The early years of Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime were marked by hundreds of tragic stories which revolved around injustice, torture and in many cases death. One of the most famous is that of General Heliodor Píka, an exemplary First Republic general who, exactly 70 years ago, became the first victim of the rigged trials that typified the period.
One can hardly imagine anything more terrifying than being picked out of a hospital bed by the police while recovering from an operation and being told out of the blue that there are serious charges against you. This is precisely what happened to General Heliodor Píka, shortly after the Communist putsch in 1948.
Born in Czech Silesia in 1897, Heliodor Píka had lived the life of a successful Czechoslovak legionary and was an influential man in the exile years of World War II.
Drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army as soon as he turned 18, while the First World War was raging across Europe, he quickly defected to join the many other Czechs fighting for the establishment of an independent state, says historian Dr. Jan Kalous from the Institute for the Study of the Totalitarian Regimes.
“He was sent to the Serbian front and soon managed to cross the lines and join the Czechoslovak legions in Russia. He fought at Zborov and Bakhmach after which the opportunity to move to the Western front occurred.”
Píka transferred to France where he fought until the end of the conflict. He remained an active combatant in the immediate year following the birth of the independent Czechoslovak Republic, fighting against Polish and Hungarian forces.
Now a lieutenant, he decided to stay in the newly formed Czechoslovak army.
“[Píka] was sent to the Soviet Union. Aside from forming possible Czechoslovak army units, he was expected to represent the government-in-exile and communicate directly with Soviet military and political officials.”
He was chosen as one of only three soldiers out of 300 applicants to study at France’s leading military academy. The new republic’s army was built on the French model at the time and a French military education was the sign of a promising career for the still young officer.
After finishing his studies, he returned to Czechoslovakia, but would spend much of the interwar period abroad, says Dr. Kalous.
“He was predominantly active in the Balkans. At the time, Czechoslovakia was bound by treaties with Yugoslavia and Romania through the so-called Little Entente alliance, and Píka’s task was to maintain communication with these allies.”
A devout patriot, Píka was one of the many legionaries eager to fight during the Sudetenland crisis in 1938, but President Edvard Beneš thought it impossible to fight against Germany without allied help. It seems General Píka instead organised the sale of arms to Jewish paramilitaries in Israel, in order to prevent them from falling into German hands.
When the Nazis occupied the rest of the Czech lands in 1939, he refused to serve in the Protectorate army and instead took part in the formation of one of the main resistance organisations, Obrana Národa (Defence of the Nation).
But this was not enough. He ended up crossing the border and offering his services to Edvard Beneš, who had meanwhile formed a Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London. Beneš and his close circle saw in Píka a useful asset, says Dr. Kalous.
“His diplomatic experiences from serving in the Balkans were seen as useful, so Beneš and the Minister of Defence Sergej Ingr sent him on missions to Romania and then Istanbul. Then he was sent to the Soviet Union. Aside from forming possible Czechoslovak army units, he was expected to represent the government-in-exile and communicate directly with Soviet military and political officials.”
His stint in the Soviet Union, where he served as the chief of the Czechoslovak Military Mission until the rest of the war, provided Píka with a chance to work on the establishment of the country’s largest foreign military contingent of World War II. The 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps numbered many thousands of troops and he actively worked to free many Czech and Slovak prisoners in Soviet Gulag camps in order for them to join the formation.
However, his time in the USSR and his high position would ultimately be the main reason behind his fall.
“Soviet attempts to remove Píka from the army and politics undoubtedly played a role as well, because during the war Píka had not only gotten to know the Soviet system, but also learned many intimate details about the Soviet war effort.”
Píka, brought up in the system of the First Republic army, believed soldiers should remain strictly apolitical. Instead, in Russia he saw that the Comintern, an organisation that had become Stalin’s tool for strengthening loyal Communist parties abroad, was actively trying to indoctrinate Czechoslovak Army Corps soldiers.
He wrote about his findings in a report sent to the exile government’s Defence Ministry in London.
“We already know that Czech Communists from the Comintern are preparing to be active politically in a Czechoslovak unit and we have to deal with this. We have to remove any sort of politicisation and Comintern activity attempting to bring in activist propaganda.”
Due to his efforts to stop any such influence, which was in violation of Czechoslovak-Soviet treaties signed in 1943, he became deeply unpopular among Czechoslovak Communists in Moscow. The Soviets repeatedly tried to blackmail Píka into becoming their puppet, but he did not budge.
“After six years he returned home and became the deputy of the chief of the general staff. That also meant he attended business meetings with foreign military dignitaries and diplomatic discussions. It can be said that he had now been rewarded for his efforts to restore Czechoslovakia and he was one of the most senior members in the army.”
