Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (Thomas Masaryk in English)

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (Thomas Masaryk in English) was a leading campaigner for Czech independence from Austria-Hungary both prior to and during World War I and the first president of Czechoslovakia in 1918.

Masaryk was born in Moravia on March 7, 1850, the son of a Slovak coachman. Educated to become a teacher, Masaryk worked as a locksmith for a short time. He subsequently entered the German College at Brünn/Brno (Moravia) in 1865 and continued his studies at the University of Vienna, where he obtained a doctorate in philosophy in 1876.

When studying in Leipzig for a year, he met an American student, Charlotte Garrigue, whom he married in 1878 and from whom he took his middle name. The following year Masaryk was appointed lecturer in philosophy at Vienna University. In 1882 he became a professor of philosophy at the Czech University of Prague.

Early in the same year the Austrian government had been forced to divide the former common university into a German and a Czech section, thereby offering career opportunities for Czech scholars like Masaryk.

As a philosopher, Masaryk was strongly influenced by neo-Kantianism, the British Puritan ethics, and the teachings of the Czech Hussites. Simultaneously, Masaryk showed a lifelong critical interest in the frictions of modern capitalism. His first major works were devoted to suicide in modern civilization as well as to the Czech Reformation and the Czech national revival of the first half of the 19th century.

Masaryk founded two scientific periodicals, one of which he transformed into a political review in 1889. This was the beginning of his political career. In this early phase his attention was devoted to the Slovaks in the Kingdom of Hungary. By criticizing the outdated policy of many Slovak politicians, he became the idol of the younger progressives in Slovakia.

Deeply impressed by contemporary ideas of full democracy, Masaryk became increasingly estranged from the conservative and Catholic concept of the so-called Old Czech Party. He distanced himself from this party's deep loyalty toward the Habsburg monarchy and sided with the liberal Young Czech Party.

As a member of the Austrian parliament, the Reichsrat, Masaryk represented first the radical Young Czechs, but he soon disagreed with their emotional nationalism and resigned his seat in 1893, only two years after his election. In the spring of 1900, he founded his own moderate Realist Party.

Both parties, however, were determined to achieve the creation of an independent Czech state. After his reelection to the Reichsrat, Masaryk became the outstanding figure of the Slav opposition to the government of Emperor Franz

Josef. Masaryk, as a parliamentarian, made himself a name as a sharp opponent of Austria-Hungary's alliance with imperial Germany. He defended the rights of the Croats and Serbs, who had come under heavy pressure after Austria-Hungary had formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908.

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Masaryk fled to Geneva, Switzerland, in December 1914 and then onward to London the following March. In western Europe Masaryk was recognized as the spokesman and representative of what he called the underground Czech liberation movement.

He worked tirelessly to encourage and then commit Allied support for the creation of a Czech state following the war. While staying in London, he cofounded the Czechoslovak National Council, located in Paris. Masaryk's private and scientific acquaintances in France and Great Britain helped him to get in contact with leading Allied politicians.

With their assistance Masaryk was able to propagate the Czech war aims: the restitution of Bohemia's historical independence, which the Habsburgs had curtailed after the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648); the establishment of a union between the Czechs and the Slovaks; and the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in favor of new states to be created according to ethnic principles.

Throughout the war Masaryk worked closely with fellow Czech independence campaigner Eduard Beneš. The latter attended to political negotiations among the Allies, while Masaryk functioned in a more ambassadorial capacity.

After the breakdown of the czarist monarchy in Russia in the spring of 1917, Masaryk transferred his headquarters to Russia. Shortly after the Russian Revolution Masaryk set out for the United States.

Czech and Slovak groups of emigrants there welcomed him as the recognized negotiator of Czechoslovak future independence. Negotiations with President Woodrow Wilson and his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, were successful, resulting in the Lansing Declaration of May 1918. This declaration expressed the sympathy of the Wilson government with the Czechoslovak freedom movement and supported the formation of an independent Czech state after the conclusion of the war.

Allied Power

On June 3, 1918, the Allied governments recognized the Czechoslovak state as an Allied power. The frontiers of this future state were demarcated according to Masaryk's proposals. Masaryk concluded the so-called Pittsburgh Convention with the Slovak associations existing in the United States. This agreement promised the Slovaks a large measure of home rule and played a decisive role in the Czech-Slovak union in 1918–19.

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in late October 1918 led to a firm commitment from the Allied governments to the immediate creation of a new state, Czechoslovakia, in mid-November. Masaryk was elected the new country's first president on November 14, 1918. He was reelected in 1920, 1927, and 1934. During the war Masaryk had promised that the new state would respect the minority rights of its numerous Hungarian and German ethnic groups.

Masaryk was one of the first leading European politicians to publicly express his anxiety over the future of Europe after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933. Aged 85, Masaryk resigned his post as president of the republic in December 1935 and died nearly two years later, on September 14, 1937. He was succeeded by Beneš. Masaryk's son Jan served as foreign minister in the Czechoslovak government in exile (1940–1945) and in the governments of 1945 to 1948.

Although deeply involved in political fighting during the last 45 years of his life, Masaryk also wrote two monumental books before World War I. In a study on Marxism published in 1898, he dealt with the contradictions of both socialism and capitalism. In a book titled Russia and Europe he provided a survey of Russia's crises with respect to social, intellectual, and religious problems.

Masaryk opposed racial prejudice, as shown by his publicly defending a Jew falsely accused of ritual murder. During the 1930s Masaryk's Czechoslovakia was one of the few European countries that accepted refugees of various political orientations. A huge number of refugees from Germany, Austria, and the Soviet Union found shelter in Czechoslovakia, especially in the capital, Prague.