A mere two weeks after Stalin’s puppets took control of Czechoslovakia, foreign minister and national hero Jan Masaryk was found dead in the courtyard below his apartment. There was no suicide note nor hint of explanation beyond an enigmatic Bible verse. Today, seven decades on, the who, why and how remain a riddle that grows ever more intriguing
Hands up those of you who remember Jan Masaryk (left) and the mystery of his death, seventy years ago? In the swirl of historical developments in the aftermath of World War II, his name was headline fodder, at the centre of events as diverse as the fight to establish the state of Israel and the encroachment of the Soviet bloc. Now, a new theory purports to explain how he fell victim to the double-dealing of the Cold War.
The basic facts of the case are simple: two weeks after the Communist takeover of the government in Czechoslovakia, Masaryk, the Foreign Minister, was found dead in his pyjamas, on the courtyard cobblestones below his apartment in the Foreign Ministry’s Cerninsky Palace. The Soviet Union had occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II, and it had seemed likely would try to install a Communist government, as it had in Poland, East Germany and elsewhere. Masaryk had dealt skilfully with Stalin, assuring him that a democratic nation posed no security threat to Russia. Then he blundered, proposing to accept aid under America’s Marshall Plan, something Russia could not allow.
When news of his death flashed around Prague on the morning of March 10, 1948, the immediate official explanation was that he had jumped from the bathroom window of the apartment, on the third floor. (In Europe, the ground floor is counted as Level 1, not G). But immediately there were suspicions of murder. Masaryk’s death was a double shock to the little nation, still adapting to life under Communist rule. He was a national hero, the son of Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomas Garrique Masaryk, regarded as the founder of the nation. Like de Gaulle, he had gone into exile in Britain with his president, Edvard Benes, at the Nazi invasion, and had broadcast regularly on the BBC to inspire citizens and partisans in his homeland.
In February, when Communist Prime Minister Klement Gottwald demanded a Communist-dominated cabinet, twelve democratic politicians resigned en masse in protest, but Masaryk did not. His reasons were never articulated, but friends believed he decided to stay on, in the hope of moderating the Soviet policies. It was claimed that he did this with a heavy heart, feeling pressures from both east and west. The official line was that he was suffering from depression and insomnia, badly hurt by British and American criticisms of his decision to remain in office. A press report from Prague the day after his death claimed that he had been held a virtual prisoner in his apartment, surrounded by new secretaries, and not permitted to meet visitors alone.
Bit by bit, suggestive evidence dribbled out. The police doctor who certified the death as a suicide did not attend the autopsy. He himself was found dead a few weeks later, another suicide. Plaster was allegedly found under the fingernails of the corpse; there were marks on the walls of the room as if he had pressed his hands against them while resisting. He left no suicide note. Then the former Justice Minister was savagely beaten, his body dumped beneath the window of his flat.
And yet there was scepticism. The Russians, on whom suspicion had immediately fallen, had an explanation for the lack of a suicide note. They reported that a Bible was found on his bed, open at Verses 22 and 23, Chapter V of St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: Against such there is no law.”
Hubert Ripka, who had been Minister for Foreign Trade, believed Masaryk was too sensitive and too honest to share the responsibility for a regime which had usurped power, was governing by falsehoods, injustice and terror.
In 1951, The Sydney Morning Herald re-visited the case. – an indication of the worldwide interest in growing Soviet Cold War power. It quoted from a new book, “Who’s Next?” by ‘John Brown’, the pseudonym of a highly-placed Czech who escaped in 1948. It poured cold water on the claim of suicide.
“Few people loved life as he did; and he was very much afraid of pain – he even feared a hypodermic needle or very hot water. He always carried 50 or 60 sleeping tablets and slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow. Is it likely that with these means at his disposal he would have chosen the desperate method of jumping from a window?”
Masaryk had only recently condemned the method. Dr Drtina, a cabinet colleague who resigned, leapt from a window of his house in Prague and was badly but not fatally injured. Masaryk’s comment was: “To jump through a window is stupid. That is what a servant girl would do. You can’t be sure of success.” That same year, 1951, when President Truman received the new Czechoslovak ambassador to the US , he didn’t mince words: “Relations between our countries have deteriorated since Masaryk was murdered.”
In 2003, with Czechoslovakia free again, police re-opened the Masaryk case, and declared his death murder, not suicide. Reminiscent of a recent case involving a death fall at Sydney’s suicide spot, The Gap, the decision was based on research by a forensic expert, Jiri Strauss. He calculated that Masaryk, a heavy man, could not have landed two metres out from the building unless he was pushed or thrown out the window. The fall was 14 metres, not necessarily likely to be fatal for someone who landed on his feet. The suspicion was that he was killed in the apartment. The police report pointed to secret service agents of the Soviet Union, the NKVD.