In fact, the Communists, who had made sure to secure key positions in the state’s security apparatus, were already on to him.
Píka was under close surveillance from the army’s intelligence service, which was under Communist control. Its leader, Bedřich Reicin, ordered his men to check Píka’s correspondence, tap his phones and collect incriminating material.
The general was at first unwilling to believe this was truly happening, but after it was confirmed through channels including diplomats serving in Czechoslovakia, he protested to Reicin. The intelligence chief simply laughed in his face and said no such thing was going on.
Dr. Kalous believes that more was in play than just the Czechoslovak Communists settling scores with an old enemy.
“Soviet attempts to remove Píka from the army and politics undoubtedly played a role as well, because during the war Píka had not only gotten to know the Soviet system – he had also learned many intimate details about the Soviet war effort.”
As soon as the Communists seized power through a putsch in February 1948, the general’s time was up.
In March Píka was asked to take leave from the army. He decided to use the free time to sort out his gall bladder problem and underwent an operation. However, on May 5, while his operation wound was still in the process of healing, he was arrested and transferred to a prison cell.
The official charge was collaboration with British intelligence during the World War II. In fact, according to historians, Píka was simply involved in the exchange of intelligence material, which was seen as completely normal among allies.
The case was given to Karel Vaš, who ended up being both the investigator and prosecutor. It was no coincidence, says Dr. Kalous.
“Karel Vaš was the direct subordinate of General Reicin and together with him one of the main authors of the charges brought against Píka at trial.”
In a twist of irony, Vaš, a fervent Communist who had once worked for the NKVD, was also one of the men whom Píka had helped release from the Soviet Gulag during the war.
There was no evidence, except for a few forced denunciations of Píka, who was meanwhile being tortured in jail. Vaš is reported to have told Reicin that all he needed to know was what sentence he wanted for the general. He would take care of the rest.
In order to produce something incriminating, a fabricated intelligence report was therefore written by Bedřich Reicin himself and then translated into English.
The document, posing as a paper written by a British intelligence officer reporting on Píka’s willingness to spy on the Soviets, is noteworthy for the little effort made to hide that it was a blatant forgery. It included basic grammar and spelling errors, as this excerpt shows.
“[Prosecutor] Vaš is reported to have told Reicin that all he needed to know was what sentence he wanted for the general. He would take care of the rest.”
“His knoulidge in estimatting the USSR are remarkable for such modest a man and even mare that he being an officer should be so well aquainted with those various ,atters.These were mostly:his knouledge about the lability of the interiors state of affaire,the indescribable want,the longing of the people for a higher standar of life; at the same time he obeserved the attempts being made to increase the strength of the Navy of Russis…”
Nevertheless, the court was satisfied and sentenced Píka to death. He was hanged in the Bory prison near Plzeň on June 21, 1949.
His defence lawyer, Rostislav Váhala, described the general’s last moments.
“He said he was innocent and the victim of political enemies, all because he had loyally served his president. He told us about the pressure exerted on him by Reicin, which was constantly supported by promises of a subsequent pardon. ‘I die like a soldier in battle’, he said and then sat down to write his last letters. A priest then came in, Father Doležal, and gave Píka his last rites.”
Píka’s son, Milan, who was held in the same prison at the time, vowed to his father that he would redeem him one day.
He ended up fulfilling his promise 20 years later in 1968, when the case against the general was reviewed and he was declared innocent of all charges.
“[Píka] said he was innocent and the victim of political enemies, all because he had loyally served his president. He told us about the pressure excreted on him by Reicin, which was constantly supported by promises of a subsequent pardon. ‘I die like a soldier in battle’, he said and then sat down to write his last letters.”
The report of the judges who looked into the case showed the rigged nature of the initial trial.
“What speaks in favour of the fact that the organisers of the case had already agreed on the outcome beforehand is that, already two days after the end of the court case, an extensive series written by the main initiator of the case, Bedřich Reicin, started appearing in the newspapers.
“Its description of general Píka is completely in concert with the ruling of the judges. In the preparation for the court case, unlawful methods were used. General Píka was arrested and imprisoned without any evidence, which was only ‘gathered’ later.”
However, it was only after the Velvet Revolution that General Heliodor Píka was fully rehabilitated and awarded the Milan Rastislav Štefánik Order in recognition of his service.
He was the first of hundreds of peoples executed for political reasons by the Communists in the purges instigated during the turn of the 1940s and 1950s.
His son Milan, who had been instrumental in rehabilitating his father, died this March.
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