Here in the Czech Republic, it is no ordinary Tuesday. Today in the Czech calendar is Freedom and Democracy Day. November 17th 1989 marks a significant day in the modern history of the Czech Republic. November 17th 1989 occupies a position in the narrative of Czech history, like October 28th 1918, of the beginning of a hopeful new era. It marks the emergence from the oppression of regime foisted on Czechs from outside. In 1918, it was casting off the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire to form the First Czechoslovak Republic. In 1989, it was casting off a calcified Communist regime which had since the beginning of the 1970s enforced ‘normalization’ following the crushing of the Prague Spring. These are the parallels between 1918 and 1989, and as with any narratives of national freedom, they are highly seductive. But, the truth of the events of 1989, the ‘velvet revolution’, and the end of Communist rule beginning with the student protests on November 17th that year are decidedly more complicated. Continue reading
Category Archives: Communism
Film Review of The Enigma of Frank Ryan
Directed by Des Bell
Starring: Dara Devaney, Barry Barnes, Mia Gallagher, Frankie McCafferty
Frank Ryan is a figure who consistently inspires comment and interest despite the rather small role he played in Irish history. Famous left-republican leader and Gaelic scholar in the 1920s and 1930s, Ryan led the Irish who fought for the Spanish Republic against Franco during the Spanish Civil War until his capture in March 1938. The abiding interest however, concerns the question of what Ryan, famous anti-fascist leader, was doing in Nazi Germany during the Second World War? This is the central question the aptly titled ‘The Enigma of Frank Ryan’ seeks to address.
The narrative of the film situates itself around Ryan’s time in Berlin, where, through flashbacks, Ryan examines his previous life in Ireland and Spain. Combining dramatic reconstructions sliced with real archival footage, the film overall is an interesting and enjoyable one. From certain newspaper headlines previewing the film I had the impression that Ryan’s life would be dealt with in simplistic black and white terms – Frank Ryan, Nazi collaborator, end of story. However, upon viewing, I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case. The director Desmond Bell has avoided the easy route of sensationalism, and has instead provided a nuanced portrait of Ryan’s time in Berlin.
Released from Burgos jail into the hands of the Nazis in July 1940, Ryan found himself seemingly a free man in Berlin. Bell does well in portraying the ambiguities of Ryan’s situation. Initially, Ryan does not know what interest the Nazis have in him until he is brought to a meeting with Seán Russell, IRA Chief-of-Staff. Russell, a purely military man, is in Germany to seek assistance for the IRA from the Nazis – my enemy’s enemy is my friend – and wants to bring Ryan back to Ireland with him. Ryan chastises Russell for seeking help from the Nazis, but accepts his offer of a trip home to Ireland via U-boat when Russell assures him that he is only offering Ryan a way home, nothing more. Nevertheless, when Russell dies en-route, Ryan decides to return to Berlin. Here the Nazis keep him in order to use him in the event of an invasion of Ireland – by Britain or Germany. Ryan is therefore not a prisoner, but nor is he simply free to do as he pleases. Yet Ryan is never shown as collaborating with the Nazis. He never acknowledges the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting, refuses to be used for a propaganda broadcast to Ireland, and seeks answers to the purpose of the concentration camps. Although there is no evidence for any of this, nor is there any real evidence that Ryan directly assisted the Nazis, and Bell uses his artistic license well to develop scenarios which appear balanced, and assist in portraying the confusing and complicated situation Ryan found himself in.
