Champion of Freedom, Enemy of the State
Milada Horáková (1901-1950) is not the first name that comes to mind in international circles when historically significant Czechs are mentioned. However, within the Czech lands she is a national hero who stood firm and resolute in her personal convictions of social justice and equality for all in the face of two despotic regimes. For her ideals, she would be imprisoned twice and ultimately executed for them.
Born Milada Králová in Prague on December 25, 1901; she took an interest in social issues early in life and showed concern for helping her countrymen rebuild their lives and the newly independent Czechoslovakia which had emerged from the ashes of the First World War. In 1926, she graduated from Prague’s Charles University with a degree in Law and began working for Prague city council for the social services authority. Her work there focused on public housing, unemployment and women’s issues such as the status of single and divorced mothers. She was also a member of the Czechoslovak Red Cross as well as the Czech National Women’s Council and spent a good deal of time touring Europe on behalf of Czech women. In 1927, she married Bohuslav Horák. The couple had one child, a daughter named Jana, in 1933.
German Occupation and First Imprisonment
The couple became members of the Czech resistance movement in 1939 and kept lines of communication to London open and assisted in securing safe transport out of Czechoslovakia for others before they were arrested by the Gestapo in 1940. Milada spent two years in Gestapo run prisons in Prague before being transfered to the Terezín camp in 1942. By 1944, she had been moved through prisons in Leipzig and Dresden and was eventually sentenced to eight years hard labour in October of that year; a sentence which had been downgraded from the death penalty. Her sentence was cut short when American forces liberated the prison camp in Bavaria where she was being held. In May of 1945, she returned to Czechoslovakia. For her actions against the Nazi regime during the war, she was awarded two medals by then president Eduard Beneš.
Communist Takeover and Second Imprisonment
Horáková’s return to her family and professional life was initially optimistic. She was active in politics; encouraged by then president, Eduard Beneš, to join the National Socialist Party and serve as a Member of Parliament. She was also very active in the Union of Liberated Political Prisoners and contunued to champion causes of social justice, equality and humanitarianism. She was a firm believer in a fair justice and court system and the principle that a person was innocent before the court until they could be proven otherwise. Such noble qualities did not put her in favourable standing with the Communists, who took over Czechoslovakia in a coup in 1948. While many in the National Socialist Party willingly switched their stance to Communist ideals; Horáková plus a few others resigned from the party in response to the coup. Despite the urgings of many of her friends to leave Czechoslovakia while she had the opportunity, Milada declined such ideas and used her experience of resisting the Nazis in the war just a few years prior and set up a resistance movement against the Communists; establishing safe houses and escape routes for those wishing to leave the country. On the 27th of September in 1949, Horáková was arrested in her office by the StB, the Czechoslovak secret police. Her husband put their daughter into the care of Milada’s sister and went into hiding until December of 1949, when he was able to cross the border into West Germany. Milada Horáková was one of a group of 13 people that the Communist regime perceived as threats to their authority. Trumped up charges of treason, spying and many other espionage related crimes were brought against the group and a public show trial with direct Soviet involvement was arranged to make an example of them.
On the 31st of May of 1950, after extented interogations involving both physical and psychological torture, coerced confessions and the forced memorization of the trial script; including the prosecutors’ questions and expected replies, the trial began. Of the group of 13, Horáková was the only defendant to stray from the script and openly challenge the prosecution; remaining steadfast in her beliefs in democracy, freedom and fair justice. In doing so, she made matters worse for herself but robbed the Communist regime of much valuable propaganda material as much of what she said at the trial had to be censored to the point of uselessness. Ultimately, Milada and three other defendants were sentenced to death. Four others received life sentences while the remainder were handed sentences ranging from 15 to 28 years. On the 27th of June of 1950, Milada Horáková along with Jan Buchal, Záviš Kalandra and Dr. Oldřich Pecl were executed by hanging at Prague’s Pankrác Prison. It should be noted that, with a select few voices petitioning for these four lives to be spared, the western world largely stayed quiet in response to the show trial and verdict at the time.
The Slow Wheels of Justice
A first chance for justice and a clearing of Horáková’s name came with the Prague Spring of 1968. Moves were made to right the wrong done to her, but the Warsaw Pact invasion of the country put an end to any meaningful legal actions with regards to that at the time. It was during the Prague Spring that Horáková’s daughter, Jana, was able to escape Czechoslovakia for the U.S.A. True justice and a full pardon would not come until just after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In 1991, former president Václav Havel bestowed the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk First Class upon Horáková in memoriam. Named after the first president of the first independent Czechoslovak state, which flourished between the First and Second World Wars, this award is given by the Czech Republic to individuals who have made notable contributuions to the furthering of democracy and humanitarianism. It exists in five classes, with first class being the highest. In November of 2006, Horáková’s daughter accepted the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom on her mother’s behalf. This award is given by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation to individuals and groups who demonstrate a life-long commitment to the ideals of democracy and take a stand against Communism and any other form of oppressive regime. A last bit of justice came in 2007 when the last surviving member of the prosecution at the show trial, Ludmila Brožová-Polednová (1921-2015), was charged with conspiracy to murder and given a six year prison sentence in 2008. Placed in a special holding facility for aged and infirm convicts, she was incarcerated for roughly a year until former president Václav Klaus granted her an amnesty in December of 2009 due to her age and poor health.
Today, many municipalities across the Czech Republic have streets bearing Horáková’s name as well as schools or parks named after her. Since 2004, the Czech Republic has used the anniversary of her death to mark Commemoration Day for the Victims of the Communist Regime.
This article was published in 2000, on the 50th anniversary of Horáková’s death. It holds up well today and still makes for good reading:
This is a link to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation web page, here you can find information about the organization and its activities as well as the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom and a list of its recipients: