Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

The Czech philosopher Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937) was the founding father and first president of the former Czechoslovakia. A proponent of realism in both philosophy and politics, he first became known to the world through his championship of unpopular causes.

The age of Tomáš Masaryk was an age of liberalism and nationalism, ideologies which called for political freedom and national independence. Being a true son of his age, and a member of one of Austria-Hungary's unrepresented nationalities, Masaryk picked up this challenge and brought his ideas to their logical conclusion in the foundation of Czechoslovakia.

Education and Early Career

The son of a Slovak father and Germanized Czech mother, Masaryk was born on March 7, 1850, near Hodonin (Göding), Moravia, on the imperial estate where his father, a coachman, was employed. Given the low social position of his parents, his education got off to a rather rocky start, and for a while it seemed that he would become a blacksmith. But after studying at several local village schools and at Brno (Brünn), Masaryk completed his secondary education in Vienna in 1872, where he then entered the university. Receiving his doctorate in philosophy 4 years later, he spent a year at Leipzig (1876-1877), took a brief excursion to America to get married (1877-1878), and then returned to Vienna to become a lecturer at the university.

The Vienna and Leipzig years were of considerable influence on young Masaryk's mind. He had already developed a rebellious disposition and independent mind at Brno, but only in Vienna and Leipzig did these characteristics become part of his personality. (These character traits went well with his erect and vigorous physique, topped by a high-domed head that sculptors later liked to model). In Vienna he fell under Plato's influence (his thesis was entitled The Essence of Plato's Soul); and in Leipzig he embraced Protestantism, whose teachings appeared to him to be more in accord with the revered Hussite traditions, and his own quest for freedom, than the "authoritarian" thought of the Catholic Church. It was also in Leipzig that he had met his future wife and life companion, the American Charlotte Garrigue (1850-1923), who brought her own Huguenot-Unitarian traditions to bear upon Masaryk's mind.

After his return to Vienna, Masaryk supported himself and his growing family partly on his university lectures and partly on subsidies from his father-in-law. His first important work, Suicide as a Mass Phenomenon of Modern Civilization, appeared in 1881, and it was on the strength of this work that in the following year he received a professorship in the Czech University of Prague. His decision to accept this offer proved to be one of the most important milestones in Czech history. It was in Prague that his nascent national consciousness turned into a living force, and he became the most articulate and level-headed spokesman of his nation.

Philosopher and Politician

When making this important move, Masaryk was only 32 but already enjoying a reputation as a philosopher. His philosophy had been inspired chiefly by Plato, whose logic and language taught him to acquire the habit of accuracy necessary for the attainment of his selfdeclared goal of "search for truth" through "realism." For this same reason, and also "to overcome the Slavanarchy in myself," he became interested in such Western thinkers as the British empiricists John Locke and David Hume, whose philosophy he tried to emulate and live by, teaching others to do likewise. Simultaneously, however, he was also fascinated by the Slavic models of social and religious thought (particularly Russian mysticism) and produced his epoch-making The Spirit of Russia (1913).

During the 1880s, in addition to writing a number of works on philosophy, Masaryk involved himself in the affairs of the day, propagating his views in the Athenaeum and the Naše Doba (Our Epoch). It was in the former that he exposed the Königinhof (Karlovy Dvur) and Grünberg (Zelena Hora) manuscripts, forged 6 decades earlier to prove the alleged preeminence of medieval Czech literary culture over its German counterpart. With this exposure Masaryk earned the hate and abuse of his countrymen but also the respect of the whole scholarly world. This also holds true for his brave denunciation of anti-Semitism in the notorious ritual murder case of Leopold Hilsner (1899), whose trial revived the hoary medieval myth of Jewish ritual sacrifice. It is correct to say, therefore, that Masaryk achieved fame by his unpopularity.

Masaryk's unpopularity did not prevent him from lecturing his countrymen on the form in which life should present itself to the Czech mind. Thus, in a series of essays in the Naše Doba (published as The Czech Question in 1895), he advocated a return to the humanitarian ideals of the Czech Brethren. Simultaneously, he also dealt with the question of Marxism (The Philosophical and Sociological Foundation of Marxism, The Social Question, both 1898). Although he criticized historical materialism, he spoke up for progressive social reform.

Since Masaryk could not dissociate thought from action, he became active in politics and served in the Austrian Reichsrat (1891-1893, 1907-1914) as the representative of his own Realist (later, Progressive) party. Generally, he tried to dissociate himself from the squabbles of the Young and Old Czechs and advocated a human, liberal, and realistic approach to the solution of political questions. Meanwhile he retained his custom of championing unpopular causes, as attested to by the famed Zagreb treason (1908) and Friedjung (1909) trials, where he proved that the government's case against a number of South Slavs rested on forged documents. With this, his worldwide reputation was further enhanced.

Founding Father

Prior to 1914, Masaryk worked for reform within the Hapsburg Empire. The empire's involvement in World War I, however, altered his views diametrically, and he became an advocate of Czech independence. He left Austria in December 1914. Then, relying on his great European fame, and on the aid of such well-known Western critics of the empire as E. Denis, W. Steed, and R. W. Seton-Watson, he launched a campaign of propaganda to convince the Allies of the desirability of carving up Austria-Hungary. Making good use of the propaganda effects of the activities of the "Czechoslovak Legion" in Russia (1917-1918), and coming to terms with the leaders of the Slovak emigration (Pittsburgh Pact, May 30, 1918), he managed to get Allied support for his independence movement (May-June), largely on the basis of his ideas elaborated in his The New Europe (1918). On the strength of this support, on Oct. 14, 1918, he declared the independence of Czechoslovakia and a month later (Nov. 14) was elected the new state's first president. The Making of a State (1927) is Masaryk's own version of his struggle for the creation of Czechoslovakia.

Masaryk served as president for 17 years, and during this relatively long period he tried to implement his ideas on progress and democracy. Like many others, he was only partially successful. He retired at the age of 85 in December 1935 and died on Sept. 14, 1937, at Lány near Prague.

Further Reading on Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

President Masaryk Tells His Story, recounted by Karel Čapek (trans. 1934), and Čapek's Masaryk on Thought and Life: Conversations with Karel Čapek (trans. 1938) are valuable sources. Although there is no definitive study of Masaryk, there are many popular biographies by British and American authors. The best of these is Paul Selver, Masaryk: A Biography (1940); the most recent, Edward W. P. Newman, Masaryk (1960). See also Donald A. Lowrie, Masaryk of Czechoslovakia (1930; new enlarged ed. 1937); Emil Ludwig, Defender of Democracy: Masaryk of Czechoslovakia (1936); Robert Joseph Kerner, Masaryk (1938); Victor Cohen, The Life and Times of Masaryk, the President-Liberator (1941); R. W. Seton-Watson, Masaryk in England (1943); and Robert Birley, Thomas Masaryk (1951).

There are no adequate works about Masaryk's philosophy and teachings; W. Preston Warren, Masaryk's Democracy: A Philosophy of Scientific and Moral Culture (1941), is the best available treatment. For general historical background C. A. Macartney's monumental The Habsburg Empire, 1790-1918 (1968) supersedes all previous works. One may also consult with profit Arthur J. May's two works, The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867-1914 (1951) and The Passing of the Hapsburg Monarchy, 1914-1918 (2 vols., 1966), and A. J. P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy (1941; new ed. 1948). Robert A. Kann, The Multinational Empire (2 vols., 1950), is still the best source covering the nationality problems of the empire.