Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “Czechoslovakia

Soviet tank rams into a building – Warsaw Pact invasion in Czechoslovakia; ca. 1968

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Milada Horáková: “I go with my head held high. One also has to know how to lose.”

Milada Horáková was a lawyer, social democrat, and a prominent feminist in the interwar and postwar periods — her life’s work, rather overshadowed by an end that was memorable for different reasons — Horakova survived Nazi imprisonment and was a member of parliament when the Communists seized power in 1948.

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She spurned counsel to flee the country, and found herself the headline attraction at a show trial for a supposed plot to overthrow the government. In a hopeless scenario, she distinguished herself with off-script defiance despite having broken under torture and signed a confession; Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt all pleaded in vain for clemency.

Horakova left the world clear in her purpose. In a letter to her teenage daughter awaiting execution, she justified her own dangerous choices:

“The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children. But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good … by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. … Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight.”

Hours before her hanging, she wrote a few last words for her loved ones:

“I go with my head held high. One also has to know how to lose. That is no disgrace. An enemy also does not lose honor if he is truthful and honorable. One falls in battle; what is life other than struggle?” (Both excerpts cited here)

The only woman among Czechoslovakia’s postwar political executions was abortively rehabilitated during the 1968 Prague Spring. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, her resistance to both Naziism and Communism — worthy of an opera(topical interview) and a forthcoming film — have elevated her into her country’s official pantheon.

As a result, this date is “Commemoration day for the victims of the Communist regime” in the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, Horakova’s now-octogenerian prosecutor Ludmila Brozova-Polednova, whose repulsive legal barbs at trial (“Don’t break her neck on the noose. Suffocate the bitch — and the others too.”) were probably the consequence of the foregone conclusion more than the cause, was convicted late last year for her role in the trial. That verdict has kept in the news these past several months — most recently, the Czech Supreme Court returned it for retrial after an appeals court overturned the sentence — a tangible symbol of the challenges inherent to confronting the past. (Brozova-Polednova, for her part, is unapologetic.)

* One of the goons who tortured confessions out of the conspirators in Horakova’s “terrorist center,” Karel Svab, was among those later hanged with Slansky.

The Kroll Opera House in Berlin on April 28, 1939. Hitler makes keynote address answering Roosevelt’s appeal to avoid war.

I play a little game, a variant of “where’s Waldo”, with pictures like this.
The challenge is to try and figure out everyone in the photo who will be dead or in jail by 1946. It’s quite gratifying.

Hitler’s speech that day was a response to a letter sent by Roosevelt to get Hitler’s assurances that it would not attack other countries. You can read it here.

Roosevelt asked for Hitler to give assurances that he would not invade a number of specific countries, mostly British possessions and European neighbors, most of which became involved in the war anyway. Hitler’s view of peace seemed to be between the major powers, and that Germany should be entitled to expand into Poland and Czechoslovakia if it wanted to. He was telling Britain, France, the US and Russia to stay out of Germany’s area so that he could continue his ambitions. This is not at all what those other countries, especially Poland wanted.

In my understanding this letter came at a time when the world had already geared up for war. Although it hadn’t been declared yet, all the major powers were building up their stockpiles and constructing more and more weapons, like bombers. Even the US, which wouldn’t join the war for another 2 years was already preparing for it.

There were a few warning signs that that just got ignored. One that I think should not be forgotten is that most Western countries did not raise their immigration quotas and allow more Jewish refugees to enter their countries until late in the war. Anti-semitism and fear over immigration in general led to refugees being rejected until public opinion turned around 1944. Even though their was ample evidence of violence and discrimination, the US and Britain still refused to increase their quotas. It saddens me to think about the lives that could have been spared by a bit of bureaucratic empathy.

It is possibly the greatest tragedy of human history that the Second World War happened with so much warning, yet nothing was done to truly stop it.

(Here’s some of the speech, with subtitles.)