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* March 7, 1850 Hodonin
† September 14, 1937 Lany

Czech scholar, philosopher, teacher, politician and journalist, founder of a modern Czechoslovak state, Czechoslovak president

T.G. Masaryk was born in Hodonin as the eldest son of Josef Masaryk's family living in poor circumstances. He enjoyed a close relationship with his mother Terezie, née Kropacova. His parents sent him to a junior secondary school only after the local dean, who drew attention to the boy's exceptional aptitude and talent, appealed to the family. It was therefore decided that after graduating from the school in Hustopece the young man should embark on a career as a teacher. There was, however, a two-year interval when he was briefly apprenticed in Vienna as a mechanic, from which he absconded. He then served as an apprentice in the smithy of a manor house in Cejc. Finally he managed to attend a German grammar school in Brno.

Masaryk's excellent results garnered him a scholarship and in addition he achieved a lucrative position as a tutor in the family of Anton Le Monnier, Director of the Police. At this time Masaryk was financially self-sufficient enough to also provide for his brother Ludvik's education (as of 1868). But a conflict erupted with the grammar school's board of directors when Tomas Masaryk refused to go to confession, which was compulsory at the school. This led to his expulsion from this institute. Fortunately, his patron and employer, Le Monnier, was transferred to Vienna and Masaryk joined him.

As of November 1869 Masaryk attended the Academic Grammar School. He devoted all his time to intensive learning, in particular languages and philosophy. He passed his graduation exams in 1872 and enrolled at the Philosophical Faculty in Vienna as a student of Philology. A year later his patron died. However, Masaryk immediately found another and even more advantageous post in the service of the General Counsellor of the Anglo-Austrian Bank, R. Schlesinger. In 1876 he graduated from University and went on tour (Italy, Germany). He spent one year in Germany at the Leipzig University. This not only provided Masaryk with an opportunity to broaden his education, but above all it was here in June 1877 that he first met his future lifelong partner Charlotte Garrigue, the daughter of a wealthy American businessman from New York. In August before they each left for their respective homes they got engaged.

Having returned to Vienna Masaryk was anxious to assure a livelihood for himself. Gaining a position as an associate professor seemed to him to be the most feasible option. His plans were thwarted by news of Charlotte's injury. He set out for America where the engaged couple married on March 15, 1878. The newly weds returned to Vienna and Masaryk submitted his advanced doctoral thesis dealing with the problem of suicide. At the time it was published (1881) it met with considerable response. In May 1879 their eldest daughter Alice was born, a year later their son Herbert and in 1886 their son Jan.

Prompted above all by a desire to assure an income for his family Masaryk accepted a position at Prague University. He arrived in Prague with his family in 1882 just at a time when the University was being divided into a Czech and German one.

His personality differed absolutely from prevailing conventions in his opinions and attitude toward his students. He took the conservative environment by surprise with his lectures concerned with themes which hitherto had been taboo (social problems, prostitution etc.). Similarly, this applied to his wife, a fully emancipated American woman. In spite of these differences and some conflicts Czech society accepted and respected him from the very start.

In 1883 he began to edit the academic journal "Athenaeum" on whose pages he published together with his own explanations Gebauer's essay proposing a new and precise verification regarding the genuineness of the "Zelenorske and Kralovedvorske Manuscripts". This gave rise to a conflict which developed into an all-nation scandal in which scholarly evidence stood in opposition to patriotic sentiments and national politics. Masaryk put forward decisive arguments and historic references to prove his case that the manuscripts were faked at the cost of losing the confidence of Czech society. In the course of the battles over the manuscripts a group of kindred spirits was established (J. Gebauer, J. Goll, O. Hostinsky, August Seydler) which was joined by a number of Masaryk's younger adherents above all represented by J. Herben. This event steered Masaryk's interest toward politics. At the time he found associates in J. Kaizl and K. Kramar. The new trends which these men represented Masaryk himself described as "realism". He entered politics as a member of the Imperial Council on behalf of the "mladocesi" ("Young Czechs") in 1891. After two years, however, he retired (for family reasons and ostensibly because of a need to prepare himself for an involvement in politics); he made a comeback in 1907 when he retained his mandate as a member of parliament until 1914.

