Tomáš G. Masaryk

3 2004 Aktuality English
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Tomas Masaryk was born in Hodonin in Southern Moravia on the 7th of March, 1850. His mother, Therese Kropaczek, was born in 1813, ten years before his father. She was a cook in rich families, his father was a servant on imperial farms. His mother’s social status was much higher than his father’s. His mother spoke only German, – taught Tomas his prayers in German – his father only Slovak and a little German. Was Tomas Czech, German or Slovak? It wasn’t until he went to Vienna that he identified himself with the Czech students there. Except for some years in the lower grades in Cejkovice, where he attended a Czech school, his schooling was exclusively German. With his playmates he spoke the local dialect – a mixture of Czech and Slovak. Due to the father’s occupation, the family moved frequently.

Tomas’s parents decided to send him to gymnasium in Brno, about 50 miles from his home. There, he allegedly refused to pronounce Latin the German way and to go to confession. Consequently, he was asked to leave the school. Tomas then gave private lessons to weathier students to support himself. Fortunately, the police president of Brno, Le Monier, whose two sons TGM tutored. took TGM with the family to Vienna when he was transferred there. He was sufficiently impressed by the young man to suppress him there financially. Tomas soon gained admission to the university of Vienna, where he later also had an unpaid teaching position (docent) from 1870 to 1882. In 1976, he left Vienna to spend a postgraduate year in Leipzig, continuing his studies of philosophy. There he met Charlotte Garrigue, an American student of music and married her in 1878. His first trip to the US opened his horizon significantly. From then on he used his wifeäs last name, Garrigue, as his middle name. In 1882 he was appointed to a professorship at the new Czech university in Prague.

At that time there were about six million Czechs and three million Germans in Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Masaryk, in addition to teaching and scholarly work, began publishing political and cultural journals. In 1886 he joined a minority of Czech intellectuals engaged in critical analysis of the famous allegedly medieval manuscripts "found" by the philologist Vaclav Hanka in Dvur Kralove and in Zelena Hora in 1817 and 1818. For declaring them as forgeries, Masaryk became a very controversial figure. He was maligned as unpatriotic, even as a traitor. But he was also respected for his honesty. The people who became his devoted followers formed a group called Realists.

In 1891, Masaryk joined the Young Czech party, and was elected to the Vienna parliament, where he worked on problems such as better education and more social welfare for Czechs. However, the power of the parliament was limited. Austria was a monarchy with a central government. Most Czechs seemed to be in favor of self-government within a federalized Empire. When in 1866 Austria had been weakened considerably by losing the war against Prussia, the Emperor was pressured into granting autonomy to Hungary, but not to Bohemia and Moravia.

In 1893 Masaryk resigned from parliament in order to devote more time to academic work. Many Czechs hoped that a foreign power could help them. They dreamed of being liberated by either France or the mighty Russians, but Masaryk believed that Russia, although a Slavic country, knew nothing about the Czechs and cared even less.

In 1899-1900, Masaryk defended Leopold Hilsner, a mentally retarded Jew living in Polna in Eastern Bohemia, who was accused of ritual murder, of killing a young woman. He was sentenced to death. Masaryk was able to show that there were many weaknesses in the evidence, and Hilsner was retried and the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Eventually, after Czechoslovakia was established, he was pardoned by President Masaryk. The trial resulted in an intense wave of anti-Semitism among the population, including the students at the university.

Even more than during the controversy about the manuscripts, Masaryk had many enemies. He was so disillusioned that he considered emigrating to America, but his wife persuaded him to stay.

In 1900, when Masaryk was 50 years old, his friends and followers founded the Czech People’s party, commonly known as the Realist party.

