Czech prime minister grants first official recognition of controversial Mašín group

Mirek Topolánek, photo: CTK

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has surprised many by honouring the anti-communist fighter Josef Mašín. Mr Topolánek was due to present the US resident with a prime minister’s medal at the Czech Embassy in Washington on Thursday – the first ever official recognition of the controversial actions of Mr Mašín, his brother and the other men who employed violence before and during a dramatic bid to escape to the West in 1953.

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
Josef Mašín, his brother Ctirad and the anti-communist resistance group they led killed six people including a payroll clerk while preparing for and executing a daring and dramatic escape to West Germany in October 1953. Of their group of five, two were caught and later executed, while the Mašíns’ mother Zdena later died in prison. Czech society is strongly divided on their actions: some admire the men, others regard them as murderers.

President Václav Klaus (like his predecessor Václav Havel) has been consistently cool towards calls to honour the controversial group. But Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has taken a rather different line, describing them last year as “heroes of the anti-communist resistance”. Nevertheless, Thursday’s gesture, kept under wraps until the last moment, has surprised many.

Milan Paumer escaped to the West with the Mašíns and lived in the US before moving back to the Czech Republic in 2001. On the line from his home in Poděbrady he gave his reaction to Thursday’s news.

Josef Mašín,  photo: CTK
“I was really, really surprised. And I’m very happy that it finally happened. It didn’t happen the way…we…veterans of the communist regime should get it from the president. But because the president isn’t inclined to our cause and he’s constantly criticising it…he calls us a controversial group – that I don’t like, and of course my friends don’t like that kind of description either.

“So I’m glad that Mr Topolánek solved the problem this way. It’s the first little step to larger…actions. From now on everything is going to gain speed and we’ll get more recognition. Also a large group of people didn’t know what to think, so finally they got the word from Topolánek, and I’m really grateful to him that he did it.”

What do you think this award will mean to Mr Mašín? I know he’s quite critical of the Czech Republic.

“Yes, but he’s not an idiot. He sees a good man who is trying to improve the whole situation. I don’t think Mr Topolánek remembers the beginning of communism, because I think he’s a young man. But he’s also an intelligent man and he knows what’s going on and he did the right thing. I think from now on everything will go in the right direction.”