Monday, December 17, 2012

The Mystery of Jan Msaryk's Murder in Czechoslovakia 1948

Born: Sept. 14, 1886, in Prague
Father: Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia
Office: Served as foreign minister during World War II in the London-based exile government of President Edvard Benes. Returned after the war and continued to serve as foreign minister.
Died: March 10, 1948. Found dead after falling 14.5 (47.5 feet) meters from his bathroom window at the Cernin Palace.
Cause of death: After 55 years police have officially ruled his death a murder.

Masaryk death theory draws fire
Prague Post
Posted: January 15, 2004
By Kevin Livingston

Investigator claims he's proven murder; critics reject conclusion

Three years ago police investigator Ilja Pravda was handed the most important case of his career. His task: Solve one of Prague's great, tragic mysteries, the 1948 death of Jan Masaryk.

Just before the New Year the wiry, middle-aged detective announced his findings. Stating what many already believed but none were able to state categorically, Pravda asserted that Masaryk, the former foreign minister and son of the father of Czechoslovak independence, was pushed out of his apartment window at the Cernin Palace in the wake of the 1948 communist coup.

Pravda's conclusion has startled a country that for 55 years has lived in the shadow of Masaryk's death and the communist legacy it symbolized. But if the detective is convinced he has closed the case, not everyone is prepared to go along.

Since Pravda went public with his conclusion, historians and the media have attacked him for carrying out what many say was a flawed and hasty investigation. Pravda's inability to identify Masaryk's murderer has also put his probe under suspicion.

Pravda shakes off the criticism. Looking over his files in his spartan space at the Office to Document and Investigate Communist Crimes, he says his findings are based on direct and indisputable evidence and have been accepted by the state attorney's office. Having brought to bear on the case the science of forensic biomechanics - the study of how a body falls - he says, "It was without a doubt murder."

Falling down

Just how Masaryk came to fall 14.5 meters (47.5 feet) from his bathroom window has raised questions for more than half a century.

The official 1948 autopsy ruled Masaryk's death a suicide. Many close to Masaryk, including his private secretary, have never wavered in their belief that the son of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president, jumped in a fit of depression.

But the prevailing theory has always been that Jan Masaryk was pushed, most likely by secret police officers. Even Rude Pravo, the official Communist Party newspaper, editorialized in 1968 that the circumstances surrounding the case were suspicious.

Masaryk was the only non-Communist minister who did not resign when the party, led by Klement Gottwald, seized power in 1948. Masaryk's death just two weeks after the putsch would forever label him the first victim of the country's totalitarian dictatorship.

Pravda's is the fourth official investigation into Masaryk's death and the only one to assert foul play. The first, in 1948, ruled the death a suicide. Another carried out during the Prague Spring thaw of 1968 and a post-revolution probe in the early 1990s did not alter that finding.

Pravda says he believed it was a case of murder but lacked the hard evidence to prove it. "There was still the possibility that it was a suicide," he says. "I could not exclude it at the beginning."

Lacking surviving witnesses, Pravda turned to Jiri Strauss, a forensic expert at the nation's police academy. For a month Strauss studied Masaryk's fall, concluding that at least one other person had to be involved.

Among the indicators: Masaryk was facing the building as he fell, a circumstance inconsistent with suicide. Pravda says there were also signs that Masaryk might have been killed before being dumped out the window. He says sperm found on Masaryk's body and traces of feces found on the windowsill were consistent with death by suffocation, which causes a loss of control of bodily functions.

Masaryk's feet-first departure from the window and the lack of signs of a struggle indicate that he was rendered unconscious first, Pravda says. "The fall was definitely from a push," he says. "I agree with the forensic expert that it was a murder."

Although Pravda is confident he has pinpointed the cause of death, it will likely never be known who was responsible. Although the names of four secret police officers have been bandied about in connection with the case, Pravda says there is no evidence to prove who was behind Masaryk's fall: "I don't have a murderer."

Not a detective story

The absence of a perpetrator is just one reason critics have called for a cautious assessment of Pravda's report. Newspapers and historians have argued vehemently since Pravda released his findings that the forensic evidence is not sufficient to label the case a murder, and that the investigator was too quick to rule the case a homicide.

