Czech History London conference recalls the legacy of Czechoslovak statesman Jan Masaryk
The head of Radio Prague, Miroslav Krupička, attended a conference in London this week recalling the legacy of the much-loved former Czechoslovak Foreign Minister and ambassador to the UK, Jan Masaryk. The event was held on the 65th anniversary of Masaryk’s still largely unexplained death.
“It was certainly interesting: the conference was opened by the Czech Ambassador to the UK Michael Žantovský and there was also an address by Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg which was very emotional. He actually began to weep when remembering the death of Jan Masaryk. What was interesting about the conference was that it presented different sides of Jan Masaryk: as a soldier, as a diplomat and as a radio broadcaster.”
Masaryk of course was one of Czechoslovakia’s most notable statesmen and I certainly want to ask about those aspects but also this: is it fair to say that he was most defined by his role in the exile government in London during World War II?
“Yes indeed and this was the most important part of the conference. The Czech historian Vít Smetana, offered quite a critical look at Masaryk, for example, as a rather weak or at times inconsistent diplomat. In his view, in 1943 Jan Masaryk adopted Beneš’ view that the only guarantee of peace for Czechoslovakia after the war lay with the Soviet Union and after that there was a pro-Soviet orientation in the Czechoslovak government.
“After the war, as everyone knows, he became increasingly frustrated with what was happening. He was pressed by the USSR for instance to reject the Marshall Plan and to vote in line with the Soviet Union at the UN and so on. While in private he was critical of the Soviet Union, he was unable to voice his criticisms publically; that was his personal problem and the Czech historian concluded that the Czechoslovak position should not have been so submissive. It could have been more dignified, he said, as the Polish position was towards the Soviet Union.”
“Unfortunately not. Several historians brought up the subject of course and it was much discussed but there were no new findings or conclusions. On the other hand, an area where new information was presented pertained to Masaryk’s role as a soldier. As a young man he was recruited and fought in Russia, Ukraine, in Italy and was promoted several times. During the First World War he got a medal for bravery. This was fascinating because it was a complete contrast to what his father did: his father, T.G. Masaryk, was in exile, getting ready for the revolution while his son fought in the service of the Emperor.
“He continued to serve in the 1920s and 1930s as well and what was a new revelation served as defence minister in the exile government between 1944-1945. This was something no one was really aware of so far. So Masaryk was a man of many contradictions and there are many aspects of his life and death that are yet to be revealed.”
Another aspect I would like to ask about is Jan Masaryk’s role in radio: he broadcast from London over the BBC to his occupied homeland; my understanding is that he was also very popular on the Czechoslovak airwaves at home.
“People loved his informal style, his personal approach and he was much more popular than other politicians or even President Beneš and his broadcasts were more popular than the V.O.A. for instance and broadcasts in Czech from America and Moscow.”
“After the war when he was the Foreign Minister in the post-war government, he gave a number of speeches specifically for radio. There are a number of recordings of his speeches or addresses or debates with the audience that survived, recordings from when he toured the country promoting the policies of the post-war government and the role of the United Nations, and some of them survive in Czech Radio archives. I selected a few clips that were played at the conference and they were very interesting and well-received.”
You mentioned at the beginning that today’s foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg had a very emotional reaction after all these years; on the other hand it’s not completely unexpected given how loved Jan Masaryk was by his fellow countrymen...
“Well certainly members of the older generation retain Masaryk as a symbol of the First Republic and of democracy in Czechoslovakia. This is how people remember Jan Masaryk. It was in my family, my grandparents, my parents... most people remember the day he died or – more precisely – was murdered. Karel Schwarzenberg mentioned this as well: he was 10 when it happened and he was summoned by his parents and they discussed what had happened and what had been lost. Masaryk was very popular, he was the son of the founder of Czechoslovakia and when he was killed everything ‘stopped’. It seems that way certainly now. Everyone remembers what they were doing and has memories of it and it was the end of an era. After Jan Masaryk’s death the Communists seized power and held onto it for 40 years.”