Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk: Seeing and listening to the jungles of our human society

Т. Г. Масарик, Фото: Library of Congress / public domain

Eighty years ago this week, Czechoslovakia’s first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk died at the age of eighty-seven. He had led the country from its independence in 1918 for the next seventeen years, enjoying immense popularity throughout that time. Masaryk was known widely as the “President Liberator” and “Father of the Nation”, but although this popularity often slipped into hero-worship, he remained a lifelong democrat and humanist, in stark contrast with many of the world leaders emerging in the 1920s and 1930s. His values are reflected in several recordings of and about President Masaryk that are preserved in the Czech Radio archives. Some of them remain strikingly relevant even to our own time. David Vaughan has more.

Robert Seton-Watson,  photo: Public Domain
When President Masaryk died on 14 September 1937, he left a huge vacuum. His funeral a week later lasted nine hours and was broadcast in its entirety on Czechoslovak Radio. One of those who spoke about Masaryk immediately after his death was his old friend, Robert Seton-Watson.

“Amid the mourning of an entire nation, it is indeed difficult for someone who is a stranger, even though he does not feel himself to be a stranger in your country, to speak of Tomáš Masaryk.”

Seton-Watson was a well-known British historian and political activist, and at the end of the First World War he had played a significant role in shaping the new central European order that emerged from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Masaryk had spent time in London during his wartime exile, and it was there that the two men had become friends.

“Many have paid tribute to his qualities as a man and a statesman, as one of the noblest figures in the long procession of your national torchbearers. It has indeed been said of him, without flattery or exaggeration, that Masaryk came nearer than any contemporary ruler to the old Greek ideal of the philosopher king. But this is not the note that I wish to strike, for I believe that from me you will expect something rather more personal, some memories perhaps from those troublous times, when he was cut off from the mass of his own countrymen by the iron barrier of war, but when I had the rare privilege of working with him in his self-imposed exile in London.

“It was a time when all his high qualities of faith and endurance were most needed and were most in evidence. If I say that he seemed to breathe a rarefied atmosphere, this is not to suggest that there was anything cold or inhuman about him. On the contrary, he was intensely human: gay, simple, unperturbed, entirely natural. Shams and insincerities did not flourish in his presence. He was not exactly one of those of whom we say in English that he could not suffer fools gladly. It was rather that the foolish or the frivolous or the venomous wilted under his calm and often silent scorn. Then again – to use two other good old English phrases – he did not wear his heart on his sleeve and he steadily refused to keep his goods in the shop window. I have known more than one man whom he failed to impress at the first meeting, but who afterwards came entirely under his spell, all the more effectually because the process was gradual.”

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk | Photo: Library of Congress,  public domain
Many years later, Masaryk himself remembered an occasion when, during the First World War, he was detained by the British police, who were thoroughly confused by his Austrian passport.

“I recall… how the English sense of order caused me some difficulties. The police of my district controlling my passport – it was 1915 – could not understand how an Austrian citizen could be a Czechoslovak. My friends had to intervene at Scotland Yard!”

Masaryk was elected the first Czechoslovak president by the National Assembly in Prague on 14th November 1918, but the earliest known recordings of his voice are from 1928, marking the country’s tenth birthday. On one the president is speaking to children, reminding them to wash every morning and to keep themselves fit in the fresh air. But he also gave a talk about democracy.

“Democracy is not just a state form, but a method of all private and public life. It is a view on life. The basis of democracy is agreement of the people, it is moderate intercourse, love and humanity. Successful domestic and foreign policy, an aware political leadership, counts on an agreement among citizens on the things that are most important and on the basic direction of political activity. The state is not just a mechanism. Politics is not just about being skilled in administration and diplomacy. The state is a bond of citizens built on reason and morality.”

Masaryk took his model for the democratic state primarily from Britain and the United States – where Czechoslovak independence was first proclaimed in the dying days of the First World War. It is also worth remembering that his wife Charlotte was American and that they had married in New York. In 1932 Masaryk addressed radio listeners across the Atlantic.

Announcer: “We are giving you tonight a broadcast in commemoration of the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of George Washington. The commemorative address will be delivered by His Excellency Tomáš G. Masaryk, President of the Czechoslovak Republic, through the courtesy of the Czechoslovak Broadcasting Company.”

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Masaryk: “When we severed the bonds, binding us to the old Habsburg monarchy, I was aware that our decision must not be less motivated than the resolution taken by the founder of American liberty, and having recovered our liberty, we again follow the example of Washington in that we must no longer feel the old antagonism and anger, which originated in the suppression of our liberty.”

