REVIEW: “Gauntlet” by Barbara Masin

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After World War II, the Communists officially seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. For five years, things in the country went from bad to worse.

No one dared to publicly challenge the Party or its armed enforcers, the SNB, the StB, the factory militias, and the auxiliary militias. People did not even dare to talk about those the Party took away. If you asked about the people who disappeared, their relatives wouldn’t answer, and you would know what had happened to them.

In this atmosphere of fear and terror, the United States was a beacon of hope. Everybody believed that the Americans were coming. The United States had saved the Czechs two times before. It was only a question of time until the invasion began.

This book is by the sister of two men who, in their early twenties, led three others from their homes in Czechoslovakia into East Germany in an attempt to defect and join the US Special Forces. Led to believe that war between East and West was imminent by the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Voice Of America, Ctirad (“Radek”) and Josef (“Pepa”) Mašín were determined to lead the American army in to liberate their subjugated nation. The two were already battle-hardened, having bravely fought as members of the Czech underground resistance during the Nazi occupation.

Outside Jachymov, Pepa, Zbynek, Milan, and their friends watched in horrified fascination as the Communists’ class war spiraled out of control. Newspapers and newsreels announced that Western agents and saboteurs had infiltrated even the highest ranks of the Party. The security
services rounded up dozens of loyal founding members of the Communist Party, the so-called Slansky group, on charges of treason, and accused them of being part of a massive underground organization directed by the U.S. intelligence service.

These men were responsible for the anti-democratic coup of 1948 and the subsequent liquidation of democratic elements in society. Now, in an ironic twist of fate, they found themselves at the receiving end of their own methods: the very same brutal interrogations and torture that they considered eminently acceptable when applied to political opponents.

Upon discovering that their new masters were no better than their previous masters, they started up a new resistance movement to combat the Communists, eventually deciding that the best course of action was a dash for freedom in the West to help the Americans free their Czech homeland.

Their quest would lead them on a brutal 31-day flight across frozen East German swamps, forests, and fields with thousands of police, militia, and soldiers in pursuit.

Written in a conversational tone by a woman who has heard these stories many times over from the men who lived them, this book reads almost like an espionage thriller in places, an historical study in others, and a testament to young men pushing themselves beyond their limits, for a cause they were willing to die for, everywhere. Amusing conflicts, even as their lives hung in the balance, remind us that, for all their courage and determination, they were just young men.

When they returned to the edge of the clearing their gaze was drawn by the three piles of branches that hulked in the clearing. Each was approximately four feet high, fifteen to twenty feet long and eight to ten feet wide.

–Let’s tunnel under the branches,” Pepa suggested.

–Jesus, that’s about as bright as your last idea!” Radek said.

–But if we get under these branches they won’t be able to see us at all.”

–We’ll be sitting ducks! You’d have to be crazy to hide there. They’re the most obvious landmarks in the whole damn area.

–Exactly!” Pepa defended himself. –No sane person would hide under those piles. They’re in the middle of the clearing–and that’s precisely why they’re a good hiding place.”

In the end everyone agreed. There didn’t appear to be a lot of other options.

The five were constantly bumping into patrols and the Volkspolizei, East Germany’s national police force. A mistake on their part led them to jump aboard a train that took them back along the route they had just traveled rather than toward Berlin. A number of shootouts and close calls later, three of them, including the two Masin brothers, were still on the run. Two of their number had been wounded and eventually captured.

While the three Czechs had their hands full trying to stay alive and out of sight, the Volkspolizei were rushing about the country on wild goose chases. Both civilians and Vopo sentries continued to report sightings and rumors. Unshaven men. Men without hats. Men crouching in ditches by the road and making mysterious signs to others in the woods. Men crossing railroad tracks. Men firing guns. All of them melted away into the woods without being identified. After each report smaller detachments were sent out to investigate, and smaller perimeters were established and combed. They seized hapless Polish and Czechoslovak refugees and East German labor camp escapees whose unfortunate timing had put them in the way of the dragnet. The Masin group was not alone in wanting to join the allied forces in the West…

While the Volkspolizei groped about blindly trying to reestablish contact with the fugitives, the West took belated notice of the massive deployment. Visitors to the East German provinces came back bearing breathless accounts of heavily armed Volkspolizei patrolling trains and guarding streets and railway lines; of troops lying in camouflaged foxholes with shoot-on-sight
orders; of a huge troop deployment, unprecedented in scope.

