Convictions: Life in Communist Czechoslovakia
“Whatever the price in human lives, for all of its murderous record, socialism has killed more souls and minds than bodies” – Jo Langer.
I recently read Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist, Jo Langer’s account of life in Czechoslovakia spanning the decades between the initial establishment of communism in 1948 and the failed Prague Spring of 1968. First published in 1979, and re-issued by Granta earlier this year (with an introduction written by Neil Ascherson), playwright Tom Stoppard recently described Convictions as ‘one of the classic testimonies to come out of post-war Europe under communist rule’.
Jo moved from her home in Budapest to Bratislava when she married committed Slovakian communist Oscar Langer in 1934. The couple, both Jewish, fled to America in 1938 where they remained for the duration of the Second World War (while numerous members of their families who remained behind perished in the Holocaust), before returning to Czechoslovakia to assist with the construction of a new socialist state and society. Oscar, working as an economist for the Central Committee, quickly rose to prominence within the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, while Jo worked for State Exports in Bratislava. However, everything changed when Oscar fell victim to the purges and show trials of the early 1950s.
The Stalinist-era terror and the political purges that swept communist Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War are thus a central part of Jo’s story and Convictions joins a growing list of memoirs penned by those who were affected by these turbulent years. In 1951 Oscar Langer (the ‘good communist’ of her book’s title) was arrested, detained and forced to give (false) evidence in the infamous Slansky trial of 1952; before being sentenced to a 22 year prison term himself, for charges including espionage, sabotage, high treason and ‘Zionist conspiracy’. Several of the Langers’ communist party acquaintances were also purged and either executed or imprisoned. While similar show trials occurred across much of Eastern Europe in this period the Czechoslovakian purges were distinguished by their underlying anti-semitism: a high number of Jews were targeted and 11 of the 14 defendants in the Slansky trial were Jewish, charged with participation in an alleged ‘Zionist conspiracy’ to undermine and overthrow communism.
In Convictions Jo vividly describes the slowly creeping climate of fear that came to dominate their lives during the period of the purges: initially both Oscar and Jo attempted to ascribe the arrests of loyal communists (many of whom were also personal friends) to ‘over zealousness’ on the part of the investigators. As it became apparent that Oscar himself was under surveillance their sense of unease and helplessness grew, but even when Jo finally received news of Oscar’s arrest she still hoped that something could be done to clarify his innocence and secure his speedy release so that justice could prevail. However, as Jo comes to realise when she meets sustained official resistance to any kind of enquiry or investigation into Oscar’s case: ‘the show trials were the house of cards on which the whole power system rested and if anyone started tampering with even one small part of the structure, the whole thing would collapse’.
For much of the book, Oscar Langer is absent – the first few years of his long incarceration are spent mining uranium in a north Bohemian labour camp – but his absence assumes a dominant presence throughout Jo’s narrative. As Jo’s own story unfolds, we also receive insights into Oscar’s ordeal. In a letter smuggled out from his prison cell and partly reproduced by Jo here, Oscar provides a detailed first-hand account of the circumstances surrounding his arrest, detention, trial and imprisonment. In his letter, Oscar proclaimed his innocence, retracted his confession and detailed how his experiences at the hands of the communist security agents ‘bought me into a state of mind that cannot be considered that of a normally thinking sane man’. Oscar describes how he resisted in the face of the ‘combination of terror, deceit, provocation, blackmail and alternate physical and mental torture’ used by the secret police to extract confessions – constant interrogation, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, agent provocateurs, exposure to cold and hunger, regular beatings, humiliation and threats made against his family – before (after two failed suicide attempts) finally submitting to make a full ‘confession’. His signed testimony (which was dictated to him by his interrogators and which he was later forced to read verbatim at the Slansky trial) made absurd and easily refutable admissions about his involvement in an
anti-communist conspiracy with men he had never even met. During the Slansky trial, Oscar’s testimony was broadcast over the radio and his confession was printed in the press; so Jo was also able to discredit many of his claims.
Convictions focuses predominantly on the personal – recalling one woman’s struggle to survive in a repressive, flawed and unforgiving system. When Oscar was arrested Jo not only lost her husband but also her privileged place in society (becoming a ‘non-person’) and the last shreds of faith in the communist system she had found it increasingly hard to believe in. Forcibly evicted from her home and dismissed from her job as a result of Oscar’s ‘crimes’, Jo and her two young daughters were exiled to a remote countryside village, where she managed to survive by taking on occasional translation work and depending on the kindness of strangers. In Jo’s own words, ‘life had become what it was and people had to make the best of it’.
