Czech Republic Magazine

On this Day, in 1948: Jan Masaryk was found dead in mysterious circumstances

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On the night of March 10, 1948, Jan Masaryk, the son of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk and then Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, was found dead below his apartment window in circumstances that remain shrouded in mystery.

A Prague and US-educated diplomat and politician, the much-beloved son of Tomas Masaryk, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, and his american wife Charlotte Garrigue, Jan Masaryk joined the diplomatic service in the 1920s. He was posted in the US before working as secretary to then Foreign Minister Edvard Benes, who became President in 1935 after TGM, who would die two years later, stepped down.

Jan Masaryk and the Prague coup of 1948

Ambassador to Britain at the time of Nazi Germany’s 1938 occupation of the Sudetenland and the rest of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, Jan Masaryk resigned and was soon appointed Foreign Affairs Minister of the government in exile in London, where he spent most of the war years.

Masaryk kept his post following the liberation of Czechoslovakia in the multi-party government dominated by Communists. Known for his attempt to remain independent from partisan politics in the tumultuous post-war Czechoslovakia, he realized the importance of staying allied with the Soviet Union, although his pro-Western views, including his thwarted support for Czechoslovakia’s participation in the Marshall Plan, clashed with the dominant Communists in numerous policy matters.

When the majority of non-communist government members resigned in February 1948 in what would become known as the Prague Coup, Masaryk remained in government in an apparent attempt to rein in the communists’ ambitions from the inside. But according to statements from close associates, he would later express doubts about his decision not to publicly oppose – despite his strong popularity within the population – the Communist takeover.

On the night of March 10, 1948, just a few weeks after the coup that paved the way for over four decades of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, Jan Masaryk was found dead, dressed only in his pyjamas, in the courtyard below the window of his second-floor service apartment at Cernin Palace in Prague. Suicide, murder or accident? The debate rages on to this day.

Jan Masaryk’s death: Murder or suicide?

While Communist authorities declared on the following day that Masaryk, by far one of the most popular politicians of the post-war era, had committed suicide, many people believe he was murdered on orders from Soviet intelligence services.

A number of investigations launched since the fall of communism have since cast doubt on the official version. In the early 2000s, a study concluded that he had been murdered, with new evidence based, among other things, on the study of his fall’s trajectory: according to forensic expert Jiri Strauss, Masaryk, considering his age and rather heavy physique, could not have landed so far (over two metres) from the building if he had jumped of his own accord, and was therefore pushed by an unknown third party.

Further evidence gathered over the years have lent weight to the murder thesis, including his stated intention to leave Prague the following day to start a new life in London. The identity of the alleged perpetrators of the crime, however, also remains subject to debate and controversy. Supporters of this version call it the “Third Defenestration of Prague.”

Some, including his last secretary Antonin Sum who described how Masaryk had been feeling depressed following the 1948 takeover, contest that version, and still claim the son of TGM took his own life. “I am absolutely sure, as all of my late colleagues were sure, that Masaryk offered his life,” he said. “That it was a very, very great sacrifice. I do not like the word suicide. It was a sacrifice to protest against the Communist terror and it was the highest sacrifice at that time.”

In 2019, the Czech Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Crimes of Communism (ÚDV) moved to reopen the case to finally shed some light on what happened on that fateful night. But after two years, the state prosecutor announced just a few days ago that the case would be postponed due to lack of conclusive evidence to confirm or discard any of the versions: murder, suicide or accident? More than 70 years after the fall, the mystery remains.

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