This theme of reconciliation is significant, as there were plenty of post-independence Czech politicians still seeking revenge on Austria and Germany. The idea of generosity in victory was not necessarily going to get him liked, but then, Masaryk was never a populist. His address continued:

“It is one of the great experiences of my life that I was allowed to proclaim the principles of our revolutionary liberation in the Independence Hall, the place where Washington and his friends used to meet. My hearty wishes to the American people."

Announcer: "You have just heard His Excellency Tomáš Masaryk and you will now hear the Hon. Frederick P. Hibbard, Chargé d'Affaires of America."

Hibbard: "Dr Masaryk needs no introduction to Americans, as he has spent much time in the United States, where he has become thoroughly familiar with our institutions and our peoples, for whom he has always expressed the greatest sympathy and affection, and I think it is singularly fitting that he has graciously consented to broadcast a message today, when we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. For, in his own successful struggle for the independence and welfare of our sister republic, Czechoslovakia, he has paralleled the ideas and ideals of Washington."

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk at Sokol gathering | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 102-13623,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Less than a year after the Washington bicentenary, Hitler had come to power in Germany, and Europe had become a very different place. In a talk to listeners in Britain to mark the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the BBC, Masaryk spoke of his dream of a united Europe, built on cooperation and trust. He began from a historical perspective:

“I am happy to remember that our Bohemia King George in the 15th century tried to organise a pan-European league for international peace. There can, of course, be no doubt that political difficulties and crises are to a certain extent rooted in economic difficulties, just as, on the other hand, economic difficulties and crises are influenced and graduated by political difficulties… I am convinced that here too it is mainly a matter of how to return to international solidarity and collaboration… For cooperation with Europe, all people of goodwill must get together to work towards the ultimate ideal, which means not only to get out of the present crisis, but also prepare the absolutely necessary atmosphere for lasting peace… There are a great many unsolved problems in the troubled world of today, but we must settle them in friendly and honest discussion. For they won’t be solved by bombing cities and killing innocent women and children. We need confidence in each other instead of poisonous gas.

“If the coming world economic conference will help toward a solution of our financial and business troubles, it is equally important for the disarmament conference to go as far as is humanly possible toward preparing a lasting peace. The cooperation of America in both instances is extremely important and I expect from the two Anglo-Saxon countries to do their share. The times of any thoughts of splendid isolation are over. We are all in the same boat.”

As we listen to President Masaryk, it is strange to think that he was born as far back as the mid-19th century. But he was modern in more than just his political insights. He also embraced technology, here talking about the power of radio to bring people together. His enthusiasm is reminiscent of some of the idealism that accompanied the spread of the internet some sixty years later.

“We remain true to the principles of peace, justice and democracy. If this policy is to be soundly based, it must of course spring from the democratic spirit of the nations and their education. Today, we are not lacking the means for such education. Technical progress is continually placing new such means at our disposal. One of them is broadcasting, which is becoming one of the most popular bonds of union among the nations as well as one of the most suitable instruments for the spread of culture and art, and of political education… The spread of broadcasting is a direct document of progress and sense for education and culture.”

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk's funeral,  photo: Czech Television
In the years that followed, broadcasting was also to become a highly efficient tool in the art of propaganda, but Masaryk was talking at a time just before Joseph Goebbels built up Hitler’s propaganda machine.

When President Masaryk was re-elected for the third time in 1934, he was already frail, as we hear in an archived recording of him taking his presidential oath. He resigned in 1935, as his health continued to fail, and died on 14 September 1937, almost exactly a year before Hitler brought his attempt to build a democratic republic to a brutal end. During the German occupation and the subsequent forty years of communist rule, the recordings we have been hearing in this programme were kept firmly locked in the archives.

But I’ll end on a more positive note. Most recordings of President Masaryk are formal, even austere. An exception is an unedited piece of newsreel from the president’s country seat at Lány Castle, probably recorded for one of the American news networks in 1929, when talkies were something new. Although the film begins with the president inspecting a line of troops, it soon strikes an informal note. We see him riding in the park and chatting to his daughter Alice. He stands and talks into the camera with a broad grin on his face:

“Good morning. A fine day after the fogs of the last week. And I see the new film. As yet, I didn’t see and hear it – a great invention of America. I am sure not the last one. If I observe the inventiveness of our modern scientists, I sometimes fancy a much greater invention – to see and hear in the distance without any wires. Just imagine: you could observe, from your place in the sitting room, the jungles of Africa and what the wild beasts are doing there. You could see and listen to the jungles of our human society. Every man then would be forced to be honest and there would be no secret plotting any more of all the wickedness. Wonderful….no?”