There were rumors of pitched battles between Volkspolizei and partisans. Twenty-eight Vopos were supposedly wounded or dead; sixteen resistance fighters had been arrested. Partisan bands were said to be trying to reach Berlin. The respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that five hundred to a thousand Czech, Polish, and German partisans were allegedly trying to break through to Berlin, having fought their way as far north as Cottbus. The Berlin-Cottbus autobahn was reportedly lined with machine gun nests at hundred-yard intervals, with vehicle checkpoints installed every twenty or so miles.

In the United States, major dailies ran stories about revolts behind the Iron Curtain. The Boston Daily Globe reported a spreading revolt by –Red Army deserters, anti-Communist East Germans and Czech partisans,” and went on to say, –It is not clear whether there is liaison between several reported bands. It is known, however, that their numbers are large enough that they have engaged Soviet and East German peoples’ police units in pitched battles and that 10,000 or more Red Army troops and Communist police have been ordered out in the Berlin area alone in an attempt to root them out.” The partisans allegedly were –on the offensive,” armed with –machine guns and other automatic weapons seized in raids on Red Army and police barracks.”

In West Berlin the Neue Zeitung spoke of a –growing resistance army comprised in part of Soviet deserters, including the commandant of a Soviet air base.”

An unnamed London source breathlessly revealed to reporters that an –East German underground army some 5,000 to 10,000 strong under a unified command” was fighting –some 3,000 crack Soviet Army troops sent into East Germany with orders to crush an anti-Communist resistance movement operating a ‘hit and run’ guerrilla warfare.” The government source conjectured that the commander of the antipartisan campaign was
no lesser a man than Feldmarschall Friedrich von Paulus, the German army commander captured at Stalingrad.’

The East German authorities, meanwhile, remained tight-lipped.

The number of personnel assigned to capturing the men is subject to much debate. Official sources don’t seem to show more than 5,000, but the author states (rightly) that official sources would have had compelling reasons to understate the size of the manhunt once the quarry slipped through the cracks. Regardless of whether it was 5,000 or 50,000, it’s clear that significant forces and effort was committed to getting these men.

As the massive troop deployment dragged on and mushroomed in size, Western analysts had trouble accepting the official Fast German explanation that the authorities were attempting to liquidate five Czech youths armed with pistols. Journalists and government analysts groped for more plausible explanations: military training maneuvers; detachments of several hundred partisans fighting their way to the West from Poland and Czechoslovakia’; a major uprising in East Germany; an –East German underground army”; a –growing resistance army comprised in part of Soviet deserters including the commandant of a Soviet air base.” Arrests of escaped convicts and 17 June leaders reported by the East German authorities during this period seemed to substantiate the interpretation of a large-scale roundup of the opposition.

The mysterious disturbance even boiled over the sector border into West Berlin. The night of Wednesday, 21 October, ten Vopos rushed across the sector border brandishing carbines and submachine guns. They chased two West Berlin policemen fifteen yards into the British sector. As the East Germans shouted, –You murderers, we are taking revenge on you for Cottbus,” the two West Berliners hastily beat a retreat to an emergency telephone to call for a radio car and reinforcements. Reinforcements arrived and the Vopos retreated into the Soviet sector. The West Berlin policemen barely avoided abduction.

What Cottbus incident the Vopos were looking for revenge over isn’t clear to me. But what is clear is that the mobilization of so many forces to track down and apprehend five young men brought a border already on-edge nearly to the boiling point.

Finally, nearing Berlin, they jumped aboard another train.

As the train picked up speed, the icy wind whipped all feeling out of Pepa’s body. Now he could hardly move his limbs. His teeth even stopped chattering.

–I bet this is how the concentration camp inmates felt when the Nazis moved them out of Auschwitz in the winter of ’44,” Radek yelled over the noise of the train.

–Can’t you think of something more uplifting?” Pepa shouted.

In the end, the brothers made it to Berlin and managed to cross into West Berlin and defect. The Wall wouldn’t be built for another eight years.

