This Czech Feminist Fought Nazis, Communists, and the Patriarchy

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“If the Western media had a more plausible scale of values, Milada Horáková’s name would be well known, rather than virtually unknown in the West,” writes the Czech Jewish historian Wilma Abeles Iggers in her book Women of Prague: Ethnic Diversity and Social Change from the Eighteenth Century to the Present. “She was one of the most important activists in the Czech women’s movement in the nineteen-thirties. Jailed by the Nazis during most of the Second World War, she barely escaped execution, was probably the most prominent woman activist after the war, was again jailed and this time executed by the Communists in 1950, despite many telegrams of protest by world leaders.”

Milada, available now on Netflix, is poised to tell the story of this iron-willed woman to a twenty-first century audience who often lament mainstream history’s lack of attention to women who helped change the world. “Well, I’m Czech, so obviously I knew about her, but I didn’t have that much information about her life,” says director David Mrnka of his decision to film Milada’s life. “I saw it on TV and realized the story is really compelling.”

Milada was involved in civic life from a young age. Deeply impacted by her father, a Czech liberal in the mold of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the young Milada, portrayed in the movie by Israeli-American actress Ayelet Zurer, threw herself into the world of politics and social advocacy.

“Having come of age at a moment of intense patriotic fervour in the Czech lands when the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was shed after the First World War,” writes Emily Thompson in the Hungarian Review, “it was inevitable that Horáková’s strong convictions about human rights, social welfare and equality would find a voice among her contemporaries also engaged in the heady task of state-building.”

Under the mentorship of suffragette-turned-senator Františka Plamínková, portrayed by Dasha Blahova, of the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party (no relation or resemblance to the German Nazi Party), Milada became a passionate advocate of social equality in Czechoslovakia.

Together, Plamínková and her protégé led the Women’s National Council, the largest women’s rights organization in Czechoslovakia at the time. They advocated for married women to be allowed to work in the civil service and vocally petitioned for equality of pay between men and women. Soon, however, their attentions were forced to turn from opposing outmoded patriarchal mores to fighting an infinitely more dangerous foe—Adolf Hitler. Milada became active in the anti-Nazi resistance, locating safe-houses for fugitives and gathering information for an illegal news service.

In 1940, two years after the Western powers had acquiesced to Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, Milada was imprisoned by the occupying Gestapo. She was imprisoned for two years in the Nazi concentration camp at Terezín and ultimately spent nearly five years in the Nazi prison system before her liberation from Aichach by American GIs.

True to form, Milada immediately returned to politics upon her release. “She understood that a strong defense against ideologies eager to establish absolute power was essential,” writes Iggers, “[and] that only a political pluralism can guarantee the freedom of the totality, of minorities and individuals.”

But in an Eastern Europe now overshadowed by the power of Joseph Stalin, this conviction made Milada persona non grata. As in the other nations of the nascent Eastern Bloc, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) meant to gain power, and was willing to try any tactic to do so, either through parliamentary means or torture, imprisonment, and murder—as in the case of the “suicide” of Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk.

In February 1948, KSČ party boss Klement Gottwald wrested control of the government from a fragile liberal coalition. In the film, Gottwald’s “Victorious February” coup plays out primarily in the halls of the Czechoslovakian parliament. In reality, his KSČ militia—and the looming specter of a Red Army invasion—played a bigger role.

In protest of the KSČ’s strongarm tactics, Milada resigned from parliament. By doing so she became the most public and avowed enemy of the communist cause. With the backing of its Soviet advisers, the KSČ began sharpening the knives.

In 1950, Milada and her liberal confrères were arrested on the charge of orchestrating a “terrorist conspiracy.” “This was the show trial of a group of twelve politicians (mostly National Socialist, but also including one former Communist and some Social Democrats) who were supposed to have been led into treacherous, anti-state activities by Milada Horáková,” writes Mary Heimann in Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed“[but] whose real crime had been to resign from parliament after the February Events.”

Milada and three compatriots were sentenced to death. “She was hanged at Pankrác prison, where she had already served time under the Nazis,” continues Heimann. “The Horáková case led to 35 copycat trials in the regions, in which a further 639 inconvenient politicians were condemned, 10 to death and a further 48 to life imprisonment.”

After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Milada Horáková was rehabilitated, and a major Prague street was renamed after her. She was awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk for her defense of democracy and human rights. In 2006, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation posthumously awarded Milada with the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom. Today, Mrnka’s new film will allow audiences around the world to gain strength and inspiration from her heroic example.