He was the first president of Czechoslovakia, a philosopher, sociologist, humanist, and a democrat. Do you know who we are talking about? If you are thinking about T. Masaryk, then you are absolutely correct! Let’s dive into the story of his life and learn more about his contributions to the history of the Czech Republic!
Tomáš Masaryk was born on the 7th of March in 1850 into a poor family in Hodonín. Josef Masáryk, the father of Tomáš, was a carter, steward, and coachman at the imperial estate. His mother, Teresie Masarykovaá, was a cook at the same estate. T. Masaryk spent his youth in the village of Čejikovice. At the age of 15, the young enthusiast started giving tutoring lessons to the children in his hometown. Later on, he moved to Brno to study at the German Academic Grammar School.
In 1865, Masaryk moved to Vienna to continue his studies at the University of Vienna, his major was philosophy. Between the lectures at the university, Masaryk had to give lessons and do tutoring to all fellow students in order to afford the associated costs of the degree. Approximately after 10 years of successful studying, in 1876, he received the Ph.D. from the university and completed his habilitation thesis in 1879. Meanwhile, from 1876-1879, Masaryk was studying in Leipzig where he met his future wife, Charlotte Garrigue. She was receiving an education in the musical field there. The happy couple lived together in Vienna until 1881, later they moved to Prague. They got married in 1878 and he took Charlotte’s surname as his middle name. They had 5 beautiful children together, including Jan Masaryk, a famous politician.
In Prague, Masaryk was working as a professor of philosophy at the Czech Charles-Ferdinand University. In 1882, T. Masaryk founded Athenaeum, a journal devoted to Czech culture and science. The first issue was published on the 15th of October in 1883; it was edited by J. Otto. What is more, Masaryk changed the validity of the epic poems, Rukopisy královedvorský a zelenohorský. Even though these pieces of art were written in the Middle Ages, they were representing false and nationalistic Czech chauvinism ( Masaryk was strongly opposing this idea). In 1899, T. Masaryk participated in the Jewish blood libel during the Hilsner trial.
The political life of Masaryk had started as early as in 1891 and was full of various events. During 1891-1893, a politician with the Young Czech Party was serving in Reichstag. In 1900, he founded his own political party – the Czech Realist Party, where he served from 1907 to 1914. During this time, he helped Hinko Hinkovic defend the Croat-Serb coalition during their political trial in Vienna (1909).
In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Masaryk came to the conclusion that it would be best to seek independence for Czechs and Slovaks from Austria-Hungary. A few months later, in December, he went into exile with his beloved daughter Olga. Throughout his exile, Masaryk started establishing contacts and building a network that would help bring Czechoslovakia independence. His European network worked with an American counterespionage network of nearly 80 members. He was not only giving lectures but also writing lots of articles that supported the Czechoslovak issue.
One year later, in 1915, he became a professor of Slavic Research at King’s College in London and gave lectures during the hardships of war. During his residence, Masaryk published an article ‘Racial Problems in Hungary’ with a pinch of his ideas about the independence of Czechoslovakia. In 1917, Masaryk wrote his memorandum to Wilson; the topic was ‘The independence of the Czechoslovak state.’ After the bloody and terrifying February revolution, he went to Russia to organize the Czechoslovak Legion.
From the start of his political career, Masaryk had a desire to develop the legion from a battalion to a formidable military formation. To achieve that, he had to recruit Czech and Slovak prisoners of war ( POWs) in the Russian camps. At the end of 1914, the Russian military approved his inquiry and enlisted POWs from the Austro-Hungarian army. However, it lasted only 3 years (until the summer of 1917) – the Russian government saw it as opposition and a threat to their sovereignty. At the beginning of 1916, the POWs were reorganized as the First Czech- Slovak Rifle Regiment. After their outstanding performance at the Battle of Zborov, the Russian provisional government thanked Masaryk and his followers. Later, more regiments were added to the brigade, with the number of people getting close to about 40,000.
In 1918, Masaryk traveled to the US where he had a meeting with President Wilson about the Czechoslovak independence. Chicago became the major center of Czechoslovak immigration. Later, Masaryk was invited to the University of Chicago and introduced to the highest political circles. On the 9th of October, Samuel Insull introduced him as a president of the future Czechoslovak Republic. At the conference, which was held on the 26th of October, Masaryk announced the independence of Czechoslovaks and other oppressed citizens of central Europe.
When the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart (1918), Masaryk was recognized as the head of the provisional Czechoslovak government. On the 14th of November in 1918, he was elected as the president of Czechoslovakia by the National Assembly in Prague ( he was still in the US at the time). During his political activity, Masaryk was re-elected 3 times: in 1920, 1927, and 1934. Overall, he spent about 17 years in his office with multiple changes in the government. Masaryk’s presidential power was limited to a certain degree – the framers of the constitution created a parliamentary system, where the Prime Minister and Cabinet hold the actual power. The presence of Masaryk gave the country economic stability, and the stability gave him more power and influence than the framers of the constitution required. Czechoslovakia was flourishing with the democratic base and a strong currency. After the rise of Adolf Hitler, Masaryk was the first one of the political figures to be concerned. Masaryk used his reputation to create the Hrad, a political informal network. Under his watch, Czechoslovakia became one of the strongest democratic countries in Central Europe. ‘The Masaryk Academy of Labour’ was founded with the support of Masaryk in Prague (1918) and Masaryk University in Brno. He resigned on the 14th of December 1935 due to his age and poor health. In 1937, he passed away at the age of 87 from a stroke.