Writing in Hospodarske noviny, historian Pavel Kosatik said it is impossible to conclude strictly from the forensic evidence that Masaryk was killed. Kosatik points out that the body was moved after impact, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly how Masaryk fell.

Noting that Pravda actually carried out two forensic analyses of the fall and that one concluded that Masaryk was not pushed (which Pravda has acknowledged), Kosatik asked why the detective chose to base his announcement on only one of the studies. And he pointed out that investigators have not had access to documents in the Russian archives that could clear up the mystery.

While it is possible that Masaryk was killed, Kosatik wrote, it can't be concluded from Pravda's report, which he termed "shameful."

"It is not a detective story where everyone can come up with their own fantasy," the historian wrote. "It is an important and tragic event in our history."

Did the Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk commit suicide in 1948?

Posted in Communism, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Politics on Tuesday, 7 August 2012

This edited article about Jan Masaryk originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 760 published on 7th August 1975

One of the most horrifying forms of assassination, once well known in mid-Europe, is called by the rather ugly name of defenestration. It means simply that the victim is hurled to his death through an open window. And it was a word that leapt back into the minds of the Czechoslovak people when they heard that their popular Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, had been found dead beneath the windows of his ministerial apartment in the Czernin Palace, in Prague.

“Jan Masaryk committed suicide during the night,” announced the new Communist cabinet of the Czech government. No one believed it. Masaryk was not a communist and was known to be very concerned about the way the Communists were seizing power in Czechoslovakia. Everyone guessed that he did not fall, but was pushed.

While the Czechs wept openly in the streets for the loss of a much-loved statesman, the Communist government laid out the body for an official lying-in-state and a funeral with full national honours. Filing past the open coffin, the mourners noticed a bunch of snowdrops placed close to Masaryk’s right ear.

Who put them there? The dead man’s secretary announced that they had been set in position to hide the stitching marks after the autopsy. Other people whispered darkly that the flowers concealed a bullet hole.

But the newspapers all over the world in that early spring of 1948 were treating Masaryk’s death as the Czech government hoped they would – as an unfortunate case of suicide. It was not until many years later that all sorts of questions began to be asked – questions which led to the suspicion that assassination was much more likely than suicide.

Jan Masaryk was a complex man. He was 61 and the son of Thomas Masaryk, the first President of the Czechoslovak Republic. From his father he had learned his ideals of liberal democracy and individual freedom, over which the new Communist regime was trampling like an elephant.

The events that were to lead to Masaryk’s death, however, began in September, 1938, when the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, sought to avoid the oncoming Second World War by handing Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis by agreeing to their invasion of the country. Britain’s failure to go to war for his country grieved and angered Masaryk, and the Munich crisis etched deep lines of worry into his face.

Britain and France had failed to defend the Czechs against Hitler, but a year later had to declare war on the Nazis.

All through that bitter war, Masaryk and other free Czechs toiled to liberate their country. The peace of 1945 seemed to be the harbinger of a return to democratic freedom. But that was not to happen. The Russians, who liberated the Czechs from Nazi rule in the last year of the war, and ravaged it while doing so, left in their wake a Communist influence which grew more and more powerful.

Back in Prague, his capital, Masaryk became Foreign Minister. But in place of subservience to Berlin he found that the new Czech government, which included seven highly-placed Communists, was becoming daily more and more subservient to Moscow.

It was from Moscow that the Czech Government was told what to do. It was from Moscow that the order was given for the Czechs to break with the free Western world.

Then, in February, 1948, the Communists staged a complete take-over of the country by purging all non-Communists from power. It began when the Communist Prime Minister, Klement Gottwald, dismissed all the senior police officers and replaced them with Communist Party members.

Gottwald knew that this would cause a furore of protest from among the non-Communist ministers. He was right. Twelve of them tendered their resignations.

“There will have to be a new Government,” he told the feeble old President Eduard Benes; and when he formed it, it was, of course, a Communist-dominated one. The way was now open for all non-Communists to be purged from the country’s administration.

What was Masaryk to do now? He was surrounded by danger. Although he had agreed to join Gottwald’s new Government, he knew that the Prime Minister did not want him and only offered him a ministry because of his popularity with the people. And Masaryk was aware that in this situation a non-Communist who was popular with the people would be regarded as a danger to the government.

