Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya • ISSN 2075-7999
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Feinberg M. “Only an imperialist could think up such a notion!” Political trials and the production of a Cold War reality in Eastern Europe [Full text]

Russian version: Фейнберг М. «Только империалист мог придумать такое понятие!» Политические процессы и создание «железного занавеса» в Восточной Европе
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, USA

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The paper examines the proliferation of show trials across Eastern Europe from 1948–1954 and show how these trials worked to produce the "script" of the early Cold War. In the world the trials described, socialism was the only path to happiness. Mysterious enemies linked to Western imperialism constantly threatened to destroy socialism's achievements and did often manage to commit sabotage. This was a bipolar world, a place where West continually menaced East with the possibility of war and nuclear annihilation. I will examine these "facts" of Cold War life as presented by trial scriptwriters in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. The "reality" created in these scripts, authored by local Communist leaders, their security police and their Soviet advisers may have been grounded in lies, but it was the world East Europeans had to live in, regardless of its "truth". Through these staged dramas, East Europeans learned the parts they were supposed to play in the Cold War, and also discovered the potential consequences that could come from refusing to accept their roles.

Keywords: political trails, cold War, bipolar world


This talk comes out of preliminary research for a new book project that examines the ways in which ordinary individuals helped to create the Iron Curtain [Feinberg, 2009][1]. My interest is in how the concept of a divided world became normalized in everyday life during the first years of the Cold War. To examine this process, I am looking at how fear persuaded both Eastern and Western Europeans to accept their parts as Cold Warriors, no matter their wishes or beliefs. The larger project will examine three ways in which individuals were encouraged to act out the Cold War: spy trials, the peace movement, and civil defense. Today, my goal is more modest: to survey a wide array of political trials in Eastern Europe (outside the USSR) and show how they collectively functioned as a tool to teach the new rules of the Cold War to bewildered East Europeans.

I'd like to start my talk today with the experience of a young Hungarian Communist named Béla Szász, who was arrested without warning in May, 1949. After he entered the custody of Hungarian state security services (ÁVH), Szász was starved, beaten, and subjected to a variety of other tortures as his interrogators pressed him to confess to crimes he had never committed. Several weeks into his imprisonment, his interrogations were taken over by a Soviet Lieutenant-Colonel who compelled him to recount the story of his life again and again. During their sessions Szász described a conversation he had with an Englishman in Buenos Aires, where he spent much of the Second World War. The Englishman said that Szász should not go back to Hungary after the war was over, but Szász argued that it was his moral duty to return and help rebuild the country. Hungary, he argued, "might be particularly suited for building a bridge <…> between East and West; it might find a synthesis of two ways of thinking, two ways of life". Hearing this story, the Soviet Lieutenant-Colonel laughed uproariously. A bridge! A bridge was just a way for Western armies to reach across Europe to attack the Soviet Union. Indeed, he said, "only an Imperialist agent could think up such a notion" [Szász, 1971, p. 110–111].

Szász was confused. How could the very idea of mediating between socialism and capitalism now be seen as an act of treason? As Szász would slowly discover during his long months of captivity, he had entered a world where old methods of interpreting reality no longer applied: the world of the show trial.

Historical research on show trials in Eastern Europe has focused on proving the innocence of the accused and showing how the trials were fabricated by members of the local security police and their Soviet advisers[2]. I think we can now agree that these trials were (for the most part) composed of lies, and instead ponder their social and cultural importance. The East European show trials, I would argue, set the stage for the creation of new, Cold War identities by setting the boundaries of a new world. In the rest of this talk, I will examine these "facts" of Cold War life as presented by trial scriptwriters in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania, looking at both trials of Communists and opposition figures. The world created in these scripts may not have been "real", but it became real enough for East Europeans who had to live inside its constructs, or suffer the consequences that could come from refusing to accept their roles

Rule #1: The Enemy is Everywhere, and She/He is Cunning

One of the most important tenets of the show trials was that socialism was besieged on all sides by enemies. A large and varied cast of villains was assembled under the general banner of imperialism, often appearing together within the same trial. For example, the Vogeler trial in Hungary was a case devoted to exposing economic sabotage at the Standard Electric plant (a subsidiary of IT&T). It contained an unlikely assortment of conspirators including an American businessman, his British colleague, several of the Hungarian plant managers, an official from the Ministry of Industry (presented as a Trotskyite), a Catholic priest and former landowner, and a barmaid at the Hotel Astoria, who was also a member of the prewar elite[3]. Similarly, in the trial of Milada Horáková in Czechoslovakia, a conspiracy to overthrow the socialist regime included politicians from two different oppositional parties (the National-Socialists and the Social Democrats), a surrealist poet who had left the Communist Party in the 1930's, a law professor, a former factory owner, and a former agent of the security police (SNB) [War Conspirators … , 1950].

The seeming randomness of these groupings was part of the point. Just as the fight against fascism had brought together strange allies, those who vowed to destroy socialism, bound together by their hate, could create the most unlikely coalitions ("nests of vipers", "gangs" or "bands" in the language of the trials) in pursuit of their goal. Catholics, Social Democrats, industrialists, kulaks, fascists and many others were all part of the same anti-Communist pantheon, later joined by Titoists, and with the Slánský trial, Zionists[4].