There are insights too, into a variety of personal relationships – her own troubled relationship with Oscar (despite his ordeal, he remained a committed communist until the end of his life); with her two daughters, and with various other friends, neighbours and acquaintances including the forging of some unlikely friendships, as people found themselves bought together due to the circumstances of the time. When Jo first turns to the people she thought she could depend on for help, many of them shun her (often through fear of implicating themselves, due to a desperate desire for self-preservation), but contrasted with this are occasional unexpected and spontaneous acts of genuine kindness from both friends and strangers – such as Bronia, a casual acquaintance who brings Jo food on the evening she is evicted from her flat and forcibly ‘resettled’ and Maria, the café owner who shelters Jo and her younger daughter Tania when they are caught out in a snowstorm.
However, Jo’s personal story effectively intersects with the bigger picture as she navigates the changing political climate in Czechoslovakia 1948-1968. Jo analyses the early attempts to establish socialism in Czechoslovakia through the reorganisation of politics, economics, society and culture; effectively details the Hobbesian climate of the purges and trials of the late 1940s and early 1950s and explores the impact of Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s subsequent policy of Destalinisation (noting that the effects of Stalin’s death took longer to be felt in Czechoslovakia compared with elsewhere in the Eastern bloc, Jo describes how she felt the first real influence of the post-Stalinist ‘thaw’ during a rare prison visit to Oscar at the end of the 1950s, because for the first time ‘there was no wire dividing them’). Jo describes her sadness over the Soviet invasion of her native Hungary in 1956, during which time she monitered events closely as she was employed to interpret communications coming into Bratislava from Budapest via telex. Of course, Czechoslovakia would have its own ‘Hungary’ 12 years later: the failed Prague Spring and Soviet-led invasion of August 1968, which provided Jo with the opportunity to flee Czechoslovakia. She devotes some time to briefly assessing the events of 1968 too, noting the mixture of popular optimism inspired by the rise of Alexander Dubcek (she wishes her husband had lived to see the attempts to develop ‘socialism with a human face’ in Czechoslovakia) mixed with what would prove to be well-founded cynicism about the ability of communism to reform itself.
Oscar Langer was eventually released from prison and rehabilitated in the early 1960s. However, his return was not the happy homecoming that Jo had yearned for. Their marriage had never been trouble-free, but while she remained loyal to Oscar during his incarceration and never doubted his innocence, the long years of limited and censored correspondence and occasional snatched prison visits had taken their toll. She describes poignantly the true impact her husband’s return had on the family after so many years of living without him: the sudden reappearance of a dominant father figure who was a virtual stranger to her two daughters (for the oldest, Susie, he was a distant childhood memory, while the youngest, Tania, only ever remembered seeing him through prison wire), and on her own life. Both Oscar and Jo were left battling their own private demons as a result of their mistreatment by the regime they had striven to support (Jo tellingly concludes that ‘whatever the price in human lives, for all of its murderous record, socialism has killed more souls and minds than bodies’) but while Jo became thoroughly disillusioned and hardened by the reality of life in communist Czechoslovakia, Oscar continued to cling to his ideological ideals, choosing to view his arrest and imprisonment as a ‘dreadful but exceptional mistake’ in an otherwise normally functioning state, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Their time together was brief: Oscar was left physically weakened after years of hard labour during his incarceration and
died after a short illness following his release from prison.
Jo Langer fled Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Prague Spring in 1968, and finally settled in Sweden, where she died in 1990. Her story is a remarkable tale of courage, survival and endurance; she vividly demonstrates the devastating impact of the Stalinist era terror, both physically and psychologically, on those directly involved (such as Oscar) and on numerous ‘secondary casulaties’, those deemed ‘guilty by association’ such as herself and her daughters. The personal experiences of everyday life effectively intersect with the high politics of the time, and as a result Jo’s depiction of her life in communist Czechoslovakia provides numerous insights into the experiences of life in a hostile state. This is a story about losing – and gaining – ones convictions in the face of adversity. I would recommend Convictions to anyone interested in communist Eastern Europe and will certainly be including it on the recommended reading list for students taking my own course on Eastern Europe at Swansea this year.
You can purchase Convictions via Amazon HERE.
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