Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
He was born in Hodonín as the first-born son in a poor family of Josef Masárik. His closest relationship was with his mother, Terezie née Kropáčková. His parents sent him to the lower secondary school only after the intercession of the local dean, who pointed out the boy’s extraordinary abilities and talents. So it was decided that after school in Hustopeče he would go into teaching. However, there was a two-year hiatus, when he briefly apprenticed in Vienna as a locksmith, but he ran away from teaching. Then he was an apprentice in the manor’s forge in Čejč. Eventually he got to study at the German Gymnasium in Brno.
His excellent grades enabled him to get a scholarship and, besides, he got a favourable position as a tutor in the family of the police director Anton Le Monnier. At this time Masaryk was financially secure enough to support his brother Ludvík in his studies (from 1868). However, there was a conflict with the management of the grammar school, which was caused by Masaryk’s refusal to attend the compulsory school confession, and he was expelled from the institute. Fortunately, his supporter and employer Le Monnier was transferred to Vienna and Masaryk left with him.
From November 1869 he studied at the Academic Gymnasium. He devotes all his time to intensive study, especially of languages and philosophy. In 1872, he graduated from high school and enrolled at the Faculty of Philosophy in Vienna, majoring in philology. A year later, his patron died, but Masaryk immediately found a new and even more profitable position with the general council of the Anglo-Austrian Bank, R. Schlesinger. In 1876 he finished his university studies and went travelling (Italy, Germany). In Germany he spent one year at the University of Leipzig. This stay did not only provide Masaryk with a broadening of his education, but above all, in June 1877, he saw his future life partner Charlotte Garrigue, the daughter of a wealthy American businessman from New York, for the first time. In August, before leaving for their homes, they became engaged.
After his return to Vienna, Masaryk was in a hurry to secure an independent existence. The most viable option for him was to obtain a docentship. His plans were interrupted by the news of Charlotte’s injury. He set out on a journey to America, where they were married on 15 March 1878. The newlyweds returned to Vienna, and Masaryk submitted his habilitation thesis in September 1878, dealing with the problem of suicide. Its book publication (1881) provoked considerable acclaim. His first daughter Alice was born in May 1879, followed a year later by a son Herbert and in 1886 by a son Jan.
It was primarily the question of the family’s financial security that led Masaryk to accept a position at the University of Prague. He came to Prague with his family in 1882, when it was divided into Czech and German parts.
His personality was completely different and distinct in his views and his attitude towards students, and he astonished the conservative environment with his lectures on various, hitherto taboo topics (social problems, prostitution, etc.). This was also the case with his wife, a fully emancipated American. Despite these differences and some contradictions, he was accepted and respected by Czech society from the beginning.
In 1883, he began editing the scientific journal „Athenaeum“, on the pages of which he published Gebauer’s paper proposing a new and precise authentication of the „Zelenohorské and Královédvorské Manuscripts“ with his own interpretation. Thus a conflict arose at first, which gradually grew into a national affair, where patriotic feeling and national politics stood against scientific truth.
Masaryk proved by decisive arguments and opinions that they were forgeries, but at the cost of losing trust in Czech society. In the course of the manuscript struggle, a group of opinionated persons (J. Gebauer, J. Goll, O. Hostinský, August Seydler) was formed, joined by a number of younger supporters of Masaryk, represented mainly by J. Herben. This event redirected Masaryk’s interest into political life. His collaborators at that time were J. Kaizl, K. Kramář. Masaryk himself called the new political direction they represented „realism“. He entered the Reichstag with a mandate for the Young Bohemians in 1891. However, he left after two years (for family reasons and allegedly because of the need for further preparation for political activity); he returned in 1907, when he retained his deputy’s seat until 1914.
The 1990s were particularly active and fruitful in his life. He publishes a number of writings – „The Czech Question“ (1895), „Our Present Crisis“ (1895), „Jan Hus“ and „Karel Havlicek“ (1895, 1896), „Modern Man and Religion“ (1896), „The Social Question“ (1896).
In 1897 he was appointed professor at Charles University. He was also involved in the so-called Polan affair – the Hilsneriad (1899, after the conviction of L. Hilsner for the alleged Jewish ritual murder of a Czech girl), where he pushed for a review of the trial, but at the same time became the target of an anti-Jewish campaign in the press and on the university campus. In 1900, in these tense times and unfavourable situation, he formed the Czech People’s Party (from 1905 the Czech Progressive Party).
At the outbreak of the First World War, Masaryk had already had a distinguished career as a scientist, teacher and cultural politician, but he did not count for much on the Czech political scene – from 1907 he was the only imperial deputy of the tiny Czech Progressive (Realist) Party, founded in 1900. Although he was a critic of the conditions in Austria-Hungary, he did not seek state independence for the Czech lands – this was on the programme of another tiny Czech party, the state-oriented Progressive Party, which was also represented in the Reichstag by only one deputy, Antonín Kalina.
When Masaryk went into exile in December 1914 after the outbreak of the war to fight in a foreign action against Austria, he asked himself: „are we ripe for freedom, for the administration and maintenance of an independent state… will we grasp the world-changing moment?“ Before the end of 1914, Masaryk left for Italy and, after warnings from friends, did not return to his homeland. He worked in Switzerland (1915) and later in the year moved to France, where E. Benes also arrived.
Throughout the war, he bore the greatest burden and responsibility for the future of the entire Czech and Slovak nation in negotiations in England (1916), Russia (1917 – April 1918) and then in America, up to the signing of the Pittsburgh Agreement and the Washington Declaration. And while the European allies hesitated for a long time to break up Austria-Hungary, Masaryk managed to win the support of American President Woodrow Wilson for the creation of the new state.
