Vojtech Mastny (born Vojtěch Mastný), 1936
Vojtech Mastny was born in Prague in 1936. His great uncle, also named Vojtěch Mastný, was one of the most important Czechoslovak diplomats of the interwar period. His father, Antonín, meanwhile, worked as a high-ranking official for the Ministry of Trade, while his mother, Jindřiška stayed at home raising Vojtech, who was an only child. Vojtech attended elementary school and the first years of secondary school in the Prague district of Letná, where the family lived, but was unable to pursue his education further the way that he had hoped because of his class background and school reforms in the early 1950s. Instead of being sent to gymnázium in Prague’s Malá Strana, Vojtech was sent for reeducation to work as a mechanic at the Elektrosignal factory not far from his home. On a part-time basis during this period, he attended Střední škola pro pracující [Workers’ Middle School] which, he says, was a good institution. At this time, Vojtech also became interested in learning English, and subsequently German, which he was taught by his great aunt Paula in her flat in Žižkov.
After a time at Elektrosignal and a car parts factory, Vojtech was hired as an assistant archivist at the National Museum, which eventually wrote him a letter of recommendation, paving the way for him to study at Charles University. Despite becoming ever more interested in contemporary history, Vojtech says this was not an appealing field of study at Charles University, which he says was run by apparatchiks in the late 1950s, and so he opted for medieval history and archival studies instead. Vojtech’s graduation was postponed by one year when he was sent for further reeducation to work at a collective farm. He finally obtained his degree in 1962, which was the year that he left Czechoslovakia. He booked himself onto a Soviet cruise and, after some research, decided to split from the group during a stopover in Tunis. He applied for a U.S. visa immediately and received one after a couple of months. Vojtech first settled in New York City, where he worked at the municipal port and studied at Columbia University under the tutelage of Fritz Stern. He wrote his dissertation about Nazi rule in Bohemia and Moravia.
Vojtech has taught history and international relations at Columbia University, the University of Illinois and the Naval War College, among other institutions. He is a senior research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Vojtech has written a number of award-winning books on the Cold War and heads the Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Rebecca.
Vojtech was in Prague at the end of WWII
“I was nine at that time when the War ended and of course the Russian Army came to the great enthusiasm of the population. And well, the country was believed to be liberated. There was one little incident that I recall and that some people probably wouldn’t like to hear even today in the country: that was still in May ’45 and in the streets we saw a line of people being taken away by the so-called Revolutionary Guards. They were Germans who had been collected before being shipped away. Now, there was a long line of people, and there was an old lady there, who was carrying a little suitcase with all her belongings there. And one of our neighbors in the same building where we lived, a big guy, he ran to this lady and grabbed her suitcase. He took it away and said ‘You are not going to need that.’ So this patriot later became a leading figure in the Communist Party in the neighborhood.”
Vojtech says Soviet troops were welcomed warmly by many in Czechoslovakia in 1945
“Most people were enthusiastic about them, and so was I. Even my mother who was inherently a skeptic, much more so even than my father, as well as very well educated (including in history), she was enthusiastic as well and said ‘Well, now we’ll all have to start learning Russian.’ And indeed some timid attempts at that were made in the family. Well, the Soviet Union was seen widely as President Beneš at that time saw it – as a great friend – and Czechoslovakia as a bridge between East and West, a bridge slanted slightly to the East.”
Getting into a good school in Prague in the early 1950s was an ‘ugly game’ says Vojtech
“It was ugly, because it was a game – a ruthless game – played by the parents, by the teachers, by the students themselves trying to get to this selective school, but moreover to avoid something much worse. Now, some of them played the game in a very imaginative way. I recall one of my classmates who was seriously ill, I think he had leukemia, and his mother who was an ardent Communist, or at least pretended to be, she registered him, or he volunteered actually, to become a miner – a coalminer, whom of course was considered at the time to be a hero, the socialist hero. So this classmate of mine who had leukemia volunteered to be a miner, or rather was volunteered by his scheming mother, knowing full well of course that he would not be accepted, but that he would be rewarded for his readiness to be a miner by being allowed to study, which is exactly what happened.
