The health of Czech of heads of state throughout history

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

The current state of Czech President Miloš Zeman’s health and the lack of information provided by his office have raised a debate about the public’s right to information with regard to the country’s top official. Miloš Zeman is not the first head of state who has suffered from serious health problems during his presidency that impacted his ability to work. Czech Radio has mapped out how information about the president’s health was provided to the public since the founding of Czechoslovakia. 

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

The first Czechoslovak President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk assumed office at the age of 68 in 1918 and went on to act as head of state for more than 17 years before he abdicated in 1935 for health reasons. Masaryk remained largely healthy all the way until 1934, when he was re-elected president for a third time. He suffered a stroke in May of that year and was unable to move his right hand and had to be supported while standing to inspect his guard. Despite this, official reports played down his health issues. A June communique, signed by a doctor, stated:

“The President of the republic is…recovering to such an extent that he is starting to work again and goes on daily strolls.”

By the summer of 1934, the president’s condition had worsened. A special stamp, moulded to bear his signature, was made so that the president could sign documents with greater ease. Information regarding his state of health was partially censored when it came to public sources, with most people only becoming aware of the severity of Masaryk’s health issues after he resigned in December 1935.

By 1937, Czechoslovak Radio was able to provide reports on Masaryk’s health in more detail, as this archival recording from mid-September shows.

“The main efforts of doctors focused on strengthening heart activity and balancing blood pressure…The last report that was just given over the telephone by the special correspondent of the Czechoslovak News Agency in [President Masaryk’s estate in] Lány states that Prime Minister Hodža has been informed in detail about President Masaryk’s health.”

Both of Masaryk’s immediate successors, Edvard Beneš and Emil Hácha would suffer from health issues at times when they were forced to make some of the most important decisions in the history of the young state.

Emil Hácha

Emil Hácha | Photo: Czech Radio

Despite being younger than Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk on the date that he assumed office in 1938, Emil Hácha suffered from poor health during his entire term as president. He reportedly collapsed onto the floor after Herman Goering threatened to bomb Prague during the heated negotiations with Hitler in Berlin in March 1939 after which Nazi Germany occupied the rump state of Czechoslovakia. He would go on to serve for six years as President of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

Historian Martin Veselý told Czech Radio that Hácha’s health deteriorated further in 1943.

“Hácha basically stopped being able to perceive what was going on around him. He only found out about celebrations of his fifth anniversary in office on the day that they were taking place, in order to prevent him from becoming too stressed. He was brought in for a moment, but didn’t take part in the celebrations to a larger degree, because his physical health would not have allowed it.”

The president’s health gradually got worse as the war years went on, but Nazi administrators did not want him to resign as he served as a useful tool of legitimacy.

By 1944, Hácha was reportedly unable to recognise his daughter and could barely walk. Nevertheless, protectorate newspapers insisted that the president was “completely healthy”. The only protectorate president died just a month after the end of the Second World War, on June 27, 1945.

Edvard Beneš

Edvard Beneš | Photo: Czech Television

The next Czechoslovak President to reside in Prague was Edvard Beneš. He had both preceded and succeeded Hácha, since he took office as Masaryk’s successor in 1935 but abdicated in 1938.

Already during the Second World War, Beneš was suffering from arterial hypertension. During his last term as president, from 1945 to 1948, Beneš’s state of health got progressively worse and he suffered two strokes in 1947. He reportedly suffered from excruciating headaches and would sometimes lose the ability to speak.

While news about his poor health did not generally appear in the press, according to French historian Antoine Marès, this information was passed on from doctors to leading representatives of the country’s Communist Party, who would use it to plan their next political manoeuvres. Beneš’s most fateful move, when he accepted the resignation of non-Communist ministers paving the way for a Communist takeover in February 1948, is often put into context of his failing health. The president abdicated months later and died in September 1948.

Klement Gottwald

Klement Gottwald | Photo: Czech Radio

His successor and the first Communist President of Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald, suffered from advanced syphilis and alcoholism during his term in office. Press censorship prevented the public from being informed about his health.

Despite warnings from both Czechoslovak and Soviet doctors, the president insisted on flying to Moscow for Joseph Stalin’s funeral in March 1953. This reportedly led to the already very sick president’s aorta bursting and Klement Gottwald died just days later. Reports in the press that he was sick appeared only on the day of his death, on March 14, when a medical report stated that the president had become sick with pneumonia and that there was possible bleeding in his chest. A day later, his death was reported to the public.

Antonín Zápotocký and Antonín Novotný

Not much is known about the health of Gottwald’s successor Antonín Zápotocký. His death, in 1957, was reported as a heart attack in the country’s main newspaper Rudé Pravo.

President Anotnín Novotný, who served from 1957 to 1968, was largely healthy during his 11 year term in office. He died in 1975 of a heart attack.

Ludvík Svoboda

Ludvík Svoboda | Photo: Czech Radio

The next Czechoslovak President, Ludvík Svoboda, was already 76 when he suffered a stroke during a visit to India in 1972. The Czech public was only informed that the president had “fallen ill” and that he needed “several days rest”.

Two years later, Ludvík Svoboda suffered a multiple pulmonary embolism. After rumours started circulating in the public that the president was already dead, the press started reporting in detail about his health on a regular basis. He eventually retired and died in Prague in 1979.

Gustáv Husák

Gustáv Husák | Photo: Jozef Kotulič,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

Svoboda’s successor, Gustáv Husák started suffering from poor health relatively soon after assuming office. A drinker, smoker and diabetic, Husák suffered a stroke in 1978. However, little to no information was provided to the public about the health of the president, who kept this information secret even within political circles. It was only after his third stroke, in February 1989, and a noticeable period of absence from public duties that information started being provided to the public through the press.

However, as this Czechoslovak Radio news briefing from March 17, 1989 shows, the state of the president’s health was underplayed.

“Comrade Miloš Jakeš has visited President Gustáv Husák, who is still in hospital after a minor cerebrovascular incident. In the name of the Central Committee of the Party, Comrade Jakeš wished Comrade Husák a speedy recovery.”

Václav Havel

Václav Havel in 1989 | Photo: Miloň Novotný

Husák would go on to die as a civilian two years after the Velvet Revolution in 1991. He was succeeded by Václav Havel. The first president of the Czech Republic suffered from multiple health issues during his term in office. However, he introduced a new precedent by which the Office of Prague Castle informed regularly and in significant detail.

For example, in 1996, spoke about his health from his hospital bed after an operation to remove a tumour in his lungs.

“I have read so much detail about my state of health in the papers that I feel there is little that I can add. I am not here because my health is getting worse. In fact, I have been feeling better than before in recent weeks. I am here because I am preparing for next week’s operation which should remove a small spot on my lungs which we do not yet know much about. However, even if it were something bad, it is so small and so well placed that it looks like I am not at serious risk.”

Information was also provided about planned operations and their possible risks, while high ranking politicians and constitutional officials were invited to speak with him in hospital.

Václav Klaus

Václav Klaus | Photo: René Volfík,  Czech Radio

Havel’s successor, Václav Klaus, did not suffer from serious health problems during his term in office. His most serious hospital visits to hospital were for a hip replacement that he underwent in 2008 and a cataracts operation four years later. The press was widely informed about these events. For example, the Czech News Agency issued 12 news items about Klaus’ hip replacement operation and the surgeon who operated on the president provided comment for the media shortly after the event.

Information regarding smaller treatments, such as those suffered in sporting accidents, were also provided to the public under Václav Klaus’ presidency.

Authors: Tom McEnchroe , Miroslav Tomek , Radek Kedroň , Petr Jadrný
run audio