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Cambridge University Press
National Cleansing: Retribution against Nazi Collaborators in Postwar Czechoslovakia

National Cleansing: Retribution against Nazi Collaborators in Postwar Czechoslovakia


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521008969
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 06/28/2004
Series: Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare Series , #19
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 410
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 1.02(d)

About the Author

Benjamin Frommer is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern University.

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National Cleansing
Cambridge University Press
0521810671 - National Cleansing - Retribution against Nazi Collaborators in Postwar Czechoslovakia - by Benjamin Frommer


In December 1945 Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš triumphantly accepted an honorary doctorate of law from Prague's Charles University. Nearly seven years after the Nazis had destroyed his country, Beneš publicly reflected on the principles that had guided his struggle to reestablish the Czechoslovak state and ensure its future security and prosperity. In his commencement address the President emphasized the need for his compatriots "to open the gates of change to the social and economic structure of our national society." First, however, the country had to reckon with its past: postwar Czechoslovakia's primary objectives, he explained, must include "punishment for the guilt and mistakes of the previous regime...[for] Nazism and fascism."1 In linking revolutionary change to retributive justice, Beneš echoed the sentiments of political leaders across Europe. In his classic account of postwar French retribution, Peter Novick noted, "the purge was considered the necessary prerequisite for...the removal of impediments to the renovation and reconstruction of the nation."2 Throughout the newly liberated continent governments committed themselves to punish Nazis, war criminals, and those who had collaborated with them. The French prosecuted Pétain, the Norwegians tried Quisling, and the Allied Powers established the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg to hold Germany's leaders accountable for "crimes against peace" and "humanity." Amid a wave of popular anger, retribution was not limited to the foremost Nazis and the political elite of countries that had been occupied by or allied with Germany; ordinary men and women who had betrayed their acquaintances, neighbors, and relatives were put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, even death. Thus, in the wake of the Second World War, a remarkable phenomenon occurred: As István Deák wrote, "For the first time in history, a whole continent made an attempt to settle accounts with its own political crimes and criminals."3

When it came to punishing its own citizens few states in postwar Europe were as thorough as Czechoslovakia. Beginning in the spring of 1945 the country's multiparty government implemented a comprehensive program of "national cleansing" [národní očista] designed to right past wrongs and deter future crimes. "In both Slavic and German usages, 'cleansing' has a dual meaning," Norman Naimark explained, "one purges the native community of foreign bodies, and one purges one's own people of alien elements."4 In the Czech case the "foreign bodies" were the Sudeten Germans, nearly three million of whom were expelled from the country after the war. The "national cleansing," however, also targeted "alien elements" from the Czechs' own ranks. The regime led by Edvard Beneš banned political parties considered responsible for the German occupation, expropriated and redistributed the property of suspected traitors, and purged alleged collaborators from the civil service, the academy, and the arts. Most significantly, the country's postwar leaders created a massive system of summary courts and administrative tribunals designed to "cleanse" society of anyone who had betrayed the Czechoslovak state or oppressed its citizens. In the wake of the Nazi occupation, Czech "People's Courts" tried more than 32,000 alleged collaborators and war criminals. Local tribunals vetted approximately 135,000 cases of so-called "offenses against national honor."5 Tens of thousands more were arrested, incarcerated for months, then summarily released without ever being prosecuted. Prior to the Communist coup d'état of February 1948, the Czechs legally executed nearly 700 defendants - more than in the subsequent four decades of Communist rule combined.6

This book focuses on "retribution" in the provinces of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia - the territory of today's Czech Republic. Developments in neighboring Slovakia, the eastern half of the former Czechoslovakia, are not examined in depth here for the primary reason that in 1945 Slovak resistance leaders successfully demanded the right to punish their nation's collaborators and oppressors themselves. Consequently, Czechoslovakia came to have a dualistic system of retribution, with one set of laws and courts for Slovakia, another for the Czech provinces.7 Contemporary Czechs employed the foreign term "retribution" [retribuce] to refer specifically to the formal prosecution of Nazi war criminals and collaborators by legally sanctioned state organs. Postwar Czech retribution encompassed the institutions and processes resulting from three presidential decrees: the "Great Decree" (no. 16/1945), which established twenty-four Extraordinary People's Courts for the prosecution of "Nazi criminals, traitors, and their accomplices"; Decree no. 17/1945, which created a National Court in Prague to try the most prominent Czech collaborators; and the "Small Decree" (no. 138/1945), which granted local authorities the power to punish Czechs for "offenses against national honor." Vojta Beneš, the highly respected older brother of the country's president, estimated in June 1947 that the three decrees had affected approximately 1.5 million individuals (counting suspects and their dependents) in the Czech provinces alone.8

