and as barker for theatres and restaurants, before he served as a radio operator in the Pacific war, after his return he took a course of literature at a college and finally worked as freelance writer for various TV channels. Carp married when he was 22 years, moved to Los Angeles and had two sons. In 1999, he died of lung cancer - too much smoking. That's basically all the information I could mine from the web.
Perhaps Karp perceived himself as one of the characters who appear in his books. His novel Leave Me Alone, written in 1956, has been compared to the TV series Mad Men and according to a blog writer it depicts
… the plight of the mildly talented, burdened with artistic sensibility and the painful, growing realisation of their own mediocrity.
This description also applies to Professor Burden in One, he is a literary scholar and teacher at a provincial college in a future state, which is reminiscent of the United States in the fifties. Professor Burden is living with his beautiful, loving wife and two moderately mischievous boys in a suburban house, surrounded by similar households with discreet, friendly residents. It is a calm, orderly existence and Burden seems to be quite satisfied with his life. However, by subtle means Carp succeeds in convincing his readers that all is not right in this somewhat too glaring idyll.
When Burden comes home from his rather tedious lecturing, he retires after supper into his cosy office, fills the bowl of his pipe, lights it and then devotes himself to his favourite pastime. Exactly at eight o'clock he starts writing his daily report to the Ministry for Review of Internal Conditions. Generally he has his report ready within an hour, which gives him enough time to calmly read it through and then bring it down to the mailbox, in good time before the last pick-up, at ten thirty.
Burden's report is a precise description of his daily impressions of his colleagues, their general behaviour and one or two occasional startling statements uttered by them. It has been more than ten years since Burden was summoned to the Ministry for Review of Internal Conditions and received his specific task. Like other informers, Burden was asked to conceal his activities even for his family and was also informed that he had been selected after a very careful examination of his character, trustworthiness and general capabilities.
Burden likes his task, he enjoys writing reports and assumes that his assessments of his environment contribute to sharpening his ability of observation and thus favours his skills in literary analysis. He has also learned to read other persons' lips, a great asset for his task as informer. Burden does not ponder on the fact that his statements might harm his colleagues, that he is in fact a cunning spy. So far, he has considered his reports to be some a kind of literary endeavour that develops his writing skills. When he reads what he has written the reports appear as first-rate short stories born out of his everyday experiences. While sitting by his typewriter, puffing contentedly on his pipe Burden imagines how a young, for him unknown, lady at the Ministry for Review of Internal Conditions appreciatively and approvingly enjoys his excellent reports.
Burden does not realize that every evening Government trucks gather tons of reports from all over the country, which eventually are dumped on the huge ramps at "the extreme boundary units" of the Ministry for Review of Internal Conditions. An enormous building complex where reports are labelled and archived. A report file is brought to light only when certain crimes or conspiracies are suspected, much like when recordings from surveillance cameras are examined only after a crime has been committed, or is suspected to take place. However, periodically are a specific amount of reports picked out for routine check-ups and one day Burden´s report is picked up and placed before one of thousands of secretaries at the Department for Special Tasks, who forwards it to a pipe-smoking, corpulent and obviously good-natured bureaucrat called Conger, who despite his apparent cosiness is a cynical and well-trained judge of people whose job it is to track down any sign of "heresy" of the person whose report file has ended up on his desk.
One describes a future society without the neverending wars, the slogans, video screens, electronic surveillance, regime loyal soldiers and torture chambers we have been acquainted from classical dystopias like 1984 or We. There are no amazing technical features in Karp's novel; not much seems to separate its environment from the US middle-class world of the fifties, there are still paper magazines around, regular mail service, villas with well-kept lawns, family peace, breakfast and dinners shared by all family members, offices with typewriters and water fountains. Every detail seems to be controlled and regulated, but is obviously a safe and peaceful existence, where conflicts, critical thinking, dissent and improper behaviour are avoided. You take vacations, go out into the countryside, read pulp literature and watch TV. Nevertheless, hidden from the sight of most people there is a huge state-controlled bureaucracy that keeps a careful watch over any deviation from what is considered to be the norms for each and every one.
The novel was written in 1952 and has of course been compared with Orwell´s 1984 and then assessed as a pale copy of that acclaimed novel. However, despite some similarities One is a different novel than 1984 and the benevolent, conformist, but alas so vapid society of Karp´s novel makes me think more about the American ideals of the1950s, than a totalitarian, Stalinist future state.