Despite this, the same standards are not applied to the rest of the film. Ryan’s life in Ireland and Spain is incredibly condensed and abounds with unnecessary historical inaccuracies. This is to the detriment of the film as a whole, which appears rushed and sloppy. No real effort is made to develop the character of anyone other than Ryan, and coupled with bad acting, ensures that everyone comes off as one-dimensional caricatures. It is to be expected in a biographical film that certain parts of a person’s life must take precedence over others. It is also reasonable that a director should be able to change aspects of the history in order to develop the plot. For instance, the relationship/conflict between Ryan and Russell looms larger in the film than it did in real life. In my opinion, this is a valid reworking in order to prepare the audience for their encounter in Germany, and so assists in telling the overall story. Similarly, although it would have been better if more attention was paid to the reasons behind Ryan’s disillusionment with the IRA and the development of Republican Congress, it is reasonable that this is condensed in order that more time is devoted to examining his life in Germany. What is unacceptable however, are inaccuracies where none need exist. There are small mistakes, such as incorrectly dating the Eucharistic Congress to 1934 instead of 1932 which can be forgiven. The main inaccuracies concern Ryan’s time in Spain, by far the weakest part of the film. Not only are Ryan’s fellow International Brigaders reduced to a status commensurable with those of unthinking puppets, there are so many inaccuracies here that a historian could be forgiven for thinking that the makers of the film took no more than a cursory glance at the material concerning Spain. To give two small examples; we see Ryan walking over the Pyrenees in December 1936 when in fact he was driven over and we see Rosamund Jacob pleading with Ryan when he is home in Ireland in May 1937 not to go back, saying the International Brigades are being disbanded – this was not announced until the end of September 1938. We also see the bust-up between the British and Irish at their base, as well as the battle of Jarama, grossly oversimplified when the reality would have provided a much more entertaining and believable film. The Blueshirts never appear, and General O’Duffy, who led some 700 Irishmen on the side of Franco, is only once casually mentioned by Ryan, when no reference has previously been made to explain him and what he represented. We are consequently faced with the most serious fault that no real attempt is made to explain why Ryan left to fight in Spain in the first place. My concern is that someone watching this film with no knowledge of the context would get the impression that Ryan left simply because he was hot-headed and needed to be in the middle of any fight going.
Having said this, the film is worth seeing, and Bell is to be congratulated for bringing Ryan’s story to the screen. One cannot help but feel however that a chance has been missed to provide an entertaining as well as an accurate and educational account of Ryan’s life.
The legacy of the civil war is everywhere to be seen in Spain. All one needs to do is scratch the surface. I spent the past weekend in Madrid to attend a series of events organised by the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI – Friends of the International Brigades) around the battle of Jarama in February 1937. Staying in a pension in central Madrid, I was reminded as soon as I began speaking to the receptionist that the civil war continues to polarise contemporary Spanish society. After asking whether I was here for business or a holiday, I opted for the former, saying I was a historian researching the civil war. As soon as he pointed out to me that the church opposite had been used as an arms dump by the ‘reds’, I knew which side he supported. Nevertheless, I was curious to find out more about the local landscape and he pointed out some interesting sites to me. When he mentioned Paracuellos, we began a discussion on Santiago Carrillo, a communist and leader of the Socialist/Communist Youth who was allegedly responsible for the massacre of more than 2000 mostly right-wing prisoners when Madrid was threatened by the attack of columns of Nationalist forces in November 1936. The receptionist’s attitude was further reinforced when he said that some say Carrillo set out to start the civil war – a grand piece of historical distortion. Carrillo was a relatively minor player until the siege of Madrid in November, four months after the war had started.
That night I attended a very moving book launch of the Spanish translation of Laurie Levinger’s book Love and Revolutionary Greetings: An Ohio Boy in the Spanish Civil War, compiled using the letters and stories home of her uncle Sam, who died aged 20 in the war. On Friday morning, I set out with two busloads of British, Irish and a sprinkling of other nationalities, for the march to identify the positions of the British and Lincoln battalions on the battlefield of Jarama.
The first thing to note is that the battlefield is immense, and the positions of the British and Lincoln battalions, though important in the grand scheme of the battle, especially the British, occupy a relatively small part of the overall battlefield. On the way through the barren, rusty landscape south of Madrid, passing by bare rockfaces and olive groves, we passed to our left, the Arganda bridge. It was here that on 11 February the Francoist Nationalist columns attacked, killing the French sentries but encountering stiff resistance from the Italian Garibaldi Battalion of the XII International Brigade. That same day, the XV International Brigade commanded by General Gal, were moved up the line, consisting of the British Battalion on the left, the Franco-Belge 6th of February Battalion in the centre and the mostly Balkan Dimitrov Battalion on the right.
The Nationalist frontal attack on Madrid had been repulsed by mid-December 1936. Attacks from the north continued but were repulsed in January 1937. Franco decided to cut the city off instead. The Jarama offensive was designed to cut the Madrid – Valencia road to the south of the capital, cutting off the central government which had moved to Valencia during the siege of November 1936. The attack, which began on 6 February 1937, was meant to coincide with an Italian-led assault at Guadalajara which would surround the city completely. This action was delayed, but Franco decided to press on at Jarama regardless.
