Book sparks fresh debate over suspicious death of Jan Masaryk

‘The Jan Masaryk case a new interpretation’, photo: archive of Nakladatelství Českého lesa

A book issued at the end of last year has more than woken up a rather tired and threadbare debate about the death of former Czechoslovak foreign minister Jan Masaryk in 1948. Jan Masaryk, was found dead in his pyjamas in the street outside the foreign ministry. His death was explained as a suicide with the version given out that he had jumped from his flat at the foreign ministry building. But suspicions of murder were hard for the Communist authorities to quash. The communists had just taken over power a few weeks earlier.

‘The Jan Masaryk case a new interpretation’,  photo: archive of Nakladatelství Českého lesa
But who might have committed the murder, which most experts now agree the death to have been, has long been an unsolvable mystery. The book by Václava Jandečková, which can roughly be translated as ‘The Jan Masaryk case a new interpretation,’ draws largely on the archives concerning the interrogation of a foreign ministry official, Jan Bydžovský. He was actually picked up by the police on another matter but astonished them by admitting to having killed Jan Masaryk together with another official, František Fryč. The two entered Masaryk’s flat, Bydžovský put a sleeping draught in the minister’s drink and, while asleep, they dragged him to a window and lowered him to his death. Bydžovský told his interrogators that the murder had been ordered by British secret services, who had recruited him in exile in London during WWII. But during interrogation he often changed his story.

One suspicious fact was that eventually the authorities decided not to stage a show trial of the two officials and they were sentenced to relatively mild prison terms for the time. Professor of history at Boston University, Igor Lukeš, was consulted by Václava Jandečková as the book was being prepared and provides an introduction to it. I asked him what contribution it might make in shedding light on the long mystery of Masaryk’s death.

“Well, I think the main breakthrough of the book is that it has jump-started the conversation. For many decades since the event in 1948, people have been trying to approach it from one or another direction. They have come with one or another interpretation. But essentially all these attempts fizzled out and we end up knowing pretty much as much as when we knew nothing. So I think the main achievement of this book is that it has restarted the conversation. It has renewed the interest. And it indicated that the field of inquiry simply needs to be enlarged for us to have any chance at all, ever some time in the future to come up with some plausible answer.”

“I think the main breakthrough of the book is that it has jump-started the conversation.”

I think these documents, if I understand correctly, from the archives had been seen before but that they were largely discounted as the results of pressure under interrogation and such like. Is that the case?

“Yes, indeed there were several people who had seen the document, or documents. I think even one or two even mentioned them in writing. And, exactly as you say, they set them aside because they believed that naturally they were the product of police pressure or torture and so on. And that is, of course, legitimate. In any country, if I may add this aside, even democratic countries, historians have to be very careful about building their theses on documents that come from police interrogations.

“Even in the United States or Great Britain, there are numerous cases where police manipulated the evidence. So of course, being in the hands of the StB alone makes it quite likely that the person is going to say whatever it takes for him or her to survive or at some time in the future be released.”

The one theses or angle to this is that this foreign ministry official and his partner were duped into thinking that they were acting on behalf of the British secret services by the Soviet KGB. Is that realistic and were there operations such as that?

Jan Masaryk,  photo: United States Library of Congress,  Free Domain
“Well [laughs], it’s realistic if this were a movie. It is realistic if this were a Le Carré novel. These complicated operations hardly ever work. The moment these plans run into reality, they almost always crumble and become completely irrelevant. But in the context of this document, or documents, how else is one to read it when there is this person who is clearly a product of the Czech bourgeois milieu. He has advanced degrees in mathematics. When Hitler comes, he joins the government in Britain where he works in the section of the foreign ministry in exile working in the coding room. These people are typically of course the most reliable people, they have security clearance and so on. And then the next thing we know is that he is throwing the foreign minister out of the window. Well, that’s a tall order isn’t it?”