Karp's vast Ministry for Review of Internal Conditions appears to correspond to an American wishful thinking thinking about about an institution able to track down any threat to national security. The terminology is reminiscent of the US Department of Homeland Security, a US federal agency established after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and headed by a minister of homeland security. During Karp's lifetime there was, just as nowadays, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which under the tight leadership of J. Edgar Hoover (1924-1972) devoted time, energy and resources on investigating political activists, who were not suspected of any crime per se, but who were nevertheless registered in extensive archives describing their views and actions.
In 1947, the president Harry Truman ordered the establishment of a Federal Employees Loyalty Program, and loyalty review boards were created throughout the nation to assess the degree of Americanism of federal employees and recommending immediate dismissal and/or punishment of Government employees who had been forced to admit spying for the Soviet Union's behalf, or suspected of other un-American activities. A general fear of Communist terror soon spread all through the American society and resulted in what has been called The Second Red Scare.
The First Red Scare shock the nation in the early twenties, as a response to trade union activities, the rise of the Soviet Union and anarchism. It led among other things to the deportation of radical "elements", stricter immigration laws, especially directed against Asians, Southern Europeans and refugees from Russia and Eastern Europe, increased racism and registration of individuals assumed to constitute a danger to society. It was the heyday of Ku Klux Klan, which at its peak in the mid-1920s, claimed to include about 15 percent of the nation's eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men.
The Second Red Scare was also a period marked by active political repression of Communists, terror campaigns by right-wing forces and generally baseless allegations of Soviet espionage in government circles, academia and industry. This period of opinion registration, stooling and general fear of everything foreign is said to have lasted between 1947 and 1957, but it does of course live on, especially now when Communists have been replaced by “Muslims” as a threat to "civilization" and social order.
Professor Burden in Karp's novel is proud of his reports and believes that an order to appear before the Department for Special Tasks means that he will be commended for his outstanding efforts, or perhaps even receive some kind of award. As a matter of fact, Conger the respected bureaucrat who receives the insignificant lecturer in his office deep inside the bowels of the Department's labyrinths, has not read a single word in any of Burden´s reports. He quietly asks his unsuspecting visitor:
- Do you have any idea of why you were called in?
Burden nervously lingers with the answer, but after a while Conger get him to admit:
- I nursed a pretty childish belief that I would ... be officially congratulated for my work.
Conger plays with Burden like a cat plays with a mouse. Burden seems to believe that he is a special person, better than other citizens - a gross sin in a nation where everyone should consider him/herself as an equal to anyone else, neither better, nor worse. A discussion unfolds and Conger becomes convinced that Burden is an independently thinking individualist - a heretic:
- You consider yourself as one of the Ministry's more prominent informers?
The confused Burden cannot answer. He does not know that his reports have never been read by anyone. Conger is lying shamelessly:
- As a matter of fact, your reports have been found to be a good step below average in terms of both evaluation and perception, lacking accuracy and workmanship.
The offended literature professor is incapable of hiding his outrage and thus reveals that he holds a high opinion about himself. On the suspicion of being a dangerous heretic Burden is retained within the Ministry and the novel depicts in detail the systematic brainwashing he is subjected to. No open torture, but a quiet, patient destruction of Burden's self-esteem, which is actually just as worrying and terrifying as the diabolical degradation processes depicted in so many other dystopian novels.
The torture is not executed by any blunt, insensitive thugs, but by highly intelligent individuals. Hand-picked outsiders familiar with heretical thought, like the clear-minded, extremely cynical and kindly Lark:
Neither a full-grown man, nor a boy. He was neither a scientist, nor a mystic. He was something vastly subtler, something very much wiser - woman, snake, magician, seer, a fool. The Ministry had its specialists, interrogators, medical technicians psychologists, politicians, administrators [...] However, there was only one single, one hundred percent inquisitor. Lark was the Ministry's brain and marrow - a fact that practically nobody was familiar with. He had neither the corresponding title, nor the salary, not even any crucial influence. However, he was in possession of a true inquisitor´s soul, his sharpness and intuitive grasp.
With the help of his subordinates Lark picks Burden's broken soul and mind, and then build him up again – to become a good corporate citizen, without family or past. By transforming him into submissive zombie, Lark saves Burden from liquidation.
Burden is an "insignificant" citizen, unlike Rubashov, a character who Arthur Koestler in his novel Darkness at Noon created as a blend of several well-known Communist leaders wiped out by Stalin, some of whom had been familiar with Koestler. The author was also inspired by the three weeks he spent in a cell in Seville in anticipation of being executed as a communist spy by Franco fascists. As a matter of fact Koestler was at the time a spy serving the Stalinist regime under the cover as a journalist for a right-wing newspaper.
