Town marks 150th anniversary of birth of Czechoslovakia’s first prime minister

Karel Kramář

The town of Vysoké nad Jizerou this week marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of notable Czech politician Karel Kramář. As an MP within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kramář fought for Czech national interests, leading to his arrest for treason by the Austrian authorities during World War I. He was tried and sentenced to death, galvanising Czech public opinion, and although the sentence was reduced to imprisonment, Kramář became a national hero. Eventually he was released as part of a general political amnesty in 1917. The flood of support pushed him further into the spotlight and he was named the first prime minister of the newly-founded Czechoslovakia a year later, on November 28, 1918.

Karel Kramář
Political scientist Martina Lustigová is the author of a well-received biography on Kramář’s life and work.

“He was elected when he was 30 and until his death he stayed in politics. So he was one of the most important politicians of the first Czechoslovak Republic. He was the first Czechoslovak prime minister but after that he was only a member of Parliament and chairman of the National Democrats. But he was always an important politician for the Czechoslovak people.”

As a politician, though, Kramář was not without controversy: earlier in his career he had pursued the dream of a pan Slavic federation dominated by Russia and this and other goals pursued by the politician were often deemed highly unrealistic at best. Worse, when criticised says political scientist Martina Lustigová Kramář rarely attributed any fault to himself.

Martina Lustigová
“First of all, he was really naïve. He had many ideas, his big Slavic empire and such like. But he did not see that some of his ideas were bad and incredible. He always thought that people did not understand him. He could not see mistakes on his side but only mistakes on the other side.”

One area where he was vindicated by history was his strong opposition to Bolshevism in Russia. But when it came to possible solutions, his were disregarded. At the Paris Peace conference in 1919 his suggestion that Czechoslovak conscripts could fight on the side of the White Army in the Russian civil war were opposed and this put him largely at odds with the country’s president, T.G. Masaryk. Martina Lustigová again:

“In the beginning of the first Czechoslovak Republic, Masaryk became the first Czechoslovak president and Karel Kramář became the first Czechoslovak prime minister. It looked like they would be friends and colleagues but this was not true. When Kramář was in Paris for the peace conference he wanted Czech boys and men to go to Russia to fight Bolshevism. He wanted to help the White Army in Russia and Masaryk did not want that. Masaryk also wrote to our foreign minister, Edvard Beneš, and they criticized Karel Kramář very, very much.”

Karel Kramář,  photo: CTK
Gradually he – and his party the National Democrats lost popular support and his fragile government stepped down while he was still in Paris following poor results in local elections. In the end he only served eight months as prime minister and his greater political ambitions went unrealised.

“We can say he was the first Czechoslovak prime minister. But he wanted to be also the president of the Czechoslovak Republic. But he only wanted to be, because it was unthinkable. It was impossible because no-one else wanted Karel Kramář to be Czechoslovak president as well.”

Today he is arguably best remembered for a beautiful villa overlooking Prague and the seat of the government, still used by prime ministers for negotiations and key political talks.