But these were all obvious enemies, groups that had openly been critical of socialism, its policies, and/or the Soviet Union. The trials also presented an even more dangerous class of enemy: those who were allied with the forces of imperialism but masked their true feelings by pretending to be loyal Communists. As the most famous and largest trials made clear, these "sneaking, crawling snakes" could be hiding anywhere, even in the highest echelons of the Communist Party itself. Having learned the "gangster art of lurking in the dark", they kept up appearances while secretly working on their nefarious plans to overthrow the very governments they had helped establish[5].

This was the case in the trials of Kostov, Rajk and Slánský. Slánský, for example, was forced to admit that not only had he "always acted like an opportunist" and ratted out his comrades to the police, but that he was complicit in the death of his friend, the Communist hero Jan Šverma, who died during the Slovak Uprising at the end of the war [Proces s vedením … , 1953, p. 49]. Slánský was made to seem so heinous that a typical article published during his trial in Rudé Právo, the official paper of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, claimed that "the mask has been stripped from Rudolf Slánský once and for all, and the face that emerges from beneath it is that of a cannibal" [Quoted in: Slánská, 1969, p. 27]. The lesson to be learned from these startling (and farfetched) revelations about the Party elite was that no one was above suspicion and no previous act could guarantee reliability or provoke lasting trust. Life was not going to be secure, in this new world. Expertly cloaked villains could be hiding anywhere, waiting to suck the nation's blood.

The real enemies, however, were not individuals, but ideologies and concepts. Robert Vogeler, the American on trial for espionage at tphe Standard Electric plant in Hungary, noted in his memoir that each defendant in his trial "represented a specific evil to be slayed" [Vogeler, 1951, p. 71][6]. This was in fact quite explicit in the script itself. The lawyer for Imre Geiger, managing director of the plant, defended his client by noting that the real enemy was war-mongering capitalism. Geiger, born into the bourgeoisie, had been primed to fall into its clutches[7]. The same was true in the trial of Vasile Ciobanu in Romania. Ciobanu was an airline pilot who had supposedly been a spy for the Turkish government. His defense attorney argued for mercy on the grounds that, although his client was guilty, he was simply a "pliant tool" for "the true authors and odious instigators to these crimes, the Anglo-American imperialists"[8]. It was as if, as trial survivor Béla Szász remarked, the defendants were like Byzantine icons. They were not supposed to represent individuals, but be composites of the different faces of evil, or, in this case, the different faces of capitalist imperialism [Szász, 1971, p. 148–149].  Trial watchers would learn how to recognize the stylized masks of villainy, whether in Titoist, Trotskyite, Zionist, American or bourgeois guise.

Curiously, an effort was also made to get these fictitious spies to conform to the public's perception of how secret agents should operate. The plots in the trials were impossibly fantastic, but this was itself a mainstay of the spy stories that had long been popular in novels and movies like Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps (1935)or Saboteur (1942). Indeed, even a Hungarian propaganda pamphlet about the trials noted that the trial of the Catholic priest József Mindszenty had been "reminiscent of an American adventure film" [Boldiszár, 1952, p. 51].

Perhaps even more incredibly, Hungarian ÁVH officers actually had prisoners sentenced to hard labor translate spy novels and detective stories for them (as well as technical manuals and other more likely texts) [Szász, 1971, p. 206; Paloczi-Horvath, 1959, p. 181]. Others used this kind of fiction as a way of interpreting their experiences. When the Czech Communist Artur London was chased by several cars full of armed men who blocked the road, handcuffed and blindfolded him, and threw him into the backseat of the lead car, he could only think that the scene had come out of a detective novel [London, 1970, p. 19]. The wife of London's fellow prisoner, Rudolf Margolius, wrote that her husband's arrest had been "staged like the climactic scene in a spy thriller", the kind of film that had been playing for months in Prague cinemas [Kovaly, 1997, p. 89 and 114].

The characters of the spies in trial scripts had to act according to these kinds of expectations engendered by spy fiction. First, spies never operated alone. Like in the 39 Steps, they were always part of an enormous shadowy web of agents, described in the Slánský trial as an "octopus with a thousand tentacles [that] clung to the body of our republic and sucked blood and vitality from it" [Proces s vedením … , 1953, p. 493]. These networks communicated with each other (as described in a Romanian economic espionage trial) "in abbreviated language and conventional signs, clear names were to be avoided at all costs, and also conversations over the telephone" [Trial of the Group of Spies, Plotters … , 1949, p. 136]. Mentions of these kinds of practices are rife in trial scenarios, as the supposed spies used everything from ridiculous codewords to invisible ink[9]. Details such as these helped to give what were at heart ideological dramas created to crush symbolic enemies a bit of flair and Hollywood glamour.

