Subterranean Justice in Prague

Mark Drumbl and Barbora Holá

In its 1989 Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia transitioned from just over four decades of Communist rule. The country, which four years thereafter calmly split into two, was—together with other post-communist countries of the region—somewhat of a pioneer when it came to transitional justice initiatives. Criminal trials largely were eschewed. Lustration, operationalized through certificates, was extensively undertaken. So, too, were property restitution, rehabilitation, and transparency through revelatory laws that opened up the Secret Police (StB) archives to the public. In a separate project we unpack these archives, and document conversations with collaborators, to better understand why ordinary citizens informed on others and how, if at all, transitional justice should speak of such informants.

Transitional justice in Prague also takes the form of monuments and memorials: the building of new ones, the retrofitting of old ones, architectural repurposing, and cosmetic remodeling. The visualities and sight-seeings of these sites, some well seen and others largely submerged (though not unseen), are striking. Here we wish to share one such site: the mausoleum to Klement Gottwald, the first leader of Communist Czechoslovakia from 1948 until 1953.

Gottwald led the country during the Communist coup right into the beginning of the so-called Stalinization, the darkest period of Czechoslovak communism. During that time repression was at its peak; “dissident” elements were purged from all levels of society. The ideological principles of Marxism-Leninism were introduced as the only tenets of cultural, intellectual and social life. The entire education system was subordinated to state control. With the elimination of private ownership and forced collectivization of private business, a planned economy was introduced. Klement Gottwald began a series of mass purges against both political opponents and fellow Communists, numbering in the tens of thousands. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia accused its opponents of “conspiracy against the people’s democratic order” and “high treason” in order to oust them from positions of power. Around 250 of these “enemies of people” were arrested and executed in show trials.

Our sightseeing begins at the elevated part of Prague’s Wenceslas Square, ordinarily a busy hub for tourists and locals alike. Lined with shops, cafés and restaurants, the Square also features, quietly, a very ‘seen’ memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc. Palach immolated himself here in January 1969 in the aftermath of the occupation of Prague by Soviet forces a year earlier. In February 1969 at a memorial service to Palach after the StB had exhumed and cremated Palach’s body, Zajíc also tried to immolate himself, but died from the acid he drank shortly beforehand (Zajíc did not want to suffer great pain like Palach—who succumbed three long days after he had set himself on fire). Palach’s memorial takes the form of an undulating bronze cross embedded in the cobblestones—woven into the very fabric of the square and rippling gently.  

Palach and Gottwald both share Prague’s Olšany Cemetery. Palach lies in a brightly marked grave, nearly shrine-like, while Gottwald’s ashes—along with those of his wife and those of twenty other 1950’s Communist leaders—lie in a marked but obscure grave off an unindicated cul-de-sac. When one of us located and visited this communal grave, however, it appeared quite tended to and brightened by fresh flowers. Olšany Cemetery is really beautiful, with graceful trees and elaborate gravestones. It is verdant and calm and sutured together through many entangled paths.

As for Gottwald, well, he died young, in his fifties, in 1953. The fashion at the time was for Communists to embalm, mummify (without sheets), and display their leaders. Gottwald was no exception. An elaborate chemical, medical, and mechanical system was established to attempt this ambition. A crypt (his crypt) was dug deep beneath Prague’s National Memorial on Vítkov Hill, originally built between 1928-1938 to honor the Czechoslovak legionaries during the First World War. The tomb of the unknown soldier erected after the Second World War also lies within the National Memorial, as well as a huge horseback statue of Jan Žižka that commemorates the one-eyed military leader from medieval times. The external walls contain attractive murals depicting Czech military history which end on a decidedly Soviet note with flowers, friendship, and liberating tanks embossed into thick metal doors.

In the crypt, today, blinding lights on white tiles generate a hospital-like atmosphere within. A jagged but largely circular path was intended to move hundreds of thousands of mourners respectfully through the site. Winches and pulleys lifted, and then lowered, Gottwald’s body from an even cooler place below for viewing followed by preserving. The mausoleum itself still retains all the buttons and levers and dials from the time in the 1960s, like an old Hollywood movie about a mad scientist and a Doomsday Machine such as Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.


