The Grand Old Man of Europe – Tomáš Masaryk and the Birth of Czechoslovakia

We’ve all gotta start somewhere. A recurring theme throughout the book is the baby steps of nations, stories of men and women dragging their people out from under the heavy hand of history. Folk who said ‘enough!’ to oppressive occupation, and spent their lives working towards achieving freedom for the land in which they were born. More often than not, these individuals come with excellent sombre posing and fine moustaches, and the man who was the most influential Czech of the 20th century peddles a fine line in both.

Tomáš Masaryk was born in the predominantly Catholic town of Hodonín in Moravia, and the Masaryk family were mostly poor and mostly working class. Born into the empire of Austria-Hungary, his father was an illiterate serf, a coachman on an imperial estate who figured the best option for lil’ Tommy was a trade. His mother was a Moravian of Slavic origin and Germanic speaking, who knew better than to throw her son into the world of the blacksmith. Mother Masaryk educated Tomáš at home, before shipping him off to Brno (Czech’s second largest city) to get a proper education from teachers and things. The family’s low social position meant it was extremely difficult for any of the children to get an education, so the entire Czech nation most likely owes Mrs. Masaryk some flowers or something.

Once Tomáš Masaryk entered the educational arena, life got a little easier. He would go on to complete his secondary education in the capital of the empire, the mighty Vienna, where he would earn a pittance tutoring wealthy students. The parents of these wealthy kids would help Tomáš through his education as thanks. With the doctorate in the bag by 1876, Masaryk decided to spend a year studying in the East German city of Leipzig where he met his future wife and arguably the biggest influence on his future, Charlotte Garrigue. Lottie was a Brooklyn-born activist for women’s equality, whom Masaryk referred to as having a ‘magnificent intellect, better than mine’. Humble, I guess. The two got close whilst reading English classics together, and they married in 1878. One year later he completed his thesis, the joyfully-titled ‘Suicide as a Social Mass Phenomenon of Modern Civilization’.

Garrigue would be a huge influence on Masaryk, and not just because from this point onwards he was known as Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. She opened his eyes wider to the world, and this international perspective put him light years ahead of the everyday Czech of the time. He was able to acquire a clearer grasp of international affairs, and as the 19th century metamorphosed into the 20th this was going to prove quite the handy attribute. As per usual we’re getting somewhat ahead of ourselves.

Masaryk was made professor of philosophy at the Czech part of the University of Prague in 1882 and instantly proved popular with his students. Tommy became the leader of the rising Czech nationalist movement, a man on a mission to find a pragmatic approach to life that focused on morality above all. His commitment to truth was particularly impressive, showcased on a number of occasions when Masaryk put his own career on the line to defend individuals that the government was trying to stitch up.

The most notorious of these instances came in the final year of the 19th century when Masaryk defended Leopold Hilsner, a Jewish man accused of murder. More widely known as the ‘Hilsner Affair’, Leo was accused of murdering a 19-year old Czech girl near the town of Polná. Despite a whole heap of zero evidence proving him guilty, the vagrant of low intelligence was given the death penalty. Masaryk, a former member of the Austrian Reichsrat (parliament) at this point, was one of the few men of influence to speak out against this injustice and stand up for the rights of the accused. Hilsner was eventually tried for a second murder and spent 18 years in prison, before being pardoned as World War One came to a close.

As mentioned, Masaryk was a former member of the Austrian parliament by the time the Hilsner Affair came around. After joining the Young Czech Party Masaryk quickly became disillusioned by it, citing the need for a more radical and more honest perspective. He served in the parliament between 1891 and 1893, time spent mostly speaking up for the rights of the Slavic minority in the empire. After leaving the parliament Masaryk became closely associated with the journal Nas doba (Our Age), and followed this up in 1895 by publishing ‘The Czech Question’. One year after standing up against anti-semitism in his homeland Masaryk hurled himself back into politics, establishing the Czech People’s Party (or the Realist Party). Seven years later he found himself back in the parliament, this time with his reputation for defending the persecuted set in stone.

