Commentary Magazine


My Mind on Trial, by Eugen Loebl

Prisoner

My Mind on Trial.
by Eugen Loebl.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 235 pp. $8.95.

In February 1948 the parliamentary government of Czechoslovakia was overthrown in a Communist coup. A year later the country’s rulers, their political futures seemingly secure despite a straitened economy, attempted to improve their Soviet trade agreement and to normalize financial relations with the United States. The first of these gestures toward autonomy merely rankled the Soviets; the second elicited an iron-fisted response which Eugen Loebl, who was at the time Czechoslovakia’s first deputy minister of foreign trade, describes in My Mind on Trial.

What alarmed the Soviets was the possibility that the Czechoslovak leadership was leaning toward some form of Titoist heresy. To prevent this, they staged a mass show trial, placing fourteen of the country’s leaders—including the former secretary-general of the Communist party, Rudolf Slansky—on trial for treason. All fourteen defendants pleaded guilty and “confessed” to their “crimes.” Eleven were executed in December 1953 and three others—among them the author—were sentenced to life imprisonment. Loebl served eight years of his sentence, in addition to the three years he had spent in Czech prisons before his trial. Then in 1960 he was released and subsequently restored to favor by party secretary Alexander Dubcek. In 1968, when Dubcek’s own attempt to liberalize and humanize Czech Communism was suppressed by the Soviets, Loebl fled and settled in the United States; he now teaches political science at Vassar.

My Mind on Trial covers all of this, but is mainly concerned with the period immediately following Loebl’s arrest and prior to the trial, when he attempted to make some sense of what had happened to him. Shocked at finding himself in prison, he tried to imagine what mistake he might have made. A few months earlier, in obedience to party orders, he had traveled to the United States and succeeded in persuading the U.S. government to release industrial equipment that had been embargoed after the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia. This accomplishment and his record of devotion to the party at first served to reassure Loebl, unaware that it was precisely these Western overtures, in which he had played so large a part, that the Soviets were intent on discrediting.

For sixteen hours a day Loebl was interrogated by one Kohoutek, a ghoulish party functionary (later imprisoned himself), who intended to extract a “confession” from him. Kohoutek made no specific charges, since there were none to be made, but instead harangued his prisoner incessantly about such things as his Jewish-capitalist origins and the “Jewish tricks” he had perpetrated on his country. Kept in a tiny pen, Loebl was forced by his captors to keep walking during every waking moment, even while eating and while being interrogated. During the night, he was awakened at ten-minute intervals and made to call out his prison number.

After a year or so of this treatment, unutterably depressed by the gradual wrecking of his political beliefs, and harassed, bored, and humiliated beyond endurance, Loebl made an attempt at suicide, a task requiring great ingenuity since his captors had taken care to remove the customary means. He collected residue from around the toilet area, bit his fingers until they bled, and rubbed the filth into his fingers. But Loebl’s captors, requiring a live specimen to stand trial, made sure the infection was treated. Their efforts were not in vain; after two years of imprisonment, Loebl gave his captors the “confession” they were seeking.

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What strikes the reader as strange in this account is Loebl’s first response to his imprisonment. Any ordinary person, one might think, routed Without warning from his bed, taken away to prison and held there incommunicado for weeks without being told the nature of his crime, would—before anything else—be overcome with rage at the sheer injustice of it all. But Loebl, at least in the first few days of his imprisonment, did not get angry at his captors. “I was completely convinced,” he writes, “that if I were released I would shake hands with my interrogators—my comrades—and tell them that I recognized that they were serving the party.” To understand this response one must recall that there is simply no place in the Marxist doctrine of history for the simple natural revulsion against unfairness which is the basis of justice. Having embraced Marxism, and having accepted Communist rulers as its historical agents, Loebl had no alternative but to ponder his own errors.

Loebl does, in My Mind on Trial, question the system which was responsible for his unjust imprisonment, but he does so on purely intellectual grounds, abandoning Marx’s theory of value for a different set of economic principles based on a new approach to value in the post-industrial age. This too must strike the reader as a bit strange. Having gone through what he went through, Loebl would seem the last man on earth to be in need of an intellectual rejection of Marxism. He is, after all, a man who can say from intimate experience, “The reason I don’t like this monstrous system is that it routinely puts innocent men—like me—in jail.” But he does not do so. Loebl never stares, Solzhenitsyn-like, into the heart of his former beliefs. On the contrary, he goes so far as to dismiss Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which would seem rather relevant to his own case, as “romantic balderdash,” on the grounds that “there was no such commissar in the real jail.” Koestler’s novel, however, was not written as a factual expose of life inside a Communist prison, but rather precisely to expose that twisted sophistry whereby the innocent victim not only confesses to his crimes, but actually believes himself to be guilty.

Still, even while insisting that it was the intellect which led him to abandon Communism, Loebl remains anxious to record the brutality he suffered at its hands. In a curious way, My Mind on Trial offers yet one more testimony to the continuing power over the emotions that is held by a Communist regime of enslavement.

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