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Jáchymov. A little spa town and the horrors of forced labour in communist Czechoslovakia

A review of Jáchymov. Jeviště bouřlivého století (Jáchymov. A Theatre of the Stormy 20th Century) By: Klára Pinerová (ed.). Publisher: ABS, Prague, 2019.

April 6, 2020 - Josette Baer - Books and ReviewsIssue 3 2020Magazine

There are towns and villages in Central Europe which are forever tied to the horrors of what happened there. Jáchymov is one of them. The labour camp is not as notorious as Auschwitz or Dachau, but it was almost as cruel as the Nazi extermination camps. Nobody was gassed there, but the prisoners suffered from malnutrition, horrible sanitary conditions, exposure to radiation, sadism, and the knowledge that they had been unlawfully arrested and condemned to forced labour because of the regime’s paranoia and ruthlessness. The terror the KSČ (Komunistická Strana Československa) unleashed after the “victorious February 25th 1948”, could strike anybody, and following its rationale of the class struggle, it hit those with a “bourgeois” background – teachers, doctors, academics, shopkeepers and farmers, anybody who was not a worker – particularly hard.

Historical approach

Scrutinising the latest publications on Czech 20th century history, one is amazed by the quality of research Czech historians have achieved since the archives were opened after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The latest volume about the Jáchymov labour camp (St Joachimsthal), where prisoners had to dig out uranium in the Jáchymov mines for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons programme, is superbly edited by Klára Pinerová. The various authors of this volume enlighten the reader about every aspect of the camp: the organisation, structure, everyday life, social relations and the poor hygienic conditions. Particularly interesting are the aspects of the contested relationship of the Czechs and Germans imprisoned together after the painful recent history of the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the prisoners’ humour as a principal tool of survival. This carefully composed volume is a must-read for everybody interested in Czechoslovak history and the history of Eastern European communism in the 20th century, in particular the cruel period of Stalinisation (1948-1956).

With the adoption of law 247/48 Sb on October 25th 1948, the regime killed two birds with one stone. First, it organised cheap labour for industry, especially coal and uranium mines that were lacking a workforce because of the war and the transfer of the Sudeten Germans to Germany; and second, it got rid of real or imagined political opponents: the first wave or purge of alleged political enemies ended up in these labour camps. Pinerová’s study is structured in five chronological parts, which makes perfect sense in view of the town’s contested history and the rule of the two totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, that is, the Nazi government of the Protectorate (1939–1945) and the Stalinist regime of early Czechoslovak Communism (1948–1963). Although the focus of the book clearly lies on the Jáchymov labour camp and its uranium mines under communist rule, it is very interesting to learn about the town’s past, hence its pre-labour-camp history.

First, in the Czechoslovak Republic (1918–1938) Jáchymov was well-known for its spa. It is located to the north of the famous spa town of Karlovy Vary, and until 1947, when the Czechoslovak government expelled the Sudeten Germans, it was mainly inhabited by Germans. The revenue of the spa created the town’s wealth, and the local government built impressive architectural sites and buildings in the style of the Secession and Art Deco. Nobel prize laureate Marie Curie visited Jáchymov in the 1920s for research reasons.

The second part focuses on the history of uranium extraction prior to communist rule. Uranium and radioactive substances in general had been very popular around the turn of the 20th century. On a global scale, radioactive substances were believed to have healing qualities, and  US pharmaceutical companies in particular sold products such as mouthwash, cosmetics and wristwatches with radioactive hands that could tell the time in the dark. In the interwar years, Jáchymov sold its uranium mainly to Germany, since the US had its own resources.

The volume is dedicated to the Jáchymov camp and slave labour which had its beginnings under the Nazi protectorate. People “known” or “condemned” as hostile to the German war effort were imprisoned in Jáchymov, where they had to dig for uranium in the mines. After the end of the war, the mines experienced a political paradox: to keep the industry going, the local government had to keep a thousand Germans in work in Jáchymov, which was in contravention of the decree of President Edvard Beneš regarding the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans (odsun). After 1948, a young Czech student of medicine named Oldřich Klobas, who had finished high school in the protectorate in 1940, was arrested a few weeks after the communists had taken over. He was sent to Jáchymov where he was enslaved until his release in 1951. He published his memoirs of the time he spent at the camp just after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Who’s in charge

Another interesting fact is that the institutions responsible for the rule of Jáchymov changed, mirroring the power of the institutions or their loss of it: from its opening in March 1949 to May 1951, the camp was ruled by the ministry of justice; from June 1951 to October 1954 by the ministry of national security; and from November 1954 to its closure in June 1964, the ministry of the interior was responsible. Yet de facto, Soviet “consultants” held power in the camp that was of principal strategic interest to Stalin’s Soviet Union. They were also in Czechoslovakia to oversee Klement Gottwald’s first five-year economic plan for Czechoslovakia and to advise the Czech and Slovak comrades on how to organise the show trial of former General Secretary, Rudolf Slánský, which was planned for November 1952.

As the book reveals, the increasing pressure of the Cold War and the vicinity of the border to the class enemy, West Germany (Bavaria), required the infamous StB to take over from 1951 to 1954, when arrests of political prisoners peaked. In the period from 1949 to 1961, 189 prisoners died, and from 1949 to 1956, 16 prisoners were shot while trying to escape. From 1947 to 1953, 12,313 prisoners were slaving in 15 mines of the Jáchymov complex.

The fourth part of the volume concentrates on humour as a tool of survival. The prisoners coined the terms mukl and muklyně, contractions of the notion muži a ženy určený k likvidaci (men and women earmarked for liquidation). What helped them survive was humour, and since they had nothing to lose, they even dared to make jokes about the overseers to their faces. By making fun of the overseers, who were not exactly the nation’s intellectual elite, they risked being imprisoned in an isolation cell, which was fairly brutal because of the cold temperature and the reduced quality of food received, but they could escape for a couple of days from the radiation in the mines. Humour helped them to stay sane, preserve their moral integrity and support each other in solidarity of the politically persecuted, who were often tyrannised by the common criminals. The fifth and final part concentrates on Jáchymov as a repository of historical memory, and how former inmates are informing the Czech youth about the nation’s past under communist rule.

Even if one is fairly familiar with the name of Jáchymov and what was done there, this volume answers many questions and offers detailed information about the prisoners and their daily life, the camp’s organisation, the crucial role of the Soviet overseers, and how many tried to escape. One also learns about the history of the spa town that was like a little brother to the larger, more famous Karlovy Vary. Finally, this volume should be respected as a model example of how to accomplish archival research and write about sensitive issues: that is, professionally undertaken research that is elegantly and rationally explained to the reader. One hopes that an abridged translation of this remarkable study will soon appear in English.

Josette Baer is a lecturer in political theory, with a focus on Eastern Europe, at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

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