Intransigence: It’s not just for Cubans

From the Prague Post, we see that Czech anti-communist exiles are every bit as intransigent as their Cuban counterparts.

Meeting with a Mašín brother

Josef Mašín’s controversial legacy is in focus, but he remains uncompromising

Posted: October 6, 2010

By Markéta Hulpachová – Staff Writer

Meeting with a Mašín brother

Courtesy Photo

Josef Mašín in a 1955 photograph. He joined the U.S. Army after defecting.

NEW YORK CITY

In a half-empty auditorium inside the Bohemian Beer Hall in Queens, cosmopolitan representatives of the Czech diaspora debate issues of “Czechness.” Their orations get on Josef Mašín’s nerves.

“Come save me,” pleads the guest of honor Oct. 3. “I just can’t listen to this.”

Few historic figures divide Czech society so profoundly as the Mašín brothers. Josef, 78, and his brother Ctirad, 80, are known for leading an armed anti-communist resistance group in the early years of the Cold War, culminating with their famous 1953 escape from Czechoslovakia to West Germany with 20,000 East German armed forces at their heels. All told, the “Mašín Gang” killed six people.

Their story has become a bit of a cause celebre in the wake of the death of Milan Paumer, the self-described “third guy” in the gang, in Pod?brady this July. Arguments regarding the Mašíns’ place in history re-resonated in pubs and Parliament. Are they heroes or murderers? Was it armed resistance or senseless crime? Are the people they killed victims or casualties of war? The Mašíns have an advocate in Prime Minister Petr Ne?as, who not only spoke at Paumer’s funeral but also defended the group weeks later in the Chamber of Deputies.

For someone whose name evokes such divergent opinions, Mašín’s views are refreshingly unambiguous. Questions of dual nationality, discussed so voraciously here in the heart of New York’s emigrant community, irritate him.

“I, personally, will be loyal to only one state. I took an oath, and I’ll stand by it, even if it meant fighting against Czechs in a war,” he says. “One cannot swear allegiance to more than one side. That’s why there’s such discord here, as you can see.”

Mašín divides his opponents into two camps: the ashamed and the uninformed. The first group consists of “people who are embarrassed, so to protect their inactivity they’ve suddenly become humanists.” The second has been tainted by years of negative propaganda, such as the popular 1970s detective series P?íb?hy Majora Zemana (Major Zeman’s Stories), which portrayed the group as notorious murderers.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the Mašíns’ illicit activities is their isolation. Although other resistance groups operated in the country during their time, the Mašíns made a point of remaining nameless and keeping to themselves.

“The groups that gave themselves a name, organized, distributed anti-communist fliers – they ended up in prison,” Mašín says. “We never said anything to anybody. Nobody got implicated, and it’s why we ourselves got as far as we did.”

Critics also often question the stated purpose of the Mašín group’s escape to West Berlin. Swayed by disinformation campaigns from both East and West, the brothers say they believed war was imminent. The plan was to go West, join the American side and fight against the communists. Anyone who doubts this is too young to remember the era, Mašín says.

“In 1951, you couldn’t just catch a train from Pod?brady to the border without having a special permit. Hysteria was created by both sides – everyone expected war. The prisons were full of so-called American spies. Everywhere, you heard that World War III was absolutely certain. The imperialists were ‘definitely coming.’ “

The Mašíns are, above all, principled, which seems to run in the family. Their father, Josef, refused to surrender arms from a garrison to the Nazis in 1939.

A simple soldier’s code – honor, loyalty and an unwavering sense of mission – sums up their beliefs. Their engagement in anti-communist class warfare was a matter of principle. So is their staunch refusal to visit the Czech Republic, even to attend their lifelong friend Paumer’s funeral.

After more than 20 years, the country still hasn’t reckoned with its communist past enough to warrant a return. An unreformed judiciary, a still-potent communist presence in Parliament and failure to fully publicize the communist archives are all signs of continuing struggle, Mašín says.

“Democracy is a state of mind, and the Czechs are just not there yet.”

Personal grievances also play a role. The old family farmhouse in Lešany is in ruins, and unlikely to be returned to its original owners. Ctirad Mašín is still technically a wanted man, and neither brother knows exactly where the body of their mother, Zdena Mašínová, was dumped after she died as a political prisoner from untreated cancer in 1956.

The Mašíns didn’t plan on spending their lives in exile. Three of their friends – Zbynek Janata, Ctibor Novák and Václav Švéda – were caught during the escape and later executed.

“When we reached the West, we wanted to take a shower, go back and save Švéda, who we didn’t know had been caught,” Mašín says. “The Americans thought we were insane.”

In the end, the brothers never returned. Ctirad, who Josef describes as “more forgiving toward Czechs,” now lives in Ohio, while Josef resides in California.

Both vote Republican. Out of principle, of course.

H/T Tania M.

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