Rule #2: War Is Just Around the Corner

The show trials took place as both the United States and Soviet Union developed atomic weapons, which many feared they would soon use. The trials intensified this fear, preying on the insecurities of people who had only just survived years of war and deprivation. They told their audience that a deadly war would be soon, unless they worked ceaselessly to prevent it. It was a message that many took to heart. As Marian Šlingová, the English wife of executed Czech Communist Otto Šling remembered, "The danger of a hot war seemed all too real to us and we failed to grasp how it was being used as the background to insidious changes in the political structure" [Šlingová, 1968, p. 45]. This fear seemed to infect the entire region, regardless of the very different war experiences of its different countries.

War was ultimately what all of the spies and saboteurs who populated the trials had in mind and the nightmare of armed conflict was constantly held up as the price of failing to uncover the conspirators. In the so-called monster trials of Rajk, Kostov and Slánský, each of the accused confessed to planning some kind of armed insurrection. The Rajk and Kostov trials were primarily conceived as anti-Tito enterprises and the goal of each conspiracy was to kill their country's current leader (Rákosi in Hungary, Dmitrov in Bulgaria), take power via a coup, slowly turn the people against the USSR and make the country into a satellite of Yugoslavia. In the end, the country would become a pawn of the power behind Tito: American imperialism. Yet, while this was primarily presented as a regional scenario, with agents supposedly working across the Balkans to bring Titoists to power, the fear of a larger conflict lurked in the background. In his final speech to the court, the prosecutor in the Rajk trial, Gyula Alapi, declared, "The American and British intelligence services purchased Tito and his clique even during the war against Hitler, to prevent the national and social liberation of the peoples of South Eastern Europe, to isolate the Soviet Union, and prepare for the third world war" [László Rajk and His Accomplices … , 1949, p. 270]. Unless stopped, the "warmongering" American imperialists would unleash their fury on the hapless inhabitants of the People's Democracies.

Bloodlust was prominent in the rhetoric of many trials[10]. The fear of nuclear war was used to exquisite effect in the trial of Czech opposition politician Milada Horáková. Horáková and her co-conspirators were charged with spying for Czechoslovak exiles who hoped to bring about a war that would destroy the people's democracy, restoring capitalism and "bourgeois democracy". One of the group's supposed tasks was to create a network of supporters within Czechoslovakia to act as a fifth column when war did break out. In her testimony at the trial, Horáková admitted that her bosses in London might be willing to allow the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia ("a new Munich" in the words of the prosecutor) if this was the price of an alliance with the West. This was why, she said, "we counted upon war" as the means for realizing their plans. The prosecutor then opined that this would probably mean a nuclear war and asked if this was what she had in mind. When Horáková demurred, claiming she did not know how the war would be waged, the prosecutor took another tack, asking if she had imagined that bombs would fall upon Prague, the city where her sixteen year old daughter lived. To this, Horáková was forced to simply reply, "yes". This was of course the audience's ultimate fear: that war would come again to Europe and this time, unlike in the previous war, Prague would be laid waste, just as Warsaw and Berlin had been destroyed a few years before, killing their children and leaving no more than a pile of rubble[11]. When Horáková made such fears tangible in her testimony, her words hit home with the audience. Letters and resolutions poured into the prosecutor's office, demanding her execution. While group resolutions against the traitors were undoubtedly planned by Party officials, their number and vehemence seems to have surprised even those in charge. Of course, whether or not those who signed the petitions believed in Horáková's guilt is certainly a matter of dispute (and one I will cover more in the last part of my talk)[12]. But, I would suggest that the act itself is significant, regardless of the beliefs of the signers. The act of signing, like so many other small, seemingly insignificant acts, gave real substance to trial fictions, just as the executions of Horáková and three of her co-defendants did [Kaplan, 1995].

Rule #3: Socialism Will Bring Prosperity and Peace – Unless the Wreckers Have Their Way

By the end of the 1940's in Eastern Europe, official discourse mandated that socialism was the only path to the good life. While many may have disagreed with this assessment, such views had no place in the public arena. In the trials, as in all of the popular media, socialism was the road to a glorious future. But that road had a heavy burden of stones and potholes, in the form of saboteurs who tried to undermine the socialist economy before it could become established. Not only were imperialism's spies working to start a war, they hoped to turn the people against their leaders by wrecking socialism's economic achievements from the inside.

This was the central focus of many trials, such as a Romanian trial that spotlighted industrial sabotage, most prominently at the Reşita works, formerly owned by industrialist Max Auschnitt. Auschnitt had fled the country and was being tried in absentia. Auschnitt and his co-defendants had supposedly been given the idea for sabotage by the Americans, who they hoped would help them restore the prewar regime. According to Reşita's general manager Alexandru Popp (who had not been as lucky as his boss and was in the dock), "Sabotage was calculated in every detail, in a diabolical spirit". The conspirators confessed to mismanaging the planning process so that necessary raw materials were never in the right place at the right time, leaving workers with nothing to do. They failed to assign the personnel to unload transport trains, leaving them standing unloaded for weeks while their contents were needed elsewhere, and kept machinery in bad repair, so that it was ready for the trash heap after only half a year's use. The foundry was such a mess it could not function properly and explosive projectiles were mistakenly thrown in with metal being smelted, blowing up the furnaces. The result was "delayed production, chaos and disorder" which rippled through Romanian industries dependent on Reşita for raw materials or finished goods. Their sabotage even supposedly extended into the worker's food supply. Factory catering offices first paid exorbitant prices for the food, to subvert government price controls. Then, they neglected to distribute it to the workers until it had spoiled. They also delayed the workers' pay, increasing their dissatisfaction with the regime [Trial of the Group of Spies, Plotters … , 1949, p. 145–147].