In the same speech the elder Beneš told the Czechoslovak National Assembly, "For fifty years we will study retribution and all that provoked it."9 The punishment of collaborators and war criminals generated more controversy than perhaps any other topic in contemporary Czechoslovakia - the parliamentary debate at which the president's sibling uttered his prediction was the longest of the period.10 Today, however, it is clear that he was mistaken. For decades Czech retribution was not studied; in fact, despite its enormous size and scope, until recently it had been all but forgotten. The Czechoslovak Communist regime dissuaded scholars at home from investigating the postwar period.11 Researchers from abroad were also unable to access the necessary archives. As a result, during the Cold War the Czechs' prosecution of collaborators and war criminals earned at most cursory, polemical mention in general histories of the country, whether published in the West or in Czechoslovakia.12 In the past decade Czech scholars have begun to investigate the People's Courts, but their studies have been primarily limited to analyses of selected regions, trials, or topics.13 Only in the last few years has research even started on the punishment of "offenses against national honor."14 Although there is now a rich historiography on retribution in Western European countries after the Second World War,15 recent international compilations on the topic have not included chapters on the Czech "national cleansing."16 The following pages, thus, aim to fill in one of the blankest of Czech history's many "blank spaces."17

The paucity of literature on postwar retribution has necessitated that this study be based primarily on archival sources. Until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, most of these materials were off limits even to those scholars approved by the Communist regime. The opening of Czech archives in the 1990s cast new light on a range of historical issues concerning retribution. Court records, including interrogation reports, witness depositions, and trial transcripts, help to reorient the study of the Nazi occupation from isolated instances of resistance to the everyday experience of collaboration. Correspondence between local officials and the Ministries of Interior and Justice illustrate the problems that arose in the quest to punish hundreds of thousands of alleged collaborators. Personal appeals and anonymous denunciations to the Czechoslovak president expose aspects of postwar life that did not necessarily leave a trace in official government records. The political competition that marked the period before February 1948 created considerable space for the press to criticize inconsistencies and injustices, including those caused and revealed by retribution. Together these and other archival sources illustrate the contingent nature of the postwar power struggle and the complexity of contemporary views of allegiance.

To the limited extent that historians have considered postwar retribution, they have traditionally dismissed trials of collaborators as little more than a partisan purge. This dominant frame for understanding retribution was established before the courts even tried their first defendants. In early April 1945 Klement Gottwald, the leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, explained the potential value of "national cleansing" to a gathering of party cadres:

[A] tool, which we have today in the fight for leadership of the nation, is the struggle against traitors and collaborators - that is, against the physical leaders of the compromised Slovak and Czech bourgeoisie....[The] law for the prosecution of traitors and collaborators is a very sharp weapon, with which we can cut so many limbs away from the bourgeoisie that only its trunk will remain. This is a matter of the class struggle against the bourgeoisie - a struggle waged under the banner of the state and the nation, under the banner of the republic. Not to use this weapon is to let it rust. With this weapon we can strike our enemy directly, physically.18

