By Dr. Josef A. Mestenhauser
Will we ever know what happened the fateful night of March ninth 1948? The question is: “Was Jan Masaryk murdered that night between the 9th and 10th of March, or did he commit suicide by jumping out of the window of the Cernin Palace into the inside court yard?”
I had always assumed that the answer was obvious: he was murdered by the hands of the Soviet – or on orders of the Soviet secret police because he became inconvenient to the revolutionary regime the Communists installed in February of that year and because Stalin was bent on taking the world under his sway. This explanation was confirmed by one of the inquiries that was conducted between 2001 – 2004; it concluded that Masaryk was indeed murdered, although there was no exact evidence who and how this may have been done. All indications were also clear, that this was done on the connivance or direction of the USSR and its secret services. Yet the Russian government refused to open its archives to the Czech investigators, which further reinforced the idea that these archives are hiding the secret of Masaryk’s death. Why else would the Russian government not wish to cooperate unless they had something to hide. Their explanation was that these archives are subject to their “Top Secret” regulations.
Today, I am not so sure anymore that it was murder. Not after reading a third edition of a book that friends gave me as a gift during my recent visit to Prague. The book, written by Pavel Kosatik and Michal Kolar is entitled “Jan Masaryk – pravdivy pribeh.” My translation is “Jan Masaryk: a true happening.” The first edition appeared in 1998, before the fourth inquiry ended; the 2009 edition includes some newest information available together with the two authors’ reflections on these four inquiries that have been conducted inconclusively, and as the authors claim, sloppily.
The original version was a well researched biography of this man’s public as well as private life, spanning two world wars, and in general portraying Masaryk as a very complex personality due to his family upbringing, his relationships to his mother and father, and the environment in which he was forced to grow up, including exile.
The book attracted my immediate attention because I met Jan Masaryk and because I received the prestigious Jan Masaryk Silver Medal awarded by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and given to me by the Czech Ambassador, H. E. Martin Palous in a ceremony held at the Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C. After reading the book once in one sitting I re-read it again, thinking there must be some inconsistencies, inaccuracies or omissions – none of which I found. The authors are both highly accomplished writers and historians who have been honored with several prizes for outstanding publications. They are not seeking a sensation, in fact offer no conclusions short of suggesting that the evidence is still lacking so that people will decide for themselves. However, they are suggesting that there are a few trends and shortcomings in Masaryk’s upbringing and personality that point to a picture of troubled mind, of a person who spoke often about taking his life, and of a person who had two faces: one public that supported the close cooperation with the communists, the USSR and Klement Gottwald, the other private face expressing distrust in the communists, dismay with his own actions, and despair with the decay of character among his own people. The book also shows Jan Masaryk’s deep commitment to democracy and to Christian values and morality that was part of his upbringing in his family. He apparently enjoyed more freedom than his three siblings and did not always live up to the expectations of the strict but loving family in which he was the “darling” of the family as if he was destined to carry on his father’s mission. He drank, smoked and womanized both in and out of the country. It was his simple humanity that many people appreciated in him and loved him for it. This was not, however, why the Communists retained him in the cabinet, tolerated him and celebrated him as a true statesman – they still do. They credit him for his refusal to accept the Marshall Plan after he accepted it initially enthusiastically, to refuse to resign from the cabinet at the crucial period prior to the coup d’etat, and in not resigning when he found out the true intention of the Communists.
Masaryk’s less friendly supporters and critics hold an opposite view that Masaryk lacked courage of his father, that he did things to gain love, admiration and popularity of people around him, and that as a consequence he did not and could not accept responsibility for his own actions. If he had any doubts, the authors claim that he always found a way to blame someone else. In most cases it was the Germans – and Germany that he considered to be the main enemy to fear that gave him – as well as to his mentor, Eduard Benes – the excuse to align themselves with the USSR. If it was not Germany that he felt would rise again in not too distant future, he would find a reason for his indecision by convincing himself that he acted out of deep loyalty, trust and dedication to Benes.
The relationship to Benes was of a teacher and student. It may have ended the day before he died. He went to Sezimovo Usti, the residence of Benes after his resignation as President, ostensibly to seek advice about his next course of action. Although we have only a second-hand account of that meeting, Benes refused to give Masaryk any advice because he was offended by the implication that he would have to be responsible for Masaryk’s actions. Benes may have also felt that if he recommended resignation that Masaryk would blame him for this advice when he would see Gottwald. The meeting ended abruptly in less than half an hour. Masaryk would not stay for lunch and left abruptly to his office where he appeared to resume his normal activities. They included working on a speech to be presented the next day, approving his schedule for that day, and working on some document for the future action. The night watchman reported seeing light in the apartment at midnight which would have been very unusual. The next people knew is that his body was found underneath the window of his private apartment on the floor of the inner court yard of the Cernin Palace.
The story of Jan Masaryk’s death is obviously larger than knowing who may have killed him and why or whether the courage lacking man eventually found the guts to take his own life. The larger story is what may have been, had he not buckled under the Soviet pressure at the time of the Marshall Plan debate at the United Nations, and later had he resigned along with the non-communist members of the cabinet that would have necessitated immediate new elections. The authors of this book have the answer to the last hypothetical possibility that the elections would have been held and that the communists would have lost control of the government and parliament. They claim that Stalin was determined to follow up on his world domination to which the Czechoslovak Republic was a gateway. Many biographies of Stalin confirm this perspective. The authors also claim that by the time of February it was too late for the democratic forces to stand up to the well organized action committees that the communists have set up in every ministry, government agency, factories and cities. The opposition was naïve, poorly organized and out of touch with the people in the country. On the other hand the communists have planned this action since 1943 and reinforced their intention through equally well organized militia. In other words, the authors suggest the coup would have happened at any rate. Failing the coup, there was always the Soviet Union that still had its armed forces in Czechoslovakia. The situation appeared to be ripe for a bloody civil war.The only difference that Masaryk’s determined course of action may have made was to deny the communists the argument that their coup was legitimate and democratic through a peaceful government change-over.
I will return to this story next month with an analysis of the four inquiries and with speculations about their accuracies and credibility. Most people who may have had the definite answer are no longer alive. Some died of natural courses, others were themselves murdered and still others just vanished under suspicious circumstances. We may never know for sure, only what our own inclinations will allow us to believe. Now after reading this book I am no longer certain that Masaryk was murdered.
What is clear, however – at least to me – is that the story of Jan Masaryk is not just his own story, but the story of the people of the troubled country who have been exposed to too many internal and external forces that they did not know how to take responsibility for facing. Thus they solved their problems by compartmentalizing their thinking and actions neatly into one private and one public personality – like Jan Masaryk.