In particular the fate of Nikolai Bukharin, once an appreciated General Secretary of Comintern´s executive committee, permeates the entire novel. Bukarin broke down during Stalin's Great Purge (1936-1938) and was after one of many show trials executed in 1938, the same year Koestler left the Communist Party and began his novel. Before Rubashov was executed, he had been quashed by bad conscience for his actions in allegiance to a party that finally forced him to make baseless confessions and destroyed him in the name of an ideology which integrity he had a hard time denying, even if he continuously was exposed to a ruthless mental and physical torture by servants to the same political system he believed in.
Professor Burden was treated milder and more subtle than the victims of Stalinism. He seems to be a willing participant in his own brainwashing, motivated by a sincere desire to become "normal". Following the process of his complicated and pitiful breakdown the reader wonders why the Government made such efforts to "reform" an “insignificant” citizen like Burden. We do not become familiar with the leadership of this totalitarian state power, which presence is much more discreet than 1984s Big Brother. David Karp´s State is not involved in any war, its propaganda is not conspicuous and the society it controls is characterized by peace and equality.
Could it perhaps be that Burden's case is just one of thousands of others? We don´t know. His persecutor – Lark, might possibly be just one of several other, similar inquisitors. Perhaps Karp´s State is as large and comprehensive as those in Borges´ mirror worlds? Perhaps is Burden's novel, not at all taking place in the future.
I am reading One while resting on a sofa bed in my oldest daughter's apartment in Prague. Occasionally, I lift my eyes from the book pages and through the beautiful, cubist-framed windows I look out on dark clouds looming outside.
Karp wrote his book in 1952, on the third of December that same year eleven men were between three o'clock and a quarter to six in the morning hanged in the courtyard of the Pankrác prison in Prague, all of them had been participants in the Communist nomenklatura. In the same courtyard where they were being executed, no less than 234 men had been hanged during a Communist coup d'état four years earlier.
The bodies of the eleven executed Communists were directly transferred to a crematory and their ashes poured into a potato sack. Two policemen and a driver were ordered to scatter the ashes on a field outside of Prague, but it was very cold day and the roads were slippery. As soon as they arrived outside the city the three men went out of the car and scattered the ashes directly on the road. When they later reported their deed the driver laughed, quipping that he never before had had fourteen people in his car - himself, the two policemen and the eleven dead criminals in the potato sack. The newspapers published a list of those who had been executed, after the name of ten of them it was written "Jew of birth".
Some of those executed, but far from all, were to be blamed for the death of others. Between 1945 and 1948, 90 million citizens of Eastern European countries ended up under Communist rule. During negotiations taking place during World War II the allied forces had guaranteed the leaders of the Soviet Union that countries liberated by its Red Army, would be subjected to the Soviet demand that all regimes established within these conquered territories had to be friendly disposed to the Soviet Union and that occupying Red Army forces would have a free hand to act against fascist groups. Stalin gave himself the exclusive right to judge what ”Fascism” was and according to him it was basically a term for everything and everyone that stood in opposition to his own interpretation of "Communism".
Unlike the case in most other "liberated" Eastern Bloc countries several Czechoslovak citizens were relatively sympathetic to their domestic Communists and the Soviet Union, which had refused to sign the shameful Munich Agreement, which had cleared the way for Nazi Germany's carnage and terror in Czechoslovakia. In the free elections of May 1946, the Communists gained 38 per cent of the votes, while the Social Democrat's popular leader, Edvard Beneš, was elected president. Beneš wanted to tie Czechoslovakia, which was still one of Europe's leading industrial nations, closer to the West, but he had one weakness - he wanted at all costs expel the German speaking population from Sudetenland, which for centuries had been an integral part of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia's core area.
Beneš policy of ethnic cleansing was supported by the Communists and furthermore popular with the majority of the Czech population. It was a contributing factor to why the army and the police came to be dominated by Communists, as well as the Department of Agriculture came under Communist control. This Ministry was in charge of distributing the land left by the over 50 000 German-speaking Sudeten, who by army and police had been expelled from territories that for centuries had been populated by their ancestors.
Beneš´ Social Democrats negotiated a trade agreement with England and in 1947 they participated in the Paris meetings that would result in the US Marshall Aid, aiming at building up the economy in Europe´s war-torn countries. This initiative displeased the Soviet Union and the Czechoslovakian Social-democratic government was forced to abandon its cooperation with Western powers. Czechoslovakia´s principled and popular foreign minister, Jan Masaryk, son of the Republic´s founder, Tomáš Masaryk, was found dead below his office window, apparently thrown out by the Communist secret police. The murder occurred a month after the Communist Prime Minister Klement Gottwald headed a military coup ousting Edvard Beneš, who died of natural causes eight months later. This so-called Prague Coup was followed by the persecution and summary executions of opponents to the Communist regime. Those killed were branded as "fascists", although most of them had been fierce opponents of the Nazi empire, several had spent time in prisons and concentration camps.