This idea that failures in the new planned economy were due to sabotage and not the regime's own mistakes appeared the monster trials as well, especially the trial of Kostov. Ironically, since Kostov had first displeased Stalin by arguing that Bulgaria needed better terms in a trade pact with the Soviet Union, Kostov was charged with trying to engineer Bulgaria's economic ruin.

In a way, these tales of sabotage and wrecking were oddly comforting. The problem was not with socialism or its practitioners, but with evil saboteurs. Once the villains were caught, the Five Year Plans would bring their promised bounty to the people. To us today, it seems inconceivable that anyone could believe that all of the economic problems and discontents of the period could so conveniently be put down to the malicious plots of imperialist agents, although we might also consider it is equally unrealistic to place the blame for the current financial meltdown on a few AIG or Citibank executives, and yet many people have done just that. In any case, part of what I want to argue is that the messages in these trials were effective whether or not people "really" believed them. However, we should also recognize that in this period, at least for those who wanted to believe in the power of socialism to bring the economic justice that capitalism had not, these kinds of explanations might seem plausible. The Czech Eugen Loebl, a former Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade and a defendant in the Slánský trial, wrote in his memoir that he had confessed to completely implausible acts of economic sabotage during his long years of imprisonment, thinking that "Any man reading my confession would realize that this was nonsense". However, he did not count on the fact that his interrogators were not very interested in finding out the truth. And as for the man on street, he continued, "I did not realize that ordinary people do not know how a country is run". They did not understand that he could never have had the power to do the things he was accused of, because no one knew the rules of governance in the people's democracies. To the public, he and his fellow defendants were simply powerful men; why could they not be responsible? [Loebl, 1976, p. 144–145].

Rule #4: The World Is Divided

In his memoir about his time in prison, Hungarian Béla Szász recalled being told by his Soviet interrogator that he was metaphorically floating in a stream. The Soviet interrogator was trying mightily to pull him onto the correct bank: that of the socialist world. On the other side of the stream lurked the capitalist West [Szász, 1971, p. 104].

One of Eugen Loebl's interrogators made a similar comment, noting that "We are now living in a divided world, in a world divided between partisans of capitalism and of Socialism". Sides had to be chosen and Loebl would be wise, the interrogator intimated, to pick the right one [Loebl, 1976, p. 65].

This view of the world, literally sundered down the middle into two opposing camps, "the front of peace, democracy and socialism, headed by the great Soviet Union, and the front of the imperialist aggressors and warmongers", was integral to the show trials [The Trial of Traïcho Kostov … , 1949, p. 564]. Their stories depended on the idea that East and West were diametrically opposed and that no Westerners could be trusted. While prosecutors claimed that "the people" in the West might be in favor of peace, almost all of the individuals from non-Soviet bloc nations who showed up in trial scenarios were up to nefarious ends. This was especially true of Yugoslavs, who made particularly good targets and often found themselves on trial in person, not only in name. One Czech trial prosecuted an entire "gang" of Yugoslav diplomats and ordinary citizens with Yugoslav passports, several of whom claimed to have been forced at gunpoint into espionage [Trial of Titoite Spies … , 1950, p. 43–44]. One of the defendants in the Rajk trial, Lazar Brankov, was an official from the Yugoslav legation in Budapest, while the Kostov trial included Blagoï Hadjipanzov, a former councilor at the Yugoslav Embassy in Sofia who had defected to Bulgaria after disagreeing with Tito's policy towards Moscow. In the trial, he was presented as a loyal Titoist whose defection was merely a tactical pose, while the entire Yugoslav embassy was painted as a "nest of spies" [Hodos, 1987, p. 20; The Trial of Traïcho Kostov … , 1949, p. 288–289 and 552]. Indeed, according to the rhetoric of the trials, all embassies, legations, consulates and cultural centers from outside the Soviet-allied bloc were filled with suspicious characters working to undermine socialist regimes. In Poland, Irene Findeisen, arrested to appear as a witness in the trial of Brit Henry Turner, in a rare moment of seeming ironic candor, remarked in her testimony that she "had learned during the two and a half years of my confinement that spies are more and more frequently discovered among the diplomats" [How Foreign Intelligence …, 1951, p. 124]. The lesson she had to learn so painfully in prison was to be absorbed by the rest of the population via these courtroom dramatics. The entire point of the Turner trial, where no one was actually tried for espionage, was to point an accusing finger at the British and Americans. Unlike other defendants, Henry Turner was formally only charged with something he actually did: illegally attempting to get his Polish girlfriend, Barbara Bobrowska, across the border[13]. However, Turner was still forced to confess to being a spy, and his trial was used to vilify a wide range of British officials. It also publicly questioned the loyalty of Poles, like Irene Findeisen, who were employed by British or American institutions, and Poles who had any contacts with either the West or Westerners, including men who had been in the Polish air force in London during the war. As Turner himself wrote, the trial was designed "to prove the aggressive intentions of the capitalist and imperialist West" [Turner, 1956, p. 137–138].

