Freshly digitised recordings bring T.G. Masaryk’s funeral to life

The funeral of T. G. Masaryk

Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, died in the early hours of September 14, 1937, exactly 85 years ago. His funeral took place a week later in Prague and was attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Newly digitised recordings from Radio Prague International broadcasts recreate the atmosphere of the time.

“It is estimated that more than half a million people have filed through the pillared hall of Prague Castle before the coffin, draped in the state flag, under which the president-liberator T. G. Masaryk sleeps his last sleep…It is, in truth, a national pilgrimage.”

Black cloths were draped from the balcony of the Old Town Hall on September 21, 1937, with silver letters spelling out the initials of the man who was officially recognised by law as the “President-Liberator”.

Already recognised as a major figure at the time, Masaryk’s funeral was not just attended by delegations from across the Czechoslovak Republic, but also by many foreign dignitaries from countries such as Poland, the USSR, France and Belgium. Many of the states that were friendly to Czechoslovakia also held religious services in their capitals in his honour.

The funeral of T. G. Masaryk | Photo: public domain

Edvard Beneš, Masaryk’s closest disciple who had replaced the ageing founder of the republic as its president in 1935, delivered a rousing eulogy that called on the country’s citizens to finish the president-liberator’s work and build a state “worthy of the one who has just left us.”

Edvard Beneš | Photo: Archive of Czech Radio

“I call on you all in the spirit of our first president to fulfil his legacy, to finish our aim of creating a just, steadfast, indomitable, progressive and humane democracy. Despite his departure, Masaryk remains with us and serves as an example and challenge to all of us, an example of great faith in mankind which is so much needed in today’s Europe.”

Among the mourners was Pavel Milyukov, a Russian dissident and a member of Russia’s Provisional Government before the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution who frequently visited Prague during the interwar era to deliver lectures. He wrote a speech about the late president, broadcast by Radio Prague International, in which he referred to him as “an old friend” who wanted to lift up the Czechoslovak people “to a higher stage of pure morality.”

Pavel Milyukov | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“There was a sense of holiness about him, which oozed out from his deep moral sense.  It reminds me rather of another type of holy simplicity created by Wagner, a Parsifal, a type inaccessible to simple temptations and therefore providentially chosen to expiate the sense of his spiritual home and to ward off from it the incantations of the wicked spirit. Such was the man who proved able to impress on his people.”

Milyukov’s speech also touched on the words delivered by Edvard Beneš, again echoing the religious line that personified the Russian intellectual’s eulogy.

“President Beneš bound up his last speech at the grave of the great deceased with this enlightening catchword: ‘Jesus, not Caesar.’…President Beneš was right to say that such men are sent by providence once in a century and it was a great chance for his native country to have him at the decisive years of its liberation.”

Masaryk’s “First Republic” would have just over a year left of full existence before the trauma of Munich in 1938.

Nevertheless, respect for the legacy of the first president remained present among many Czechs throughout the troubled Czech 20th century. The use of the same gun carriage that carried the coffin of Masaryk to transport the remains of Václav Havel during his funeral in 2011 served as one of many examples of how Czechoslovakia’s first president remains an aspirational figure for Czechia to this day.