Czechs mark Masaryk anniversary

Photo: CTK

On Friday September 14th Czechs marked the 70th anniversary of the death of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk - the first and best-loved president in the country's history, fondly referred to as "the father of the nation". The man who stood at the cradle of Czechoslovakia and who taught Czechs and Slovaks the principles of freedom and democracy still commands enormous respect. During his life-time Masaryk was a cult figure. Seventy years after his death Czechs say they still have a lot to learn from him.

Photo: CTK
A larger than life statue of President T.G. Masaryk stands just outside the gates of Prague Castle and it was here that people assembled to pay homage to him. In the eyes of the nation this man not only gave them independence but led them on the road to democracy. He would have been pained to know that the democratic principles that he instilled and the values that he advocated in the short years of the First Republic (1918-1938) would be undermined by long years of Nazi and later Communist rule. Prague's mayor Pavel Bem says that Czechs have a great deal to learn from Masaryk in the process of rebuilding democracy.

"Tomas Garrigue Masaryk is the most visible political authority of Czech -and Czechoslovak - modern history. He is a statesman who established a certain set of values which enlightens our lives and provides us with "tools" and an understanding of how to continue the work he started but never finished."

Pavel Bem
Do you think it is important for Czechs to look up to someone, to revere someone as they do President Masaryk?

"That is unbelievably important - especially for the young generation which needs to find its roots. We all know that a nation which forgets its history is bound to repeat the mistakes it has made and we really do not want a repetition of the tragic experiences of the Nazi and Communist occupation. So if we keep our past in our minds, if we keep T. G. Masaryk in our minds then we are on the right road to understanding our role and place in this world."

Although Czechs re-embraced Masaryk's teachings after the fall of communism, the years of totalitarian rule have left their mark. Many of the older people present -who remember the years of the First Republic - were clearly unhappy about how far the Czechs had strayed from Masaryk's code of ethics.

"His ideals are not being upheld. You would be hard put to find a man of such integrity today - either among the common folk or among politicians. Everyone respects his views but nobody is willing to abide by them."

"We are building a democracy here and it is still very fragile. We have so much to learn from Masaryk's teachings - about morals, values, tolerance. We still have so much to gain by embracing his legacy. He was our biggest statesman."

"His motto "Truth will Prevail" has been trampled in the mud. Truth is a rare commodity these days."

"Masaryk is my youth. He was my president and I watched him serve the country up until his death. It made me proud to say he was my president - an honest man who would never lie."

Much water has passed under the bridge since the years of the First Republic. When President Masaryk died Europe was on the brink of war. Today the EU is searching for a modus vivendi for its 27 member states. So do the political lessons to be learnt from President Masaryk still apply in the new Europe? Historian Jan Rychlik says that while times are changing the values and principles upheld by T.G. Masaryk are timeless.

"There are many things from Masaryk's life and teachings that can inspire us even today. Above all it is his philosophy of political tolerance and democracy. Masaryk himself was also a philosopher and religious thinker - although he did not practice any given religion. However his views on ethics and morals as the basis of any political act coupled with tolerance is inspiring for us even today. Our political life definitely needs some correction because politicians' manners and morals are far from perfect."

Do you feel that in the present day we have strayed far from those ideals - in the Czech Republic and Europe?

"Certainly the world has changed considerably since Masaryk's death. Seventy years is a long time. Many things have changed radically. But as a political guideline his idea of an independent country which would be incorporated into the framework of international relations is something that we can accept and something that can inspire us."

Tomas Garrigue Masaryk served as president for four successive terms -from the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 up until 1935. When he died less that two years later on September 14th of 1937 the nation mourned a hero. The American papers wrote "a great statesman has departed" and G. B. Shaw noted "if there were to be a United States of Europe the only man I could imagine at its helm would be T.G. Masaryk".