Because of a research error, Czechoslovakia's deputy interior minister, Jan Ruml, was misidentified in a June 3 Outlook article. (Published 6/17/90)
AS CZECHOSLOVAKIA gets ready for its first real postwar election, one advantage the nation enjoys, as compared to other Eastern European governments, is that theirs is led by a popular hero, Vaclav Havel, an intellectual thoroughbred and a man who proved that moralism is still a powerful political force. What worries an increasing number of people, especially in government, is whether this charismatic idealist and artist can also deal with the raw realities of politics and the tasks of reconstruction confronting him.
One can get a sense of these raw realities in Milovice, about 100 kilometers from Prague. The city is, I was told, the unhappiest town in Czechoslovakia because next to it is the largest Soviet military base in the country -- a complex of 150 square kilometers, an encampment of about 70,000 soldiers and their families.
Permission to visit the base is impossible to obtain. Only a few Czechs have been inside, and they have nothing but horror stories to tell: about the hundreds of trees uprooted to make room for a vast tank training ground, about the contamination of the rivers with gasoline and oil, about the many stolen private automobiles awaiting shipment by rail to the Soviet Union, about the tank which, driven by a drunk Soviet soldier, smashed into a house in Milovice and killed its owner.
The soldiers, since they have known that they would soon be shipped back to the Soviet Union, have begun selling everything from guns to gasoline, from tools to spare parts -- and nobody seems to notice that these items are missing from the depots. It was not only these arms sales that came up during a spirited debate I listened to in the Parliament in Prague, but also rumors that the Soviet military have been burying arms and ammunition in the camp grounds, possibly in preparation for a future putsch.
A few days later, when I asked Interior Minister Richard Sacher whether these private arms sales and buried ammunition dumps did not worry him as a danger to internal safety, he replied with a mocking edge that he had been getting reports about putsches almost every day and that he discounted them -- at least for the time being.
One evening, as we arrived for dinner, we found that our restaurant reservations had become irrelevant. When the owner appeared in the door, disheveled and in shirtsleeves, he told us in a quivering voice that he had to close the restaurant because ruffians had broken in and stolen all the hard liquor and foreign cigarettes. On top of that, they had flooded the kitchen. He apologized for the inconvenience and told us that he had made a reservation for us in a nearby restaurant of equal quality.
Later, there was much talk about the problem of mounting crime since the overthrow of the Communist government. Jiri Ruml (then the editor of Lidove Noviny and, this past week, appointed a deputy to Sacher) suggested that one of the many new problems is how to create order under a democracy when police authority declines.
The following day, I mentioned the burglary to a local reporter. He laughed, devouring my report with obvious delight. "Serves him right!" he exclaimed, "This man used to cater to all the Communist bigwigs and bought his liquor and cigarettes on the black market -- and still does." Then he added, lifting an eyebrow: "I wouldn't be surprised if one of our chaps simply meant to get his revenge." To many, the incident was, no doubt, part of the new crime wave; to a few it was a sign that the revolution was not quite over.
The mystery that surrounds the death in 1948 of Jan Masaryk remains unresolved. Did the beloved Czechoslovak foreign minister commit suicide or was he murdered by the Czech or the Soviet secret police?
In August 1948, I published an article in the late Saturday Evening Post based on the testimony of his personal physician. According to his evidence (and it was not conclusive), he believed that Masaryk was murdered, pushed out the window of his bathroom after a struggle with his executioners. His surviving relatives, I found, are convinced that his was a "self-inflicted" death. During the "Prague Spring" in 1968 under President Dubcek, an official commission investigated Masaryk's death. It took a vast amount of testimony, but in its final report failed to reach a conclusion.
While in Prague I tried hard to find a copy of this report, which after all was an official document. But it was not in any of the state archives. And the few people I managed to contact who had been involved in that investigation refused to talk. Thanks to Ludek Kotab of the Foreign Ministry, I was given access to what used to be Masaryk's private quarters. Looking at the unusual height of the window and the size of the central heating unit in the bathroom, I could not imagine how Masaryk, considering his bulky figure, could have climbed up to the window sill on his own.
The events leading up to Masaryk's death, I now believe, will never be known. But judging by the fact that his photograph adorned almost every shop window in Prague, he is perhaps more revered today than ever before.
Henry Brandon is a guest scholar at The Brookings Institution. His most recent book is "Special Relationships."