Heda Margolius´ memoirs constitute an outstanding description of those tumultuous times. She was the widow of one of those who had been executed on December 3, 1952. Her book is written in a highly legible, ironic, yet deeply moving style. Heda Margoulis depicts her suffering in the hells of Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. How her entire family was wiped out and how she managed to escape during the death marches of emaciated Jews towards Germany, after the eastern concentration camps had been closed down. When she turned up in the still Nazi occupied Prague she was met by the cold shoulder of her terrified friends. After sleeping in the streets and trying to kill herself, she was finally rescued by a few faithful friends and reunited with the love of her life, Rudolf Margolius, who had survived the ghetto in Lodz, and the concetrations camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. Heda and Rudolf Margolius eventually joined the Communist Party, she was far more doubtful than her husband, though Heda states:
Our conditioning for the revolution had begun in the concentration camps. […] Communists who often behaved like being of a higher order. Their idealism and Party discipline gave them a strength and endurance that the rest of us could not match. They were like well-trained soldiers in a crowd of children.
Those who returned from the camps´ hell, where every day had meant a struggle to preserve life and dignity, needed something to resort to, something to believe in:
When the war finally ended, our joy soon changed into a sense of anti-climax and a yearning to fill the void that this intensity of expectation and exertion of will had left behind. A strong sense of solidarity had evolved in the concentration camps, the idea that one individual´s fate was in every way tied to the fate of the group, whether that meant the group of one´s fellow prisoners, the whole nation, or even all of humanity. For many people, the desire for material goods had largely disappeared.
Such feelings made victims of war and persecution sympathetic to the Communist message of solidarity and justice for all. They participated enthusiastically in marches with banners fluttering, singing Communist hymns, shouting slogans about solidarity and common sacrifice, while accepting shoddily paid work for the rebuilding of their shattered communities.
The lawyer Rudolf Margolius considered it as his duty to participate in the build-up of Czechoslovakia. He studied economics and eventually became, against his wife's will, Deputy Finance Minister and Chief Negotiator for the trade agreement with England. After her privations and social marginalization Heda Margolius suddenly found herself in the midst of the Czech-Communist nomenclature, a privileged sphere with chauffeur-driven limousines, magnificent feasts, usually in company with the vulgar wives of Communist politruks, while previously unknown people reverently began to strut around her, this after she a short time before had been ignored or even hunted down, or forced to live homeless and shunned.
Her new existence alarmed the idealistic and sophisticated Heda Marglolis and not the least the growing personality cult that grew up around the Communist coryphees. "Stalin's friend and confidant," the mushy and occasionally drunken Klement Gottwald witnessed how monuments were erected in his honour, celebrating his “heroism”, while he surrounded himself with a court of fawning minions.
Gottwald´s corpulent wife, a former domestic servant, who had to fight to get her daughter Martha recognized by an unwilling Gottwald, who finally for the sake of his political career had to accept to be married to the unsightly and poorly educated Martha. Their daughter married a certain Alexei Čepička who then was appointed Minister of Justice, engaging in a ruthless persecution of opponents of the regime.
After a few years Čepička (that means small cap), became an inept defence minister and began favouring a ridiculous, overblown cult of Gottwald, including the embalmment of his father-in-law´s body and have it exhibited for public worship in a lavish mausoleum. Čepička was finally deposed in 1958, accused of a variety of abuses. Čepička´s situation was not improved by his homosexual inclination and after a heart attack he was evicted to the doldrums.
In her book Heda Margolius describes a meeting with Klement Gottwald:
I was standing with a group of Rudolf´s colleagues in one of the smaller salons when Klement Gottwald himself stumbled in on the arm of the Speaker of National Assembly. The president of the Republic was sloshed, the Speaker was actually holding him up. Gottwald picked a path across the room straight toward me, lurched to a stop, and babbled – “What´s the matter? You ain´t drinking! Why ain´t you drinking?" The men around me signalled frantically for a waiter and one leaped forward with a tray. I took a glass of wine. So did the president. We both drank up. The president waved his empty glass in the air, stared at it for a moment, then he fixed his bloodshot eyes on me and started babbling again, just as before: “What´s the matter? You ain´t drinking! Why ain´t you drinking?”