The British Battalion began their campaign on the morning of 12 February at a farm building which became their cookhouse, sheltered at the rear of the battlefield. It was from here that we began our march to their positions, guided by Danny Payne of the UK-based International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) and Seve Montero of the AABI.
We rambled over the hilly dry landscape passing dug-outs created in a gully etched into the side of a hill. It was here that the South African sculptor Jason Gurney, who was a runner for the battalion, described finding books, clothing, ammunition and personal belongings abandoned by those who thought they would be back later to collect them. The ensuing slaughter ensured they wouldn’t.
We ascended the hills to a plateau which commanded a superb view over the landscape. To the south, we could see in the distance the village of Morata de Tajuña, which played a key role in the battle. On the hill immediately opposite to the north on our right, we saw the area which had been the headquarters of the brigades, now marked by an imposing clasped pair of fists visible for kilometres around.
We continued our march over the plateau along a dirt track through the olive groves, passing by what became the positions of the Lincoln battalion late in February, of which more later, before reaching the area of the main fighting of the British Battalion. It was here that the slaughter of Jarama took place.
The British Battalion at Jarama
Most of the fighters had little training, received over a period of only a few weeks at their base in Madrigueras. Some had only first fired a rifle the previous day. They had no artillery, air or tank support. Their personal supplies were not much better. The British Battalion was composed of three infantry companies of 200 soldiers each, and a machine-gun company armed with heavy maxims and a few light French Chauchet machine guns, described as useless by most eyewitnesses. These poorly-trained, poorly armed volunteers, most who had never left their homes in Britain and Ireland, were now the front line defence against a well-equipped, trained and merciless assault by Franco’s elite Moroccan regulares. Their defence initially proved a disaster.
George Leeson, who was in command of a section of the machine-gun company, claimed they did not even know whether they were on the offensive or defensive. They had no maps of the area, and soon after they began to descend into the valley, they came under fire from the Nationalists, whom the Republican command had not realised had already crossed the river. James Maley from Glasgow described how as they advanced, others came running past them retreating from their positions and some of their own men started to drop, killed before they could fire a shot. They pulled back and took up positions. The machine-gun company was placed with a commanding view of the gulley and in front of it lay a ridge of land where the three infantry companies were positioned on distinctive features of the landscape. To the left was White House hill, after the white-painted building on top of it, to the centre was conical hill, and to the right lay the knoll. This whole area, but particularly the conical hill and White House hill, would soon become known as ‘Suicide Hill.’ The machine-gun company soon realised that it had been given the wrong ammunition, and so it was left to the three infantry companies to hold off the attack.
No. 1 Company under the command of ex-IRA member Kit Conway from County Tipperary, initially held in reserve, was sent up the line to give much needed experienced assistance. The attack by the Nationalists was unrelenting. Man after man fell, and the companies were decimated. No. 4 Company fell back, as did No. 3. The ridge, now held mostly by No. 1 Company, came under a constant heavy fire, the ‘thin grass and weeds on the crest of the hill were being slowly mown down, as if a gigantic scythe was passing and repassing, by bullets from the machine-guns of the Moors and machine-guns of the Germans.’ The situation on the hill was frantic, as described by Jim Prendergast:
My rifle is soon burning hot. ‘Kit’ comes over. I notice his face with lanes of sweat running through the dust. He hands me a note. It is from Brigade H.Q. telling us that we must hold out at all costs. . . . Somebody calls my name. It is Pat Smith. Blood streams from his head and arm. Tom Jones of Wexford is there. Good man, Tom. Always dresses a man where he falls. A hero. He tells me Goff and Daly are hit. I reach the hill-crest where ‘Kit’ is directing fire. He is using a rifle himself and pausing every while to give instructions. Suddenly, he shouts, his rifle spins out of his hand, and he falls back. . . . His voice is broken with agony. ‘Do your best boys, hold on!’ Tears glisten in our eyes. . . . ‘Kit’ is taken away. . . . I see Fascist tanks rolling up the road to the right. The Moors are sweeping us front and flanks. We’ll never hold out now. I move to a firing-position. Suddenly, I am lifted of [sic] my feet. Something terrific has hit me in the side. I cannot breathe. . . . In the ambulance I meet ‘Kit’. He is in terrible agony, and can talk little. ‘How are the rest?’ is his constant question . . .
