Court reopens treason case against Czechoslovakia’s Munich-era prime minister

Jan Syrový

The High Court in Prague has decided to reopen the cases of General Jan Syrový and Rudolf Beran, who served as prime ministers during Czechoslovakia’s tumultuous turn from First Republic to occupied Nazi protectorate. The two men were originally sentenced to 20 years in jail for treason, but with the court now acknowledging shady evidence, their families finally have a chance to restore their reputations.

Jan Syrový | Source:  National Library of France,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

He was once seen as one of the heroes of the First Republic Czechoslovak state, a modern day Jan Žižka, patch and all, who had proven his worth while leading the Czechoslovak Legions out of Russia in the aftermath of the First World War. However, General Jan Syrový would die in shame as a man convicted of having worked with the Nazi occupiers ahead of the Second World War.

His stellar career began to unravel at the time of this speech, which was broadcast by Czechoslovak Radio on September 30, 1938, when the great powers of Europe had just agreed Czechoslovakia would have to cede its border territories to Nazi Germany.

“This is the hardest moment of my life. I am fulfilling the most painful of tasks, which is worse than death. We will fulfil the conditions that have been forced upon us. We call on the nation and our people to overcome their indignation, disappointment and pain, and instead to help us ensure our future within these new borders.”

Jan Syrový | Source:  public domain

Syrový had been named the country’s prime minister eight days before, after the previous government had been forced to resign amid a wave of popular demonstrations against ceding territory to the Germans. He would remain in high office until April 1939, when Czechoslovakia had already become an occupied protectorate.

Despite being followed by the Gestapo and supporting the resistance, the general was immediately arrested in May 1945 and, in a subsequent trial, sentenced to 20 years in jail for treason. He would die an obscure man, who had to subsidise his living by working as a security guard in a small Czech town.

But now, more than 50 years after his death, Jan Syrový is getting a chance to have his name cleared. The High Court in Prague announced on Tuesday that his case will be reopened, after new facts have emerged that put the previous 1947 ruling into question. The court decision follows the several year long efforts by General Syrový’s descendants to clear his name.

Lubomír Müller | Photo: archive of Lubomír Müller,  Post Bellum

Lubomír Müller, the advocate of Jan Syrový’s great-great-nephew, told Czech Television that the original court case was politicised. Indeed, some of the accusations, like a staged handshake with Adolf Hitler’s at Prague Castle in 1939, do not stand up to scrutiny according to the defence. The advocate says that in many of the prosecution’s charges, it is unclear how the general should have actually behaved given his position as a constitutional official.

Furthermore, the defence highlights that the prosecutor of the case was Josef Urválek, the Czechoslovak equivalent of Stalin’s infamous procurator Andrey Vyshinsky, would later become the face of Communist show trials and sentence democratic politicians such as Milada Horaková to death.

Rudolf Beran | Photo:  Czech Radio

It is not just General Syrový who is getting a second chance at redemption. His successor to the position of Prime Minister, Rudolf Beran, who served as head of government from December 1938 to April 1939, will also have his case reviewed. Beran received the same ruling as Syrový after the war, but never made it out of prison alive. Judges have chosen to review his case for similar reasons, noting that several witnesses made testimonies defending his conduct.

It is not the first time that an appeal has been made to review the case of Czechoslovakia’s hero-turned-villain. An attempt to rehabilitate him was revoked by the High Court in 1995 and did so again last year. However, with the court now finally approving the defence’s claims, the eyepatch general has more hope than ever before.