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Crime and Punishment in Prague: The Strange Case of Karel Vaš and Gen. Heliodor Píka

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World Policy Journal
January, 2001-2002
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Crime and Punishment in Prague: The Strange Case of Karel Vaš and Gen. Heliodor Píka
Author(s): Milan Hauner
Source: World Policy Journal, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 2001/2002), pp. 93-96
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40209782
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Milan Hauner, a historian, is the author of six books and over 100 scholarly articles on the history o

Central Asia, Czechoslovakia, and Russia. He is affiliated with the University of Wisconsin, Mad

Crime and Punishment in Prague
The Strange Case of Karel Vas and Gen. Heliodor Pika
Milan Hauner

Last June 15, the Czech Press Agency (ctk)than 50 years have passed since General
Pika's execution and despite the turbulent
briefly noted that Karel Vas [pronounced
like the French word for "cow" - la vache], a political changes in Central Europe, this is
former military prosecutor, had been sentenced to seven years in jail. The senate of
the Prague City Court had found the 85year-old man guilty of having forged evi-

certainly not the last word about the Vas
trial. It is, in a sense, a retrial of General
Pfka, an attempt to rectify historic wrongs,

like the trials of octogenarian Nazi judges
dence against Gen. Heliodor Pika, who had and prison guards, or Vichy admin; istrators,

accused of maintaining the appearance of
been selected as the prime target in the
purges initiated inside the Czechoslovak of- legality in the Nazi empire.
Who was General Pika? A short answer
ficer corps in the immediate aftermath of
the Communist takeover in February 1948. is that his judicial murder in 1949 fulfilled
The sentence against Vas, mild in itself, has a similar function in launching the purges
inside the Czechoslovak officer corps as the
been regarded as symbolic atonement for
past crimes committed during Communist arrest and subsequent execution of Marshal
rule. It has been well received in the Czech
Tukhachevsky in 1937 had done for the Red
Army. He was a professional officer loyal to
Republic, though voices of sympathy were
heard in favor of the aged defendant, suffer- former President Edvard Benes and his London-based government in exile, who served
ing from Parkinson's disease, who himself
between 1941 and 1945 as the head of the
became a victim in the 1950s of the same
deadly mechanism of justice he helped to
lubricate. However, most commentaries

Czechoslovak Military Mission in Moscow.
It was a most difficult job, since the officer

had to serve several masters. He accomagreed that an outrageous miscarriage of
justice in the name of ideology, whether Na- plished the task with considerable success
tional Socialist or Communist, had to be
and managed to resist constant Soviet harassment and frequent attempts at blackpunished, even if it had happened more
mail to force him to be disloyal to the
than a half a century ago.
Benes government.
Hearing the verdict, Vas declared himself innocent; he and his counsel immediateAfter the war, President Benes promoted
ly dismissed the sentence as fabricated. Both Pika to deputy chief of the general staff.
However, in May 1948, after the Commurepeatedly said that they would appeal.
Deputy Premier Pavel Rychetsky, himself a nist takeover in Prague, he was arrested
lawyer by training, told the press that the without a warrant on charges of spying for
sentence set a moral and political precedent British military intelligence. Interrogated
for the rest of 1948, he was sentenced to
in that the same legal standards as applied

to Nazi prosecutors and judges could be ap- death on charges of high treason in January
plied to Communist crimes. Although more 1949 and executed six months later. The





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institution that carried out the interrogation
was the Army Security Intelligence Office,
known under the Czech abbreviation OBZ,
run by officers trained by the nkvd (the
predecessor to the kgb) during the war. The
head of the OBZ was Bedrich Reicin, who

harbored a grudge against Pika dating back
several years when the two served together

In 1968, during the Prague Spring, a brief
spell of liberal reform that began in March
and ended on August 21 of that year when
the Soviet tanks rolled, General Pika s surviving son and his defense lawyer requested
a review of his 1949 trial. A military court
declared the dead general rehabilitated but
left Karel Vas unpunished.

in the Soviet Union. Reicin put Karel Vas,
also trained by the NKVD in the USSR during the war, in charge of the Pika case, first
as the chief investigator, and then, in a
breach of legal practice, as the second prosecutor at Pika's trial. So complete was Communist control of the military and judiciary
apparatus after the February coup, and so
weak the authority of the ailing President
Benes, by then almost a figurehead, that not
even a warrant was required to arrest one of
the most senior army officers.
Whether the OBZ acted upon the advice
of Soviet "counselors" has yet to be established. The prosecution protocols do not reveal direct Soviet involvement in the Pfka

The Corpus Delicti
It might be helpful to reproduce here the
corpus delicti that sent General Pika to the
gallows and for which Reicin and Vas were
directly responsible. Since it is the only document in English in the huge bundle of
protocols surviving in the former Communist Party Central Committee archives, the
reader can assess for himself how Commu-

case. Soviet counselors were brought in later
for the notorious Slansky trials, in which the
Communists turned against their own ilk
under the pretext of cleansing the Communist Party of Zionists. (Rudolf Slansky, the
first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, was arrested, tried, sentenced,

the Prague Spring and smuggled abroad.

nist justice operated and how the standards
of the legal profession in Czechoslovakia had
declined. Some years ago, I happened to inspect the protocols pertaining to the Pika

case. They had been illegally photocopied

inside Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of

Among the protocols, mostly by fellow officers who were forced to testify against their
former colleague, was one document that attracted my attention. It was written in English, but with innumerable errors and

Jewish origins), was himself eventually sen-

strange phrases. It was supposed to be an internal message from a British intelligence
officer to a colleague about a confidential
conversation he had with Pika when the

Two years later, the wheel turned again
and Vas, too, was crushed, in yet another

general was in London in 1946.
This "document," allegedly intercepted
by Czech agents operating in England, was

and executed in 1952.) Reicin, a suspicious
"cosmopolitan" Communist (because of his
tenced to death.

trial. Hoping that it would be a mitigating in fact manufactured inside Czechoslovakia.

