At a corner of the Hradčany Square in front of the Prague Castle stands a bronze statue of an elderly man with the letters TGM on the pedestal. The man is Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, a philosopher and also a politician whose finest hour came when he was well into his 60’s. During World War I he advocated the independence of Czechoslovakia. He then served 17 years as the first President of the new state. His death in 1937 was seen by many as the symbolic end of the first era of Czechoslovakia.
Tomáš Masaryk was born in Hodonín on March 7, 1850. Quite ironically, Masaryk, a man of a great merit with regard to the Czech nation, had a Slovak father and German mother. He graduated from a grammar school in Vienna, Austria and stayed there to study at the Faculty of Arts. When on a study stay in Leipzig he met an American woman, Charlotte Garrigue. Masaryk and Charlotte married in 1878. Masaryk who supported the women’s rights movement made the unusual choice to take his wife’s surname. He became known as TGM since then.
Masaryk earned his living in that time as a teacher (private and also at the Vienna University), and he also published a number of works. Masaryk soon became a widely known intellectual figure – and also a controversial one. He did not hesitate to go against the prevailing opinion if he deemed it wrong. He engaged in the dispute which raged for decades about two forged epic poem manuscripts, allegedly proving the greatness of Czech history in early Middle Ages. As the manuscripts were viewed by many as the pillars of Czech national identity, many insults were thrown at Masaryk who expressed very skeptical opinions about the authenticity of the poems.
Meanwhile, Masaryk moved with his family to Prague where he became a Professor of Philosophy at the Charles and Ferdinand University (today Charles University). After several years, Masaryk entered the world of politics. In 1891 he was elected a Member of the Austrian Parliament in Vienna (he was elected two more times in the following two decades).
At the end of the 1890s, Masaryk again held an unpopular opinion. He expressed concerns over the criminal proceedings which led to sentencing a Jew named Leopold Hilsner for an alleged ritual murder of a young woman. The proceedings were influenced by strong antisemitism and Hilsner was convicted despite very scarce evidence. Hilsner was released after 18 years in prison. The actual perpetrator was never found.
The eruption of World War I convinced Masaryk of the impossibility of a reform of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He emigrated (while his son Jan fought in the Austro-Hungarian army) and started his struggle for the independence of the Czech nation. The beginning was very difficult as Masaryk had almost no access to the Entente leaders. Nevertheless, he persevered. As thousand of Czechs and Slovaks found their way to Czechoslovak legions, especially in Russia, they also backed Masaryk thus giving him some bargaining power. Shortly before the end of the war, he managed to get the recognition and support from Entente powers to establish an independent Czechoslovak state.
With the end of World War I, Austria-Hungary virtually collapsed. Czechoslovak leaders in Prague proclaimed an independent state. In November 1918, Masaryk was elected President even before he could return home. After the adoption of the Constitution of the Czechoslovak Republic, Masaryk was re-elected for a standard, seven-year term. He was elected again in 1927 and 1934. Masaryk was the only person allowed to be elected more than once by the Constitution.
Though the powers of the President were rather limited by the Constitution, Masaryk was a very influential figure respected even by his opponents. He was very popular among the Czechs who referred to him as “Father Masaryk” (tatíček). When he was elected in 1934, Masaryk’s health was poor. He was not able to secure sufficient support within the Parliament for his intended successor Edvard Beneš. Another year had to pass before Masaryk could retire. The Presidential castle at Lány was left to his disposal. Masaryk died there on September 14, 1937. His State funeral was a manifestation of the unity of the nation in the time when the Nazi threat was already intense.
Masaryk is a symbol of mid-war Czechoslovakia. His 17 years in office cover almost all the duration of the so-called First Czechoslovak Republic, the only fully democratic regime here until 1989. His name was taboo during the Nazi occupation from 1939-45, and also during the Communist rule (1948-89). Despite that, he was not forgotten and soon after the Velvet Revolution his name reappeared on many public places and also his memorials and statues were erected again. Now we have, for instance, Masaryk Railway Station in Prague, Masaryk University in Brno and numerous streets and squares bear his name. Even my graduation was from Masaryk Grammar School (in Vsetín).
The flag which flies on the roof of the Prague Castle when the President is there, is also from Masaryk’s era and bears his motto “Pravda vítězí” (“Truth Prevails”).