The apparently homely, pipe-smoking, but ruthless Gottwald had far worse problems than his alcoholism. Stalin tried to maintain his newly acquired, but fragmented and oppositionist, Communist empire. Russia was devastated; its industries in tatters, the huge mines in Donetsk under water, oil wells blown up and fields laid barren. Stalin felt that the only way towards reconstruction was an even stricter control of social life. Russia and its satellites must be shielded from the outside world, so that this could not interfere with a brutal, merciless reconstruction of the damaged, socio-economic system. People of the Communist Commonwealth would not get to experience that citizens in other nations were far better off as they had to put up with a much slower rise in their living standard. Neighbouring countries that the Soviet Union had forced into its sphere of influence had to accept being exploited to contribute to the Russian recovery. Their intellectuals; academics, researchers and writers, must surrender to the Soviet force and adapt themselves and their activities to the Soviet pen. The propaganda was constantly denouncing "alien and bourgeois tendencies".
Stalin feared Anglo-American influence and the resurgence of the Social Democracy, a mind-set that according to him had tainted the Communists who during the war had found themselves outside the Russian sphere - in the Spanish Civil War, in France, in England and the US, in Mexico and Scandinavia. This had been the case with several of the leading Czech Communists. There was also a danger that the strong Czech nationalism could be inspired by the Yugoslav nationalist independent stance towards the Soviet giant. A special danger represented the solidarity many Czech Communists demonstrated for the newly founded Israel. Furthermore, Stalin´s arch enemy, the exiled Trotsky, bragged about his Fourth International, which he claimed was a revolutionary and internationalist alternative to the Stalinist Comintern and with a strong presence in both the Soviet Union and its subdued, allied states.
Stalin's Soviet Union had initially supported the founding of the state of Israel and even encouraged Czechoslovak arms exports to the newly formed nation, a support that without which, according to Ben-Gurion, Israel´s frist prime minister, the Israelis would not have been able to offer resistance to the hostile Arab states. Soon, however, Stalin's paranoia overwhelmed him. In the light of Stalin's nationally oriented Communism, Jews came to be regarded as highly educated, multilingual and dangerous cosmopolitans who opposed his political regimentation, an idea that surely benefited from his rabid hatred against Lev Trotsky and his fear of the “Fourth International”. Stalin began to clean out people with Jewish from his inner circle and even the wife of his faithful squire Molotov was sent to the Gulag, without a word of protest from his side – she joined her husband again after the death of Stalin.
A final outburst of Stalin's paranoia was the so-called Doctors´ Plot, an assumed conspiracy that mainly was imposed upon medical doctors of Jewish ancestry, accused of trying to murder Communist leaders by poisoning. This new madness was initiated in 1951 and was worsened in 1954 when Mikhail Ryumin, Deputy Head of the Ministry of State Security, accused the Jewish economics professor Yakov Etinger of convincing Jewish doctors to poison Zhadnov (who had been chief negotiator with the dissident Yugoslavs, but according to Stalin far too indulgent) and his secretary, Alexander Shcherbakov.
Unfortunately, Etinger died during the torture he suffered. However, the carousel continued to whirl. In a first round 32 doctors were jailed, but the number quickly rose to several hundred, under merciless torture they began to accuse one another of absurd crimes. Stalin complained that interrogators failed to provide a clear picture of how the doctors had organized their Zionist conspiracies .
When Stalin's personal physician, Vladimir Vinogradov, in the early 1952 recommended that the work obsessed Stalin ought to take it easier and relax more the “Brilliant Genius of Humanity” became absolutely furious and had Professor Vinogradov immediately arrested as suspected member of a Jewish medical conspiracy. Lack of a competent physician and the compact horror that surrounded Stalin during his last days of life may have been one reason to why no one dared to enter the “Father of Nation´s” office in his dacha in Kuntsevo outside Moscow, where he in the aftermath of a stroke during the night of March 1, 1953, for more than 13 hou3 hours laid alone and helpless on the floor. He had apparently been conscious all that time, but lost the power of speech. A few days later, Stalin died.
Anti-Semitism rested heavily on the high-ranking Communists who were accused in Prague. Certainly Stalin wanted to scare the Czech Communist leadership into submission. Pointing to the relatively large number of Jews in the party leadership and their support for Israel was one of the more effective means for breaking down the prisoners. Stalin did not want the Yugoslav fiasco to be repeated. The single-minded Tito had managed to go his own way and liberate himself and his countrymen from the Stalinist iron grip.
For starters, the main accusation was that the accused had been participants in a conspiracy, inspired by Yugoslav nationalism and Zionism organized by the Anglo-American intelligence services, primarily through a double spy named Noël Field, who was responsible for an international organization called the Unitarian Service Committee. Field had been arrested in Czechoslovakia and soon became the main witness in several Hungarian show trials. Field was during his whole life a convinced communist. After his disappearance his wife travelled around in Eastern Europe in search of him, contacting people he had known, several whom were arrested after meeting her. Noël Field surfaced in Budapest and after "disclosing" several friends and acquaintances as spies, some of them were sentenced to death in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Field died as a free, Hungarian citizen in 1970.
