While the name Auxiliary Technical Battalions sounds innocuous, in reality such battalions were a division of the Czechoslovak Army that used conscripts as virtual slave labour, and thousands of men who the Communists deemed “politically unreliable” were in effect interned in them in the 1950s. Now, those still alive look set to be placed in the same official category as former political prisoners – and to receive a little compensation.
Many Czechs associate the Auxiliary Technical Battalions of the Czechoslovak People’s Army with the popular 1992 movie Černí Baroni, or Black Barons, which is based on a novel of the same name by Miloslav Švandrlík. Both film and book put a humorous spin on the experiences of those forced to join.
Milan Bárta is an historian at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and is currently preparing an exhibition about the battalions. He says in reality life in the units was often harsh to say the least.
“They were set up exclusively to carry out work, and what they called ‘correctional work’. So conditions were dreadful, particularly for those battalions involved in underground mining. The accommodation and food were bad, while quotas were very high. Desertion was frequent. There were suicide attempts, actual suicides, and such like.”
The Communists sent men they deemed politically unreliable to the Auxiliary Technical Battalions, where they were not allowed to carry weapons. The members came from a real variety of backgrounds, says Bárta.
“There were former mine owners, former private farmers, priests. But it turned out that to fulfil the ambitious plans set for the battalions, they needed more people. So as well as the so-called politicals, others were also sent. Those included the physically unsound, Romanies, the illiterate, and inadaptable and problematic people. The mix of soldiers who served there was very strange.”
Conscripts in the Auxiliary Technical Battalions had 30 percent of their incomes automatically docked for being politically unreliable. Of the remaining 70 percent, almost all was deducted for necessities like clothing and accommodation.
In another Kafkaesque twist, the little that was left was further divided, with part going into a government “book” that the soldiers could not touch.
Between 40,000 and 60,000 men passed through the battalions’ between 1950 and 1954, when they ceased to exist.
A decade ago, surviving members received a tiny one-off compensation payment from the state, before a law in 2005 went some way further toward recompense by adding CZK 2,500 to their monthly pensions.
Now, the victims look set to receive a little more, after a court ruled in September that membership of the battalions was equivalent to being imprisoned.
Former political prisoners are entitled to CZK 1,800 for every month they spent behind bars, and in reaction to the court verdict the Ministry of the Interior will put a proposal to the cabinet that ex-battalion members get the same compensation.
“Today we mainly identify them in our minds with Švandrlík’s Black Barons, but he didn’t capture the reality in those camps. He made them seem humorous, when that wasn’t the case at all. They were actually one of the crimes of communism. I think today’s system, today’s era, has a responsibility not to forget the victims. I think it’s necessary to appreciate and remember the reality of the Auxiliary Technical Battalions.”
Between 4,000 and 5,000 survivors of the forced labour units are believed to be still alive today, though naturally their numbers are dwindling all the time.
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