Next morning they told me our great leader was dead.
The ridge was evacuated but just as Moroccan troops were coming over, the machine-gun company which had managed to acquire the right ammunition, opened fire: ‘You never saw a slaughter like it. They went down like corn.’ At the end of that first day, less than half the battalion remained and political commissars had to intervene to convince some to stay and hold the line.
The pressure continued the following day as the Dimitrov and the Franco-Belge battalions drew further back leaving the British Battalion surrounded on three sides. No. 4 Company panicked and retreated, leaving the machine-gun company exposed, which was then surrounded and captured almost wholesale. In total, thirty men had fallen captive. The third day of the battle began with the Nationalists advancing with a tank attack, driving the battalion well back: ‘The left flank broke, and the rout spread to the whole line. The slaughter was terrible. One would see five men running abreast, and four of them suddenly crumple up.’ They fell back to a sunken road where they were told by Lieutenant Colonel Gal that they were the only men between the Nationalists and the capture of the road. Frank Ryan and Jock Cunningham had the unenviable job of rousing the remaining men to counter-attack. Ryan describes the scene:
The crowd behind us was marching silently. The thoughts in their minds could not be inspiring ones. I remembered a trick of the old days when we were holding banned demonstrations. I jerked my head back: ‘Sing up, ye sons o’ guns!’
Quaveringly at first, then more lustily, then in one resounding chant the song rose from the ranks. Bent backs straightened; tired legs thumped sturdily; what had been a routed rabble marched to battle again as proudly as they had done three days before. And the valley resounded to their singing
‘Then comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face;
Unites the human race.’
On we marched, back up the road, nearer and nearer to the front. Stragglers still in retreat down the slopes stopped in amazement, changed direction and ran to join us; men lying exhausted on the roadside jumped up, cheered, and joined the ranks. I looked back. Beneath the forest of upraised fists, what a strange band! Unshaven, unkempt; bloodstained, grimy. But, full of fight again, and marching on the road back.
French soldiers joined, as did Spanish and soon they reached the ridge. Here they held the line, and from then this particular part of the front remained more or less the same for the next two years.
The Lincoln Battalion
On 16 February, the new Lincoln Battalion was sent to Jarama. The battalion, based at the village of Villanueva de la Jara near Albacete, consisted of two companies of infantry, plus a machine-gun company, medical and kitchen staff and an armoury section, numbering 550 people in total. The Irish who had transferred from the British Battalion in January formed the ‘James Connolly Unit’, which comprised one of three sections of the first company. From the beginning, the battalion had difficulties finding an experienced and competent leadership. The role of commissar changed hands multiple times and although the battalion was officially led by Captain James Harris, he quickly proved himself inept and in practice, it would be his adjutant Robert Merriman, a 27-year-old economist, who would lead them into battle.
After a day at the nearby village of Morata, the battalion was moved up to reserve lines, where they faced five days of continual bombardment. The Americans had recently arrived in Spain, and had received only minimal training. Nevertheless, on 23 February they were ordered to make their first attack. As with the first attack of the British Battalion, it was a disaster. John Tisa gives the following vivid description:
From tree to tree into open fields, with nothing but the roots of grapevines for shelter, we now charged more rapidly, vainly seeking cover, over the soft ground heavily raked by enemy fire. We had plenty of grenades, but they were useless unless we could get close to the enemy. To make matters worse, while we were charging and approaching enemy positions, a rapid and relentless machine-gun cross fire zeroed in on us. . . . I felt so useless that I wondered out loud, at the top of my voice, ‘What am I doing here?’ But a quick glance around and I saw some of my comrades in even worse shape. A little guy to my right, whose face I couldn’t see, was frantically churning the ground with his bare hands, ripping his skin and tearing off his fingernails. Another lay behind a stump clutching his rifle and trying to shrivel himself to nothing to avoid being spotted. It was impossible to advance further.
In the end, they had to retreat to their original positions. Despite twenty killed and sixty wounded, it had all been for nothing.
On 27 February, reinforced by seventy new arrivals, they were ordered to advance again towards positions strongly held by the Nationalists. They were promised artillery, air and tank support as well as the support of a Spanish battalion all of which failed to materialise. Their commander Robert Merriman pleaded with Vladimir Čopić, the commissar of the Brigade, that advancing under such conditions was pointless, but Čopić persisted and they advanced straight into a slaughter. Only 150 of the 263 men who went into battle were still standing the next day. Tyrone-born poet and Republican Congress member Charlie Donnelly was killed in this action. A witness described his dying words, destined to become famous in Ireland as a poetic description of the Spanish Civil War:
We run for cover. Charles Donnelly, Commander of the Irish Company, is crouched behind an olive tree. He has picked up a bunch of olives from the ground and is squeezing them. I hear him say quietly, between a lull of machine-gun fire ‘Even the olives are bleeding.’ A bullet got him square in the temple a few minutes later.
The order to advance had been suicidal and led to major grumblings among the troops. After this battle, the lines settled down and the brigades had to do battle with boredom and disease more than the enemy.
In total, fourteen Irish would die at Jarama from February to June 1937. Most died in the initial battles in February but there were some casualties in other minor skirmishes too.
After our march over the battlefield, the Irish went to visit the memorial erected in 2010 in memory of Charlie Donnelly in Rivas Vaciamadrid, overlooking the Arganda bridge.
The sixth annual Jarama march
The next day, Saturday 17 February, was the official sixth annual Jarama march, this time in memory of the French-speaking volunteers organised in the four battalions of the XIV International Brigade, and the Commune de Paris battalion of the XI IB, the André Marty of the XII IB, and the Six Fevrier of the XV IB. This march took us beyond the points occupied by the British and Lincoln battalions. My knowledge of the French positions is not as in-depth as of the XV Brigade so I cannot give an accurate account of their role in the battle.
We marched to the HQ of the International Brigades visible on a ridge off to the west. When we reached the top with a commanding view of the area to the south, east and north, and the Lincolns’ position to the west it was a truly stunning sight. Deep trenches hacked into the stony ground are still visible. The towering rusty-coloured monument to the International Brigades of two clasped fists formed the backdrop in which about 300 people mingled – representatives of the IBMT from the UK, Irish representatives of the newly-formed umbrella group Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland, comprising groups which have organised memorials in Belfast, Tyrone, and Wexford, and others from Dublin, Armagh, Derry and representatives of the Limerick International Brigade Memorial Trust who are currently seeking permission to erect a memorial in Limerick. With these were members of the French Amis des Combattants en Espagne Républicaine (ACER – Friends of the Combatants in Republican Spain), a Danish man whose two uncles fought in Spain, as well as a sprinkling of Americans and multitudes of Spanish people from every left background – communists, socialists, anarchists and liberal republicans. Guests of honour were the Almudévar brothers, Joseph and Vicente, French of Spanish birth who fought in the civil war, Juan Antonio Mayoral who was a member of the Spanish Republican army during the war, and Luz Alonso, a republican of the civil war years.
After a lunch in Morata in restaurant Mesón El Cid which is located on the site of the former field hospital of the battle, we visited the Jarama museum, which houses thousands of artefacts found strewn over the site from bullets and tin cans to medals and pieces of shrapnel. After this, we visited the cemetery at Morata, which was the site of a mass grave of Spanish republicans and International Brigaders, and of a memorial unveiled in 1994 after a campaign by International Brigaders François Mazou from France and Bob Doyle from Ireland. Claire Rol-Tanguy, daughter of Colonel Henry Rol-Tanguy, political commissar of the XIV IB, laid a bouquet of flowers in the vibrant purple, yellow and red of the Spanish Republic’s flag.
Driving through the central square on the way out of Morata, we passed by the headquarters of the local fascist Falange, proudly displaying its symbol of a bundle of arrows. In some places, one doesn’t even need to scratch the surface.
 For a discussion of the massacre of prisoners, see Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (London: Harper Press, 2012), pp. 357-369.
 Jason Gurney, Crusade in Spain (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), pp. 103-4.
 Patrick Curry, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive (IWMSA) File 799/3/1.
