“He wanted to start a new religion”: Masaryk’s ambitious plan for the new Czechoslovakia

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, photo: archive of Czech Radio

Bruce Berglund’s fascinating Castle and Cathedral in Modern Prague, published in Czech in January, focuses on the early years of Czechoslovakia, when President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was forging the new state. This included making Prague Castle the symbolic heart of the new democracy and, Berglund writes, an ambitious plan for a new religion for the country that TGM founded in 1918. I spoke to the historian from his home in Minnesota.

One thing I found really fascinating in your book is when you say that Masaryk had this idea of, with the new country, also creating a new religion? What exactly was he hoping to achieve with that? Or what was it even?

“Yes, this is one of the most fascinating aspects, and an overlooked aspect, of his career as a politician.

“He saw Czechoslovakia as not just a new republic but one in which politics, morality and religion would be combined.

“He was raised Catholic, he became kind of Protestant – he never really went to church.

“He was influenced by his wife, who was an American Unitarian.

“He saw Czechoslovakia as not just a new republic but one in which politics, morality and religion would be combined.”

“His ideas of a new religion he drew a lot from 19th and 20th century scholarship on the sociology of religion, on the history of the Bible, on theology.

“So he wanted this religion to be really stripped of all he had experienced in the Catholic Church, in terms of hierarchy, in terms of rules, in terms of ritual and so forth.

“He wanted a religion that would be purely individualistic, in which the individual person would have a relationship with God; he believed in this idea of a personal connection with God.

“The individual would have this relationship with God and that relationship would motivate the individual to serve others, to serve the community, to serve the state.

“And this was his hope for Czechoslovakia, to have something like a civil religion that would inspire the citizens of this new state to serve the community and create a cohesive society.”

It struck me reading your book that it was so ambitious in the first place to create a new country, and then on top of that to also want to introduce a new religion for the people… I was wondering if we should regard Masaryk as being extremely ambitious, or some kind of megalomaniac, that he wanted to bring in a religion as well as a state for the two nations?

Photo: CEU PRESS

“I write at the beginning of the book of my visits with the late historian Antonín Klímek, who wrote a two-volume history of the new republic, Boj o hrad, and a number of other important books on the ‘20s and ‘30s in Czechoslovakia.

“I remember visiting him as he was working on his books about Masaryk and the First Republic, and the one thing that he could not really comprehend was Masaryk’s goal of creating a new religion.

“I remember sitting in his office and he would wave his arms around dramatically and would exclaim, He wanted to start a new religion!

“For Klímek this was just incomprehensible: How does someone have whether the ambition or the arrogance to think they are going to create a new religion?

“And, as I find in the book, there were a number of people around him who were inspired by his ambition, they were inspired by his vision.

“But ultimately he was really aiming to far, he was reaching too much to the stars, and both religious believers who trusted him, as well as more secular figures, such as Karel Čapek and Ferdinand Peroutka, just saw him as overreaching his ambition.”

Masaryk has become for many Czechs this kind of idealised figure of a leader. But you say that in the beginning, when he first became president, he considered being a benign dictator. I’m curious: Was Masaryk at heart a democrat?

“He was not a democrat in terms of having any faith in the messy processes of democracy.”

“Where we see the root of, how to say, the doubts we could have about Masaryk’s commitment to democracy is in how much he trusted those closest to him, beginning with his family and them moving out to his closest circle, and this of course includes Edvard Beneš.

“He did have the sense, and he uses this term to describe himself and his family and those closest to him, that he was an aristocrat, in the sense that he believed people of talent, people of morality, should have a leading role in society – and he saw himself and Beneš and his family as being among this aristocracy.

“He was not a democrat in terms of having any faith in the messy processes of democracy.

“He had no respect for political parties. He really didn’t have much trust in the whole process of elections and campaigns and so forth.

“He saw democracy as functioning best as a managed democracy, with his family and his supporters, the members of the so-called Castle – his group of supporters and closest confidantes – as the ones who would steer the democratic state in a responsible direction.

“So ultimately if we think of democracy in terms of elections and parties and the messy work of competing for votes, making alliances, making coalitions, then no, that’s not what he saw democracy as.”

Prague Castle is also a major focus of your book and you write about how Masaryk made the Castle a “central symbol of national democratic ideals” when he became president. That made me wonder, What was the Castle like prior to 1918?

Bruce Berglund,  photo: Marta Berglund

“This is fascinating. I did research in the archive of Prague Castle and was able to see some of the photographs from before the renovation and it’s really much, much different from what we see today.

“For one, imagine the Third Courtyard. I know you’ve been there – any visitor to Prague has been to the Third Courtyard, the area that surrounds St. Vitus Cathedral, with the Obelisk.

“This area was cobblestoned. It was really rough, it was uneven – there were multiple levels, or multiple surfaces, to the courtyard.

“And the Castle itself was in such disrepair that it wasn’t even able to function as a centre of government.

“So this was the first order of business, when the government moves in 1918: How do we even use this place?

“One of my favourite anecdotes that comes out of the archive is that early on when Masaryk wants to have a state dinner at the Castle they had to go down to Obecní dům and borrow silverware and china to use in the Castle dining room, because there was very little.

“The situation was made worse, actually, when all of these different ministries and government officials moved into the Castle right away, in November 1918, and they start claiming space.

“And then people seeking government jobs start coming in.

“The Castle was in such disrepair that it wasn’t even able to function as a centre of government.”

“There are references in the archives that people were breaking furniture and dirtying the carpets and so forth.

“So this was a disordered, kind of chaotic environment in 1918 and 1919.”

