The life and death of Jan Masaryk

Jan Masaryk

Jan Masaryk was the son of Czechoslovakia's first president T.G. Masaryk. Like his father, he would come be defined by his service for his country, working as both a diplomat and later as foreign minister during some of Czechoslovakia's darkest days. Following the Second World War he witnessed the 1948 Communist coup that ended hopes of a return to democracy in Czechoslovakia and paved the way for forty years of oppressive rule.

He himself would not escape.

Two weeks after the Communists seized power he would be found dead 14 metres below his second-story bathroom window at Cernin Palace - the Czech Foreign Ministry.

The life - and tragic death - of Jan Masaryk looked at in this edition of Czechs in History.

Jan Masaryk was born in September 1886. His father - the future president - was an academic and a member of the Austro-Hungarian Parliament; his mother Charlotte Garrigue, was an American, decisive in her son's upbringing, including schooling in music. But like so many sons of great men, Jan Masaryk longed to escape from his father's shadow, not an easy task. Following certain difficulties in school, his family eventually decided it would be better if Jan - at 19 - were sent to the U.S. There he became a man of many trades: working as a labourer - even playing piano to accompany silent films.

"The family decided that it would be useful for young Masaryk to go to the States to get some new ideas. He stayed for a certain time in New York, where he worked in a bank. But not as a clerk, but as a helper. That means doing menial work."

Historian Antonin Sum, 85, served as Masaryk's secretary in later years and is the head of the Jan Masaryk Society in Prague. He says Masaryk's time in the U.S. was key in forming a "common touch" that would prove very useful in political life.

"When he ran out of money he went to the Cranes - a family that was friends with his father, who had a very large factory and there he became a normal worker. He taught many, many of his co-workers and friends, regardless of race or class, and taught them to read and write, he bought ink and paper and so on and he was quite revered."

After spending six years in the U.S. Jan Masaryk returned to Europe and served during the First World War. But, following the emergence of newly-independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, he was sent abroad again. His father realised his talents were well-suited for diplomatic work, so he returned to the U.S. as charge d'affairs before being appointed Czechoslovak ambassador to Great Britain in 1925.

But, for most of his early career, says Antonin Sum, Jan Masaryk was far more well-known abroad than at home. That would nevertheless change as Masaryk emerged in a central role in the days leading up to the Second World War. Though he resigned as ambassador to Britain following the signing of the Munich agreement, he remained vocal in criticising Nazi Germany and the West's caving in to Hitler's demands. The agreement had ceded large parts of Czechoslovakia's border region, the so-called Sudetenland, to Germany, while British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously referred to the Munich agreement as "securing peace in our time".

Jan Masaryk was furious the western powers had allowed his country to be pared and parcelled. On the eve of the outbreak of war he spoke on the BBC for the first time, describing the tragedy of his country.

"No one knows what is going to happen within the next twenty-four or forty-eight hours. I don't think that either Chamberlain or Hitler really know at this minute. One thing is definitely sure: if the war starts it will be Hitler who is the guilty party. I do not wish to deny that the unbelievable policy of the western democracies has helped Hitler in this fortunate or tragic position. History will prove that most effectively and conclusively. But I do not think that I am too optimistic when I say these democracies have definitely learned their lesson. It is the terrible tragedy of my little country that it had to be crucified to redeem the sins of others."

Throughout the war Jan Masaryk then served as Foreign Minister in Czechoslovakia's cabinet in exile, lead by President Edvard Benes. His broadcasts from abroad listened to illegally in Czechoslovakia brought him closest to his Czech compatriots.

"It was very important because his broadcasts had a very concrete, clear goal and that's why Masaryk was so beloved here. Before the war he was known only to a very small circle of people in diplomacy, or when there were official visits here, but not generally. But, during the war these broadcasts and news reels and so on were extremely good and especially helpful for those of us who were living here. Even if listening to those broadcasts was punishable by death."

Jan Masaryk's secret popularity at home grew so great he came to be affectionately known simply as "Honza" - the Czech nickname for Jan.

After the liberation of Czechoslovakia and the end of the war, Jan Masaryk returned home where he again served as foreign minister - this time in the National Front government, which included the Communist Party. That party had gained in support largely thanks to growing disillusionment with the West which had so blatantly betrayed Czechoslovakia just eight years before.

But, if Czechoslovaks expected parity with the Soviet Union, they were greatly mistaken. In 1947 Jan Masaryk and communist Prime Minister Klement Gottwald were both summoned to Moscow by Stalin, who forbade Czech participation in the US-funded Marshall Plan. At the time Masaryk remarked he left for Moscow the minister of a sovereign state and had returned home the dictator's "lackey".

Communist influence then gained further in 1948 with the February coup that saw the communists seize power fully, sweeping any hope for a democratic future off the table.

Two weeks later Jan Masaryk was discovered dead, barefoot, in his pyjamas, having fallen from the ledge by his bathroom window.

The window Jan Masaryk fell out of,  photo: CTK
Was he killed by the KGB as was widely believed? In early 2004, Czech investigators concluded it was indeed murder. However, Antonin Sum, who knew Masaryk well, believes investigators made key mistakes in a case which is now more than half a century old. In his view Jan Masaryk took his own life as a form of sacrifice. To warn others of the terrible regime that was forming, to warn others of the darkness to come.

"It was the consequence of the situation at that time. Under normal circumstances he never would have done that, it was against his nature or thinking or life. All the time when Jan Masaryk was thinking about things like that he had practically no other chance but to do this kind of protest. He had to show and to show so that everybody - especially the Western powers could see - that things here were in very bad shape; that the communist coup was a very bad sign for all of Europe. And really in this respect, his idea was good, because one year later the North Atlantic pact was founded and, that after his death all the media were writing about his death. That means they understood the message."