As the trials made clear, any contact with the West was now considered suspicious. Good citizens of the people's democracies should shun all such meetings and avoid contact with anything from outside the socialist world. They should act as if the metaphorical stream between the two camps was a real, raging and impassable river.

Rule #5: Those Who Are Not With Us Are Against Us

In the final speeches of the Kostov trial, the prosecutor declared that spies and saboteurs would be a problem for the socialist world as long as capitalism continued to exist. Catching Kostov's group would not be the end of the problem; "new attempts will be made", he proclaimed [The Trial of Traïcho Kostov … , 1949, p. 566]. The only way to apprehend this potentially incessant stream of spies was through constant vigilance. It was not enough for people to watch the trials and passively imbibe their lessons. They needed to show that they were actively participating in the fight against imperialism and its minions. During the weeks of the trials themselves, East Europeans were called on to condemn the traitors by signing resolutions, writing letters, and attending meetings and demonstrations. Over ten thousand resolutions poured into the prosecutor's office in Prague during the Slánský trial demanding death for the accused, and this was par for the course with all the major trials[14].

This need to publicly show loyalty to the regime by rejecting the traitors made life hellish for the wives and families of the accused. Heda Margolius Kovaly, wife of one of the defendants in the Slánský trial, had already experienced being shunned by her neighbors when she returned to Prague after escaping from one of the Auschwitz death marches towards the end of the war. After her husband Rudolf was arrested, Kovaly became a self-described "leper" all over again. Friends crossed the street to avoid speaking to her, she lost her job at a publishing house and had most of her belongings confiscated. During the trial itself, Kovaly was lying in a hospital bed suffering from numerous ailments caused by stress, malnutrition, cold and overwork. Along with her fellow patients, she saw the transcripts of the trial as they appeared in the newspaper and heard the radio broadcasts of her husband's confession, feeling all the while that the hospital, and the country as a whole, was "simmering with hatred". The hospital staff, like employees at workplaces throughout Czechoslovakia, gathered to condemn the traitors and demand their execution. They also demanded that the traitor's wife be immediately expelled from their institution, despite her serious condition, even denying her an ambulance as transport. When the taxi dropped her off at her door, Margolius Kovaly was so weak she had to crawl up the steps to her apartment, where she fell into bed in a daze [Kovaly, 1997, p. 140–142].

Many individuals were also required to show their loyalty personally by denouncing their colleagues who had been arrested. In prison, detainees were often shown copies of these denunciations during their interrogations in the hope that seeing how many of their friends and coworkers had abandoned them would convince them to confess (for example: [London, 1970, p. 108]).

For those called in to give potentially damaging evidence against others, the choice was clear. Those who refused to accept that alleged traitors were really guilty immediately came under suspicion themselves. After his release, Hungarian "prison alumnus" George Paloczi-Horvath received a letter from an old acquaintance who wanted him to know that when called to party headquarters he had "told them all the slanders they wanted to hear about you". As the man explained, he did not know what would happen to his crippled wife if he went to jail, so he did what was asked of him [Paloczi-Horvath, 1959, p. 265–266].

Ordinary citizens were also pressed into policing each other. Many took this job quite seriously, watching and reporting on their friends and neighbors. Again, I would argue that whether they watched out of ideological conviction or opportunism, while important in some respects, is not the key factor for my analysis. The point is people watched each other, and felt that others were watching them, and this became a part of the everyday experience of these years.

Rule #6: Real Is What We Say It Is

It has long been established that the stories told in these political trials did not reflect actual events. Local interrogators and their Soviet advisors took things that had actually happened and twisted them into fantasies of evil. The participants were tortured, psychologically and physically, into playing their parts. In most cases, they said their lines faithfully. In others, historians have discovered that transcripts and news stories were doctored to make it seem as if they had, even when they refused[15]. Whether through acquiescence or coercion, their own words or clever editing, the innocent were transformed into the guilty. What was not real effectively became reality. Certainly real punishments and real consequences came from these fake crimes.

In the trials, "guilt" was not a function of criminal acts that an individual had carried out or intended to commit. Guilt was not based on the objective discovery of physical evidence via crime scene investigation or forensic analysis. It was something that interrogators "established" by redefining previously unremarkable moments in a prisoner's life into evidence of internal, or subjective guilt. Most crucially, the prisoner himself had to admit that he believed in the crimes that came to life on the interrogation records in his file. In the case of Béla Szász, his ÁVH interrogator, Lászlo Farkas, worked hard to convince him that his wartime conversations with British or American citizens in Buenos Aires were "essentially" espionage. Farkas' logic went as follows: it was possible that some of the people Szász worked with may have been agents of some kind, whether or not Szász knew it. The possibility that they couldhave been spies was "essentially" the same as the fact that they were actually spies. Szász openly discussed the affairs of the Hungarian movement in exile with these people. Hence, Szász willingly gave information to spies, and therefore "essentially" he was a spy and a traitor himself. Whether or not Szász had actually related any classified information or had intended to commit espionage was immaterial. These were simply details that could be filled in later. The real proof of his criminality was the mere fact of his contact with the West, which was now redefined as espionage [Szász, 1971, p. 81–83].