Taking their cue from Gottwald, during the Cold War non-Communist scholars regularly condemned the trials as political, contentious, and, above all, unjust. When these authors mentioned retribution at all, they argued that the attempt "to eradicate...the Nazi and fascist evil," to quote the Great Decree's preamble, created the conditions for another form of totalitarianism, Stalinism, to succeed. Indiscriminate arrests contributed to an atmosphere of legal uncertainty, while the Communist Party, through its operatives in the administrative apparatus and security forces, abused the charge of collaboration for political gain. According to one prominent Czech émigré, after the Second World War the Communists "controlled the Revolutionary Tribunals, the People's Courts, the Police, the Ministry of the Interior [and] the Committees for trying a citizen for offenses against the nation's honor."19 Even those trials that clearly had no connection to the postwar political struggle have been dismissed en masse as motivated by little more than personal vengeance and greed. In retrospect, Ladislav Feierabend, a conservative opponent of the Party, wrote that retribution "belongs among the saddest pages of Czech history." Pavel Tigrid, one of country's foremost liberals at home and in exile, dismissed postwar trials as "perverted justice." Similar opinions long dominated more detached analyses of the period: For example, historian Vilém Hejl wrote, "Retribution did not strive for justice; its goal was retaliation, in other words, revenge."20

The losers of Czechoslovakia's postwar power struggle were not the only ones dissatisfied with retribution. Despite Gottwald's high hopes, after the war Communist leaders bitterly complained in public and private about the People's Courts' allegedly partisan bias and overall leniency. After the 1948 Communist coup d'état the newly installed Justice Minister, Alexej Čepička, commented,

Retribution [before 1948] was carried out according to class such that full, almost draconian penalties were handed down to minor transgressors from the weakest social classes. At the same time, thanks to sabotage by judicial officials, many members of the wealthy classes, particularly the haute-bourgeoisie, either entirely escaped punishment or the punishment meted out to them was laughably small in comparison to their guilt.21

Čepička's claims were likely designed in part to justify a purge of judges and the "haute-bourgeoisie." Nevertheless, public criticism of courts' allegedly lenient treatment of prominent defendants - whose guilt had been trumpeted throughout their trials by the Communist press - cannot be discarded as mere propaganda. Internal documents reveal that the Communist leadership was disappointed, and ordinary cadres disoriented, by the failure of the Party to enforce its interpretation of wartime collaboration on the courts. Contrary to Gottwald's prediction, the documentary evidence demonstrates that prosecutors and judges prevented the more extreme forms of retribution desired by the leaders of the Communist Party. Largely independent courts helped to mitigate abuses perpetrated by the partisan police and thus proved a surprising buttress to postwar democracy.

In recent years Czech historians Mečislav Borák and Václav Jiřík have written admirable studies of individual People's Courts that have moved scholarship beyond its traditional focus on the Communist Party's manipulation of postwar justice.22 Nonetheless, the year 1948 continues to exert a hegemony over postwar Czechoslovak historiography in much the same way that 1933 has dominated scholarship on Weimar Germany. Retribution, however, was more than a derivative and determinant of the contemporary power struggle that culminated in the Communist coup d'état. The trials and the controversies they engendered were central to a national debate about the conduct and values of the Czechs both during the occupation and after liberation. The country's postwar Justice Minister, Prokop Drtina, explained,

As long as it was a matter of judging the guilt of Germans, on the whole there was not, in principle, unfavorable criticism in our press or among the public. By contrast, when it came to judging the guilt of individuals prosecuted from the Czechs' ranks, it was very often apparent that...there was not a unified perspective among the public or even the people's judges.23

The Czechs' disunity was not unusual in Europe. "Everywhere, the courts struggled with a definition of collaboration," Deák wrote. "Since no consensus existed, every national assembly, in fact nearly every court, arrived at its own definition."24 In the Czech provinces, political elites, the general public, and, most importantly, the courts developed various definitions of what constituted "collaboration" and what, in contrast, was justifiable accommodation necessary to survive the occupation. The answer was not merely academic - it was a matter of a defendant's liberty or even life.

Throughout Europe, postwar retribution failed to satisfy most everyone. As memory of wartime atrocities faded, many complained that the punishment of collaborators was merely a cover for the elimination of political opponents and personal enemies. Others claimed that war criminals and collaborators escaped unscathed or with minimal punishment. In Czechoslovakia the Communist takeover of February 1948 has tended to make all that came before seem a cause or at least a precondition of democracy's demise. Retribution's impact on Czech politics and society was, however, more complex. Trials of collaborators were a battleground between clashing forces intent on imposing their own interpretations of the past in order to determine the country's future. This book aims to restore retribution to its central place in postwar Czech history, not only as an integral part of the struggle for political mastery, but also as a genuine, though inherently flawed, attempt to come to terms with the legacy of the Nazi occupation.