 George Leeson, IWMSA 803/4/2.
 Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936-1939, (2nd ed. Torfaen: Warren & Pell, 2007), p. 76.
 James Maley, IWMSA 11947/3/1.
 Baxell, British Volunteers, pp. 77-8.
 Tom Wintringham, English Captain (London: Faber and Faber, 1939), p. 170.
 James Prendergast, ‘How “Kit” Conway Died’, in Frank Ryan (ed.), The Book of the XV Brigade: Records of British, American, Canadian, and Irish Volunteers in the XV International Brigade in Spain 1936-1938 (Torfaen: Warren & Pell, 2003), p. 66.
 Fred Copeman, IWMSA 794/13/2.
 Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain 1936-1939 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1982), p. 97, says that less than half the battalion remained, while John Bosco Jones, IWMSA 9392/6/3, says political commissars had to intervene.
 Baxell, British Volunteers, p. 80. It has been suggested by many who were there that the men were tricked by the Morrccans, who came up the ridge singing the Internationale, to join the side of the Republicans. The men downed arms and when the enemy arrived it was too late. This rather fanciful account is refuted by others. See Baxell, British Volunteers, pp. 81-2 for an analysis of the accounts.
 Three of those captured were shot, but the rest were taken shunted from prison to prison – San Martín de la Vega to Navalcarnero to Talavera de la Reina, where ill-fed, cold, and with poor sanitation, they were put to work, mostly on the roads. In May 1937, they were sent to Salamanca where five were sentenced to death. However, the executions were not carried out and all the men were eventually freed. See J.R. ‘Prisoners of Franco’, in Frank Ryan (ed.), Book of XV International Brigade, p. 198-200; George Leeson IWMSA 803/4/2-3 and Baxell, British Volunteers, pp. 115-118.
 O.R.,‘Third Day: The Tank Attack’, in Frank Ryan (ed.), Book of XV International Brigade, p. 57.
 Phil Gillan, IWMSA 12150/4/4 .
 F.R. [Frank Ryan], ‘The Great Rally’, in Frank Ryan (ed.), Book of XV International Brigade, p. 60.
 John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight: An autobiography of the Spanish Civil War (South Hadley, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey, 1985), pp. 23-4.
 Arthur H. Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade (New York: The Citadel Press, 1967), pp. 32-3.
 See Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 94-99.
 John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, pp. 42-43.
 Peter Carroll, Odyssey, p. 99.
 Ibid., p. 100.
 Marion Merriman and Walter Lerude, American Commander in Spain: Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1986), pp. 106-110.
 Carroll, Odyssey, p. 102.
 Quote from pamphlet ‘Hello Canada’, produced by the Friends of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, 1937 and cited in Michael O’Riordan’s notes ‘Ireland and the Spanish Anti-Fascist Struggle’, November 1966, p. 17, International Brigade Memorial Archive, Marx Memorial Library, London, Box 21 File O’R/1.
 Anonymous, The Story of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (New York: Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1938), p. 24, cited in Merriman and Lerude, American Commander, pp. 112-3. For details of this and other actions of the Lincoln battalion at Jarama, see ‘Interview with Marty Hourihan, Commander of Lincoln Battalion from March 9 to July 4, later second in command of all English speaking battalions in XV Brigade. Villa Paz, Aug. 16, 1937’, RGASPI 545/6/912/41-44.
Review of Jo Langer, Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (2nd ed. London: Granta, 2011)
In the early 1950s, the Czechoslovak revolution, like the Russian before it, began devouring its own children. Former high officials of the Communist Party were arrested, tortured, and forced to sign false confessions detailing their activities as imperialist/ Trotskyist/ Titoist/Zionist spies. Those who had spent time in the west before or during the Second World War were most vulnerable, likely to have been traitors, corrupted into serving capitalism. Jews, ironically and sickeningly, were as a group also particularly vulnerable, as in a new twist on the racist stereotype of the ‘wandering Jew’, were deemed ‘cosmopolitan’, open again to the lure and corruption of the west and in particular, that of Israel. Ironic and sickening in that communism was supposedly an ideology that knew no boundary of ethnicity or religion, and in that the accused communist Jews were often the first who for years had been ‘wandering’ in the west due to being forced into exile for their communist and anti-fascist activities, many volunteering in the fight against Franco in Spain, and continuing their struggle in the underground resistance throughout Europe during the Second World War. Communist states, supposedly solidly built on anti-fascist foundations, now saw those with the clearest anti-fascist credentials as suspect. Even those at the very top of the pyramid were prone to a crushing fall, and the terror culminated in the infamous trial of former secretary-general of the party Rudolf Slánský and thirteen other defendants from 1951-3. Of these, eleven were Jewish, and in total, twelve were hanged. The story of the trial has been told well in the account of one of the defendants, Artur London in his 1968 book L’Aveu, published in English variously as The Confession and On Trial, and made into a film by the former name in 1970 by Costa-Gavras. A powerful accompaniment to London’s account is that of Jo Langer, wife of an imprisoned victim of the trial, Oscar Langer.
