Masaryk’s great-granddaughter: His moral imperative applies to any time – hopefully we will return to it

Charlotta Kotik, photo: Ian Willoughby

This weekend’s centenary celebrations in the Czech Republic will have particular resonance for art curator Charlotta Kotik, given that her great-grandfather Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk founded Czechoslovakia and served for almost two decades as the country’s first president. I spoke to her at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, where she is a special guest.

Charlotta Kotik,  photo: Ian Willoughby
The feature film Talks with T.G. Masaryk, which is being shown here in Jihlava, depicts the background to a series of books about Masaryk by Karel Čapek, and those books have helped to shape our image today of Masaryk. Do we know, how much did Masaryk seek to cultivate a certain image?

“I think that Masaryk was very open about things, and of course he was a politician; he was a politician and he never really denied that.

“I believe that President Masaryk was a kind of hidden PR person.

“He sought out journalists, he sought out people who were able to present him, or his ideas, in a certain way. Which is completely natural.

“He wouldn’t have achieved what he did without the ability to sort of formulate the image a little bit.

“And I want to believe that he was really honest about presenting what he really believed in.”

Masaryk was known as being the “father of the nation”. Is it true that he disliked being called that?

“In Czech, father of the nation would be ‘otec’. He did not particularly like the diminutive ‘tatíček’ [daddy]. He was not a person for diminutives.

“I think he was an adventurer. He was out there, travelling. He loved to travel, obviously – otherwise he wouldn’t have done it so much.

“He travelled way before he really even formulated a vision of his political goals, I think.

“So I think this was a little bit misleading and I know – at least that’s how it was talked about in the family – that it was not necessarily how he saw himself.

“But he also realised that it was a potent tool, in a way, in the nation, keeping things together, so he obviously didn’t go against it in some kind of an offensive way or anything.”

What kind of things were you told about your great-grandfather in your family when you were growing up?

'Talks with T.G. Masaryk',  photo: Bontonfilm
“That he was a rather strict person. That he always demanded answers about political issues in the world and new books which came out.

“When they went to visit to [presidential retreat] Lány my mother and my aunt had to be prepared that they are going to be dealt with as adults. That they are going to be able to answer questions which were discussed in the company of grown-ups.

“So again he was not tatíček – he was a man who expected certain knowledge on the part of his companions at any age.”

You’re speaking here at Jihlava at the festival’s Inspiration Forum. Why do you think it is that Masaryk remains this kind of icon, or ideal, for many Czechs, including young ones?

“I hope that he still carries these ideals, because I think now more than ever we need to reevaluate and stress the importance of moral bearing, a moral compass, and the truth.

“And we should sort of distance ourselves a little bit more from possessions, money and all the materialism which, unfortunately, is destroying the world, left and right.”

Masaryk is known as a feminist. He obviously took his wife’s name and incorporated it into his own surname. Otherwise, in what practical ways was he a feminist, do you know?

“I think that he was really involved in and considered absolutely important that women get the vote

“It was the early 1920s when women voted, and equality was stressed as something which is going to be part of the new republic.

“I think that’s very important, that justice was to be the same for men and women.

“His acknowledgement of his wife Charlotte in his name, in taking her name, was I think a symbol of him being very serious about cooperation – within the family and within the nation – between men and women, and husband and wife.”

This weekend many Czechs are celebrating the centenary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. But there are some voices saying, What’s to celebrate – Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia only actually lasted for 20 years? What do you say to that?

“He himself always said that we needed at least 60 years in order to establish something stable.

T.G. Masaryk,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 102-13623 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
“Unfortunately the world powers at that time, with what was happening with fascism… and he was too old, I think, to really be more proactive in shaping the fate of the republic then.

“Yes, it lasted only 20 years, but maybe it really was a short of shining star in Central Europe and people remember it.

“I think what he declared, the sort of moral imperative, is something that applies to any time and hopefully maybe we will return to it.”

So you think it’s worth celebrating the centenary, for those 20 years at least?

“Absolutely. I think one should always celebrate, because it’s a positive thing and, you know, we should be positive, especially in difficult times.

“Because if we are all sad and pessimistic then everything goes down the drain.

“So let’s try to get up and just celebrate. But celebrate seriously. Bring out those ideals and try to restate them and live by them.”