Jan Masaryk (1886-1948) was the popular and internationally respected foreign minister of Czechoslovakia for a number of years and son of the country's first president. His life came to an abrupt end in an infamous 1948 incident, just weeks after a swift Communist takeover of the government. Masaryk's body was found in the courtyard of the Czernin Palace, the government building in which the foreign ministry and his private quarters were housed. His death was announced as a suicide.
Jan Garrigue Masaryk was born on September 14, 1886 in Prague, where his father was a professor of philosophy. He was the third of four Masaryk children. His mother, Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, was an American. She and her husband created a household that was decidedly liberal and intellectual in atmosphere. Masaryk emerged as the black sheep of the children, however. He was a poor student, described as restless and excitable in temperament, though musically gifted and convivial.
Certainly the elder Masaryk did not foresee that his son would earn a living from his piano-playing abilities when he sent him to the United States in 1904 with a gift of $100. The sum quickly disappeared in the hands of the reckless Masaryk, and he found work as a pianist in a movie house in New York City. He later worked at a brass foundry in Connecticut, among several other jobs during his decade abroad. Though he was reportedly fond of gambling and attractive women, Masaryk had a serious side to him as well. When he worked in the foundry, he held English literacy classes for his co-workers, who came from a variety of European backgrounds. He later reported that this was his greatest training for a diplomatic career.
Era of Freedom
Masaryk returned to his homeland in time for the onset of World War I. He was conscripted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian empire and served in Poland as an infantry soldier. Tensions among nationalities in this part of Europe would launch a series of important political changes after the war's end. Relegated to second-class citizens in the Empire, the Czechs and Slovaks also possessed a strong anti-German sentiment. Many of them resented fighting on behalf of Austria-Hungary's ruling Hapsburg dynasty. A renewed push for a separate nation gained ground, and Thomas Masaryk played a key role in this movement. He was elected president of the new nation in 1918.
As the son of the president, Masaryk was given a post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was assigned to various posts—charge d'affaires in Washington, D.C., a member of the Czechoslovak legation in London after 1921, and private secretary to Eduard Benes, another leading figure in the new government. Masaryk married during this time, but the union with Frances Crane Leatherbee ended in divorce by 1931.
In 1925, Masaryk was named minister to Great Britain, and his Grosvenor Square chancery and residence became a popular spot for members of the international diplomatic community. Masaryk was a well-liked figure in London, known for his wit, erudition, and piano talents at parties. It was said that he also liked to tell somewhat risque stories. Like his father, he oriented himself toward the West more than the East; he rejected the pan-Slavic movement, and saw Bolshevik Russia as a potential threat to the stability and independence of Czechoslovakia.
Threat from Fascist Germany
Throughout the 1930s Masaryk continued to shuttle between London and Prague, and made occasional forays to the United States as well. His father died in 1937, and the loss seemed to instill in him a dedication to Benes, the man who succeeded to the presidency. When German chancellor Adolf Hitler moved to take the Sudetenland, the territory in the western part of Czechoslovakia that had long been home to a large emigrant German population, an emergency conference in Munich was held by representatives of the western European powers-though neither Benes nor Masaryk was invited. There, a policy of "appeasement" was decided, and Benes agreed to it. Hitler was allowed to take the Sudetenland. Less than six months later, German troops were sent into Prague and effectively abolished the independent nation state that Thomas Masaryk had created.
Exile in London
The Munich Pact was considered a political betrayal by the West. Though Masaryk had worked for the last several years to create strong ties between Czechoslovakia and Great Britain, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke infamously on the matter in defense of the Munich Pact. "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing," said Chamberlain.
Benes and Masaryk both resigned from what would become a puppet Nazi government in Czechoslovakia, and established a government in exile in London. Benes became president of this "provisional" government, while Masaryk served as its foreign minister. The Allies-the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union-did not grant them full diplomatic recognition until July of 1941. The change in status was an important political triumph for which Masaryk had fought tenaciously. It would mean, in part, that after the end of present hostilities, leaders of the exiled government would have a voice in their country's future. As Masaryk pointed out, there were many Czechs who had fled the country with the government and were now fighting on side of the Allies to defeat Germany-he wondered if their deaths were "provisional." With characteristic wry humor, he sometimes signed letters to his friends, "Provisionally yours."
A European Visionary
During World War II, Masaryk worked in London and traveled to the United States, arguing, writing, and lecturing on European politics and the right for self-determination in Eastern Europe. Under Nazi rule, the Czechs and Slovaks suffered tremendous human-rights abuses. The entire country, from its massive industrial complexes in the west to vast Slovak farmlands, produced goods that kept the German war machine humming. Masaryk believed that the postwar plans should call for a decentralized German confederation, to be followed by other regional confederations in the Balkans, Scandinavia, and Western Europe, and ultimately a European Federation.
