The Czech general Heliodor Píka (1897–1949) is considered a national hero based on his service in both World War I and World War II. That status did not save him from execution on trumped-up charges after the Soviet Union seized power in 1948 and installed a Communist government in what was then Czechoslovakia.
After the Soviet Union gained control of much of Eastern Europe after routing Nazi Germany during World War II, the Czech Communist Party moved quickly to consolidate power in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Just three months after a coup in which they displaced democratically elected president Edvard Beneš, Czech General Heliodor Píka was arrested and interrogated. Charged with treason, he was found guilty of spying for the British on both Czechoslovakia and Soviet soil. Executed by hanging in 1949, Píka was officially exonerated in 1968, during a short period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Píka was once again elevated in official regard to the status of Czech military hero, and the judge who sentenced him was charged with murder.
Píka was born in the town of Štítina, near Opava, Silesia, a region then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now part of the Czech Republic), on July 3, 1897. His father, Ignác Píka, a wheelwright, died when Heliodor was young, leaving the family—which included eight other children—almost destitute. As the oldest son, Píka often had to help his mother care for his younger siblings.
In spite of his many responsibilities at home, Píka did well as the local school in Opava. Perhaps cementing his devotion to the Czech nation, he attended a Czech-language school in what was then a predominantly German-speaking part of the empire because the Austrian imperial government favored that language. Píka passed his exams and graduated in 1914. He made plans to study pharmacy, but with the outbreak of World War I he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army.
After completing an officer training course, Píka was sent to the Eastern Front and was held for a time in a Russian prison camp. His loyalties, however, did not lie with the Austro-Hungarian government; many Czechs regarded it as an occupying power and dreamed of an independent homeland. After his release, Píka deserted from the Austro-Hungarian army, fled to France, and joined the Czechoslovak Legionnaires, a volunteer group fighting on the Allied side in the hope that it would further the goal of an independent Czechoslovakia. Píka served the French as a medic, and when Czechoslovakia declared its independence in October of 1918, he participated in military operations aimed at defending the borders of the new nation.
Between 1919 and 1920, Píka studied at the St. Cyr Military Academy in France, which was now Czechoslovakia's ally. He then attended a new Czech military school located in the city of Hranice. There he met and married Ḿria Sehnalová, and in 1922 they had a son, Milan.
Between the world wars, Píka rose through the ranks of the Czech military. After a period as an aide to the commander in Hranice, he passed a competitive exam and was chosen to undertake further study in France, at the Paris Military School. Elevated to the rank of major of general staff, he served as a military attaché in Romania and Turkey.
In 1938, the European powers met at the request of German chancellor Adolf Hitler and signed the Munich Agreement. This agreement, known among Czechs as the Munich Diktat or Munich Betrayal, transferred the ethnically German but strategically significant Sudetenland region from Czech to German control. Píka saw clearly what was about to occur, and he attempted to sell off many of the Czech munitions held in the Sudetenland so that the Germans could not use them. (Some of these munitions were acquired by Jewish militants in what was then British-ruled Palestine.) When Germany broke its commitment and invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, Píka called for armed resistance, but to no avail. The Germans quickly occupied the country and he fled to Romania, affiliating himself with the Czech government-in-exile, then located in London and headed by Beneš.
From the Romanian capital of Bucharest, Píka organized a Czech resistance movement and aided in the defections and escapes of several anti-German Czech officials from their homeland. When Romania fell under a fascist, pro-German dictatorship in 1940, he was once again forced to flee; he went to Turkey and then to the Soviet Union, where the Czech government-in-exile appointed him the head of its military office there. According to Milan Hauner in the World Policy Journal, Píka “accomplished the task with considerable success and managed to resist constant Soviet harassment and frequent attempts at blackmail to force him to be disloyal to the Beneš government.”
After his release, although still recovering from surgery, Píka was interrogated by a military committee. On May 5, 1948, he was arrested, with no warrant, and charged with high treason. For the rest of the year, he was subjected to continued questioning from agents of the Czech Army Security Intelligence Office, known by its Czech initials OBZ. The director of the OBZ was Bedřich Reicin, a man who had clashed with Píka when both were serving in the Soviet Union during the war. Reicin placed Karel Vaš, a communist who had been trained within the Soviet security apparatus, as chief investigator on Píka's case. When Píka went on trial, Vaš, in a highly irregular procedure, sat on the bench as his judge.
Central to the case against Píka was a document that purportedly showed that he had collaborated with British intelligence services and thus betrayed Czechoslovakia. According to British historian Edward Crankshaw (as quoted by Hauner), this document was “the most appalling and most unimaginably inefficient bit of forgery.” It was allegedly drafted by a British agent and described Píka's relationship to him. Hauner reproduced the document in his article, showing it to be amateurish in the extreme, with even the name of the country of Czechoslovakia misspelled.
During the trial, Píka's 1946 Paris trip, during which he made a side trip to London, was also brought under scrutiny by prosecutors, although no evidence of any wrongdoing during the trip was shown. Reicin's secretary later testified (as quoted by Hauner) that Vaš, as judge, told Reicin: “Just tell me how much you need for Píka, 15 years or the gallows, and the indictment can be manufactured accordingly.”
Píka's trial occurred in secret, lasting from January 26 to January 28, 1949. As the rigged nature of the trial became apparent, he faced death with equanimity. His son Milan, who was at the time being held in the same prison, was now allowed to visit him. “He told me then, Milan, be a good man,” the son recalled to Radio Prague. “Be nice to other people and try to fight for freedom and democracy. And he died without hatred for his enemy. He said, God himself will judge.” Despite pleas from abroad, Píka was executed by hanging on June 21, 1949.
Píka's persecutors were eventually consumed by the waves of suspicion that characterized the Czech government after its takeover by Communists. Although it is not clear whether the U.S.S.R. was directly involved in Píka's trial, Soviet pressure resulted in further purges. After being denounced by another government official, Reicin was sentenced to death and hanged during the Slansky trials of the early 1950s, in which several Czech leaders of Jewish origin were purged. Vaš was arrested and brought to trial in 1953, and his assertion that he had conducted the Píka trial fell on deaf ears. He was convicted of treason and espionage and sentenced to life imprisonment but was released in 1956.
In 1968, during the period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring, Píka was officially cleared of all the charges against him. Vaš was arrested in 2001 for his role in knowingly using false evidence during the original Píka trial. Although he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison, he escaped incarceration because of statute-of-limitations regulations. Vaš died in 2013 at age 96.
Independent (London, England), January 21, 2013, “Karel Vaš,” p. 44.
Prague Post, June 27, 2001, James Pitkin, “For General Píka, Justice Comes Far Too Late.”
Times (London, England), February 10, 2001, Katka Krosnar, “Czech Show Trial Judge Accused of Murder 50 Years On,” p. 20.
World Policy Journal, winter 2001, Milan Hauner, “Crime and Punishment in Prague: The Strange Case of Karel Vaš and Gen. Heliodor Píka,” p. 93.
Radio Prague website (archived), https://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.radio.cz%2Fen%2Farticle%2F117484date=2010-05-25/ (June 19, 2009), Christian Falvey, “Remembering General Heliodor Píka.”
Ústav Pamädi Národna, http://www.upn.gov.sk/en/heliodor-Píka-1897-1949/ (November 1, 2017), “Heliodor Píka (1897–1949).”□