One morning at the end of November, 1952 a five-year old Czech boy, Ivan, who was staying with cousins of his parents in Bratislava while his mother, who had seemed exhausted and unwell, remained in Prague, wandered into the kitchen, a little surprised and disappointed that the usual appetizing smells of baking were not noticeable. He found his grandmother’s cousin and her daughter sitting tensely at the table, listening to some boring official announcements on the radio. Ivan thought it was silly of them. Then, in response to something said by the boring official announcer, they exclaimed and clutched each other’s hands. One of them burst into tears. Ivan was puzzled. “I thought someone died.”- he said and the women looked at him in shock, then sent him away to play with cousins of his own age. About ten years later Ivan realized that what he must have heard was the announcement that his father, Rudolf Margolius, former Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade and one of the defendants in the last Stalinist show trial, the Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia, had been sentenced to death. Out of fourteen defendants, eleven received the death sentence, carried out on December 3.

Three months later Stalin was dead and a period known as the thaw began. The second, largely anti-Semitic Soviet purge was stopped, the so-called Doctors’ Plot declared null and void and those medics who were still alive released from prison. Prisoners from labour camps began to make their way home; in some of those camps there were uprisings that were put down ferociously and across most of Eastern Europe there began a process known as de-Stalinization. As it happens, Czechoslovakia, whose “little Stalin”, Klement Gottwald died very soon after Stalin and was succeeded by Antonín Novotný, remained largely immune. The show trials continued though with considerably less verve and there were no investigations into the years of what was later called the “cult of personality”.

Romania decided to go her own way and ignore the fact that Stalin was dead but in the other countries show trials were either stopped as in Hungary where the “little Stalin” Mátyás Rákosi, himself a Jew, had been planning a major anti-Semitic trial for 1953 and had begun the preliminary arrests and interrogations or abandoned as in Poland where the main conceptual trial as they were called never actually took place and the man who was to be Poland’s Rajk or Slansky, Włodyszlaw Gomulka, was released. Indeed, many people were released though some with their health permanently damaged by the tortures they had endured.

One of those released, whose health had not been damaged, was the American Communist, Noel Field. He had been a brooding presence behind the trials and purges as the man who had allegedly created a vast anti-Soviet conspiracy into which he had recruited thousands of seemingly good Communists, most of whom had spent the war years either in their own country or in the West, often in internment, Nazi prison or concentration camp, and not in the Soviet Union. Kept in a Hungarian prison, he had not been tortured or put on trial. On release he asked to stay in that country with his wife, also released from prison, and was eventually granted Hungarian citizenship. In 1954, during massive political convulsions in Hungary there was a reasonably thorough investigation into the methods whereby the Rajk and successive trials were set up and how the concepts were exported to neighbouring countries. Noel Field gave an exhaustive account of his role, which was only partially that of a victim and mostly that of a willing accomplice, ready to further the cause through the death and torture of people he had known well and many others. This extraordinary document was uncovered by the Hungarian historian Mária Schmidt in the 1990s and thoroughly analyzed in articles and in her book Battle of Wits.

There is a phantasmagoric quality to the events of post-war Eastern Europe and the process that culminated in the show trials. The Soviet Union having liberated the countries in question from Nazi occupiers or their own Nazi and pro-Nazi governments, had no intention of allowing the development of a free democratic system in any of them. This may sound like a truism now but was not at all clear at the time. Instead, the states were either wholly or partially incorporated into the USSR or had high Stalinism imposed on them. The process that took a couple of decades in the home country was pushed through in something like half a decade, with a considerably less willing population who had already had experience of developed social and political activity before the war and tried to revive this in the immediate aftermath.

Across a large part of the territory the war did not end in May 1945; civil war and disorganized violence continued for several years. The newly colonized countries were not only largely unsympathetic to Communist ideas, but saw them, correctly, as foreign imposition administered by foreign puppets. This could have been avoided if the Soviet officers and NKVD administrators had listened to some of their local Communist advisers who thought that there ought to be a national component to the new system. Instead, a completely Soviet system was imposed not just politically but ideologically with the Soviet Union seen as the true patria, making national resentment the central focus of all discontent.

Nor did the Soviet colonizers ever really understand the different geography. Used to the vast distances of their own country where people could disappear with ease, they found it hard to comprehend that in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe arrests, disappearances, destructions of businesses and organizations became known to all and sundry almost immediately.

