70 Years Since The Execution of Milada Horáková, Icon of Freedom and Democracy in Czechoslovakia

Milada Horáková, the democratic socialist, anti-fascist, and feminist, who fought her whole life for the cause of freedom and democracy in Czechoslovakia, was murdered by the communist regime on June 27, 1950, along with three co-defendants, following a show trial. Photo source: ABS.

This weekend, the Czech Republic will mark 70 years since the execution of Milada Horáková, the Czechoslovak patriot and pro-democracy politician murdered by the communist authorities in 1950 for her opposition to the regime who had stolen power in a coup two years earlier. To commemorate the event, black banners will be raised around the Czech Republic, including at Masaryk University, as part of the “Milada 70: Murdered by Communists” initiative.

A Life of Struggle

Horáková was born Milada Králová in Prague in 1901. Active in politics from a young age, she  was expelled from school aged 17 for participating in a protest against the First World War. After graduating in Law from Charles University in 1926, she became a civil servant in Prague, while also campaigning for social justice and women’s equality. She joined the Women’s National Council in 1924, and the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party (CSNS) in 1929 (a democratic socialist party with no relation to the contemporary German concept of “national socialism”).

After the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Horáková and her husband, Bohusláv Horák, joined the anti-fascist resistance; the couple were arrested in 1940 and held in custody until their trial in 1944 in Dresden, including a period in the Terezin concentration camp. Horáková represented herself in German at her trial, and was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison. 

Milada Horáková and Alois Štůla, accompanying the British Minister of Health. Photo source: Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague.

Liberated in Bavaria in April 1945, Horáková immediately returned to Prague to re-enter politics, and in 1946 was elected to the Czechoslovak National Assembly for CSNS, the second strongest party in the assembly after the Communist Party. After the Communist coup d’etat in February 1948, Horáková resigned as an MP in protest, but continued fighting for democracy from outside parliament. These activities ultimately led to her arrest, on 27 September 1949, by a nascent totalitarian regime trying to neutralize any threat to its power.

Along with her 12 co-defendants, Horáková was tortured by the authorities, accused of fabricated charges of treason and spying for foreign powers.The trial began on 31 May 1950; Horáková used the occasion to launch an impassioned defence of political freedom and democratic ideals, but was sentenced to death on 8 June. International figures such as Albert Einstein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt appealed for clemency, but to no avail, and Horáková was hanged at Pankrac prison on 27 June, aged 48, alongside co-defendants Závis Kalandra, Jan Buchal and Oldřich Pecl. 

Her last words were: “I’m falling, I’m falling, I have lost this fight, I’m leaving honestly. I love this country, I love this people, build for them prosperity. I leave without hatred for you. I wish you, I wish you…”

An Icon of Freedom and Democracy

The guilty verdict against Horáková and her co-accused was annulled during the Prague Spring in 1968, but it was only after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that she received her rightful honours from the nation, being awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1st Class) in 1991. Dozens of streets across the country, including main roads in Brno and Prague, bear her name, and there are dozens of public memorials to her throughout the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The anniversary of her death, June 27th, has been designated as an annual day of remembrance for those killed by the Communist regime.

Horáková’s symbolic grave at Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery. Photo: Milada Horakova 1900 – 1950 by Horslips3 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Although her name is often invoked by opponents of communism, Horáková’s legacy must also include her opposition to Nazism, for which she was imprisoned for five years, and anti-democratic political systems in general, as well as her long-standing advocacy of social justice and women’s rights.

Commemorating a National Hero

To mark the anniversary of Horáková’s death, institutions around the country, including Brno’s Masaryk University, will join together to raise black banners as a mark of respect on June 26-27, part of the “Milada 70: Murdered by Communists” initiative.

“Milada Horáková is one of the greatest personalities of our modern history, and an extremely brave woman who fearlessly opposed evil and faced two totalitarian regimes. Recalling her life story is not only our moral duty, but also an important opportunity to think about what she can tell us even today,” said Martin Bareš, Rector of Masaryk University. 

The “Milada 70…” initiative was launched by a consortium of non-profit organisations and civic society groups, and participating institutions include Charles University, Vltava-Labe-Press, the Czech News Agency, and others. Individual citizens, organizations, schools, and town halls across the country are invited to join the commemoration by displaying a black banner in the days before June 27th, to honour the memory of Milada Horáková.

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