Historian Katya Kocourek pens biography of general and writer Rudolf Medek, hero of Czechoslovak independence

Many Czechs today consider the First Czechoslovak Republic a golden age in the turbulent 20th century. The country, which existed between the two world wars, is seen as the first free state of Czechs and Slovaks after centuries of Austrian rule, and one of Europe’s few democratic states of the time. But its reality, its values and conflicts often escape the popular understanding of the era. One of the First Republic’s outstanding personalities was the army general and writer Rudolf Medek who embodied some of the values of the time. In this edition of Czech History, we look at Rudolf Medek’s new biography penned by the British historian Katya Kocourek.

Few contemporary army generals are also poets and playwrights, and few distinguished writers are officers who have commanded troops in combat. This was the case of Rudolf Medek, a Czechoslovak army general who fought in the First World War, and whose plays, novels and poems were popular with Czech and Slovak audiences during the First Czechoslovak Republic.

Katya Kocourek, a British historian with Czech roots, is the author of the first-ever biography of this significant figure of interwar Czechoslovakia, which recently came out in Czech entitled The Czechoslovakist Rudolf Medek.

“Interestingly, I became interested in Rudolf Medek in London, at the School of Slavonic Studies, where I used to attend the literary seminars of Robert Pynsent, who is a famous professor of Czech and Slovak literature. One of the books he introduced at the seminar for discussion was Rudolf Medek’s Ohnivý Drak, his first major novel. I read the novel and as a result of that, I started conducting research about his life and work.”

During the First Republic, Rudolf Medek was recognized as a hero of liberation from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the first director of the National Liberation Memorial on the Vítkov Hill, he was also a vocal public figure throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In her book, Katya Kocourek discusses Rudolf Medek’s role in the Czech society as the time, as well as his beliefs he promoted in his public work. She says that Medek was on the right of the political spectrum.

Vítkov National Memorial
“I would say he was very much on the right on the intellectual map. He was very high up because of his public position here in Žižkov as the director of the Liberation Memorial. He was somewhere between National Democrats and the Agrarians. He was somewhere in this spectrum.

As a lot of right-wing figures, he didn’t have a clear idea on the direction the state should evolve but he had two key ideas for a new political culture in the state. One was patriotism; he believed that every citizen of the state should be absolutely loyal to the president and the country’s institutions, and the second idea was that of the national defence.”

President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was more left-leaning, and sided with the Social Democrats. That might have been one of the reasons why Medek’s relations with the political elites of the First Republic were difficult, despite a personal link with the Masaryk family.

“[Their relations were] complicated and strained. His relationship with Masaryk was slightly tempered by the fact that his wife was a step-granddaughter of president Masaryk, which slightly helped their relations. But even he didn’t like to see Masaryk too much because they ended up arguing, and Masaryk didn’t like to argue.

“His relationship with Beneš was even more complicated. He didn’t like Beneš, and the feeling was mutual.”

What was the problem there?

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
“The problem was that Beneš was a National Socialist and he was mixing into politics a lot and people in the legions believed that as a foreign minister, Beneš should be staying out of local level legionary politics, and he was getting very much involved in it which created a tension between the left and the right.”

Just like in his public life, Rudolf Medek’s experience from the battlefields was crucial in his literary work as well. His best known theatre play, entitled Colonel Švec, tells the real story of an officer of the Czechoslovak legions in Russia who committed suicide to prevent an ideological split among the troops.

Czech and Slovak soldiers in the legions were exposed to Bolshevik propaganda, and the main character in the play resources to an act of self-sacrifice to make sure the legions pursue the original goal of achieving an independent, democratic state. Katya Kocourek says some of his ideas may sound extremist today but back then, Czechoslovakia faced a serious threat posed by revisionist tendencies in Germany and elsewhere in central and Eastern Europe.

“Back then, this was an evolving conservative idea. You had various pools of right wing, and he belonged to that pool of right wing that was moving away from the fascist, and more towards the mainstream. But he was part of clique of right-wing military generals who fought on the eastern front during WWI and who were absolutely convinced from their war-time experiences that each and every citizen had an obligation to defend the state. So although it sounds extremist today, after the turmoil of the war, they felt this was an idea they felt they had to put forward.”