Basically, it followed Masaryk’s ideas on democracy as well as on social and economical issues. In 1901, an American millionaire from Chicago, Charles R. Crane who was interested in the culture and history of Slav nationalities, contacted Masaryk and asked him to lecture at The University of Chicago, to which he contributed large sums of money for the purpose of establishing courses in Slavic studies. TGM indeed went and during the summer of 1902 taught at The University of Chicago a course entitled "Philosophy and History of a Small (Czech) Nation" Emperor Francis Joseph entered into an alliance with Germany which was ruled by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

In 1909 Masaryk exposed a shocking scandal involving the new minister of foreign affairs, Baron Alois von Aehrenthal, concerning Serbian-inspired subversion in Austria-Hungary. The well known historian and journalist, Heinrich Friedjung, accused prominent Serbs and Croats of being members of subversive organization, which had its seat in Belgrade. It was proven that the accusations were completely false, and that all presented documents were forgeries. Friedjung had to withdraw his charges. The purpose of the scheme had been to enable Austria-Hungary to intervene in Serbia. In 1913, Masaryk was reelected to the Vienna parliament. At that time, he also published his most important book "Russland und Europa, 2 Bd. (Jena: Diederichs Vlg., 1913) – later translated as "The Spirit of Russia."

In 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian student in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary used this as a pretext to address an ultimatum to the Serbian government an opportunity to declare war on Serbia. Russia, Serbia’s ally, declared war on Austria Hungary and Germany entered the war on the side of Austria-Hungary.

Together they were called the Central Powers. Eventually they were joined by Turkey and later by Bulgaria, while the Allies, France, England, Russia and eventually the United States were known as the Entente Powers Allies.

Czech soldiers of course had to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army. Deserters were executed. Although the Allies wanted to defeat Austria-Hungary but not do destroy it. In 1915, Masaryk reached the conclusion that the Austrian Empire had to be broken up completely if the Czechs and Slovaks were to be independent. In December 1914, he left Prague with his daughter Olga for Italy. From there he went to Switzerland. Masaryk, who worked closely with the sociologist Dr. Edvard Benes, and the astronomer who volunteered as pilot Milan Rastislav Stefanik, a Slovak eventually reached the conclusion that the monarchy could not be salvaged.

It was with his public lecture "The Problem of Small Nations in the European Crisis", delivered on 19.X.1915 at King’s College in London, Masaryk broke his silence.

From then onwards he strove for an independent state of Czechs and Slovaks (the Ruthenes joined in in the last minute to be erected on the ruins of the Habsburg empire.

Benes was headquartered in Paris, where the new organization bore the name the Czech National Council.

But first Masaryk had to go to Russia in the spring of 1917 to organize the Czech and Slovak POWs into the Czech Legion, as did the Czech and Slovak POWs in France and Italy. In Russia, Masaryk was able to organize a Czech brigade in Kerensky’s army which won an important victory near Zborov in Ukraine on July 2, 1917. By the end of 1917, the Czech legion was about 40.000 strong. When in November 1917 Russia was proclaimed the first Communist state, Masaryk decided to keep the legion strictly neutral while negotiating for a transit of his soldiers to France.

Masaryk arrived in the U.S. only in May 1918 after traversing Russia – 5000 miles – by the Transsiberian railway. One of his main goals was to attain the support of the Czechoslovak communiti abroad, especially of the emigrants in the USA. Masaryk spoke to them in Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and other cities, and received a hero’s welcome.. There was between about half and one million Czechs and Slovaks in the U.S. many supporting his objectives.

The weakest among in Masaryk’s potential allies were the Czechs and Slovaks in the Czech lands, because many leading politicians thought it best to stay loyal to the Habsburgs. Those Czechs who wanted to abolish Habsburg rule organized in what came to be called the mafia.

In 1915, several tragedies struck Masaryk’s family. His son Herbert died of typhus, contracted from war refugees. His daughter Alice had been arrested because of the activities of her father, and some newspapers reported mistakenly that his son Jan had been hung as a deserter. Moreover, his wife Charlotte had suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered.

