The death of Ctirad Mašín in the US on Saturday at the age of 81 has reignited debate in the Czech Republic over whether he and fellow anti-Communist fighters, who shot their way out of Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, were heroes or cold-blooded killers. While some see their escape as one of the most daring in Cold War history, others say they tarnished their moral integrity through their actions.
In 1953, five members of the so-called Mašín group shot their way out of Czechoslovakia in a bid to reach West Berlin. Three – the Mašín brothers themselves and fellow compatriot Milan Paumer – succeeded, eluding a massive manhunt and certain death; had they been caught (like two remaining members in the cell) they would have been tried in Czechoslovakia and put to death. Ctirad Mašín himself made clear in past interviews that he gained a new lease on life after making it to the West and fellow group member, the late Milan Paumer, defended the group’s actions as necessary in one of Czechoslovakia’s darkest periods. In Czechoslovakia they killed three policemen in preparation for their escape; then, during their actual escape, they shot dead three East German policemen. In 2005, asked about the group’s activities, Milan Paumer said this:
“A lot of people say about us that some people died while we were trying to get out of the country. But we left in 1953, and from 1948 to ‘53 there were so many people hung and sitting in communist prisons, and nobody talks about that."
Following Milan Paumer’s death in 2010, the prime minister himself reflected on his and the Mašín brothers’ actions, calling the decision to stand up against oppression “heroic” and slamming criticism of their cross-border escape. The prime minister has now responded similarly to news of Ctirad Mašín’s passing, making clear he considered the anti-Communist fighter a person of remarkable quality. In a statement he said that he had always admired Mr Mašín’s courage and stressed that his story needed to be remembered. Prime Minister Nečas is far from alone in regretting Mašín’s death; other Czech politicians – mostly on the right of the political spectrum – have also rued his passing, as have a number of specialists, including Eduard Stehlík of the Military History Institute in Prague.
“Mašín was an extraordinary person: even at a young age he was led towards resistance against the Nazis through the example of the father, the brigadier general and national hero Josef Mašín. The family tradition of resistance goes back to World War II. I think the son was a very moral person and that his death is a loss.”
Despite the Mašín’s daring escape, many others are convinced that actions taken by the group were not morally justified, charging that they crossed a line from which there was no turning back – not least the murder of a Czech police officer whose throat was cut after he was subdued. For this reason state honours always eluded the Mašíns and are likely to elude them again. To date only one Czech prime minister - Mirek Topolánek – recognised members of the Mašín group for their fight against totalitarianism. Which members of the current Czech government will attend Mr Mašín’s funeral next Wednesday in the US, has not yet been announced. So far, only the Czech ambassador to Washington, Petr Gandalovič, has confirmed attendance.
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