Czech historian produces death tally for communist uranium camps

Czech historian says he has drawn up the first accurate death tally for the former communist regime’s uranium labor camps

Chris Johnstone | 05.04.2012
The Vojna uranium mine near Příbram

A Czech historian has drawn up the first list of prisoners who perished in the Czechoslovak communist regime’s infamous network of uranium mining camps.

After three years of laborious research, František Bártík believes he has drawn up a near definitive list of all the victims of the notorious camps and puts the death toll at 501 for those sentenced to forced labor by the regime that took power in 1948.

Most of the prisoners died from accidents in the atrocious conditions of the mines, many committed suicide, and some appear to have been killed in suspicious circumstances that suggest they were murdered by the guards.

Bártík told the Czech daily Mladá Fronta Dnes that compiling the list was problematic given that all deaths in the early years of the regime’s forced labor camps were not systematically recorded. He added that the list of victims could still be clarified further.

Bártík, who earlier authored a book on the conditions in one of the largest uranium camps, Vojna near Příbram,and now works at a commemorative museum there, admits the final tally of victims may disappoint some of the former forced labor prisoners who have maintained a much higher death toll. “I know that some political prisoners were convinced that the number of deaths was in the thousands, but those figures are exaggerated,” he told the paper.

“The figures are for those who died during their sentences. It does not include those, for example, who died prematurely, say six months after being released,” Bártík told Czech Position.

Soviet supplier

Around 80,000 people are believed to have been sentenced to work in the uranium mines by the Czechoslovak communist regime which was keen to fulfill a contract signed in 1947, before the communist party grabbed total power, to supply the raw material for atom bombs to the Soviet Union.

Moscow’s urgent desire to match the US and have its own nuclear weapons and the rapid onset of the Cold War, which made an armed clash between the two power blocks more and more likely and widely expected on both sides, put the pressure on the Czechoslovak regime to slake the Soviets' uranium craving.  

‘The figures are for those who died during their sentences.’

Immediately after WWII, German prisoners of war were used to work at the most important mine at Jáchymov, in the far west of Bohemia near the German border. The mine was so important that it was the subject of a special mission by Russian soldiers in the closing days of WWII to try and discover what uranium stores they could raid even though that part of Czechoslovakia was supposed to be under the jurisdiction of the occupying US military.

As the surviving German prisoners gradually had to be shipped back home, the pressing problem emerged of who would replace them. Czech and Slovaks were offered high wages to work in uranium extraction but even this could not encourage sufficient labor to keep pace with the growing number of mines being hastily opened to meet Russian demand.

A cheap and plentiful source of labor was concocted by the communist regime as it turned on its real and imaginary enemies after taking power. A sentence of forced labor in the uranium mines became commonplace in the early 1950s as the regime clamped down on dissent and unrest as it failed to deliver on its political and economic promises.

The recreated memorial camp site at Vojna which now features a museum
Death sentences

Some of those sentenced to long terms of labor were labeled “Muklů, an acronnym which translates from Czech to mean men designated for liquidation. Quite simply, they were not expected to survive the camps and with the regime counting on their deaths far before they approached the ends of their sentences.

Brutal conditions in the mines and the camps, hastily erected wooden barracks, often with rudimentary facilities and rations and privileges, such as receiving letters, based on meeting or exceeding work quotas, meant that many prisoners aged prematurely or became chronically ill. Prison authorities in some cases agreed to send them home when it was clear they only had a few months to live.

The harsh conditions in camps worsened following a series of escape attempts and transfer of responsibility for them to the Ministry for National Security in June 1951. Repression was stepped up in a climate of increasing tension and fear, which mirrored the situation on the other side of the barbed wire fences and watchtowers.

As uranium supplies around Jáchymov and nearby Horní Slavkov began to dry up and more modern mines opened and techniques adopted coupled with an easing in the Cold War, conditions at most of the camps began to improve slightly towards the mid to late 1950s. The Soviet Union also began to exploit its own uranium reserves, taking the pressure off Czechoslovakia.

Those who survived their sentences were still punished afterwards, usually being banned from returning to their previous jobs and were often forced to work as manual laborers. Their families were also victimized and they usually continued to be the focus of particular attention from the security services.  

The camp buildings and mining equipment of the Vojna mine were conserved as the one of the last almost fully preserved facilities of its kind in the Czech Republic and the complex opened to the public as a memorial to those who perished in 2005.

The Czech Republic still mines uranium at a deep mine in the center of the country with the reserves being regarded as strategic for the country’s long-term energy security. 

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