How Hussitism served the First Republic

First Republic Presidential Flag bearing the motto: 'Truth Prevails', photo: Public Domain

When the Czechoslovak Republic was proclaimed in 1918, its primary founder and future president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, had grand plans for using one of the most famous periods in Czech medieval history as inspiration for what he wanted to be a state based on democratic and humanistic values. In many cases the references to Hussitism started during the era of the First Republic remain in some form or another until today. I decided to explore why Hussitism was so important in Masaryk’s First Republic and how its elements were combined into the new state.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
On the 6th of July, 1915, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk gave his famous Geneva speech. Stating that “there was no peace between the Czechs and the Austrians“. It would serve as the definitive delineation in which Masaryk and his colleagues announced their bid for Czech independence.

The date of the speech was chosen to be exactly 500 years after the burning of Jan Hus, the influential Czech theologian whose teachings in the 15th century had led to the emergence of Hussitism - the pre-Protestant, Christian reformation movement, which had successfully defended itself against multiple crusades by the pope and holy roman emperor in the subsequent Hussite Wars.

Historian Pavel Soukup is an expert in Hussite history and, along with his colleagues from the Czech Academy of Sciences, recently held a lecture on how Hussitism was used in the era of the First Republic. He explains why this association with Hus was useful to Masaryk at the time.

“The figure of Jan Hus was connected to Hussitism as well as to what historians call the “Hussite revolution“, and the outcome of Masaryk’s struggle for independence in 1918 was actually also referred to as a revolution during the First Republic era, so this factor of being a rebel against the current authority, which at the time was Austria-Hungary, was present.

“It should also be noted that for Masaryk Jan Hus was not a destructive figure, but someone who started the tradition of the ideals of humanity as Masaryk called it. He was a prominent figure in Masaryk’s vision of Czech history, which envisioned a line of great era’s stretching from Hussitism through to the national revival.

“For these reasons it was appropriate to start on Jan Hus day, because it symbolised something he considered to be not just a fight against the current situation, but also a struggle that must be led by ideals which he connected with Hus. It was a fight of idealism against authoritarianism. In Hus’s case the latter was the Catholic Church. In Masaryk’s case it was Austria-Hungary, which was incidentally also supported by the Catholic Church.“

The symbolic and thematic undertones of the Geneva speech were certainly useful, but they were not the result of a quick fit on the eve of the independence speech. Rather, they emerged out of a 50 year long historical debate on the role of Hussitism in Czech history in which the future Czechoslovak president played a prominent role as Mr. Soukup’s colleague, historian Dušan Coufal points out.

Jan Hus
“We must be aware of the fact that Masaryk was originally a university professor. While he was lecturing on the history of philosophy in the 1880s, he spoke about Hussitism, the tradition of the Czech Brethren and Jan Hus. There were already strong signs of his reflection on the Hussite ideals as well as individuals such as Hus, Chelčický and Komenský as a basis on which the national idea could be built.“

Masaryk’s commitment towards combining the Hussite ideals with those of the new state was famously underlined during his return to Prague in December 1918. Making a train stop in the Hussite founded city of Tábor, he declared: “Tábor is our programme and we will remain true to it. “

As medieval historian Pavlína Cermanová explains, Tábor was a useful example of how Masaryk envisaged the new state.

“Masaryk saw the historical Táborites and their community as founded on democratic ideas. A group of equal people, remaining deeply rooted in faith. He was a very pious man who never divided between state and religion. Therefore Tábor’s community, based on religion but not Catholicism, was ideal for Masaryk. This was characterised in his programme, which bore the name: ‘Democracy and Religion‘.“

That Masaryk took the Hussites’ understanding of religion seriously can be seen from his support to the newly founded Czechoslovak Church, which he characterised as a distinctly Hussite. Although, in the interests of state unity, the president was careful not to associate himself with religious matters too closely, he did, in the words of one of the churches patriarchs, have a “powerful effect on its founding members through his personality and world views“.

Actively promoting the movement, Masaryk also added a variation of the Hussite motto “Truth Prevails” into the presidential flag, where it remains today and in 1925 even placed a flag bearing the Hussite symbol of the calyx among the standards adorning Prague Castle. A move that foreign minister Edvard Beneš would have to diplomatically explain to an outraged pope in the Vatican.

