The funeral has taken place of Milan Paumer, who died on July 22 at the age of 79. He was a member of the controversial Mašín group, who dramatically shot their way across the Iron Curtain in the 1950s. Though many people consider the group killers, a number of senior Czech politicians attended Wednesday’s ceremony, and the prime minister no less made a strong defence of their actions.
Dubbed the Mašín group after the two brothers who led them, they themselves had killed two policemen and a wages clerk in Czechoslovakia, and also shot dead three East German police officers during their dramatic defection.
Nearly six decades later, their actions strongly divide opinion. While for some the Mašín group are rare heroes of the communist era, many Czechs regard them to this day as murderers.
These were the views of some people on the streets of Prague on Wednesday.
Older man: “A lot of people condemn what they did. Whatever kind of resistance it was, lives were lost and that’s the worst thing. They could have found another way of crossing the border, without the loss of life.”
Young man: “From what I know of the story, justification could be found for what they did. But basically there are two sides to the coin: people’s deaths, and the fight for one’s own freedom.”
Czech leaders in the post-communist era have generally resisted calls to honour the Mašín group, with their first official recognition coming from then prime minister Mirek Topolánek two years ago.
However, a number of senior figures from the political right attended Milan Paumer’s funeral service at a theatre in the town of Poděbrady at lunchtime on Wednesday. They included the chairs of both houses of Parliament, the ministers of defence, foreign affairs and the interior, and the Czech prime minister, Petr Nečas.
Addressing mourners from a stage adorned with flowers, Mr Nečas said to condemn the Mašín group would mean also condemning the resistance in the first and second world wars, and made a strong defence of their actions:
“Milan Paumer’s decision to stand up against oppression and abandon a life under totalitarianism was a heroic decision…Many historians today regard Milan Paumer and the Mašín brothers as ‘controversial’ figures. They criticise them for the fact their cross-border escape led to the loss of life. I regard that view as wrong, and unjust.”
Among the other speakers at Wednesday’s funeral was Josef Mašín’s daughter Sandra. She read a tribute to Milan Paumer from her father and his brother Ctirad. The one-time leaders of the Mašín group, who have lived in the US for decades, did not attend. They have always refused to return to their native land in protest at the fact the Communist Party sits in today’s Czech parliament.
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