You see, Masaryk was a realist, a socialist, a humanist and a nationalist all in one. Tommy gave his people a key role in the continual improvement of the human condition, through the ideals of the Hussites and the Bohemian Brethren. His obsession with the truth had also seen him expose two supposedly ‘early’ Czech poems to be nothing more than 19th century forgeries. His idealism centred more on trying to create an effective antidote to the materialism and selfishness that was creeping into society at the turn of the century.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Masaryk also stood up for his Slavic brethren in a trial that was entirely concocted by the government in 1908. Known as the Agram Treason Trials, a whole host of Serbs and Croats were arrested on vague charges of trying to unite Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina and found guilty despite there having been no evidence whatsoever. Masaryk was one of the few to stand up and say ‘hold on, this is horse cack’ and challenged the trial. The whole debacle ended with Viennese historian Heinrich Friedjung being sued for libel, as Tommy was able to show that Friedjung accepted documents from the Austrian foreign ministry that he knew were fabricated. The entire farce was designed to curb Serb and Croat co-operation, but it only strengthened the Slavic bond. For Masaryk, the trial enhanced his international reputation and added some weight to his calls for autonomy within the empire for the various minority groups.

The outbreak of international conflict can very rarely be described as a good thing, but for Tomáš Masaryk and the people of what would soon become Czechoslovakia it was truly decisive. The very way in which the war started could have been reduced to a ‘Austria Really Doesn’t Like The Slavs’ headline, and the involvement of Austria-Hungary in WWI proved to be the straw that collapsed Masaryk’s back; independence was the only option for Czechoslovakia. Masaryk left the empire in December 1914 to begin something of a world tour, hoping to convince the major world powers of his cause. Along with Edvard Beneš and Milan Rastislav Štefanik (more on him later) Masaryk founded the Czechoslovak Council, the two aims of which were to bring together various groups of Czech and Slovak emigres whilst securing Allied recognition as the representatives of the Czech-Slovak people.

Masaryk started teaching at the University of London in October 1915, eventually becoming the Professor of Slavic Research at King’s College. His exile took him all over the world, to Rome, Geneva, Paris, London, Moscow, Vladivostok, Tokyo and more, continually engaging in extensive conversation with world leaders over coffee, tea, brandy, whisky and lord knows what else to convince them of the need to dismantle Austria-Hungary once the war was over. Following the February Revolution in 1917 Masaryk found himself in Russia organising Slavic resistance, forming the Czechoslovak Legion. Numbers swelled once volunteer POWs were allowed to join, and with that the tide had turned.

The vast network of Czechoslovak revolutionaries had provided huge amounts of critical intelligence for the Allies, and the growing number of soldiers fighting for the Allied cause did a lot to turn the leanings of Allied leaders in the direction of Czechoslovak independence. In 1918 Masaryk found himself in the good ol’ US of A, where he managed to convince President Woodrow Wilson of the cause. This led to a Masaryk speech in Philadelphia on October 26, 1918, calling for the independence of Czechoslovakia and other oppressed nations in Central Europe.

Less than a month later, Tomáš Masaryk was elected the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic. Tom was in the States at the time, eventually making his triumphant return to a newly independent Czechoslovakia on December 21, 1918. Masaryk would remain President until stepping down due to old age in 1935, and despite his powers being fairly limited on paper he remained an unshakable force of stability in a country plagued by instability and inconsistency in government. Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia became one of the strongest democracies on the European mainland, a mainland that entered the 1930s faced with the threat of an increasingly terrifying Hitler-led Germany.

It wasn’t always sunny in Czechoslovakia of course, and Masaryk struggled to unite the various peoples of the country. Czechs made up a whopping 51% of the country, and despite his best efforts, many felt that Masaryk didn’t provide the Slavs with the self-government they so desired. Making Czechoslovakia economically viable was another momentous task, especially in a post-war Europe that Masaryk described as ‘a laboratory atop a graveyard’.

Masaryk resigned in 1935 and died just two years later on September 14, 1937. He died before the Munich Agreement was signed, thus saving him the horror of seeing the country he had worked so hard to create dismembered by rampant fascism. His son Jan (interestingly enough born on September 14th) was Foreign Minister in the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in World War Two, although Jan would meet a less than graceful end in 1947 when he was found dead on his lawn in his pyjamas.

Tomáš Masaryk was known as the Grand Old Man of Europe, the most fatherly-father figure of them all. He was to Czechoslovakia what George Washington was to the United States of America, and, if nothing else, a picture of him was used on the cover of Faith No More’s ‘Album Of The Year’. And yes, he had a fantastic moustache and was extremely skilled at looking sombre in photographs.

‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is available for purchase, we swear. To pick up a print copy of the book (€20 plus postage), send us an email at miseryslavic@gmail.com. The digital version is available on Amazon at the link linked here. You can also buy the digital copy through us, if you prefer.

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