The Czechoslovak secret police put things in a similar fashion. Artur London's interrogators told him that it didn't matter if he did not know that Noel Field, an American who had helped him receive treatment for tuberculosis after the war, was a spy[16]. Nor did it matter than his conversations with him were innocuous. While he might not have been "subjectively guilty" of giving information to Field, London had known him. Therefore, he was "objectively" guilty of consorting with a spy and was himself a traitor[17].

After weeks, months, or even years of having their lives read back to them in this distorted fashion, some prisoners began to wonder themselves what was real, what was false, and how much the difference really mattered anyway. The entire prison system was designed to put them into such a state. Detainees were initially kept in isolation; when out of their cells, they were blindfolded so that their only human contact was with guards or interrogators. They were interrogated for hours or even days at a time, often at night, without food or rest. The interrogations usually consisted of minute probing into the contents of their lives. Interrogators would insist that ordinary events, like lunch with foreign acquaintances or carrying out the government's policies, were really criminal acts: contacts with American intelligence agents or sabotaging the economy. If prisoners refused to sign protocols to this effect, the interrogations would continue, on and on over the same question. When not being interrogated recalcitrant detainees were deprived of sleep at night and forced to stand or walk incessantly in their cells for sixteen hours a day until their feet had swollen like balloons. They were kept in tiny cold cells with no blankets, warm clothes, reading material, or cigarettes (a serious issue in these nicotine charged times), and given only enough food to survive. Those who tried to disobey orders to stand or walk were taken to dank cellars or even smaller bare cells without beds where the floor was so cold it was preferable to walk rather than sit on it [London, 1970, p. 47–94; Loebl, 1976, p. 74–90; Szász, 1971, p. 18–66; Vogeler, 1951, p. 136–152; Paloczi-Horvath, 1959, p. 139–158; Hodos, 1987, p. 67–72.]. In Hungary, prisoners were subjected to electric shocks and savagely beaten with rubber truncheons, usually on the soles of their feet, the hands, or kidneys [Szász, 1971, p. 12–17, 108–109; Paloczi-Horvath, 1959, p. 149–150; Hodos, 1987, p. 58 and 67].

The question of whether or not these tortured and often ultimately drugged men and women mechanically saying their lines presented a believable scenario is a vexing one. Belief is a difficult issue for the historian, particularly in an authoritarian regime where the very status of truth can become murky. In his recent (2008) article in Slavic Review, historian Kevin McDermott attempts to gauge Czech popular opinion during the Slánský trial. Looking primarily at secret police reports, he discovers that there seemed to be a wide array of attitudes about Slánský. Some accepted the story as told in court, while others ridiculed the trial and called it staged. A number of people apparently used the trial as a chance to unleash their own latent feelings of anti-Semitism, and for others, it called the very reliability of the regime into question, because only an incompetent government could let a traitor like Slánský achieve such a prominent position [McDermott, 2008, p. 850–865].

McDermott acknowledges that the very nature of his sources is tenuous, as no one can be sure that the secret police reports themselves reflected reality, or can know how truly representative they were [Ibid. P. 841–843]. My own feeling is that we need to see the idea of "belief" as more of a continuum than an absolute, recognizing that individuals can espouse in themselves many contradictory ideas. We also need to distinguish between belief and acceptance. Whether or not they "believed" (in whole or in part) with the substance of the show trials, the vast majority of people accepted them. The public was placed in a position roughly analogous to that of the prisoners, albeit without facing the same harsh conditions. They were presented with a scenario and forced to act as if they believed it. And, like the prisoners, most publicly capitulated. While some may have been suspicious at the way in which each defendant's testimony merged seamlessly into the next or surprised that all had confessed despite the lack of any real evidence against them and the severity of the sentences they faced, most kept quiet about their doubts and signed resolutions condemning the traitors instead. The families of the accused may have clung to their innocence around the dinner table, but they did not (could not) make public statements. Indeed, many families were removed from their jobs and homes and sent to live in rural villages just to keep them away from others[18].

But even at home, some kept quiet. After he was released from prison in 1954, George Paloczi-Horvath recalled having separate meetings with two sisters who had both been loyal Communists. Each claimed that after hearing some of the truth about the trials she was becoming disenchanted with the regime she had so strongly supported a few years before. But each was convinced that the other sister was still a true believer, even though they were very close and lived together in the same apartment. Inside their home, they continued to mouth the Stalinist slogans that they now believed were empty, much as they continued to require others to proclaim them in their professional lives as scientists and party members [Paloczi-Horvath, 1959, p. 262–263]. Like the sisters, the vast majority of East Europeans acted as if they believed the stories in the trials were real, whether or not they really thought so. They accepted the lessons they were supposed to learn: they were vigilant in looking for spies and wreckers, went to rallies and marched for peace to counter the threat of imperialist war, rejected the unreliable elements among them, and agreed that the East would be better off separated as much as possible from the West.