Gottwald did not fare long in his mausoleum. This was because of de-Stalinization, and the skepticism of ‘cults of personality’. Along with other scorned luminaries, Gottwald ended up cremated and then eventually in the collective grave in Olšany Cemetery. The National Memorial in turn faded away, in terms of public centeredness, and then the 1989 Velvet Revolution piled on with bouts of additional alienation. In 2000, however, the Czech government aimed to rehabilitate and reconstruct certain memorials related to twentieth century Czechoslovak History. The Vítkov memorial was among these. It was reopened to the public in 2009.

And how was Gottwald’s mausoleum refurbished? The authorities did not engage in cancel culture, nor remove and shuffle, nor topple. Instead, they opted for retentionism coupled with the inclusion of new information. So, several plaques have been put up in an antechamber. These describe the man, his background, his death, the times at the time, and the construction of the mausoleum. These plaques describe the man as he was, namely, in unflattering terms. No mention is made of any achievement. As visitors enter the space, and wend and wind through the short corridors, they encounter decals that have been affixed to the walls and floors of the mausoleum and its entry points. Many of these are intentionally placed on angles, which furthers the attraction of the public’s gaze and creates a sense of imbalance. These blare out ‘facts’—’21.499 sentenced to forced labour camps’, ‘2.3000.0000 people were persecuted’, as examples. In the middle of the room is an apparent fake corpse, draped with a white sheet, on an elevated hospital stretcher, in a big glass box. Inside the box, in addition to a seeming corpse, is medical equipment, an army coat, bandages and gauzes, slippers, a wreath of red roses—plastic or chemically preserved—with a star on their lower right. Evidence of embalming, no doubt, and some of the personal details left behind. On a further short diagonal from there, in the corner, lies a traditional grave stone memorial.


Czech authorities thereby, in this one instance, favored a pedagogic approach akin to South Africa’s approach to many Afrikaans sites: preservation with clarification. Gottwald was retained, though also ‘explained’ in a sense. The mausoleum is quite directive: the viewer is presented with information from placards. In this sense, differences arise with regard to other countries in their architectural transitions. Under decommunization policies in Ukraine, Soviet era monuments were melted down, broken, stored in warehouses, stolen, or sunk off the Crimean coast. In Budapest, Soviet commemorative statuary was not destroyed but, instead, relocated to a park on the outskirts of the city called Szoborpark (‘Memento Park’) where they can still be visited. In Bulgaria, the Museum of Socialist Art showcases paintings from the times, with descriptions from the time about the quality of the oeuvre, and a sculpture garden silently features many Lenins and Stalins.

In the end, then, bodies, buildings, and statuary, too, undergo a variety of transitions. The ability of transitional justice, however, to manage these metamorphoses becomes limited to the extent that these sites can characterize themselves (or have been characterized) as cultural property. As one of us has written elsewhere, the criminalization of (certain) cultural property destruction, in particular in times of war (as directly evidenced in the International Criminal Court’s al Mahdi judgment), though conceptually not limited to those times, might cabin how or what can be done in the aftermath of movements from one regime to another. Smashing cultural property may become less permissible, while the “Gotttwald approach” of retention with explanation, might present a middle ground.


Mark Drumbl is Professor at Washington and Lee University, School of Law. His research and teaching interests include public international law, global environmental governance, international criminal law, post-conflict justice, and transnational legal process. Read more and more on legal sightseeing by Mark Drumbl.

Barbora Hola works as Senior Researcher at the NSCR and as Associate Professor at the Department of Criminal Law and Criminology at VU University of Amsterdam. She has an interdisciplinary focus and studies transitional justice after atrocities, in particular (international) criminal trials, sentencing of international crimes,  rehabilitation  of war criminals and life after trial at international criminal tribunals.

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