“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on to the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was the great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close by him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off he fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The propaganda section make hundreds of thousands of copies of the photography taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on that balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”
– Milan Kundera, Chapter 1, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Today marks the anniversary of the day that Vlado Clementis was hanged, 3 December 1952. He was tried as part of the Rudolf Slanksy show-trials. His crime: he was a “bourgeois nationalist”. Clementis is an example of how easy it was to fall victim to Gottwald’s paranoia, as a culture of Stalinism gripped Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s.
The extract above is taken from the opening of Kundera’s novel. This is an example of the before and after of a doctored photograph, illustrating how Clementis was removed from the historical narrative of Communist Czechoslovakia. (You can just about make out Clementis’ ear in the photo, behind Gottwald’s head. The photographer was also removed from the photo.)
To see the balcony where this speech took place, why not join us on either our Explore Prague Historical or Nazism and Communism in Prague Tours. Click here for full details and to book securely online.