These sort of front operations did exist though…. There were similar such operations where people were tricked into thinking they were working for one side when in fact they were doing it for the other. It’s not total fiction…

“Yes, you are absolutely right. These operations are called dangle operations or false flag operations. And especially in the after war period but even well into the 1980s, the Communist intelligence services routinely organized such events. The most notorious of them is call WIN, which was a very large and utterly fictitious underground network filled by the Communist intelligence in Poland, which the British and newly created CIA supported through thick and thin with money, agents, material, and so on. In Czechoslovakia, there were oganisations such as Jarmila and others. Again, fictitious organisations that lured potential enemies of the regime to certain places where they were then rounded up, arrested, and many were even hanged. So you are right, that dangle operations existed.

“I think there is a well known case, in the 1970s or 1980s, where people posing as employees of the United States embassy, in reality StB officers, recruited Czechs in Prague to be US agents, or so they thought. And of course at some convenient point the ugly truth was revealed and these people ended up in prison. So, yes, dangle operations are routinely carried out by intelligence services but this one strikes me as pretty complicated. Again, I am thinking about someone who was a specialist in codes and maths and that sort of thing. You know, to throw a very large human being out the window, many people would find it an insurmountable obstacle.”

“He was thrust somehow onto the ramparts of the political conflict between those two blocks, East and West.”

If you don’t accept the idea of this false flag operation, is it conceivable that the British might really have wanted to kill Masaryk ? He is a problematic sort of figure isn’t he? One the one hand he was in exile, he broadcast, he was the son of the first president. But there he is, after February 1948 he’s there still in the government and he did not take part in the [resignation] of the other democrats who left the government…

“Well, you are absolutely right. But let me just return to the previous point, I do not discard completely the false flag interpretation of this because if there is one, and that’s a huge if, then this one strikes me as the most rational. But I have absolutely no evidence. Regarding the British angle, yes you are quite right that Masaryk played a very complex role. I think that he was a profoundly unheroic man. He was a soft man. I think that he was not meant at all to be someone who was meant to function at the point of a political conflict. This was a man who loved comfort and safety and security, he was even lazy. And yet he was thrust somehow onto the ramparts of the political conflict between those two blocks, East and West. It was not just Czech Communists and Czech democrats, it was really East and West that collided in Prague at that moment in February 1948. And he really was not up for it.

“As soon as he heard that the democratic ministers planned to resign, he declared himself sick and ended up in bed so that he would not have to attend the crucial governmental meeting. Now, that’s not a Churchill, that’s not a Talleyrand, that’s not Metternich, that’s not Bismarck. He simply says ‘I have a head cold and I have to stay in bed and simply can’t attend.’ Now, that being said, does that meant that the West would have gone out to murder him, absolutely not, that is an absurd idea.

“Jan Masaryk was a sort of nice guy. He was a jazz pianist. He was confused about most things in life.”

“First of all, intelligence services do not kill people. That really happens in the movies or maybe the Stalinist system killed a few people, mostly their own defectors by the way rather than opponents from the other side. So Western intelligence services, I am almost wiling to swear this, do not kill people and definitely no-one as benign as Jan Masaryk. Jan Masaryk was a sort of nice guy. He was a jazz pianist. He was confused about most things in life. He was a rich boy and somehow history put upon his narrow shoulders too much weight and he did not know what to do with that responsibility. But that the British or anyone else would have wished him dead on the Western side of the ideological divide, I really cannot conceive of that.

“Now from the point of view of Moscow, that is an entirely different story because there was a man who, despite his weaknesses had a tremendous influence on the Czech political scene. And even beyond, he had many friends in Britain, important people, Lockhart for instance, and various others. There were many Americans who looked up to him, they knew him socially and admired him and so on. So if a person like this ended up in the West, and one could not really prevent a defection of a foreign minister who by definition must travel abroad. And if there he made some inappropriate political statements. Well, that could have been the start of a resistance, the way Masaryk did it during WWI, the way [Edvard] Beneš did it in Britain during WWII. So it is quite possible that the Soviets decided to get rid of him because the Czech intelligence services had no interest in killing Masaryk because, as you said, he in fact sided with them during the crucial crisis. He said famously on Old Town Square ‘Ja pujdou vdicky s’lidem – I will always side with the people.’ Why would the StB want to kill him, it makes no sense. The Soviets is a different issue.”