He proved to be particularly creative and made a considerable contribution in the nineties. He published a number of works - "Czech Question" (1895), "Our Current Crisis" (1895), "John Huss" and "Karel Havlicek" (1895, 1896), "Modern Man and Religion" (1896), "Social Question"(1896).

In 1897 he was appointed Professor at Charles University. He also played a part in the so-called Polanske affairs - Hilsneriada (1899, following the condemnation of L. Hilsner for the apparent Jewish ritual murder of a Czech girl), whereby he championed the defendant and succeeded in asserting a re-trial, but at the same time he became a target of anti-Semitism in the press and at the University. These tense times and unfavourable situation saw the establishment of the Czech People's Party in 1900 (from 1905 Czech Progressive Party).

By the outbreak of the World War I Masaryk had achieved considerable respect as a scholar, professor and in the field of cultural politics, but he did not carry much weight on the Czech political scene - as of 1907 he was just one of the members of the Imperial Council of an insignificant Czech Progressive (Realistic) Party established in 1900. Granted he criticized the condition in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but he did not strive for the independence of the Czech Lands - this issue constituted the programme of yet another insignificant Czech party, constitutionally progressive, which had a single representative, Antonin Kalina, in the Imperial Council.

When Masaryk went into exile in December 1914 after the outbreak of World War I to fight Austria in foreign campaigns, he posed himself the question: "are we ripe for freedom, for the administration and maintenance of an independent state .... Do we understand this moment in world history?" At the end of 1914 Masaryk left for Italy and having received warnings from his friends he did not return to his homeland. He spent some time in Switzerland (1915) and later that year moved to France where he was joined by E. Benes. During the entire war he took upon himself the biggest burden and responsibility for the future of the entire Czech and Slovak nation in the course of negotiations in England (1916), Russia (1917 - April 1918) and then in America until he signed the Pittsburgh Agreement and Washington Declaration. And while the European allies were undecided for a long time with regard to the breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Masaryk succeeded in gaining the support of American President Woodrow Wilson for the establishment of a new state. Following the war years dedicated to organizing, agitating and diplomacy together with his closest associates M.R. Stefanik and E. Benes, he became chairman of an interim Czechoslovak government on October 14, 1918, and 4 days later he announced in the Washington Declaration an independent Czechoslovak nation and on November 14 the Revolutionary National Assembly elected him in absentia President of the Republic. What a change from the situation before the War when Masaryk's party was considered to be almost a sect!

On December 21, 1918 Masaryk made a triumphant return to Prague and on the following day he delivered his first declaration to the National Assembly at the Castle. He opened it with a famous quotation from the Testament by Comenius, notably, "the affairs of your government are returned into your hands once more, oh Czech people", and this became one of the sources of the future difficulties of the new state. All and sundry considered this to be a renewal of the Czech state of yore, in actual fact, though, a completely new state came into being, also including Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Czech people did not only speak Czech, but also Slovak, Ruthenian, Polish, Hungarian and above all German. Identifying the state with the nation was far too indebted to the ideology of the 19th century and moreover not even all Slovaks advocated the idea of a state of a Czechoslovak nation. Moreover Masaryk's opinion that the World War was waged between democracy and theocracy and that the outcome was "a victory for idealists, a victory of a spirit over matter, rights over force, truth over cunningness", was actually more wishful thinking than a fact, just as the opinion that a democratic victory spawns humanity and that free states will spawn an "all-embracing friendly whole", that this is the end of an era of "absolutistic rule in Europe by one power or an association of great powers". He expressed his opinions regarding a post-war system in Europe in "New Europe" (1920) in which the predominant idea was "Jesus - not Caesar".