Emperor Francis Joseph died in 1916 at age eighty-six. His successor, Emperor Charles I, tried to salvage the empire, promising to transform it into a federation, but to no avail. He and his advisors eased the repressions against the Czechs, but it was too late. A separate peace with the Allies was considered but rejected by the Allies. [earlier!] The Czech and Slovak POWs in Russia, France and Italy, who had been unwilling soldiers of the Habsburgs, went over to the Allied side; In Russia, the provisional government. under Alexander Kerensky, who hoped to establish democracy in Russia, seemed to be more in favor of the Czech Legion than the tsarist regime who distrusted the Legion formed of deserters who had already betrayed another emperor. Kerensky’s short lived government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Iljich Lenin.

When Masaryk came to Russia, it was in a state of turmoil.

In April 1917, the U. S. had entered the war on the Allied side, while Masaryk went ahead to the U.S. as the Legion’s ‘quartermaster’.

The U.S. president Wilson and Masaryk had many things in common. Both had been professors, both saw the war as a crusade for more democracy to be granted to small nations… in the world. Wilson summed up his plans for the postwar world in his Fourteen Points, issued in January 1918. According to them, Austria-Hungary should continue to exist. As this was unacceptable to Masaryk, he went to Washington to try to convince Wilson that the Czechoslovak struggle against the Habsburgs was just like the American struggle against British rule in the 18th century. They also discussed US assistance to the Czech legion.

Three weeks later US troops landed in Vladivostok Meanwhile the Czech Legion became involved in open warfare with the Bolsheviks and took the entire Transsiberian Railway under control – which changed the strategic balance in the Russian civil war. The Allies were drawn into the conflict. The military achievements of the Czech Legion in Siberia became the most important single factor in the considerations of the Allies to support the cause of Czechoslovak independence. In September 1918, the U.S. recognized the Czech National Council.

Benes pointed to the record of the Czech legion in Russia in order to receive the same backing from France, Britain and Italy. By then, Masaryk, Benes and Stefanik were recognized as the leaders of the emerging state of Czechs and Slovaks. By summer of 1918, a million-strong American army had joined the Allied armies in France. The morale of the armies of the Central Power was deteriorating, and the civilian population was starving. However, a serious setback was the Brest-Litovsk Peace between the Central Powers and the Bolseviks (Masaryk was profoundly unhappy). As a result Ludendorff was able to withdraw troops from the Eastern Front and transfer them to the Western Front… to launch a major offensive towards Paris … advancing to the river Marne like in 1914! Besides, the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary were afraid that their defeat might lead to communism, as it had in Russia a year earlier. The Central Powers were losing the war and asked Wilson to mediate, but Wilson replied that it was up to the people of Austria-Hungary to decide.

Czechoslovakia was founded as a republic, with a strong central government after the French model. Masaryk hoped that Czechs and Slovaks would give the world an example of how nations could live peacefully side by side.

In May 1918, Czech and Slovak organizations in the U.S. had reached the so-called Pittsburgh Agreement, signed by Masaryk as a witness, promising Slovakia full political autonomy within the future Czechoslovakia.

A difficult matter was presented to the new republic by the existence of sizeable minorities. In Slovakia, there lived 750.000 Hungarians, and in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia there were over three million Germans. The drafters of the Versailles peace treaty had followed the historic boundaries of the Czech lands, whereas in the eastern half of the republic borders were drawn up by the military who won the war. This was done against the will of many, perhaps most, German and Hungarian inhabitants. They were not granted self-determination. Nevertheless, despite the uncooperative stance of those minorities, under President Masaryk’s leadership, Czechoslovakia became one of the best-functioning democracies in Europe. Masaryk was 68 years old when he became president, and 85 when he resigned. Although undoubtedly not all of his decisions were optimal, he was admired, indeed beloved by most Czechs and many Germans and Slovaks. George Bernard Shaw allegedly said that if there were a United Europe, Masaryk would be the obvious choice as president. Probably there was no one whom he might have groomed to become his worthy successor. When he resigned from the presidency in 1935, he was, upon his recommendation, succeeded by his closest co-worker, Dr Edvard Benes who had been foreign minister since 1918. As became obvious in English exile during the years of World War II, and even more between 1945 and 1948.

Mercifully, Masaryk died on September 14, 1937.

Charles Opatrny, Vilma Iggers

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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