The following study is organized thematically and placed within a larger chronological framework, which begins with the origins of Czech retribution during the Second World War and concludes with the consolidation of Communist rule after the 1948 coup. The latter half of this introduction sets the context for postwar trials by reviewing critical wartime developments and briefly exploring the nature of collaboration in the occupied Czech provinces. Chapter 1, Wild Retribution, analyzes the causes and nature of vigilantism against suspected collaborators in the spring of 1945. Although the violence may appear to have been the inevitable result of a brutal foreign occupation, the bloody anarchy that ravaged the Czech provinces for months was the consequence of decisions taken, and not taken, by the country's leaders during the war and afterward. Chapter 2, The Great Decree, traces the development of the main statute that governed trials of collaborators and war criminals. The law's framers - President Edvard Beneš's followers in London, not Communists in Moscow - accepted measures that permitted, even encouraged, gross abuses to be perpetrated later. The combination of the draconian law and the failure to rein in "wild retribution" established a precarious foundation for postwar justice.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the twenty-four Czech People's Courts, which the Beneš regime established to try "Nazi criminals, traitors, and their accomplices." Chapter 3, People's Courts and Popular Justice, examines the role of the police, prosecutors, "people's judges," and professional jurists in the punishment of alleged collaborators and war criminals. Over time these "extraordinary" courts evolved from severe executors of revolutionary justice to become a bulwark against police abuse, personal vengeance, and partisan justice. Based on court records, Chapter 4, Denunciation: "The Disease of Our Time," investigates the practice of denunciation during the occupation and its punishment thereafter. Through in-depth analysis of the 1947 trial of Václav Píša, the regional editor of the anti-Semitic weekly Aryan Struggle, this chapter reveals how ordinary Czechs contributed to the Holocaust by denouncing compatriots who failed to respect Nazi prohibitions on contacts with Jews and intermarried Gentiles.

Chapters 5 and 6 consider the role of nationality in retribution by examining two specific aspects of the postwar "national cleansing." Chapter 5, Offenses against National Honor, investigates the prosecution of Czechs for everyday collaboration with the occupation regime. Dissatisfied with the People's Courts' inability to convict lesser collaborators, the government empowered local authorities to punish "unbecoming behavior insulting to the national sentiment of the Czech...people." In punishing economic, professional, and social - especially "amorous" - relations with Germans, the postwar regime conflated civic and national allegiance and retroactively criminalized interethnic relations. Chapter 6, Retribution and the "Transfer," argues that, whereas retribution trials underpinned the postwar expulsion of nearly three million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia, the expulsion, in turn, undermined the prosecution of war criminals and collaborators. Trials of individual Germans served to justify the collective punishment of the Sudeten minority, but the postwar regime ultimately chose to expel thousands of suspected German criminals rather than risk that they might remain in the country after their convictions.

Chapter 7, The National Court, focuses on trials of prominent Czech collaborators and examines the relationship between politics and justice in the postwar republic. Although Communist leaders first pushed for the creation of the National Court, this institution rejected their and their fellow (non-Communist) exiles' stringent interpretation of wartime collaboration. Instead, adopting the home front's more forgiving view, the court's judges repeatedly emphasized that life under foreign occupation necessitated accommodation and that the Czech "bourgeois" elite had not betrayed its country. Finally, Chapter 8, The Road to February and Beyond, examines the months before and after the 1948 Communist coup d'état. The relief with which many Czechs greeted the abolition of the People's Courts and national honor tribunals in May 1947 was tempered by Communist threats that the "national cleansing" was not over. After the February coup, the new regime reinstated the retribution courts and restarted the prosecution of alleged wartime collaborators, many of whom had been previously acquitted. Though this second round of trials arguably helped the Communists to consolidate their hold on power, even in 1948 retribution proved to be a burdensome, potentially divisive, and often unpredictable task.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. Wild retribution; 2. The great decree; 3. People's courts and popular justice; 4. 'The disease of denunciation'; 5. Offenses against national honor; 6. Retribution and the transfer; 7. The National Court; 8. The road to February and beyond; Conclusion.

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