By the late forties the process of subduing the economy and society seemed complete but the dissatisfaction was as rife as it had been in the USSR in the post-collectivization years. There were serious shortages; life was hard for most people while the party bosses seemed to have a much pleasanter life with plenty of food and attractive consumer goods. The churches had been either suppressed or co-opted; political parties disbanded and their members arrested, tortured, tried and executed or imprisoned; other organizations were accused of anti-Soviet activity and treated similarly. The anger and resentment was palpable. The time had come for the conceptual trials – a mixture of bread and circuses, apportioning of blame and intended final terrorization of population. No-one, these trials were going to say, is safe. Not even good or seemingly good Communists. But, in the meantime, we shall present a good show that will explain who exactly is behind all those problems. Some of the more cynical organizers of the trials understood that, as many of the victims had been executioners, torturers and oppressors before, popular support for them was likely to be minimal.

From 1948 on, while the United States was grappling with the realization that its own government agencies had been infiltrated by Communist agents like Alger Hiss, NKVD officers and their local stooges built up the cases against Communists who were not, as it happens, dissident but who had a less controlled biography. They had fought in Spain or with the French resistance; they had been active in occupied countries; they had been involved with Soviet espionage in the West. Many of them were Jews and could be linked to Stalin’s “anti-cosmopolitan” purges and the new enemy, Israel, as well as the rebellious Tito. The so-called Moscovites, the Communists who came to Eastern Europe in the van of the Red Army, were taking over and getting rid of their rivals, the “local Communists”. There were no ideological differences between the two groups or none that could have made a difference; the deadly struggle was largely personal.

The divisions were not always clear-cut. Many of those who had fought in Spain had gone there from the Soviet Union and went back after the Republicans lost. Those who survived Stalin’s purges either in Spain itself or back home then went to their own countries as supposed “Moscovites”. The Jews at the top of the East European Communist parties that they could be on the victorious or the defeated side and could be either those who accused others or were accused themselves of Zionism. Slansky, unlike Rajk in Hungary, was himself as much of a Moscovite Communist as Gottwald though his co-accused fell mostly into the usual categories. Margolius was the odd one out for different reasons: he had not joined the party till after the war but his presence among the accused may well have been necessary to provide another economic scapegoat as he had negotiated treaties with Western countries.

Thousands were arrested and endlessly interrogated until they signed the requisite confessions. As so many survived and wrote about their experiences later, we have a good idea of the sort of physical and intellectual pressures they were under. The torture was horrific and many died in prison. Threats to their families and promises of mercy were used as well as the peculiarly Communist weapon of appeals to loyalty to the party and a permanent feeling of guilt.

The outcome were three major trials, Kosto Trajev’s in Bulgaria, the main conceptual trial of László Rajk and his “associates” in Hungary in 1949 and the Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia exactly 60 years ago in 1952. There were secondary trials which inflicted ferocious punishments on other Communists. The population watched and listened with apathy, applauding as required. What did they care who killed whom among the group that had been doing the same to them for years?

Among the many accounts the best one is probably George Hodos’s Show Trials: Stalinist Purges in Eastern Europe, first published in the US in 1988 and subsequently rewritten but with very few alterations in Hungarians and published in that country. Hodos was one of the victims, imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to hard labour at one of the secondary trials after the Rajk case. He survived and left the country after 1956. His book is partly an account of his own experiences and partly a carefully researched history of the purges and trials across Eastern Europe.

The best known of the Czech accounts is The Confession by Artur London, one of the three survivors of the Slansky trial, which was made into a film with Yves Montand in the main role. London tries to work out what were the less obvious reasons for the confessions and feelings of guilt. Of course, much of that had already been said by Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon. There are also books by families of the accused, notably one by the Heda Margolius Kovály, the widow of Rudolf Margolius and one by his son, Ivan.

I started with Ivan Margolius’s reminiscences; let me end with my own from several years later, when the system was falling apart. As small children who started school in Budapest in the autumn of 1956 we knew that things were uneasy but failed to understand exactly what was happening. It was morning school on October 6 (mornings and afternoons alternated week in, week out as there was insufficient school space) and we were walking home at lunchtime. I knew my parents would be out and somebody was coming to look after my brother and me. It was a grey day with intermittent rain, which had stopped producing a sort of crystalline clarity with the droplets in the atmosphere making everything look sharper and brighter. There were black flags everywhere. We were talking quietly. Some of us had been told that this was the first time for some years that the Day of Mourning, the anniversary of the execution of 13 Hungarian generals in 1849, was marked. Others had heard another name connected with the day: Rajk. My parents had gone to the reburial of Rajk and those who had been executed with him. (Slansky could never have been reburied as his and his co-defendants’ ashes had been thrown out of the car onto an icy road.) They had gone and had stood through the macabre rain-sodden ritual because they knew that it presaged something bigger. Just over a fortnight later, on October 23, they went to another major demonstration. By the time they returned from that, the city was in the throes of an uprising.