PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czechs bade farewell on Wednesday to an anti-communist resistance fighter who shot his way to freedom in 1953 in a daring escape that deeply embarrassed authorities early in the Cold War.
Milan Paumer, who died aged 79 last month, was part of the Masin brothers group that killed seven people, including German soldiers and a Czech civilian, during its raids and when it escaped to West Berlin.
The group’s actions, however, continue to divide Czechs and their view of four decades of Communist totalitarian rule that started in 1948 and ended with the peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution, with many seeing their actions as criminal.
But Prime Minister Petr Necas said Paumer made a heroic decision to fight oppression and the methods his group used should not be judged from today’s perspective.
“Life in the ... late 40s and early 50s was a life of slavery and serfdom,” Necas said at Paumer’s funeral in Podebrady, 50 km (30 miles) east of Prague.
“We are born and come to this world as free people and as free people we have the right to fight against enslavement with any, truly any means.”
The Masin group, led by sons of a Czechoslovak general executed by the Nazis during War World Two, was the only opposition armed group in Communist Czechoslovakia.
Two of the five-strong cell were caught during the escape and executed but the other three reached West Berlin after a month-long manhunt involving thousands of police and soldiers.
They joined the U.S. army, which they hoped would soon launch war against the Soviet empire. Prosecution of the two Masin brothers and Paumer was halted after the end of the communist rule in 1989.
Some Czechs consider them to be heroes but others say their actions -- which included killing an accountant and a bound-up policeman -- were crimes, or at least were not the best way to fight the totalitarian government.
Paumer was the only member of the group who returned from the United States to live in the Czech Republic after the end of communism. Ctirad and Josef Masins have refused to come back, demanding that the country, a NATO and European Union member, separates itself more clearly from the communist past.
Reporting by Jan Lopatka