Barbarian Night

The ‘Barbarian Night’ of 13 to 14 April 1950 relates to the crackdown on religious life in communist Czechoslovakia. Throughout the country, combined armed forces intervened to send hundreds of monks to internment camps. Those in command referred to this event by the secret codename OPERATION K (i.e. the abbreviation of the Slovak word for monasteries  ̶  kláštory).

Seventeen male monasteries and congregations remained active after 1948 in Slovakia and their main focus (i.e. charisma) was on charitable, contemplative and education activities. The communist regime sought full control over churches and pursued their subsequent liquidation, as well as the liquidation of religious communities.

In 1949, anti-religious laws were adopted by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (ÚV KSČ), which presented its plans to concentrate the monks in the so-called internment (concentration camp) monasteries. The crackdown on monks was preceded by the first show trial, in which ten monks were convicted of treason, espionage, and the preparation of a counter-revolution. Likewise, after the show trial of Machalka et al., the Slovak Redemptorist Ján Mastiliak was sentenced to life imprisonment. The state power portrayed monasteries as bases for resistance and anti-communist activities.

Days before the crackdowmn…

The preparatory phase of the liquidation of religious orders took place at the regional level on Good Friday, 7 April 1950, and was led by the regional commanders of the State Security (ŠtB). Based on their briefing, we know that the telephone exchange was to be occupier immediately after they entered the village, so that access to the bell tower and siren could be blocked, which lead to the isolation of the director of the National Committee (MNV) to prevent any anti-state local radio transmissions. The post offices were to be occupied by two unit members, whose task was to intercept and block the potential call of the parishioners. Other members were told to monitor the morale of behaviour of the citizens. During the Operation K, motorised divisions and the army were to control the road and rail points of the towns and villages. The crackdowns targeted specific places in Czechoslovakia that were to be removed and detained.

The active units were comprised of the members of the State Security, National Security Corps (today’s Police Force), the Army, and the People’s Militias. Their support equipment included vehicles, tear gas, batons, automatic guns, and rifles. Each platoon was equipped with a light machine gun.

The decision-makers instructed that the crackdown to take place on the night between the 13 and 14 April 1950 at midnight. To uphold its secrecy, the designated commanders were informed of the operation only 12 hours in advance.

Hour „H“

Upon entering the monasteries, the active units rounded up the monks and informed them of the reason for the crackdown, which was the alleged unlawful activity of their religious order. The monks were then placed into concentration monasteries with strict prison-like regimes. Throughout Slovakia, 881 monks from 11 religious orders were placed under these conditions during that night. The remaining male monasteries were then occupied on the night between 3 and 4 May 1950. This crackdown impacted 1,180 monks from 15 religious orders and from 76 monasteries. Consequently, in Czechoslovakia, 219 monastic facilities, where 2,376 monks lived, were closed.

The religious population protested against these measures. For example, they protested at the Podolínec monastery, but they were brutally interrogated and tortured.  

liquidated men's monasteries

impacted monks

liguidated men's orders

The fate of the monks

Those interned recall that Operation K had “a profound impact on personal lives” (Ladislav Lenz). Additionally, they recall the cold and hunger that lead to the death of elderly monks (Andrej Konc).

This crackdown led to further persecutions, imprisonments of monks, emigrations, and illegal activities conducted in the so-called ‘secret’ or ‘underground’ church. For example, in January 1951, the Jesuit bishop Pavol Hnilica was secretly ordained. One of the most notable monks of the ‘secret’ church was the Jesuit bishop Ján Chryzostom Korec, who was forced to work as a labourer, but also the Dominican Akvinas Gabura, and the Salesians Andrej Dermek and Ernest Macák, as well as the Blessed Titus Zeman.

Restoration of religious life

The announcement by the General Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic on 29 November 1968 signalled the first attempt to restore the semblance of religious life. Specifically, he declared that there was no legal basis based on which the religious orders could be made illegal. Nonetheless, with the advent of the normalisation period, the crackdowns against religion escalated once again (e.g. Operation VÍR against the Franciscans). Religious life had to wait for the revolutionary events of 17 November 1989 to be truly restored.