In the post-war period he also finished his book of memoirs "World Revolution", Karel Capek's"Conversations with T.G. Masaryk" was written at this time. He also wanted to finish the third volume of "Russia and Europe", but first party duties and later his state of health prevented him from doing so.

The conditions after the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic were exceptionally favourable - Germany was defeated, Russia in a state of turmoil following the revolution, Austria dismembered - but everything was far more complicated. Following some hard-hitting words in his first address in"World Revolution" (1925) Masaryk admitted that "there are 11 states in Europe which are smaller than our German minority", and he wrote, "I adhere quite consciously to the national policy of the Premyslides who protected the German nationals". He considered the model of a Swiss organization of a state, but the society was not ripe for this and the state never had the necessary fifty years of peace and calm to enable a successful development for which Masaryk plead when speaking to mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Republic. The Czechoslovak Republic also had economic, social, administrative and general political problems and Masaryk was not merely a man of noble ideas, but also a politician of resolute actions. In 1920, for instance, by nominating J. Cerny's caretaker government he contributed uncompromisingly to the suppression of a Communist attempt to seize power. Even though he was not a member of any party - his pre-War party merged with Kramar's national democrats - he effectively interfered in politics and served as a representative of "Castle politics" which was supported in particular by social democrats, national socialists, some leading personalities of other parties (A. Svehla, J. Sramek), prominent journalists and writers and of course Sokol [the Falcon physical fitness movement] and the majority of legionaries. "The Castle" was also faced with opposition, especially from the nationalistically orientated parties (A. Hlinka, K. Kramar, later K. Henlein), from those who politically or on a personal level had failed (J. Stribrny, R. Gajda) and of course from the Czechoslovak Communist Party which coined the slogan "Masaryk No, but Lenin!". Nevertheless he generated respect from everybody and represented a quite exceptional authority. Following his first two-year term in office he was re-elected President in 1920, 1927 and 1934 and a law was adopted to mark his 80th birthday saying "T. G. Masaryk merited for the State."

"To a major degree … we are grateful to the West for our political independence" he wrote and he was also rightfully convinced that the new state belongs to the west due to its historic development. He therefore supported in his foreign and defence policy the Benes orientation towards France and back in his first message he declared that "our Republic will always remain loyal to our allies". However, after the World War "a friendly all-embracing entity" did not come into being. Communist, fascist and Nazi dictatorships, which were to become fateful to the world in general and to the republic, ruled significant states, since for many reasons the allies did not reciprocate fidelity. After Hitler came to power Masaryk in 1934 again accepted the presidential candidacy - the Communists at the time put forward K. Gottwald as their candidate - but the following year in December Masaryk abdicated. As a result of old age, ill health and also the inability of a democrat and humanist to fully understand something as repulsive as a totalitarian dictatorship, he did not consider the possibility of heading a state at a time of a dangerous threat.

"Remember, my child, that murky morn," the poet Jaroslav Seifert together with many others mourned, when Masaryk died at the end of the summer of 1937 at the Castle in Lany. His funeral on September 21 turned into a mighty demonstration of mourning, but also of a trust in democracy among all democratically thinking people in the country regardless of their nationality.

Masaryk adhered to the principle that "democracy is the opposite of aristocratism", and he was therefore a convinced supporter of a republic. Following thousands of years of monarchy it was the good fortune of the new republic that it was he who became president. His extensive erudition in philosophy, history and sociology, his knowledge of foreign countries and languages, his significant activities as a scholar and teacher, his long years of experience as a politician in party matters and as a member of parliament, his distaste for "a vast majority of people engaged in politics who are unable to rise above themselves, are incapable of extracting themselves from the grip of uncritical egocentrism", lofty personal morality, a temperate life and last but not least also dignified, indeed a sublime appearance and performance - in all this he established a tradition to be pursued by Czech statesmen, which for his successors has been and has remained for long an unachievable model. (mch, ss)

Libri Publishing house: "Who was who in our history until 1918" and "Who was who in our 20th century history"
Quoted with the consent of the publisher
The President's Office does not take responsibility for the contents of the text.