The president‘s efforts were supported by wide ranges of the Czech population, whose various groups had already started adopting Hussite symbolism as early as the mid-19th century. In the case of the Czechoslovak legionaries Hussite symbols were adopted into their insignia during the First World War. In the new republic, this tradition would be continued under the state’s sanction, with many of the army’s regiments receiving honorific titles bearing the names of national heroes from the era of the Hussite Wars.

First Republic Presidential Flag bearing the motto: 'Truth Prevails',  photo: Public Domain
Another important force among First Republic civil society, the Sokol movement, adopted Hussite themes in their gatherings. Most notably in June 1920, when Prague’s Střelecký Ostrov and the surrounding river bore witness to a massive battle, which used themes from Hussite history such as the famous warlord Jan Žižka and wider Czech mythology, including the knights of Blaník, a Czech equivalent of the myth of the return of King Arthur and his knights when times are at their worst, as parallels to the victory in the First World War.

The excitement and patriotic sincerity of the time is illustrated through the way the Czech newspaper Národni Listy described the reconstruction.

“We have the first picture symbolising the outbreak of war, a time of persecution, resistance and execution of legionaries. But in this darkness the torches of new hopes are set aflame, heading towards Blaník and delivered by messengers from outside. Finally, a sound comes echoing from Blaník, the Hussite song “Ye Who Are Warriors of God”. On his white horse and with a mace in his hand, Jan Žižka leads the new knights of Blaník – the legionaries! Blaník is closing, when suddenly a Czech battleship arrives, a symbol of our might. It is followed by two destroyers. Behind the island a massive enemy warship appears. Battle commences…”

Yet despite the grandeur, there was always place for some Czech self-referential humour. Writing about the aftermath of a similar re-enactment in the local pub, the famous Czech anarchist writer, František Sauer, described a considerably less glamourous scene involving the actors playing Hussite heroes.

“Suddenly, Brother Czech directed a deafening roar at King Sigismund: ‘Karel! Stop your group. You’re supposed to lose this one.’ But the emperor to the shouted and ran after Žižka, whom he saw wielding a mace on top of the table. Red in his face, he shouted at the Czech war hero. ‘Now I’m going to have my way with you, you rascal! How dare you throw me out of the winery!’, and swung his lance as hard as he could after Žižka. The imperial army started rampaging through the Hussite ranks, with blows landing on everyone. Screams and crying could be heard among the warriors. Until finally, the Hussites made their escape…”

The enthusiastic embracement of Hussitism did not appeal to all branches of Czechoslovak society, as Mr. Soukup explains.

“The majority of anti-Hussite troops in the Middle Ages were Germans and this was of course very appropriate for patriotic parties. However, it must be said that the new state did not consist only of Czechs. The representatives of Germans living in the state certainly did not subscribe to this vision, the Slovaks had no reasons to subscribe to it and even within the Czech speaking population there was a group of conservative Catholics that did not share in the excitement either.”

Equestrian statue of Jan Žižka on Prague’s Vítkov hill | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Praha křížem krážem
The honoration of Hussite heroes nevertheless continued and throughout the 1920s and 1930s construction works on a vast monument on Prague’s Vítkov hill topped by a massive equestrian statue of Jan Žižka were underway. However, the Munich Conference took place before the monument could be ceremoniously unveiled and under the protectorate Hussite ideas were firmly suppressed.

Yet the states association with Hussitism would return with vigour once the communists took power in 1948. Historian Pavel Soukup explains the complexities the new powerbrokers faced when adopting the movement as their own.

“The communists embraced the Hussite tradition and presented it in a positive way just like in the First Republic. However, they stressed different aspects. Instead of big thinkers and their ideas on humanity and religious ideas, the communists, especially in the 1950s, needed to stress the people in order for Hussitism to fit their very schematic Marxist interpretation of history. There was no one hero, but rather the people who acted as the protagonist of the class struggle. It is very interesting to see how they balanced between the needs to evaluate Hussitism positively and at the same time the First Republic negatively.

“The military banners of the Czechoslovak legions, for example, were used during the First Republic by the Czechoslovak army, only being replaced in 1953, because they were seen as something that could spoil the popular democratic version of history the communists used. It was actually they who rebuilt the Bethlehem Chapel in which Hus used to preach during the 1950s. They downplayed the religious aspect and instead focused on it as a monument to the peoples struggle for freedom.“

Much of the Hussite symbolism and institutions adopted during the First Republic remain in place until today, whether in the form of the presidential flag, the Czechoslovak Church, which now carries the added word “Hussite” in its name, or the use of characters such as Jan Žižka and Jan Hus during annual Sokol gatherings.