In the satirical Hungarian film The Witness, Party boss Comrade Virág continuously warns the dim-witted dike keeper József Pelikán that "the international situation is intensifying". In the film, this mysterious "international situation" is never explained, and everyman Pelikán has little sense of what it means. All he wants is to ignore it and go back to tending his dike. But the hapless Pelikán is needed to be a witness in a show trial, and Comrade Virág can't let him go back to his former existence. Instead, he is parked in a number of jobs to which he is not suited, including, most famously, directing the institute to create the Hungarian orange. No matter how many mistakes Pelikán makes, he is always brought back into the fold so that he can play his part and the show can go on[19].

Like Pelikán, most East Europeans might have preferred to ignore the international situation in the early 1950's and simply concentrate on living their private lives. But that is exactly what they were not allowed to do. Like Pelikán, they were needed to play their parts. They would show the world a united socialist camp, bound together by their conviction that socialism was the path to happiness. Together, they would set themselves against the imperialist warmongers and protect their lands from Western encroachment. The show trials were an essential instrument for creating this socialist unity. For some, the fear they inspired drove them to participate willingly in the fight against the West. Others were terrified at what might happen to them if they failed to participate. In either case, the trials were successful in creating and mobilizing fear: fear of traitors, fear of war, fear of arrest. While it was government policies that literally split the East from the West, closing borders and cutting off trade relationships, the trials, and the multiple fears they engendered, helped to emotionally sever the two sides. They were not simply a product of the cold war. Rather, they helped to manufacture, or at least "intensify" the Cold War on the level of individual experience, bringing Comrade Virág's "international situation" into the homes and hearts of individuals all over Eastern Europe.


Boldiszár, Ivan. Against the Hungarian People, Budapest 1952.

Feinberg, Melissa. Elusive Equality: Gender, Citizenship and the Limits of Democracy in Czechoslovakia, 19181950, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

Feinberg, Melissa. Establishing a New World: Show Trials and the Production of a Cold War Reality in Eastern Europe, 1948–1954. In Bernd Stover and Dierk Walter, eds. The Politics of Fear in the Cold War, Hamburg: Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung (forthcoming, fall 2009).

Hodos, George H. Show Trials: Stalinist Purges in Eastern Europe, 19481954, New York: Prager, 1987.

How Foreign Intelligence Operates in Poland (The Turner Trial), Warsaw 1951.

Kaplan, Karel and Janáč, Marek. Poslední slova obžalovaných v procesu s Miladou Horákovou ‘a spol., Soudobé Dĕjiny 13, no.1–2 (2006): 197–238.

Kaplan, Karel. Nejvĕtší politicky process: Milada Horáková a spol., Prague 1995.

Kaplan, Karel. Report on the Murder of the General Secretary, trans. Karel Kovanda, Columbus 1990.

Kovaly, Heda Margolius. Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 19411968, Teaneck, NJ 1997.

László Rajk and His Accomplices before the People's Court, Budapest, 1949.

Lewis, Flora. Red Pawn: The Story of Noel Field, Garden City, NY 1965.

Loebl, Eugen. My Mind on Trial, New York 1976.

London, Artur. On Trial, London 1970.

Lukes, Igor. "Rudolf Slánský: His Trials and Trial," Cold War International History Project Working Paper #50. URL:

McDermott, Kevin. A ‘Polyphony of Voices?' Czech Popular Opinion and the Slánský affair, Slavic Review 67, #4 (Winter, 2008): 840–865.

O'Doherty, Paul. The GDR in the context of Stalinist Show Trials and Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, 1948–1954, German History 10, no.3 (1992) 302–317.

Paloczi-Horvath, George. The Undefeated, Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.

Proces s vedením protistátního spikleneckého centra v čele Rudolfem Slánským, Prague, 1953.

R.Vogeler, E.Sanders and their Accomplices before the Criminal Court, Budapest 1950.

Rév, István. In Mendacio Veritas (In Lies there Lies the Truth), Representations 35 (Summer 1991), 1–20.

Slánská, Josefa. Report on My Husband, (trans Edith Pargeter), London 1969.

Šlingová, Marian. The Truth Will Prevail, London 1968.

Szász, Béla. Volunteers for the Gallows: Anatomy of a Show Trial, trans. Kathleen Szász, London 1971.

The Trial of Traïcho Kostov and His Group, Sofia, 1949.

Trial of the Group of Spies and Traitors in the Service of Imperialist Espionage, Bucharest 1950.

Trial of the Group of Spies, Plotters and Saboteurs: Full Account of the Proceedings before the Budapest Military Tribunal on October 27th – November 2nd 1948, Bucharest 1949.

Trial of Titoite Spies and Subversive Agents in Czechoslovakia, Prague 1950.

Turner, Henry. International Incident, London 1956.

Vogeler, R. I Was Stalin's Prisoner, New York 1951.

War Conspirators before the Court of the Czechoslovak People, Prague 1950.