More on this topic…

Many documentaries have featured the events of the Operation K. Such as 1991’s A Stand Against Faith (Stát proti víře, director: Angelika Hanauer), and the Nation’s Memory Institute’s Shadows of the Barbaric Night (2010, Tiene barbarskej noci, director Igor Sivák). Related literature includes: Notes from behind Bars (Zápisky spoza mreží, Ernest Macák, Salesian), From the Barbarian Night (Od barbarskej noci, Ján Ch. Korec, Jesuit), The Last Villa (Posledná vila, Vincent Petrík, Jesuit).

Overview of interned monks. The data comes from the publication Zločiny komunizmu na Slovensku 1948 – 1989. Prešov: Michal Vaško, 2001. They are not complete, we will add them.


The Czechoslovak Republic’s communist regime considered religious orders its enemy. As the regime had failed to break the church, it also acted against women’s orders as part of liquidation measures. In Operation R (i.e. the abbreviation of the Slovak word for nuns  rehoľníčky), and in subsequent Operations R1  R7 from August 1950 to 1952, the communists enforced the abolition of over 190 monasteries and other homes of women’s religious communities in Slovakia, with over 2,000 sisters confined to concentration monasteries. Of which, over half were sentenced to forced labour between 1951 and 1952. They also expelled the majority of nuns from the Slovak health care system and social services, and deported two thirds to the Czech Republic. Monastery buildings were confiscated by the regime, and many nuns were imprisoned for their resistance activities or proffering of help.

After the Communist Party’s 1946 election victory in the Czechoslovak Republic, communist ideologues’ plans to limit religious activities came especially into effect following the communist coup d’état in 1948.

In spring 1949, the Slovak Office for Ecclesiastical Affairs (SlovÚC) had registered 24 women’s conventions and congregations in Slovakia, which owned 209 monasteries (including houses and flats) where 4,716 nuns resided. Such nuns comprised: 1,071 Vincentians, 682 Cross Sisters, and 603 Redeemers. SlovÚC was tasked with controlling the church and curtailing its activities.

From 1949, the communist regime prepared for the liquidation and confiscation of monasteries as well as the property of monks and nuns. By abusing Slovak National Council regulation no. 80/1945, 11 dormitories for young nuns were nationalized or abolished. Gustáv Husák was the commissioner-chairman of SlovÚC at that time. It was an anti-church measure, which, so to speak, initiated the liquidation of monasteries. In 1950, 76.16% of the Slovak population was religious.

Operation Nuns

In the early summer of 1950, 340 nuns-teachers were dismissed because Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS) leaders claimed that such persons had an anti-state influence on students. By the height of summer, the regime had nationalized the kindergartens from which the nuns had been expelled.

The Communist Party, State Security, and the SlovÚC planned Operation R – the abolition of women’s religious orders and the confiscation of their monastic buildings – in order to negate nuns’ influence in health care and social services. At that time, more than 1,650 nuns worked in hospitals, social care homes, and medical institutions. Operation R was scheduled for 29 to 31 August 1950. Rudolf Slánský, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, also called for the liquidation of women’s monasteries and religious communities.

Hundreds of believers openly protested in several places – verbally attacking KSS and SlovÚC officials, obstructing official cars by lying on roads, and forming mobs. The National Security Corps used weapons and many protesters were arrested. The memories of numerous nuns and the chronicles of religious orders act as testimony to this barbaric tragedy for nuns, hospital patients, children in care homes, the elderly and sick, and the country’s spiritual health as a whole.

2,006 nuns were taken to 17 centralised monasteries. More than 190 monasteries were vacated, with buildings as well as contents confiscated and distributed among state institutions, the army, the mining and forestry sectors, and schools.

1,650 nurses including 1,400 medical staff remained working in hospitals, since the regime could not replace them. Yet nurses were removed from social institutions for fear of “subversive activity”.