Shortly after his arrest the Czech former deputy minister of foreign affairs, Artur London, was told by his interrogator Bohumil Smola:
We´ll get rid of you and your filthy race! You´re all the same! Not everything Hitler did was right, but he destroyed the Jews and he was right about that. Too many of you escaped the gas chamber. We´ll finish what he started. He stamped his foot: ´We´ll bury you and your filthy race ten yards deep.
It was Artur London's description of his years of torture inside the inferno of Czechoslovakia´s prisons that first made me aware of Communism´s despicable abuse of stifling power. While I was still in high school I and my friend Claes Toft were engaged in Hässleholm´s Cineaste Club, we even took over the presidency, but to my shame I must admit we were not up to the task and whole project fell apart. However, before the Club´s demise we managed to get some excellent films to Hässleholm. One that affected me was Costa-Gavras film The Confession from 1970. It is an accurate mise-en-scène of Artur London's book with the same name. I would like to see the movie again, but have not been able get hold of it. However, I have read the book that reveals Artur London´s astounding memory for details and dialogues. Step by step London leads us through bleak prisons and mindboggling physical and psychological torture, practiced with an incomprehensible brutality.
London had been a trustworthy Communist since the age of fourteen and had devoted his entire life to the Party. He had participated in clandestine resistance in France and Czechoslovakia and been a soldier in service of the Spanish republic during the Civil War. During the worst Stalinist terror he had studied and lived in Moscow, later he had been been imprisoned in France and ended up the concentration camp of Mauthausen. In spite of all this hardship he had not for a minute doubted that the Party was always right, like in the East German anthem:
Oh, The Party, the Party is always right
And comrade, may it ever be so;
For who fights for the right
He is always right
Against lies and exploitation.
Whoever insults life
Is stupid or bad.
Whoever defends humanity
Is always right.
Grown from the spirit of Lenin
Welded by Stalin
The party – the party – the party.
Like Joseph K. in Kafka's Process, Artur London cannot understand what he is accused of. Can his torturers really work for Communism? He was utterly shocked by what his tormentors told him:
This was the first time in my adult life that I was insulted because I was a Jew ad was held to be a criminal because of my race – and that by a man from State Security of a socialist country, a member of the Communist party. Was it possible that the mentality of the SS had arisen in our ranks? This was the mentality of the men who shot my brother, Jean in 1941, who deported my mother, my sister Juliette and her husband, and dozens of my family to Auschwitz and sent them to the gas chamber. I had concealed my race to the Nazis, should I do the same thing in my own socialist country?
After being shadowed by StB (State Security) for a couple of weeks Artur London's car was intercepted in Prague´s centre. He was arrested, blindfolded and brought from one prison after another. It was in the middle of winter. He was trapped in a cell, four by four square metres, and forced to walk around in circles. As soon as he stopped walking, guards rushed in and pounded his head against the wall. Everything was dripping with cold moisture, his clothes were soaked, and there was no window, icicles hanged from the roof. Lights were on day and night, the floor was slippery with mud. Occasionally the guards did not beat him if he rested, but instead poured a bucket of ice cold water over him.
When Artur London had become completely confused from hunger and fatigue he was brought to a dry cell. There he could rest for a while, but soon he was again forced to walk back and forth. From time to time he was tortured by being brought to another new cell where the space was slightly larger. However, through a kind of drain in the middle of the cell black, disgusting water came oozing up at fixed intervals. The floor was flooded and London had to slouch around in stinking mud. After a few weeks of this misery London was brought to a cell with a bed, blankets and a latrine. Now the interrogation sessions start, 18 to 20 hours without a break, with a spotlight directed towards his face and always standing. As London was transferred from his cell to the interrogation room, he wore motorcycle goggles with blackened glass. Chains had turned his hands into a swollen, painful mass of sour meat. His clothing did not warm his constantly frozen body. Thanks to the rough "slippers" and the eternal wandering his feet became disfigured. Blisters and swelling make them look as if he was suffering from elephantiasis. The skin between his toes cracked and the wounds were filled with pus.
Artur London spent 27 months in absolute isolation. He saw only guards and inquisitors. On several occasions he tried in vain to commit suicide by starving himself to death or by swallowing a large quantity of cigarettes he managed to steal from his interrogators. The last attempt resulted in serious illness, but his tormentors saw to that he was healed. They wanted at all costs Artur London to survive to testify at the trial.
