In 1984, a nearly broken Winston Smith told his inner-party torturer O’Brien that despite the government’s control over the truth, it would somehow prevail. This was never more true than in the case of Jan Masaryk, who died on January 2nd, 67 years ago.
Stroll down in Czechoslovakia today and there is a statue proclaiming “truth prevails, but it is a chore.” Truer words were never spoken.
The statue is of Jan Masaryk, former foreign minister of Czechoslokia from 1940 until its absorption into a Soviet satellite in 1948.
The truth of his murder was indeed heavy-going. But even before the statue’s erection, Masaryk’s death was for many a hinge event in disillusionment with the Soviet Union.
Ex-communists label such disillusionment “Kronstadt moments.” Named after the revolt by and execution of sailors who felt that the Bolshevik Revolution was being betrayed by the Lenin government — itself a disillusioning event for such vociferous supporters as Emma Goldstein — these “moments” have made it impossible to swallow and rationalize Soviet “necessary murders.” For John Dos Passos, it was the murder of his best friend, Jose Robles, on Soviet orders during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). But for many, West and East, Masaryk’s death was symbolic of communist reigns of terror.
The backdrop of his death was the 1948 coup d’état by Soviet-supporting communists in the country’s coalition government. The reason for this fifth column take-over, according to the Czech communists and the Soviets, who echoed them, was Czechoslovakia’s alleged turn toward fascism. As with so much of communist behavior in the post-war period, the facts said otherwise. But the Czech government was hardly composed of fascists; it was a multi-party, communist-dominated one. But the year before the coup, the Communist Party of Czechoslokia alienated voters with their plans to import the Soviet-style model into the country. Farmers wanted no part of collectivization and workers were outraged that the communists demanded higher output without an increase in wages.
With the Communist Party in France and Italy losing a general election, Stalin feared the same thing would happen to the Czech Republic, and ordered the Czech communist faction to seize power. Transforming the police and security apparatus into agencies of communist control, the Communists ousted any non-communist officers and refused to accept basic civil liberties. Non-communists resigned in protest and demanding new elections.
But by February 1948, it was too late. Communists, led by fifth columnists who arranged “spontaneous worker demonstrations,” and those in the government mutated the coalition government into a Soviet satellite.
Not all non-communists resigned, however. Jan Masaryk, the only senior member of the cabinet who was neither a communist nor a fellow traveler, stayed on to fight the coup. This action, plus his popularity with the populace, doomed him, and 67 years ago, he was found dead dressed in his pajamas below his bathroom window. The government then ruled by the Communists labeled this fall as suicide. But neither the international communist nor the Czech populace bought it. A popular, but quietly expressed citizen slogan was born, “The Third Defenestration of Prague,” followed by the statement:
“Jan Masaryk was a very tidy man. He was such a tidy man that when he jumped he shut the window after himself.”
The West reacted to the loss of the last remaining nation in Eastern Europe and a country now dominated by foreign powers twice in ten years negatively. The first being Adolf Hitler’s annexation of the nation in 1938. The U.S. government, declaring Masaryk’s death a murder by the communist secret police who threw him from the window, canceled a large loan to the government. Moreover, unforeseen by Stalin, the West cancelled any negotiations with Stalin over post-war German permanently, shutting off and creating a democratic nation in the West. For the remainder of Western Europe, the West expanded what previously only the economic containment of the Soviets into a collective security pact, backed by military force should the Soviets invade. The populace, once against any military buildup, was suddenly supportive.
But not all in the West supported the American version of the coup. The CIA director echoed the Soviet line: “the timing of the coup in Czechoslovakia was forced upon the Kremlin when the non-Communists took action endangering Communist control of the police. A Communist victory in the May elections would have been impossible without such control.”
Former Vice President and Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, now notoriously pro-Soviet, supported the Soviet coup. Predictably, the American Communist Party endorsed the Soviet version of Masaryk’s death by suicide.
But Masaryk’s death had an eerie power to render supporters of the coup silent. Wallace stayed silent on this matter, as did the CIA. For George Marshall, this was the decisive event that revealed the “reign of terror” occurring in Czechoslovakia. The American Communist Party kept the faith in his death by suicide, although member Dalton Trumbo would sidestep any endorsement and instead attempt to re-direct attention away from Masaryk toward the mysterious “defenestration” of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal that same year.
But truth did prevail, and that “chore” so irritating to Soviets. An alleged investigation by the now-invading Soviets in 1968 retained the view that Masaryk committed suicide. In the 1990s, however, the Soviets now conceded that he was murdered. Privately, Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu claimed to have documentary proof that he had been murdered. This was seconded by the now-independent Czechs in 2004 who concluded that he had been thrown from the window based on a police report that had been based on forensic evidence.