When Pepa and Radek opened the door to their assigned room, they got a nasty shock. It was occupied by a Vopo lieutenant and three Vopo troopers, still in their black uniforms. Pepa and Radek stood in the doorway, unshaven and unwashed, in their filthy clothes, Radek still wearing his mismatched shoes. The Vopos fell silent and turned to stare at the new arrivals. They recognized the brothers. The Masins stared back in equal astonishment. Hours ago, these six men had been opponents in the largest mobilization in the European theater since the Second World War. Now they stood face-to-face in a simple dormitory in a West Berlin displaced persons camp.

Then the Vopos started gabbing excitedly in German, welcoming them in, crowding around to shake Pepa’s and Radek’s hands, each trying to outdo the other. As it turned out, the whole camp was crawling with uniformed Volkspolizei. * Word that the Masin brothers had arrived spread among the Vopo defectors like wildfire. More and more men in black uniforms crowded into the little dorm room, eager to see Pepa and Radek.

In no time, the Vopo defectors were volunteering interesting details about the manhunt and everyone was laughing at the bizarre irony of the situation. On the other side of the fence they had been hunting Pepa and Radek as outlaws, and here in the camp all of them were meeting on the friendliest of terms. When they discovered that the brothers had had no food for days, the Volkspolizei defectors generously offered what they had.

The brothers had made it and were free. They joined the US Army and qualified for the Special Forces. But, as I’m sure you’re aware, the invasion they hoped to lead never came.

After the Korean War ended in a draw between the Communists and the western democracies, Milan, Pepa, and Radek remained confident that the U.S. would take the initiative to liberate Eastern Europe. Then in June of 1956 workers in Poznan, Poland, struck. The protests were savagely beaten down by the military, leaving several workers dead. The United States did nothing. Four months later, on 23 October; students and workers took to the streets of Budapest, Hungary. The uprising in Hungary electrified the world. Here was a broad-based popular revolt by a satellite people against their Communist oppressors. With Eisenhower’s tough anticommunist talk during the election campaign and the stated U.S. policy of rolling back Communism, surely the moment had come for the West to act and free the East bloc.

Radek, Pepa, and Milan waited in tense anticipation for word that Special Forces would be airlifted in to help the rebels. But when Soviet tanks rolled into the country, the United States again did nothing. The days passed, and Hungarian calls for help on rebel-held radio stations became progressively more anguished and desperate. By 14 November the Soviets had crushed the resistance, unopposed by the West.

As in May 1953, when workers rose up in Plzen, Czechoslovakia; in June 1953, when East Germans revolted; and in June 1956 when the workers of Poznan rebelled, the American response was to provide –sympathy and asylum, but no arms.” More than thirty thousand Hungarians died and at least three hundred thousand fled across the borders. U.S. government policy makers subsequently acknowledged that the Hungarian uprising was largely
a result of the inflammatory broadcasts of VOA and RFE.

The Hungarians, like the Germans, Czechs, and Poles before them, had revolted in the expectation that the American government and its Western European allies would come to their aid, but Eisenhower administration policy papers show that the administration never seriously considered giving them help. Forced to face the horrific consequences of its policy of inciting rebellions it had no intention of supporting, the Eisenhower administration’s response was a tactical retreat: it toned down the rhetoric on the VOA and RFE broadcasts.

The Masin brothers had made it, but their goal was not to be realized. Yet their tale of heroism and courage, even though it bordered on the naive, should be a lesson to all of us. They were willing to risk everything for what they thought was right in the face of terrible odds. They recognized that the struggle against totalitarism demanded a high price, and that the price was worth it.

Interestingly, the Epilogue of “Gauntlet”, which deals primarily with the post-Communist Czech Republic and the opinion that the Masin brothers have of it, is just as interesting as the story of the escape from the Communists. The Masin brothers and their struggle, surprisingly, are not universally respected within the country. And the feeling is mutual.

“Gauntlet” is a good, adventurous read which will fill one with an appreciation for the struggle against oppression waged in the days of the Cold War. Written, as it is, by the daughter of one of the protagonists, we are treated to some of the inner feelings and thoughts that other histories are likely to miss. Murdoc enjoyed the read, and I suspect that you may, as well.

(NOTE: I would like to thank author Barbara Masin and Judy A. Heise of the Naval Institute Press for providing this book to Murdoc Online for review.)