“Well my parents, fortunately, were not quite such accomplished intriguers; they argued that since my record was very good in the school, maybe I deserved to continue to study. Well, the record was fully acknowledged and after endless interviews and whatnot, I was indeed accepted to the entering grade of that three-year program at the school at Malá Strana, and was delighted, was elated, so were my parents who said ‘Well, there is still justice, despite all that has been happening in this communist country.’ Well, their joy was premature. When I first turned up at the beginning of the school year, I was called to the director of the school and he said ‘Well, the National Committee made a decision, and as a result of the decision, you are really not starting here at the gymnázium, but you’ll be starting next week as a mechanic in a factory near where you live.”
For Vojtech in the ’50s and ’60s, Radio Free Europe was not a preferred source of news
“When I lived in Prague, I didn’t listen to Radio Free Europe at all, not only because it was jammed, but because it had a very bad reputation, not only among the communists, needless to say, but also among their enemies, which was the majority of the population. The general attitude was ‘Well, what do these people, who were lucky enough to get out of the country… What are they going to tell us about what we should do?’ So once I learned English – and I was working really very hard with Aunt Paula, she was a very good teacher – I was able to listen to the Voice of America in English, rather than in Czech, and to the BBC also in English. Because I wanted to know what they were telling to people in general around the world, rather than what was tailored to the conditions in Czechoslovakia.”
Vojtech studied medieval history at Charles University in Prague
“My interest was always in modern history and increasingly in contemporary affairs, in what we would call today contemporary history, because by that time I was following avidly what was happening in the world, and trying to look at it as a historian. So history was the field, but of course, at Charles University at that time, which prided itself on being the oldest university in Central Europe but was in fact an outfit run by current or former members of the secret services and similar institutions, history was not a field that anybody in his right mind would want to study – that is to say modern or contemporary history. That was politics; that was not any scholarship.
“The only part of history that could be studied seriously, although in a rather old-fashioned way, was medieval history. So that’s what I studied; I specialized in archival studies. It gave me what one would call a solid background, but it was a very old-fashioned background. It was the way history was studied back in the 19th century when what mattered was, well, as Ranke, the famous German historian said – wie es eigentlich gewesen – how really it was. But not what it meant, not why things happened the way they did, the emphasis was on the facts.
“So that was the kind of medieval history that I studied, and I think that it prepared me in some way for what I was to do later. Of course, in the Middle Ages, there was a very limited amount of written history, one had to do with fragments, and even what was produced at that time, very little of it has survived. And so I had to deal with fragmentary evidence. And later on when I tried to study contemporary history at the time when the archives were still closed, or most of them, and one had to do with the fragments, the methodology, I realized, was not all that different.”
Vojtech was on a hitch-hiking trip in Southern Tunisia when he heard he had received a US visa
“At Christmas time – or after Christmas actually – I decided while waiting for the visa to take another hitch-hiking trip and go down to the desert, all the way to the Sahara as far as I could get, together with the Slovak guy. So the two of us hitch-hiked, and he had the address of some priest at an oasis down in southern Tunisia. So it was quite an adventure and we both loved it, and got quite far south, as south as we could, when the message came faintly on the telephone in the priest’s house that the visa is here and that it really has to be picked up by the end of January if it is to be used this year – otherwise I would have to wait for another year. So I got a taste a little bit for the bureaucracy also, but I wanted to make sure that I would get back quickly.
“There was no way of flying, but there was one train on the one railroad line that cuts across the country. So I got on the train, not on the first class, not on the second class, not in the third class but in the fourth class on the train, which was sort of a cattle car where the locals were traveling with their chickens and other animals. So, it was another adventurous ride, 24 hours or so, to get to Tunis and pick up the visa.”
Vojtech traveled with a ‘re-entry permit’ prior to gaining US citizenship
“The only problem, but it really wasn’t a big one – it was more a nuisance than a problem – was that I was stateless, I didn’t have a passport. So when eventually I got fellowships for research abroad, and I was able to travel to Europe, I needed a document, and so what I was traveling on was a so-called re-entry permit, which looks like a passport, but all it says is that the United States allows me to return. Otherwise I had to have a visa for every single country I traveled to, and I also couldn’t afford to be away for too long, because as everybody knows, one had to have certain uninterrupted residence physically in the country before becoming a citizen. So all this had to be taken into account, but I was on course and that was the least thing that bothered me.”
Category: New York City, Oral History