After years of hard organizational, agitational and diplomatic work during the war years, in which his closest collaborators were M. R. Štefánik and E. Benes, on 14 October 1918 he became chairman of the Provisional Czechoslovak Government, 4 days later in the Washington Declaration he declared the independence of the Czechoslovak nation and on 14 November the Revolutionary National Assembly elected him President of the Republic in his absence. What a change from the situation before the war, when Masaryk’s party was considered almost a sect!
On 21 December 1918 Masaryk returned triumphantly to Prague and the next day delivered his first message to the National Assembly at the Castle. He opened it with the famous quotation from Comenius’s Kshapto, that „the government of Thy things shall turn to Thee again, O Czech people“, and this was one of the sources of the future troubles of the new state. Some considered it to be a restoration of the old Czech state, but in fact a completely new state was being created, including Slovakia and Subcarpathian Russia, and the Czech people in it spoke not only Czech, but also Slovak, Ruthenian, Polish, Hungarian, and especially German.
The identification of the state and the nation was too much in line with 19th century ideology, and not all Slovaks subscribed to the idea of a state Czechoslovak nation. Masaryk’s opinion that the World War was a struggle between democracy and theocracy and that „the idealists won, the spirit triumphed over matter, law over violence, truth over cleverness“ was more a wish than a reality, as was the opinion that humanity had also triumphed with democracy and that free states would form a „friendly all-embracing community“, that the era of „absolutist control of Europe by one great power or by an alliance of great powers“ was coming to an end. He set out his views on the post-war ordering of Europe in „New Europe“ (1920), in which the guiding idea was „Jesus – not Caesar“.
In the post-war period he also completed a book of memoirs, „The World Revolution“, and Čapek’s Conversations with T. G. Masaryk was published. He also wanted to finish the third volume of „Russia and Europe“, but at first his state duties and later his health did not allow him to do so.
The conditions for the establishment of the Czechoslovakia were extremely favourable – Germany defeated, Russia subverted by revolution, Austria broken – but everything was much more complicated. After harsh anti-German words in his first message already in „The World Revolution“ (1925), Masaryk acknowledged that „there are 11 states in Europe which are smaller than our German minority“ and wrote: „I subscribe quite consciously to the national policy of the Přemyslids, who protected the Germans nationally“. He considered a Swiss system of government, but society was not ripe for it, and the state never got the necessary fifty years of peace and tranquillity that Masaryk demanded for its successful development on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the republic.
The Czechoslovak Republic also had economic, social, administrative and general political problems, and Masaryk was not only a man of lofty ideas, but also a politician of decisive action. In 1920, for example, by appointing the bureaucratic government of J. Černý, he uncompromisingly contributed to the suppression of the communist attempt to gain power. Although he was not a member of any political party – his pre-war party merged with Kramář’s National Democracy – he effectively intervened in the political scene and was a representative of „castle politics“, which was supported mainly by the Social Democrats, the National Socialists, some leaders of other parties (A. Švehla, J. Šrámek), leading journalists and artists, and of course the Sokol and the majority of the legionnaires. The „Castle“ also had its opponents, especially in the nationalist parties (A. Hlinka, K. Kramář, later K. Henlein), in people who had failed politically or personally (J. Stříbrný, R. Gajda), and of course in the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), which advocated the slogan „Not Masaryk, but Lenin!“ Nevertheless, he was personally respected by all and represented an extraordinary authority. After his first two-year term, he was re-elected president in 1920, 1927 and 1934, and on the occasion of his 80th birthday a law was passed: ‚T. G. Masaryk has contributed to the state‘.
„We owe our political independence in the main to…the West“, he wrote, and he was also rightly convinced that the new state belonged to the West by its history. He therefore supported Benes’s orientation towards France, especially in foreign and defence policy, and already in his first message he declared that „our Republic will always remain faithful to the Allies“. However, after the World War, a „friendly all-rounder“ did not emerge in Europe. Important countries were dominated by communist, fascist and Nazi dictatorships, which were to prove fatal to the world and to the Republic, since the Allies did not reciprocate its loyalty for many reasons.
After Hitler’s rise to power, Masaryk still accepted the presidential candidacy in 1934 – the Communists then nominated K. Gottwald – but he abdicated his office the following December. As a result of his age, ill health and even his inability as a democrat and humanist to fully comprehend something as repulsive as a totalitarian dictatorship, he did not consider it possible to head the state in a time of imminent danger.
„That murky morning, remember that, my child,“ the poet J. Seifert mourned with many when Masaryk died at the end of the summer of 1937 at the castle in Lány. His funeral on 21 September became a great manifestation of grief, but also of faith in democracy by all democratically sentient citizens of the state, regardless of nationality.
Masaryk’s principle was that „democracy is the antithesis of aristocracy“ and he was therefore a convinced supporter of a republican system. After a millennium of monarchism, it was fortunate for the new republic that he became its president.
His extensive education in philosophy, history and sociology, his knowledge of foreign countries and languages, his considerable activity as a scientist and teacher, his long political experience as a party member and as a deputy, his opposition to the fact that „the great majority of people in political office cannot rise above themselves, unable to free themselves from the clutches of uncritical egocentrism“, high personal morality, frugal life and, last but not least, dignified, even noble appearance and demeanour – with all this he established in the Czech political tradition an example of a statesman who was and will remain for a long time an unrivalled model for his successors.
* 7 March 1850 Hodonín
† 14 September 1937 Lány
Czech scientist, philosopher, educator, politician and journalist, founder of the modern Czechoslovak state, Czechoslovak president