Gauntlet: Five Friends, 20,000 Enemy Troops, and the Secret That Could Have Changed the Course of the Cold War, by Barbara Masin. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006. 382 pp. $30 (hardcover).
As a child, Barbara Masin had a favorite bedtime story: her father’s retelling of the time he (Pepa), her uncle Radek, and their friend Milan hid under a pile of branches to elude East German troops who were hunting them down. This cliff-hanger of a story, told to her in fragments, never seemed complete. Pepa Masin did not talk much about what came before and after this adventure, and the story he did tell—of a daring escape from Communist Czechoslovakia through East Germany to the freedom of West Berlin—seemed incredible. It was easy to understand the desire to escape to the West, but why were twenty-four thousand East German and Soviet troops deployed to stop five lightly armed young Czechs? And how did her father and his friends survive against such overwhelming odds? Barbara Masin finally found the answers after teaching herself rudimentary Czech and painstakingly researching recently opened secret police archives from Germany and the Czech Republic.
The result of Masin’s research is Gauntlet, the gripping story of these young Czech freedom fighters determined to escape to the West, join the U.S. military, and return to overthrow the evil Communist regime that was terrorizing their country.
Shortly after the Communists seized power in 1948, the Masin brothers and their friends began engaging in small acts of protest against the regime. Convinced that a more-aggressive approach was necessary, the boys advanced to acts of vandalism and then to the formation of an underground resistance group dedicated to sabotaging their new tyrants, the Czech Communists. Unapologetic about their deadly tactics, the boys stole money and weapons from the government, at times killing agents of the regime who stood in their way.
In 1953, after two years of efforts to bring down the Communist government, the Masin boys were convinced that the best way to end the regime was to escape to the West and join the U.S. Army in what they thought was an imminent invasion of Czechoslovakia.
This sets the stage for an escape worthy of James Bond at his best. What was supposed to be an uneventful three-day journey across East Germany to West Berlin turned into a month-long manhunt of epic proportion. Over the course of their thirty-day odyssey, we see many narrow escapes, showing both the resourcefulness of the boys and the weakness of their Communist enemy.
An interesting postscript to Masin’s thoroughly engaging narrative is that the current Czech government refuses to recognize these heroes and celebrate their resistance to the Communists. Some in the Czech government have even characterized the Masins as common criminals. Hopefully, in the light provided by Gauntlet, this injustice will soon be remedied.
In any event, Gauntlet is an engaging and inspiring book about young men of remarkable courage. Anyone who reads it will live for a time in their world—and be better equipped to live thereafter in his own.