A native of Hradec Králové in eastern Bohemia, Rudolf Medek became a schoolteacher, and soon began publishing his first poems. The start of the Great War, however, changed Medek’s life forever. He was conscripted to the Austro-Hungarian Army and sent to the eastern front. A year later, he defected to the Russians, and then joined the Czechoslovak legions that fought for the creation of an independent Czechoslovak state. Rudolf Medek fought at the battle of Zborov as well as against the Bolsheviks along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Tomáš Jakl is a historian at the Military History Institute.

“I think that Rudolf Medek was primarily influenced by his experience. He was a teacher and a writer, and then he suddenly found himself in the middle of the World War. His experiences from the war had a profound impact on him. He realized that it was necessary to fight because any other alternative would mean destruction and death. This was a crucial moment in his life. The Munich agreement of 1938 was in sharp contrast to what he believed in, and was one of the reasons for his premature death.”

Katya Kocourek’s biography of Rudolf Medek was launched on March 15 at the Military History Institute on the Vítkov Hill, an institution Rudolf Medek helped establish in the 1920s, and was its first director. Together with the nearby National Liberation Memorial, the institute was homage to Czechoslovak legions that fought on the fronts of WWI for the creation of independent Czechoslovakia. Colonel Aleš Knížek is the institute’s director.

“When Rudolf Medek returned after the war, he was appointed the head of the newly created Liberation Memorial. The army museum itself only moved to its present location in 1932, when the new building here in Žižkov was completed. General Medek was the first director of the National Liberation Monument.”

The compound on the Vítkov Hill was only completed shortly before the country lost its independence once again. During Rudolf Medek’s time, however, it represented the nation’s struggle for freedom and democracy, and Medek as its first director used it as a base for his role in the public discourse.

“He was very much aware it was a public role. This is something I discuss in my book and I devote quite a lot of attention to the memorial here. He perceived it as a public role, and took it very seriously. It was part of his life, so those who’d say he was just a literary figure are wrong, he was also a military figure, and his role here at the institute proves that.”

Rudolf Medek ran the Army History Institute until the German occupation of 1939. He was forced to move out, and died soon thereafter, in August 1940. Katya Kocourek says that he unfortunately left no account of how he understood the decline of the country he loved so much.

“He was having continuous health problems from the summer of 1936, so he in fact never got to put any words to paper. He only wrote a series of articles for the right-wing press so in the last years of his life, his ideas were scattered through newspapers. He never really offered an opinion why Czechoslovakia failed but I think he was very critical of Beneš’ foreign policy at the time of Munich and his actions as a president, so like many generals on the right, he blamed Beneš for what happened.”

Aleš Knížek,  photo: Archive of the Czech Government
The compound on the Vítkov Hill is now a regular military museum, and is no longer charged with emotions shared by those who saw the birth of Czechoslovakia. Rudolf Medek in fact lived in the complex with his wife and two sons, Ivan and Mikuláš. After his death, the family had to move out, and the living area was turned into offices. But the institute’s director Aleš Knížek says the apartment will be restored as part of a planned renovation of the whole complex.

“The apartment was turned into offices. Ten years ago, we renovated the rooms into their original shape. But it was difficult because the whole building underwent some very insensitive alterations. For instance, the parquet floor we are standing on now, as well as the marble in the big hall, was covered with glue and a layer of red carpet. We renovated all of that but the building is yet to undergo major reconstruction. When it’s done, the renovated apartment will be used as office space.”

Rudolf Medek might have been an extraordinary figure of the First Republic but his legacy is now veiled with obscurity. Military historian Tomáš Jakl believes this is partly due to the fact that under the communist regime, his values were despised as “reactionary”.

“I think that Rudolf Medek’s legacy is understood as very positive by those who know about him. Those who don’t are usually affected by certain simplified views that have been presented about him in recent years. But most people just don’t know about him because of the 40 years of silence imposed by the communist regime.”

Ivan Medek
However, just like Czechs no longer flock to the National Liberation Memorial to pay tribute to the heroes of independence, Rudolf Medek’s intellectual world seems to have little resonance in the contemporary Czech society. The author of the general and poet’s first biography, Katya Kocourek, once again.

“I think that this was a point that his son, Ivan Medek made quite a lot in journalist writings in the last years before he died, that one of the problems of the Czech society today is that the values of the interwar period – those values for which their forbearers fought in the war – have basically dissipated, like patriotism, respect for one’s elders, and so on. Those values have now disappeared, and it has definitely something to do with it.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on March 22, 2011.