In her memoir Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (1979), we get a viewpoint so often missing from history – that of those who are left behind; the families of the victims, left to fend for themselves against the cancer of lies, intimidation and surveillance that spread throughout society. Jo and her husband, both communists and Jews, had lived in the United States during the war. Many of their family members had perished in Nazi concentration camps. Despite the safety and relative prosperity of life in the US, Oscar immediately accepted an invitation back to Czechoslovakia after the war to play a role in the reconstruction of his country. Jo, Hungarian by birth, unhappy in her marriage and relatively content with life in the US, was wont to leave but nevertheless overcame her reluctance and accompanied her husband to Bratislava. Their immediate deprivation was seen as temporary, and a necessary discomfort to be endured while Czechoslovakia, with help from the Soviet Union, rebuilt the country along socialist lines. Oscar, a leading member of the party in Slovakia, went further however. Throughout her memoir, Jo gives us snippets of the guilt she was made to feel for anything considered even a small luxury while others in the world went without basic necessities – the ever-present ‘Chinese coolie’ in their relationship as she terms it.
And yet Oscar, despite his devotion to the party, was arrested and placed on trail, accused of assisting Slánský. Avoiding eventual execution, he was nevertheless imprisoned, tortured, kept in solitary confinement and forced to give a confession as to the nature of his relationship with Slánský, whom he had never even met. Twice he attempted suicide, and both times failed. Jo was kicked out of her home and with her two daughters, banished to a remote village in rural Slovakia, her apartment given over to accommodate party officials. Deprived of work and the right to live in Bratislava, she and her daughters eked out an existence of poverty and fear. Eventually allowed back to Bratislava, she recounts how all her old friends kept away from her and how all doors remained closed to her and her family because of her husband. Scraping by in a dilapidated basement working mostly translating official documents into Hungarian, she suffered constantly. Not allowed to see her husband for three years, she nevertheless fought on, battling the bureaucracy and at times, paying grovelling visits to officials she despised and lived in fear of, in the hope of seeing the release of her husband, once estranged, but now united with her against the terror. And yet she fought alone. Oscar, despite all that existed before his eyes, refused to believe the party and his comrades could be responsible, believing instead that the security apparatus was acting above the party.
In 1960, Oscar was amnestied and released. His return was bittersweet however. His wife felt him more domineering than ever, never commending her for what she had done to survive, eager to forgive party officials and hold meetings in their house for the reform of the party while Jo worked to provide for their family both outside and within the home. His relationship with his children Susie and Tania was no less strained. In short, he failed to see what lay before his eyes, preferring to believe instead in an imaginary world where the party could do no wrong and where his wife and children were at fault for being too decadent and not struggling enough to build socialism in their country. Weakened by his ordeal, he died two years later.
Jo and her daughters would eventually escape as the tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring in 1968. The hopes for ‘socialism with a human face’ convinced others, but never her, having seen the result of 1956 in her native Hungary, and the opportunism of those who had committed her husband to prison embrace socialist reform in 1968, biding their time for the return to totalitarian rule. Her account, though cynical at times, is an important and ultimately heartrending one. Her struggle – as a worker, Hungarian, communist, Jew, immigrant, and woman – is inspiring and shocking. She presents a courageous testimony to the Kafkaesque ordeal of Central and Eastern Europeans in the twentieth century, and the complexity of individual lives witness to and struggling to wake from this nightmare.