Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, born exactly 162 years ago, on 7th March, 1850, was Czech philosopher, statesman and patriot. He became the first president of Czechoslovakia (1918-1935) and died the 14th September, 1937.
Hailing from a poor family in Hodonin, he worked as a blacksmith prior to studying philosophy (1872 – 1876) in Brno and Vienna. In 1878 he married an US citizen Charlotte Garrigue and adopted her surname as his middle name. Four years later Masaryk became a professor of philosophy in Prague. Soon he became involved in various public issues, during which he made many enemies amongst ‘politically correct’ Czechs, established a Czech culture and science magazine Athenaeum and became a member of the Young Czechs Party. Between 1891 and 1893 he was a member of Austrian parliament for the Young Czechs, later, between 1907 and 1914, for the Realist Party.
Five months after the beginning of the First World War professor Masaryk left Austria-Hungary and went to exile in London, via Rome, Geneva and Paris. He kept in touch with the Czech patriots of his party, who established an espionage ring with a self-mocking name – Mafia, which, for all its amateurishness, managed to provide Masaryk with valuable economic, political and military intelligence. This in turn Masaryk passed to the Allies’ governments and thus greatly enhanced his standing. In 1915 King’s College in London established School of Slavonic and East European Studies and T.G. Masaryk was invited to lecture. Later he became professor of Slavic Research at King’s College. In 1917 he travelled to Russia and in 1918 to United States. He played important role in establishing the independence of the Czechoslovak Legions in Russia. Those, later, slowed the Bolsheviks’ advance to the Far East.
Prior to 1914, Masaryk was not in favour of the Czech, or for that matter Slovak full independence from Austria-Hungary. The War changed his opinion and from then on he was actively campaigning for Czechoslovakia, both amongst influential personages of Allied governments and amongst Czech and Slovaks living outside Austria-Hungary. He was successful and Austrian-Hungarian Empire disintegrated under the auspices of US President Woodrow Wilson and the French and British would-be statesmen. Not all Czechs or Slovaks were in favour of independence; and the hindsight indicates that a chastened and mildly democratised Austria-Hungary could have been an effective buffer to totalitarian regimes. One of them, Soviet Russia was in 1918 already in a plain sight. Perhaps at that time a serious, long-sighted philosopher in Masaryk gave way to a wain, short-sighted professor.
The grateful Allies recognised Masaryk’s provisional Czechoslovak government and in November, 1918 the National Assembly in Prague elected him as President of Czechoslovakia. He was re-elected in 1920, 1927 and 1934.
Today his books have certain archaic quality which makes them, at least to me, attractive. He assumes the reader has at least working knowledge of other languages, classics and philosophy, including the contemporary philosophical writing. One may not always agree with his conclusions, but Masaryk could never be accused of shallow thinking. That makes his writing different from most of the current ‘produce’ and thus worth reading, though I doubt today anybody bothers.
His motto, and admonishment to his compatriots, was: “Do not fear and do not steal”. His heirs in Bohemia and Slovakia reduced it to: “Do not fear to steal”.
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