Rudolf Slánský (31 July 1901 – 3 December 1952) was a Czech Communist politician. Holding the post of the party's General Secretary after World War II, he was one of the leading creators and organizers of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. After the split between Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, the latter instigated a wave of "purges" of the respective Communist Party leaderships, to prevent more splits between the Soviet Union and its Central European "satellite" countries. In Czechoslovakia, Slánský was one of 14 leaders arrested in 1951 and put on show trial en masse in November 1952, charged with high treason. After eight days, 11 of the 14 were sentenced to death. Slánský's sentence was carried out five days later.
Born at Nezvěstice, now in Plzeň-City District, Slánský attended secondary school in Plzeň at the Commercial Academy. After the end of World War I, he went to Prague, the capital, where he discovered a leftist intellectual scene in institutions such as the Marxist Club. In 1921, Slánský joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia when it broke away from the Social Democratic Party. He rose within the party and became a senior lieutenant of its leader, Klement Gottwald. At the Fifth Party Congress in 1929, Slánský was named a member of the party Presidium and the Politburo, and Gottwald became General Secretary.
From 1929 to 1935, Slánský lived in hiding due to the illegal status of the Communist Party. In 1935, after the party was allowed to participate in politics, both he and Gottwald were elected to the National Assembly. Their gains were halted, however, when Czechoslovakia was carved up at the Munich Conference in 1938. When Nazi Germany occupied the Sudetenland in October 1938, Slánský, along with much of the rest of the Czechoslovak communist leadership, fled to the Soviet Union.
In Moscow, Slánský worked on broadcasts to Czechoslovakia over Moscow Radio. He lived through the defense of Moscow against the Germans during the winter of 1941-42. His experience in Moscow brought him into contact with Soviet Communists and the often brutal methods they favored for maintaining party discipline.
In 1943 Slánský's infant daughter, Naďa (Nadia) was forcibly abducted from her baby carriage by a woman while in the company of her eight-year-old brother, Rudolf, who put up resistance. The woman knew details about Mrs. Slánský, including her job with Radio Moscow. Neither Nadia nor the perpetrators were ever found. Slánský's widow has recounted that written inquiries were made to the police and to Stalin himself, all of which went unanswered.
While in exile in the Soviet Union, Slánský also organized Czechoslovak army units, with which he returned to Czechoslovakia in 1944 to participate in the Slovak National Uprising.
In 1945, after World War II, Czechoslovak leaders back from exile in London and Moscow, Slánský among them, held meetings that led to a new National Front government under Edvard Beneš. At the 8th Party Congress of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party in March 1946, Slánský became General Secretary of the Communist Party. This made him the number two man in the party behind Gottwald, who became leader of a coalition government after elections held that year.
In 1948 the Communist Party seized power in the February coup. Slánský thus became the second most powerful man in the country behind president Gottwald. Two years later, in an ominous sign of things to come, Gottwald accused two of Slánský's close associates, Otto Šling and Bedřich Reicin, of crimes against the Communist Party. Slánský participated in purging them because he did not have enough clout to fight the accusations. Slánský was also blamed for economic and industrial troubles, costing him popular support. Nevertheless, he received the Order of Socialism, a top decoration, on 30 July 1951, and a book of his speeches in support of socialism was going to be published under the title Towards the Victory of Socialism.
In November 1952 Slánský and 13 other high-ranking Communist bureaucrats (10 of whom were Jews) were arrested and charged with being Titoists and Zionists, official USSR rhetoric having turned against Zionism.
Party rhetoric asserted that Slánský was spying as part of an international western capitalist conspiracy to undermine socialism and that punishing him would avenge the Nazi murders of Czech communists Jan Šverma and Julius Fučík during World War II.
Some historians state that Stalin desired complete obedience and threatened purges for the "national communists". According to this theory, Gottwald, fearing for his own safety, decided to sacrifice his longtime collaborator and associate Slánský.
Other historians however say that the rivalry between Slánský and Gottwald escalated after the 1948 coup. Slánský began consolidating his power within the party secretariat and placing more of his party supporters in governmental positions, encroaching on Gottwald’s position as president after the resignation of Beneš. Stalin backed Gottwald because he was believed to have a better chance of building up the Czechoslovak economy into a position where it could start producing useful goods for the Soviet Union.
Whatever the case, Slánský was hurt by his image as a "cosmopolitan" figure (he was Jewish, at a time when. through the Eastern bloc, influenced by the USSR, Jewish leaders were being used as scapegoats for shortages and economic problems), which had allowed Gottwald and his ally Antonín Zápotocký, both populists, to tar him with charges of belonging to the bourgeoisie. Slánský and his allies were also opposed by old-time party members, the government, and the party’s Political Bureau. In prison after his arrest, Slánský was tortured and he attempted suicide.
The trial of the 14 national leaders began on 20 November 1952, in the Senate of the State Court, with the prosecutor being Josef Urválek. It lasted eight days. It was notable for its strong anti-Semitic overtones: Slánský and 10 of his 13 codefendants were Jewish. As in the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s, the defendants were craven in court, admitting guilt and requesting to be punished with death. Slánský was found guilty of "Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist activities in the service of American imperialism" and publicly hanged at Pankrác Prison on 3 December 1952. His body was cremated and the ashes were scattered on an icy road outside of Prague.
After the death of Stalin, Slánský was reviled by Antonín Novotný for having introduced Stalinist methods of interrogation into Czechoslovakia. Slánský and other victims of the purge trials were cleared under the penal code in April 1963 and fully rehabilitated and exonerated in May 1968. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the new president Václav Havel, named Slánský’s son, also named Rudolf, as the Czech ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Slánský was the most powerful politician executed during the rule of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Afterwards the treatment of leaders fallen out of favour became civilized by comparison: they were merely stripped of power and put into retirement.