This portion in my series of articles about the mysterious death of Jan Masaryk took me the longest time to write. New evidence and historical facts led to several reviews to make sure I was neither neglecting some important evidence nor distorting it through excessive abbreviation. Furthermore, it is important to cite not only the facts but the context in which Masaryk lived and worked. Jan Masaryk is still revered in the Czech and Slovak Republics for his enormous contributions to international relations and Czechoslovak foreign policy. Not surprisingly, he is celebrated by both the communists whom he helped to power in 1948 and also by those who honor his contributions to democracy. He was not just a son of a great President, but a skilled diplomat, leader, and thinker who championed the common people. Unfortunately, he was also the victim of the times he lived in, caught between one world which betrayed him and the other which killed him.
When I was growing up in Prague, Jan Masaryk was mythic. In reality, his complex personality was split between his private and his public selves. Poorly educated and over-indulged during his early years, he seldom achieved the analytical and critical thinking skills of his father, lacked the ability to reach independent judgments or to face and resolve conflicts, and, most importantly, seemed unable to reflect on the consequences of his actions.
The follow-up to my original article has expanded to a series of four. In the first, I identified the social and political issues regarding Masaryk’s death. In this article, I discuss aspects of Masaryk’s psychological make-up that were generally unknown earlier. The third article will detail factors that might support the theory that he committed suicide. The last issue will discuss the opposing theory that he was murdered. The final article will explain my own conclusion about what happened that fateful night of March 9, 1948.
The circumstances of Masaryk’s life – in which he survived the great global crises of two world wars, two exiles in foreign lands, and many personal tragedies – affected what he did and especially what he did not do. The fact that he was a very poor student, once expelled from one gymnasium only to be admitted through his father’s influence in another that he did not finish, produced his naïve beliefs about world affairs and his inability to analyze complex issues. His split personality allowed him to use and also to misuse his extraordinary communication and personal skills, his sense of humor, his knowledge of several languages, and his ability to play the piano and enjoy music, in order to gain trust and popularity. These outgoing qualities hid his private self, his need to be loved, to gain approval, to “fulfill” the mission for which he thought he was born, and to protect the legacy of his great father. He was born on September 14, 1886 as the third child of Tomas and Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, following the oldest son Herbert and his sister Alice, and he was followed by the youngest sister Olga. Their names had been carefully chosen by their father to symbolize the roles– and in Jan’s case, anticipating his fate – that they were to play in life. Jan was named for Jan Hus, thus forecasting his role as a martyr for the independent Czechoslovak state. As a child, he became the darling in a family that allowed him a great deal more freedom than his strictly-reared siblings received. Their American mother gave her children unlimited and unquestioned love, while their father was often physically remote, first as a university professor and a member of the Imperial parliament in Vienna, later as a highly-controversial champion of unpopular causes, and eventually as a political exile. While personally charming, Jan also drank, womanized, and lied frequently, and he was a failure academically. (In fact, of the four siblings only Olga completed her university education.) Jan failed to appear for the “abitur” (maturitni zkousku) twice; to avoid the shame his son’s failure cast on a prominent university professor, his father sent him to America (na zkusenou) to learn independence and the English language. His seven-year stay became Jan’s next failure – he earned little, lived beyond his means, and survived through the generosity of his American relatives and through secret funding from his mother. Constantly in debt, he continued borrowing more and more money. His unstable behavior and fiscal irresponsibility eventually led his relatives and other friends to end his employment and to send him to a sanatorium for the mentally ill; when notified, his mother came to return him home to Europe.
Jan’s diary of his stay revealed that he gained some insight but no skills in overcoming his shortcomings. Although his doctor at the sanatorium had been optimistic about Jan’s recovery initially, he later concluded that Jan remained emotionally immature and incapable of returning to work. Interestingly, while in the sanatorium, Jan helped translate Tolstoy’s play “Living Corpse” (my translation) that dealt with a trial for a feigned suicide, which ultimately precipitates a genuine suicide. Jan was also familiar with his father’s famous work in the social science literature on suicide, a work that was severely criticized by the Soviets later on.
These details on Jan Masaryks’ formative years offer important insight into his unsteady character, as well as his philosophical interest in the idea of suicide. Next month, we’ll consider Masaryck life leading up to his key role in the post-war government and his possibie solution to his dilemma after the Communist takeover.