The regime tore the bond between religious orders and believers. They were sent home, but secretly returned to perform the novitiate. Although the regime pressurised nuns to leave their religious orders, only 69 did so. Another commissioner for ecclesiastical affairs, Ladislav Holdoš, recorded 198 confiscated monasteries. The Central Committee of the KSS decided how such buildings would be allocated, and confiscated works of art as well as religious libraries and archives.

Operation R1 – R7

In January 1951 centralized centres and charity houses in Slovakia had 1,765 nuns under the “non-working” regime, which the communist regime planned to relocate for work to the Czech Republic. The first 400 nuns were moved in September 1951 and accommodated – for example – at dormitories. On 2 October, the SlovÚC prepared a Proposal for the relocation of younger and able-bodied nuns to the Czech Republic and the liquidation of some concentration monasteries in Slovakia – Operation R1, which targeted 30-45-year-old sisters. The plan was to abolish seven centralization monasteries and relocate 966 nuns, with 365 placed into four charity homes. Actually, under Operation R1 on 12 October 1951 330 nuns up to 45 years old were relocated by night from four centralised monasteries, which were then confiscated by the state. Then on the night of 21 October 1951, SlovÚC continued the deportation of nuns to Bohemia through Operation R2 – 460 nuns from six centralised monasteries were relocated and monasteries liquidated.

The nuns were mostly put to work in the Czech textile industry along the Czech/Slovak border or on state-held property. With 12 to 16 hour shifts commonplace, the nuns’ health was badly impacted.

As part of Operation R3, nuns were moved within Slovakia: older ones were concentrated in charity houses located in Modra and Ivánka pri Nitre. On 27 November 1951, Operation R4 continued the intimidation by transporting a further 95 nuns (up to 45 years of age) to the Czech Republic for work. At that time, more than 880 Slovak nuns were relocated to the Czech Republic for various duties. Operations R6 and R7 in 1952 liquidated the last two monasteries.

According to SlovÚC statistics, of the 1,720 concentrated nuns 884 nurses were deported to the Czech Republic for work, 59 left the nunnery, 10 died, and 767 were placed in charitable homes.

The regime excluded religious orders from the associations listed under Act no. 68/1951 Coll. in order to legalize their liquidation, with property, buildings, libraries, and archives appropriated by the state. In practical terms, this process often descended into looting and destruction. Hundreds of educated and spiritually noble nuns worked in the arduous conditions of the Czech textile industry or on agricultural land in Slovakia. Nuns from different orders were deliberately mixed during transfers.

On 28 June 1952, religious orders from concentration monasteries in Slovakia and factories in the Czech Republic were interned at a monastery in Hejnice, Bohemia. By so doing, the regime wanted to prevent their “negative” influence on nuns.

more than

liquidated women's monasteries

more than

impacted nuns

liquidated women's orders

Nuns’ health care work ends

That 1,650 nuns (70% of the total number in Slovakia) continued to work in health and social services in Slovakia was an uncomfortable reminder for the regime, especially since the nuns continued to wear their habits. With this in mind, from the summer of 1954 the regime commenced the elimination of such nuns. In 1955, 169 nuns were deported from Slovak hospitals to the Czech Republic, and by 1957 a total of 1,118 Slovak nuns had been removed from health care.

Such deportations continued until the early 1960s, with nuns being put to work in industry until 1968, some during the ‘normalisation period’ even into the 1980s, or relocated to social institutions. The regime also criminalised nuns: with a total of 312 years sentenced to be served in communist prisons, mostly for the crime of refusing to work on Sundays or state holidays, or for helping priests. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had planned for religious orders to have been totally liquidated by the year 2000, yet the nuns kept their pledge: always keep faith.

Overview of interned nuns. The data comes from the publication Zločiny komunizmu na Slovensku 1948 – 1989. Prešov: Michal Vaško, 2001. They are not complete, we will add them.