On 9th March, a month after Gottwald’s coup, Masaryk was told he would be expected to attend the swearing-in of the new Cabinet the next day. Sadly he told a secretary: “I’m afraid I won’t go there any more.”

What did that mean? The Communists later alleged that Masaryk was planning to flee to the West. Although he must have known that flight was the only way to save his life, there would have been no-one left to fight for democracy in Czechoslovakia.

Another view of that cryptic remark was that Masaryk was already planning suicide in despair at the campaign that had been organised against him in the West for joining the Communist Government.

That March 9 was a day of meetings and political business with the Communists and in the evening Masaryk went home to his ministerial apartment in the Czernin Palace. In the pale morning light of the next day his smashed body lay on the courtyard flagstones.

In the months that followed the Foreign Minister’s State funeral, ten people who were supposedly connected with “the Masaryk affair” died mysteriously. Two were executed, one shot, one tortured to death, one sentenced to 25 years imprisonment and three died suddenly.

Not surprisingly, therefore, anyone who knew anything wasn’t eager to talk. In fact, 20 years passed before Karel Straka, a former clerk at the Czech Foreign Office, told how he had found Masaryk’s body in the courtyard.

“It was clear to me that it was neither an accident nor suicide,” Straka said. He recalled that, during the night of Masaryk’s death, telephones at the palace had suddenly gone dead for no apparent reason. Then, just as suddenly, they had come back to life. A whole fleet of cars had been heard arriving in the driveway, and hours later they left.

Straka had been on duty that night. He recalled it well because suddenly his room at the palace had been locked on the outside. Later, someone had unlocked it. All this had happened only hours before Jan Masaryk, the man most feared by the Communists, had been found dead.

Someone else remembered that night, too, someone who later testified to an enquiry but who insisted on remaining anonymous. According to this witness, Masaryk was leaving the Czernin Palace on the morning of 9th March when a tall man in a leather coat approached him and urged him not to return to the palace that evening.

“I am to take you to safety,” he told Masaryk.

“Where is safety?” Masaryk asked.

“I have to fly you to England,” was the reply.

Masaryk shook his head. “I was in England long enough,” he said, “My place is here now and I shall either win or be destroyed.”

That evening, when Masaryk returned to the palace, the leather-coated man was still there. “For your own safety, I beg you to leave with me at once,” he said. “Tell your driver to take us to the airport now!”

Masaryk replied: “I am still a Minister of State, and I have to go to the Czernin Palace. Come and see me tomorrow.”

The man answered: “That will be too late.”

Hours later, some time after 11 p.m. when Masaryk had drunk a cup of tea before going to bed, the final drama began. What happened can only be pieced together by an analysis of the evidence.

Masaryk’s dead body, it has since been revealed, was a mass of bruises, cuts and scratches. There was physical evidence that moments before his death he was in a state of extreme terror.

If Masaryk had jumped from the window in order to commit suicide, he could not possibly have landed 12 feet (over 3 metres) away from the wall of the building, which was where his body was found.

A doctor later testified that he found a bullet wound in Masaryk’s head, caused by a 7.65 calibre revolver. There were scorch marks around it, indicating that it had been fired at close range.

But no revolver was found in Masaryk’s apartment, nor was there a suicide note. Instead, there was a state of disarray.

The window from which Masaryk was supposed to have jumped was ominously closed. And observers quickly noted that it would have been impossible for a man of Masaryk’s size to have fallen accidentally out of a window that was so much smaller than he was.

At 7.30 a.m. on 10th March, the day the body was found, the autopsy was conducted under the supervision of three secret policemen, who formed a ring around the corpse during the examination. The doctor who conducted the post mortem was chosen by the police and was a Party member. The wording of the post mortem report was dictated to him.

It was not until 1968 – 20 years after Masaryk’s death – that a new Czech Communist government which was attempting to “liberalise” Czech Communism under Prime Minister Anton Dubcek, held an enquiry to establish these facts and to cast extreme doubt on the official suicide verdict. Dubcek and his government, however, did not last for long, and the new mood of liberalism was hastily obliterated by orders from Moscow.

Enough was already known by then, however, to make an inspired rational estimate of how Jan Masaryk was assassinated by the Soviet Secret Police – and how he became one more victim of the tyranny of Russian imperialism.

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