Reicin's secretary, a Mrs. Uhlirova, who had
seen Reicin drafting the original Czech text,
testified about the forgery during the rehationed that Moscow had been highly appreciative of his prosecution. No written evi- bilitation trial of General Pika in 1968.
Reicin had realized that he must present
dence was produced and no Soviet witnesses
were called in the Vas trial of 1953. Howev- more convincing evidence to make the
charges of high treason against Pika more
er, the former prosecutor must have im-

circumstance, Vas boasted of his decisive
contribution in the Pika trial and men-

believable. His two previous scenarios had
pressed his judges because he received a
"mere" life sentence, which was commuted failed. Even before Pika's arrest it was ruafter 1956, and he was subsequently freed. mored among the OBZ operators that the






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A Facsimile of the Protocol

Opis agenturni zpravy - v procesu Piky^kterou Reicin sam sestavil a soudu po

Our guest from Czeko^ovakia^genjlkajSeemed to be very pleased about my inv

and mostly impressed by what he learned at this occasioruHe was very falttered w
I told him that his war reports on the Russians have been so iniciative and thorough *that sometime they served as the omly ground of information for His Majesty

Government showing us clear the true situation of our ally of the time,
I think that distngishing him would mean a reward for his excellent service during

the war^Acoording to the eagerness and frankness whith which he accepted the dtLstin-

guish^one may judge that he will be only too willing to ftirther collaboration which

he expressed also in our further debate*
His knoulidge in estimatting the USSR are remarkable for such modest a man and even

more that he being an officer should be so well aquainted with those various matters,These were mostlythis knouledge about the lability of the interiors state of
a£fiaire,the indescribable want,the longing of the people for a higher standar of
life; at the same time he observed the attempts being made to increase the strength
of the Navy of Russisjtls Knouledge of the Russian building,-My admiration for the courage and disire for the independance of the Czech people
were acoepted by our guest with firm assurance that the good relations of the Czech
Army to his Majesty Forces are deeply rooted in out hearts and that every effort of
a Russian hegemony are out of the question although the Russians trying very hard

to achieve it.

Answering my question concerning the good relations of the Czech Army to the Russian
Armytmy guest declared without hesitation that the previous illusions of the grest

part of the people after the acts of violatio in 1945 and that a fer as the Russian

infiltration is concerned ^the limits wits the Czech have been reached already,some of

the most intelligent and strongest personalities amongst the Czech politiclans,will be

more and more maste of the situation, Theelections have schown a remarkable decline

of oommunost influence since the culmination in i945,The aversion against Russian

unculture was most remar kable here^he said,As to teh Russian mission in Prague our
guest declared that one succeeded to limit its previous sence of onfiltration by soviet officers in a most remarkable way,&nd that at present it is doing only quite
insignificant instruction work at the military schools,- Speaking about those of his
seniors schowing dependanoe from the Russians he had no great sympathy with them,
but avoid to speak about it.
As to my question whether the Czech Inteligence Service and NKGB were on good terms

and how their collaboration workdtthe guest replied that there is no such thing good

relations between the two services-with the exception of a few by communists influ-

enced persons -assuring me that it is not the Czech Inteligenoe Servioe that is
taken a basis by the Russians but that of occupied Germany,Our guest is very well
aquainted with personalities of the NKGB though he met nobody in Praguetbau knows
them from his stay in Mosoouw personally he knows only Mr Chichief and another

insignificant man at the Oonsulat Mr Tichonovjie said,,,,,
Bxpresing the hope that the relations between oud two nations so good during the
wae shoud continue for being so I said good by to him,
some furter remarks and information will be put forward to those departments

18 th JUne 1946 Razftko MNC Original souhlasi s kopii
pplk Nyd,

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claimed to have overheard Vas say to Reicin:
"Just tell me how much you need for Pflca,
to Soviet authorities in Austria, presumably
fifteen years or the gallows, and the indictto be liquidated. This scheme proved unworkable since the Czechs could not find a
ment can be manufactured accordingly...."
Having corresponded with the late
Soviet counterpart at the Austrian border to
whom the "goods" could be delivered. A British historian, Edward Crankshaw, who

general was to be kidnapped and delivered

second scenario, based on laboriously collected testimonies to prove that Pika had
worked for British Intelligence during the
war, also misfired. Even the Communist

served as British intelligence officer in

wartime Moscow and remembered Pika, I

sent him the text of the fateful document.

"The document you sent me," Crankshaw
in March 1983, "is really the most
propagandists found it difficult to ignore
the fact that Great Britain and the Soviet
appalling and most unimaginably inefficient
Union were allies in the fight against Nazi bit of forgery I have ever come across. The
whole European communist apparatus... is
Germany. Thus, convincing evidence of
Pika s continuing contacts with the British lowered in my esteem if this is the kind of
in the period after the end of the war had tothing the Czech secret police, or whoever, is
allowed to produce as fabricated evidence. I
be found. General Prka's official trip to
London in 1946 to celebrate Victory Day don't think I need to elaborate on that." •

gave Reicin his opening. Mrs. Uhlirova







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