The interrogations changed character. The brutal Bohumil Smolek was replaced by the more patient, calm but equally ferocious Vladimir Kohoutek, who during one of their introductory meetings asked Artur London to tell him his life story. This constituted a respite from the constant unilateral pressure to confess absurd and uncorroborated crimes. London began to narrate his life story. It took a long time and when London had finished Kohoutek ordered him: "Take the whole thing from the beginning!" And so it went on, every day, week after week – “twice, ten times, a hundred times”.
Kohoutek was well aware of the fact that every individual nurtures some guilt. Remorse and shame constitute a part of our conscience. We all have both small and large debts and mistakes we ought to account for. After listening to London´s long and comprehensive accounts of how his life had unfolded Kohoutek knew exactly where to drill into London's subconscious. At the same time as Kohoutek reminded London about his crimes and mistakes he informed him about concessions, accusations and confessions made by his invisible fellow prisoners. Kohoutek told London that his wife had betrayed him, that she had a lover and no longer wanted to acknowledge London as a husband and father to their children. That she considered him to be a traitor to both his country and his family. All lies, and when London refused to believe Kohoutek´s insinuations he threatened to harm his children. To terrify London even more the prison guards exposed him to mock executions.
London´s tormentors found it increasingly difficult to construct a viable story out of his disconnected confessions. For the upcoming trial the Czech government needed a story that could connect the disparate stories of the accused, able to please the Russians who waited in the back stage. So far the interrogators had only traced some disconnected contacts with Israelis, Yugoslavs and American agents and one or two misgivings with the behaviour of the Party, but so far it had proved impossible to tie everything together into a credible plot against the Government, the Party and the Soviet Union.
The method they had been using so far was to force the accused to name acquaintances who could be suspected of being "Zionists", "spies" or "Trotskyites". If asked if they he knew such people the accused might reply yes and the following accusation would then be: “If you are familiar with such people it would mean that you are a Zionist/Trotskyist as well." Upon which the accused would declare "No, no, I'm a committed Communist". "Communists do not socialize with such rabble, but since you have mentioned such people it means that you have connections with them and accordingly is not a true communist." And so it went on, back and forth, day in and day out.
Other interrogators had from Evžen Löbl, one of the accused who had been deputy finance minister, managed to squeeze out an admission that he could not have been able to do anything without direct orders from Rudolf Slánský, a very influential politician of Jewish ancestry who served as General Secretary of the Communist Party, making him the second man in the party, behind President Gottwald.
Kohoutek used Löbl´s remark to press Artur London to admit that Slánský had organized the accused as part of his scheme to overthrow the Government on behalf of Western, capitalist forces. If London did not agree with this interpretation Kohoutek threatened to once again deliver him to Bohumil Smolek´s insensitive brutality and the moisture dripping cells: "By following my instructions you may save your life and escape from this hopeless situation. Otherwise, I will once more unleash the demons upon you." According to the interrogation report the bewildered London finally acknowledged that he belonged to a Trotskyite group, led by “another person”. After being beaten, starved and tortured London "once" mentioned Slánský´s name and that was enough for constructing a case against all of the accused.
Russian advisers, who moved behind the scenes, assumed that accusing Slánský for machinations against the Government would be an excellent opportunity for challenging President Gottwald´s absolute faithfulness to Stalin and the Soviet Union. If the Czechoslovak president was prepared to sacrifice his closest friend and ally it would be a gesture proving his unconditional loyalty to the Stalinist regime. Gottwald gave in and offered his friend and confidant as a scapegoat atoning for the mistakes and lack of loyalty the Czech government had demonstrated, according to Stalin and his henchmen.
Rudolf Slánský was not especially well liked among his co-defendants. Heda Margolius wrote:
My husband had always intensely disliked Slánský. He considered him a dogmatic extremist. A vain and ruthless man, pathologically hungry for power and recognition. He had always avoided Slánský as much as possible and I knew that had no official or personal connection with him.
Russian advisors and Czech politruks carefully read the printouts from the different interrogations, which were done simultaneously with all the accused. The interrogators and their superiors tried to unite the confessions into a concocted story indicating that the accused under the leadership of Rudolf Slánský had engaged in "Trotskyist-Titoist-Zionist activities in the service of American imperialism." When all accused had been tortured and brainwashed thoroughly they had within a couple of weeks to learn their pre-fabricated confessions by heart, to be able to repeat them flawlessly during the trial. Each of them was instructed to ask for the strictest possible punishment.