The man charged with reshaping the Castle was the Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik. How did he come to get commissioned to do that work, especially considering that he was, you say, a devout or even mystical Catholic and Masaryk was, to some degree at least, anti-Catholic?

“Yes, this is a fascinating question and it’s something that I hunted in my research.

“There are only a few statements Masaryk himself made, to his daughter Alice Masaryková, about why he trusted so deeply in Jože Plečnik, despite the fact that Plečnik was Catholic and Masaryk was an opponent of the Catholic Church.

“A big part of it was that I think Masaryk saw Plečnik as something of a kindred spirit.

“Plečnik had an ascetic personality, Plečnik was rigidly moral like Masaryk and Plečnik had a great devotion to the classical period, to classical architecture, just as Masaryk was a great lover of classical philosophy.

“I think that’s what draws those two together.

Jože Plečnik,  photo: Public Domain

“Masaryk said to his daughter once: ‘Plečnik understands what we’re doing here – we don’t have to explain it to him.’

“So there was a sense that Masaryk had that Plečnik understood the importance, the gravity, of what was being done at the Castle. That this wasn’t simply about making a set of buildings functional as a seat of government – it was creating a symbol of democracy, but also a sacred space.

“And that’s why Masaryk entrusted Plečnik with the entire Castle project.”

Something else interesting that you say is that Plečnik, when he was redesigning Prague Castle, was attacked from all sides?

“Yes. Initially I should say that Plečnik was recommended by the Guild of Czech Architects.

“Plečnik had been teaching architecture in Prague since 1912.

“He had a terrific reputation among his students, he had a terrific reputation among fellow architects and artists, and that’s the reason why Plečnik’s name first came to the attention of Masaryk.

“Now when Plečnik beings the Castle project he continues to hold the respect of the artistic community.

“Masaryk saw Plečnik as something of a kindred spirit.”

“But as the renovations are underway Czech nationalists, in particular conservative Catholic nationalists, as well as Communists and Socialists, see what Plečnik is doing as a violation of the tradition of the Castle.

“They don’t like the fact that Plečnik is a Slovene.

“But also, as I talk about in the book, the criticism of Plečnik and the Castle project was really veiled criticism of Masaryk.

“You couldn’t criticise Masaryk directly. For one it was against the law!

“But he was just so respected, so revered, during the time in the 1920s that critics on both the right and the left couldn’t attack the president directly.

“What they did instead is they used Plečnik and the Castle project as the stand-in, the proxy for their criticisms.”

Plečnik is of course known for the Castle gardens and also some stairways. But how deeply did his redesign impact the Castle? How much did he change, apart from the things that everyone knows?

“I was able to go inside the Castle, into the offices and into the apartments that he designed for Masaryk.

Third Courtyard of Prague Castle,  photo: Kristýna Maková

“And that’s fascinating, just in terms of creating a functional work space.

“Masaryk didn’t live at the Castle, but he did have apartment space there.

“So to see those spaces… granted the area that Plečnik designed for the president is a small corner of the Castle.

“In his work in the 1920s and into the 1930s – he resigned as the Castle architect in 1935 – he did really transform the exterior.

“He did not complete all the projects that he intended and all the projects that Masaryk intended for him.

“He wanted to continue the gardens to the north of the Castle. He wanted to completely redo the street that goes up from Malá Strana to Hradčany – he wanted to redesign that entire area, all the way over to Letná.

“Alice Masaryková wanted Plečnik to do this as well, and this was the aim by the 1930s.

“But by this time point Masaryk was old, he was infirm, he did not have enough authority, he did not have enough energy to really push these renovations.

“Masaryk is inspiring and yet the ideas he presents are not concrete ideas.”

“And of course the Depression was going on, so there was not the money available.

“So Plečnik did recast the Castle exterior, but the vision that he had – and we have his plans, we have his models – was far more extensive, to completely the entire area of Hradčany.”

Finally, getting back to Masaryk, he started out with such lofty ideals – how successful was he?

“He was not very successful.

“He had high ideals. But what I talk about in the book is how his ideals were viewed by his closest supporters, so by people like Karel Čapek, by Edvard Beneš, by the Protestant theologian Josef Hromadka.

“And all of these figures, whether we see it from a secular standpoint in the case of Čapek, or from a Christian standpoint in the case of Hromadka… all these people were inspired by Masaryk, but they had their doubts about the vision he had for this moral republic built upon a civil religion.”

But what about the idea that he did have success in the longer term, in that he became this ideal for so many Czechs and was referred to by Havel and others of his ilk, that he became this kind of “gold standard” of a Czech?

Teresian wing of Prague Castle,  photo: Kristýna Maková

“Yes, this is a good point.

“I remember a poll that was done in Lidové noviny years ago of the most important Czechs of the 20th century and Masaryk is still regarded as the greatest Czech.

“So he is this inspiring figure. But the point I make in the book is that he is inspiring and yet the ideas he presents are not concrete ideas.

“He’s someone you could say who lifts the spirit but doesn’t really provide practical teaching, which is ironic because Masaryk stressed his ideas were all about practical application.

“One of my favourite quotations, and I’m trying to think if it was from Jan Patočka or another Czech philosopher, was said Masaryk was like Socrates: He was this dynamic gadfly, this inspiring figure. What Masaryk didn’t have was a Plato, someone who would systematise his ideas and create something concrete for us.

“He also didn’t have an Aristotle, someone who would make it even more clear for the lay person.

“So yes, you can see why he’s inspiring, but there’s nothing concrete you can hold onto about Masaryk’s ideas.”