At the invitation of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Masaryk began making short-wave radio broadcasts into Czechoslovakia, which became extremely popular-though under Nazi occupation law they were stringently prohibited. The Nazis even ordered all short-wave circuits to be removed from radio sets and turned in to authorities. To be caught listening to Masaryk speak about his father's achievements, the war, the Czech state, and democracy in postwar Eastern Europe became a crime punishable by death. In his broadcasts, Masaryk did not advocate participation in an underground resistance movement, but suggested instead a slowdown in factory production or other covert means of defiance.
Into the Soviet Sphere
Benes, like some Czech and Slovak leaders, distrusted the Western Allies to a certain extent, especially after the Munich Pact. Masaryk, who had spent a good deal of his life in London or America, was more pragmatic. In 1943, the government-in-exile signed a mutual assistance pact with the U.S.S.R. The following spring, Masaryk spoke in positive terms about the advancing Russian troops, calling them "armies of liberation" in his radio broadcasts. That same year, Benes's government-in-exile signed a liberation pact with the Soviets. This meant that the following year, though General George Patton's Third Army had nearly reached Prague, the Americans were not allowed to liberate the city. Instead the Soviet Army entered to the cheers of crowds in May of 1945.
A multiparty government, which included the Czech Communists, was established in 1946, with Benes as its president in the first postwar national elections. Meanwhile, Masaryk worked for the United Nations Refugee Relief Organization, and headed the Czech delegation to the United Nations itself. In 1947, an edition of his wartime BBC broadcasts sold out of its first run of 60,000 copies. That same year, he returned to Prague to assume once again the post of foreign minister. Masaryk moved into the Czernin Palace, part of the massive Hradcany Castle complex and the traditional seat of power in the country. He urged Czech participation in a Paris conference that established guidelines for the Marshall Plan, which delivered $12 billion in funds to foster economic recovery in Europe. The terms of the plan, however, stipulated that countries with Communists in their government would be exempt. Masaryk flew to Moscow to argue with Soviet leader Josef Stalin over the matter, but returned home in defeat.
Growing Tension in Prague
Nevertheless, observers and insiders optimistically believed that Czechoslovakia was tiring of its brief experiment with a multi-party system and would eject the Communists from power on its own. In September 1947, an assassination attempt was made on Masaryk. It was revealed that the sonin-law of one of the leading Czech communists, Clement Gottwald—a man Masaryk detested—was behind it. He was widely expected to replace Benes, now in his sixties and suffering from increasingly frail health.
During these crucial months, Masaryk traveled to New York and London to drum up support, but was informed by intelligence sources that a return to his homeland would be unwise. In February 1948, Gottwald and others engineered a coup by putting Communists in top police posts, and then taking over the government itself a few days later. All non-Communists were purged. Benes convinced the leaders to retain Masaryk as foreign minister, given his strong and credible ties with the West. Masaryk agreed, but within weeks realized that the situation was untenable. He made secret plans to leave and managed to transfer some of his funds out of the country. He also managed to send word of his plan to a London associate whom he had worked with during the war. His American girlfriend, writer Marcia Davenport, left Prague and arrived in London on March 8 with a reiteration of the same message.
Cold War Casualty
On the morning of March 10, 1948, Masaryk's body was found in the courtyard of the Czernin Palace in Prague, where he appeared to have jumped or been pushed from his bathroom window. The Communist leadership announced the death as a suicide, asserting that Masaryk was devastated by the rebukes he received from his pro-Western colleagues for remaining as foreign minister after the coup. The doctor who examined his body later claimed that the official post-mortem was not conducted properly. Police, who were holding him in custody at the time of his death, claimed that he committed suicide. Others who questioned Masaryk's death were sentenced to death or jailed. Later inquiries pointed to Major Augustin Sram, a Sudeten German who had been trained in the Soviet Union, as Masaryk's murderer. Just a few weeks after Masaryk's death, an unidentified male caller killed Sram at his home. Authorities rounded up over 200 Czechs in an attempt to find the culprit. Some were executed or sentenced to long prison terms.
After Masaryk's death, Czechoslovakia remained under repressive Soviet supervision for 41 more years. Questions about the incident arose, however, during what became known as the Prague Spring of 1968, when liberal reforms were put in place briefly. An investigation was launched, but after Soviet tanks arrived to forcefully end this pro-democracy movement. Those who had spoken out on the Masaryk matter were jailed. A few years after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989, Czech Communists "found" a letter allegedly written by Masaryk to Stalin, which claimed that he was going to commit suicide. Historians dismiss the letter as a fraud, pointing out that if Masaryk wished to confess his deep dissatisfaction with Communism, he would have expressed this in the West, not the Soviets.
Further Reading on Jan Masaryk
Sterling, Claire, The Masaryk Case, Nonpareil/David R. Godine, 1982.
Zeman, Zbynek, The Masaryks: The Making of Czechoslovakia, Barnes and Noble, 1976.
History Today, September, 1992, p. 42.