What seemed new facts emerged in 2015 with a book by Vaclava Jandeckova, Kauza Jan Masaryk (Novy Pohled) which translates as ‘The Jan Masaryk Case – New View.’ The author, an independent researcher specialising in uncovering the crimes of the Communist era, dug into the archives of the StB (Statni Bezpecnost) the State Security or Secret Police. She found that a few years after Masaryk’s death, a Foreign Ministry official named Jan Bydzovsky (left) was picked up on a minor matter and, astonishingly, confessed to murdering the Foreign Minister. He also named an accomplice, first as Frantisek Fryc, then Jiri Liska. He claimed they entered Masaryk’s flat, put a sleeping draught in his drink and dropped him out the window when he fell asleep.
The sensational part of his confession was that the murder had been ordered by the British secret service, which had recruited him when he worked as a cryptographer in exile in London during the war. But there was never a show trial and the two served only short prison terms.
Bydzovsky, a code expert, seemed an unlikely murderer, and his unasked-for confession appeared either the act of an attention-seeker, or a put-up job. But was he being used in a ‘false flag’ operation? In any case, the extra layer of excitement about operating on behalf of Britain’s SIS certainly suited the Soviet’s book. There had been rumours that Masaryk had intended defecting to the West. Some months after his death, it was claimed that he had been preparing to escape from Czechoslovakia the very day that he died. This was typical Communist disinformation – Masaryk had been preparing to appear publicly with Prime Minister Gottwald that day.
Now, a new article by leading experts on the Iron Curtain countries, Jiri Valenta and wife Leni shows how Masaryk’s murder was inextricably linked to his work to supply Czech arms to Jews fighting to establish the new state of Israel. The Valentas jointly run the Institute of Post-Communist Studies and Terrorism, based in Florida. Their essay has just been published in Middle East Quarterly.
After the war, Masaryk had become a central figure in Zionist efforts to rescue Jews in central Europe and help them reach their new homeland in Mandatory Palestine in defiance of the British blockade. He persuaded the Czech government to permit thousands of Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Poland to enter the country. In five months, 90,000 Jewish refugees were admitted, simply on the statement: “I’m Jewish.” Many were armed and went on to train in the refugee camps for the coming war in Palestine. The Valentas point out this led to a quiet war between Prague and London, and on one occasion, a shouting war with the British and American ambassadors.
Masaryk was also instrumental in selling vast quantities of arms, left over from Nazi war production in Czechoslovakia, to Hagana, the Jewish paramilitary group fighting for independence. These included Mauser rifles, machine guns, five million bullets and even four locally-built — cobbled together, is more accurate — Messerschmidt ME-109 fighters (one of those planes and pilot Ezer Weizman at right). The shipments, by sea and air, were approved on forged papers as destined for Ethiopia because arms could be sold only to a state, not an unofficial organisation like Hagana. There was a further twist – Stalin, despite his dislike of Zionism and Jewish immigration, had supported the arms sales as the result of Masaryk’s diplomacy.
The Valentas believe that the Czech communists did not have an incentive to kill Masaryk; likewise, the Soviet secret police did not seem to have anything to do with his death. The key person in the case was Arnost Heidrich, the chief administrator of the Czech foreign ministry, who was the top representative of the British SIS in Prague. Bydzovsky claimed that Heidrich had threatened him and his family if he refused the murder assignment. He said Heidrich had supplied coded messages to take to the foreign minister for action, and the pills to drug Masaryk’s coffee.
A day after the death, Heidrich delivered a prepared document to Prime Minister Gottwald and Masaryks’s deputy, Vladimir Clementis (who succeeded him), demanding that future arms shipments must have “proper authorisations.” Dealings with “our Ethiopian friends” were now out of the question. The move failed. Clementis, a Communist writer-poet, was a determined opponent of British “imperialist” policies in Palestine. He expanded the arms shipments by working with Hagana through General Reicin, head of Czech Defence Intelligence (the OBZ).
On March 30, 1948, the Czech weapons Masaryk had illegally authorised, were flown from Prague to Palestine. The shipment was code-named Balak 1, a reference to Numbers 22.2 in the Jewish bible, where the Moabite King Balak was deterred from attacking the Israelites by the prophet Balaam. More weapons went in the ship Nora, hidden under a mountain of onions. On May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel in accordance with the November 1947 U.N. partition resolution.
The Valentas leave no doubt, from their examination of the relevant interests of the great powers, and of the Czechs themselves, that they believe British intelligence was responsible for the murder of Masaryk. As an explanation, and an epitaph, they quote his own words:
To make a Jewish state, this is one of the greatest political ideas of our times. It is such a great thing that people are missing the imagination to understand it. Even many Jews. But for me, not. I believe in it. I am a Zionist.”
The Czech Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism says they have been forced to adjourn the enquiry into Masaryk’s death. Russian authorities refuse access to records which could identify the killers responsible. But there are still Czechs who prefer to think of Masaryk as a martyr to Communism. His last secretary, Antonin Sum said:
“I am absolutely sure, as all of my late colleagues were sure, that Masaryk offered his life. That is was a very, very great sacrifice, I do not like the word ‘suicide’. It was a sacrifice to protest against the Communist terror and it was the highest sacrifice at that time.”
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist for 26 years