1]Much of this paper will be published in an expanded version as Melissa Feinberg, "Establishing a New World: Show Trials and the Production of a Cold War Reality in Eastern Europe, 1948–1954" in Bernd Stover and Dierk Walter, eds. The Politics of Fear in the Cold War, Hamburg: Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung (forthcoming, fall 2009).

[2]For example, the many works of the Czech historian Karel Kaplan, such as Report on the Murder of the General Secretary, trans. Karel Kovanda. (Columbus 1990) or the more recent work of Igor Lukes, "Rudolf Slánský: His Trials and Trial," Cold War International History Project Working Paper #50. A notable exception to this trend is István Rév, "In Mendacio Veritas (In Lies there Lies the Truth)," Representations 35 (Summer 1991), 1–20.

[3]R. Vogeler, E.Sanders and their Accomplices before the Criminal Court, (Budapest 1950, 10–20). On the Vogeler case, also see Rev, "In Mendacio Veritas".

[4]These particular comments were made about Otto Fischl, former deputy finance minister and Czechoslovak representative in East Berlin. Proces s vedením protistátního spikleneckého centra v čele Rudolfem Slánským (Prague, 1953), 504. On the influence of the Slánský trial's anti-Semitism, see Paul O'Doherty, "The GDR in the context of Stalinist Show Trials and Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, 1948–1954," German History 10, no.3 (1992) 302–317.

[5]The phrases are from the Rajk trial. László Rajk and His Accomplices before the People's Court, (Budapest, 1949) 254 and 269.

[6]Istvan Rev also makes this point about the Vogeler trial in "In Medacio Veritas".

[7]This did not stop Geiger from being sentenced to death.  R. Vogeler, E. Sanders and their Accomplices, 247–248.

[8]Ciobanu was sentenced to death despite this argument.  Trial of the Group of Spies and Traitors in the Service of Imperialist Espionage, (Bucharest 1950), 40.

[9]Examples include: László Rajk and His Accomplices, 150–53; War Conspirators, 75; Trial of the Group of Spies and Traitors, 8, 17 and 19; R. Vogeler, E. Sanders and their Accomplices, 114–115.

[10]A few examples include: Proces s vedením protistátního spikleneckého centra, 8 and 494; Trial of the Group of Spies and Traitors, 9 and 25; How Foreign Intelligence Operates in Poland (The Turner Trial), (Warsaw 1951), 205.

[11]War Conspirators, 49–50.  Recently discovered audio tapes of the trial show that the testimony in the published transcripts was heavily doctored and completely misrepresented what was actually said in the courtroom.   However, the Czech public was not aware of that.  See Karel Kaplan and Marek Janáč, "Poslední slova obžalovaných v procesu s Miladou Horákovou ‘a spol.," Soudobé Dĕjiny 13, no.1–2 (2006): 197–238.   On the Horáková trial generally, also see Melissa Feinberg, Elusive Equality: Gender, Citizenship and the Limits of Democracy in Czechoslovakia, 1918–1950, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 211–222.

[12]On this point for the Slánský trial, see Kevin McDermott, "A 'Polyphony of Voices?' Czech Popular Opinion and the Slánský affair," Slavic Review 67, #4 (Winter, 2008): 840–865.

[13]Turner's own memoir confirms this. Henry Turner, International Incident, (London 1956), 56–86.

[14]Cited in Slánská, Report on My Husband, 40.  Also Kaplan, Report on the Murder of the General Secretary, 140; McDermott, "Polyphony," 855.

[15]Kaplan and Janáč, "Poslední slova obžalovaných".  Also of course in the Kostov trial, Kostov's prepared testimony was simply read out when he refused to say it.

[16]Noel Field had helped many Communists in his role as head of the Unitarian Service in Geneva.  In 1949, he was arrested in Prague and imprisoned in Budapest, where he was presented in the Rajk trial as an American spymaster.  Many of those across Eastern Europe who had had contacts with Field were arrested.  On Field, see Flora Lewis, Red Pawn: The Story of Noel Field, (Garden City, NY 1965).

[17]London, On Trial, 110–114.  Loebl reports the same thing, down to the terminology in My Mind on Trial, 46–48.

[18]This happened to several families of defendants in the Slánský trial.

[19]The Witness dir. Péter Bacsó, Hungary, 1969.  Because of its sharp critique of the show trials, this film was banned in Hungary until 1980

Accepted 20 March 2009. Date of publication: 28 June 2009.

About author

Feinberg, Melissa. Ph.D., Associate Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, USA.
Research Interests: emotions in politics, Eastern Europe, the history of human rights, political culture, rights, democracy and citizenship; gender history, and the history of feminism
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APA Style
Feinberg, M. (2009). “Only an imperialist could think up such a notion!” Political trials and the production of a Cold War reality in Eastern Europe. Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya, 3(5). Retrieved from [in English, abstr. in Russian].

Russian State Standard GOST P 7.0.5-2008
Feinberg M. “Only an imperialist could think up such a notion!” Political trials and the production of a Cold War reality in Eastern Europe [Electronic resource] // Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya. 2009. N 3(5). URL: (date of access: [in English, abstr. in Russian]

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