A nasty consequence of these show trials was the social isolation and misery that befell the families of the convicted. Their wives were evicted from their homes and lost their jobs, their children denied higher education and all family members were subjected to daily contempt and distrust. Heda Margoulis described how she was close to death during her husband's trial, but was nevertheless denied proper medical treatment and how, just like during the war, those who she believed to be her and her husband's friends avoided her. Just as back then, it was only the self-sacrificing support of a few individuals that kept her and her son alive.
The journalist Otto Katz had in his closing argument added some words that had not been submitted to him for the carefully prepared declarations, but since the trial had been broadcasted all over the Communist world, they had to be included in the official protocol, which was translated into seven languages and distributed worldwide.
Katz had been a master spy, infiltrating communities of exiled opponents to the Nazi regime in Germany, France, Spain and especially Hollywood, where he had inspired several successful movies, including Casablanca where the character of the resistance fighter Victor Laszlo generally is believed to be based on Katz. Otto Katz had written and edited numerous books and articles in support and defence of anti-fascists around the world. He had once saved Arthur Koestler from being executed by Franco's fascists, in Mexico he had been involved in the assassination of Trotsky. Katz had probably ended up in the dock due to a contemptuous remark that the Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov had made about him during the Paris Peace Conference in 1946: "Why is that globetrotter here?"
Otto Katz was a Jew and his extensive international network was certainly the reason to why he was sentenced to death. With bowed head had Katz during the trial declared:
I am a writer, supposedly an architect of the soul. What sort of architect have I been — I who have poisoned people's souls? Such an architect of the soul belongs to the gallows. The only service I can still render is to warn all who by origin or character are in danger of following the same path to hell. The sterner the punishment.
As Arthur Koestler read the statement, he was upset because he thought it reminded Rubashov´s final words in Darkness at Noon, which he once had given to Katz. Rubashov´s speech is an almost exact reproduction of Nikolai Bukharin's "confession" during the Moscow show trial in 1938:
Shrouded in shame, forced into the dust and ready to die, I'm going to show you a traitor´s sad trajectory that it may be a warning and deterrent to millions of our country.
Koestler understood Katz´ words as an appeal to all writers, movie stars, book publishers and other parlour Communists who once had swarmed around the handsome representative of the Popular Front and who now kept silent about the obvious murder carried out by the so called “Justice” of the Communists in Prague. Koestler wrote in his diary: "I felt sick, my stomach ached and I cried for my old friend."
Commenting upon the Prague citizens futile protests against the Russian invasion in 1968 the Czech exile historian Jaroslav Orpat wrote:
A remarkable novel exists, known all over the world except in our country, the novel Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, which accurately describes the mechanism of Soviet trials in the second half of the thirties, the logic of the interrogators, the judges, the prosecutors and the accused who themselves become collaborators of the investigation and prosecution. . . . The most tragic thing is that a decade later these events repeated themselves with the force of a natural law
Once more a meandering blog is arriving at its endpoint. I have been pondering about the human face of ruthless political persecution, based on obvious lies. The fate of the fictitious, insignificant professor Burden, or the very real Artur London, Rudolf Margolius and Otto Katz and all the effort that was put into brainwashing and breaking them down.
The extremely lengthy Slánský process finds it´s politically charged counterpart in the US process against Sacco and Vanzetti, between 1921 and 1927, which took place during the First Red Scare and the process against the Rosenbergs, 1950-1953, which took place during the Second Red Scare. Like the Slánský process these US trials resulted in the death penalty for the accused.
Artur London mentioned that the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti convinced him that Communism was the only ideology that could protect against such injustice, the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg likewise outraged many Communists throughout the world. This while the Stalinist regime were guilty of at least 6 million murders of non-combatants. Every single person of those millions could tell us about horrible. What do numbers say? We need to be shaken up by what a victim tells us.
Kaplan, Karel (1990) Report on the Murder of the General Secretary. Athens, OH: Ohio State University Press. Karp, David (1972) One. Harmondsworth: Penguin Modern Classics. Koestler, Arthur (1984) Darkness at Noon. Harmondsworth: Penguin Modern Classics. Koestler, Arthur (2005), The Invisible Writing. New York: Vintage. London, Artur (1971) The Confession. New York: Ballantine Books. Margolius Kovály, Heda (2012) Under a Cruel Star: Life in Prague, 1941-1968. London: Granta. Miles, Jonathan (2010) The Nine Lives of Otto Katz: The Remarkable Story of a Communist super-spy. London: Bantam Books. Morgan, Ted (2004) Reds: McCarthyism in the Twentieth Century America. New York: Random House. Rayfield, Ronald (2003), Stalin and His Hangmen: An authoritative portrait of a Tyrant and Those Who served him. London: Penguin Books. Snyder, Timothy D. (2010) Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books.
The Party Is Always Right - Song of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqgvQ88KGLs