Tomas Garrigue Masaryk

And now it's time for the first of a new series of programmes that examines the lives of famous figures in Czech history. In this week's Czechs in History, Nick Carey looks at the life and career of one of the most famous of all Czechs, particularly in recent history, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk...

If you look up the name Tomas Garrigue Masaryk in the Czech Who's Who, the book describes him as a Czech philosopher, a sociologist, a statesman, and in last place, strangely enough, as the first president of Czechoslovakia. As the first president, the importance of Masaryk's historical legacy should not be denied. Everyone knows his name, and in an opinion poll conducted in 1998, Czechs chose him as the most important politician in the history of the Czech Lands. Due to the events that have filled the years since his death, there is a certain amount of myth that surrounds Masaryk's life, and finding out the truth about this man actually makes him seem more impressive.

He was born Tomas Masaryk on March 7th 1850, to a Slovak father and Czech-German mother in the small town of Hodonin in South Moravia, very close to what is now the border with Slovakia. We have little time in which to deal with Masaryk's early years, but he was an extremely studious and intelligent young man. He taught himself Latin as a boy, and in 1969, after completing his schooling in Moravia, he walked to Vienna to attend grammar school. At university he studied philosophy, completing his doctorate at the age of twenty six, during which time he studied at Leipzig. He became a professor of philosophy in Vienna in 1882, plus associate professor of philosophy at the Czech university in Prague in the same year.

Masaryk's literary activities were extensive, including being the editor-in-chief for various magazines, an editor for a new Czech encyclopaedia, and translating literary works by such greats as Dostojevsky into Czech.

It is as a politician, however, that Tomas Garrigue Masaryk is best known. As of 1891 in Vienna he headed the Realist Party, and was its only representative in the Viennese parliament. He is often called the Father of the Nation by the Czechs, and it is commonly believed that he was a proponent of the formation of an independent Czech state. Professor of philosophy Erazim Kohak briefly outlined TG Masaryk's policies in Vienna:

Prior to the First World War, Masaryk was, contrary to popular belief, not a proponent of the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as Erazim Kohak points out:

This desire for equality within the Habsburg Empire can be seen in many of his speeches in parliament prior to the First World War, such as this one from November 18th 1892:

"Gentlemen, we want to be tolerated, we do not want to be considered evil, we want to be recognised as full citizens of this state. We want to be fully recognised without exception in Austria with our Czech way of life and identity. We want you to have faith in us. Faith, after all, creates faith."

As TG Masaryk was pro-Hapsburg, what could have happened to change his mind about the continued existence of the empire:

With the new aim of obtaining independence for Czechs and Slovaks formulating in his mind, Masaryk escaped from Prague to Switzerland in 1914. How did he proceed from there?:

As part of this process, he visited the United States, where he obtained the support of President Wilson for an independent Czechoslovakia, then went to France, before returning home, where he had been elected as the fledgling country's first president in his absence. How was he greeted upon his return?:

Experts are divided as to whether or not Masaryk could have succeeded in his dreams for a democratic state. The German minority joined parliament in 1928, but subsequent problems with Germany had a damaging effect on this. The main obstacle to Masaryk's concept of democracy was the Depression. Without this, some believe, democracy in Czechoslovakia could have had a fighting chance. As it was, the Depression fuelled problems with the German minority and at the same time increased the power of the Communists.

Before I proceed any further with his political life, you may well have noticed that Tomas Garrigue Masaryk was born Tomas Masaryk. Where did he obtain the name Garrigue?:

Masaryk continued as president up until 1935. He was re-elected in 1920, 1927 and 1934, despite having suffered a major heart attack in 1928, which left him a shell of his former self and in very poor health. He was re-elected in 1934, because no-one could perceive of replacement that would have been acceptable to all of the parties in parliament. Finally, on December 14th, 1935, TG Masaryk tended his resignation as president in private to government and parliamentary representatives with the following words:

"The office of president is a heavy and responsible one, and requires one's full strength. I am aware that I am no longer capable of this and therefore I am giving up my post. I have been voted as president of this country four times, and so I believe this gives me the authority to ask you, the Czech and Slovak peoples and the other nationalities in our state, to remember that states are upheld by the ideals of which they were born."

He named Eduard Benes as his successor, and on September 14th 1937 Tomas Garrigue Masaryk passed away at his villa at Lany, aged eighty seven. His passing was mourned across the nation.

What significance has Tomas Garrigue Masaryk had since then, what importance does he have now? Erazim Kohak: