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11-08-2015, 17:47

Thomas G. Masaryk (1850-1937)

Thomas Masaryk was the most significant leader of the World War I era movement to break up the Austro-Hungarian (or Habsburg) Empire. He aimed at establishing an independent Czechoslovak state out of several components of the empire. In this cause, Masaryk benefitted from the work of talented collaborators like Eduard Benes. Eloquent as he was in speaking out for Czech independence, Masaryk had to wait for the course of hostili ties to make his aims practical. By the closing months of the war, however, Allied hostility toward Austria-Hungary and the instability of the empire made Masaryk's cause a winning one. Prior to the outbreak of World War I, Masaryk had stood as an advocate of lesser change, notably a federal system that would give the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire more autonomy while preserving the historic Habsburg state. In these same years, however, he emerged as a vocal critic of the empire's domestic and foreign policies. The circumstances of the war pushed Masaryk to a more extreme position, or, at the least, encouraged him to take a public stand that had not seemed feasible before 1914. During the first sixty-four years of his life, Masaryk raised himself from humble origins to a position of academic renown and political influence. Bom the son of a coachman in the small Moravian town of Hodonin on March 7, 1850, he had both Slovak blood (from his father's side of the family) and Czech ancestry (from his mother's family). A gifted linguist and scholar, he rose through the academic world, obtaining a doctorate in philosophy, holding a professorship at the University of Prague, and writing extensively on topics ranging from philosophy and religion to history and literature. He married an American woman, Charlotte Garrigue, whom he met while studying at the University of Leipzig. The future statesman entered politics in 1891 as a deputy in the Austrian parliament. He served both there and in the Czech Diet. His pronouncements on the future of the Habsburg Empire prior to 1914 were guarded and sometimes contradictory. But two consistent elements emerged. First, he believed that the system, which seemed unlikely to collapse entirely, needed to be transformed into a federal state. Second, as 1914 approached, he became increasingly pessimistic that such a transformation would take place. Masaryk lagged behind some Czech leaders who called for outright independence, but he was sharp—some even called him traitorous—in criticizing the empire's diplomatic ties to Germany and its hostile policies toward Balkan countries like Serbia. Following the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, Masaryk became an advocate of an independent state that would contain the ethnically related Czechs and Slovaks of the old empire. At first, he expected it would be a monarchy with a king from a small country like Belgium or Denmark. In deference to Czech leaders who looked for help in Russia, he also mentioned the possibility of a Russian ruler for postwar Czechoslovakia. In December 1914, he left the Habsburg Empire to organize a movement abroad. While he traveled in Italy and Switzerland, his family was placed under police surveillance in Prague. Masaryk used the financial support of Czechs and Slovaks living in the United States to promote the cause of independence. His major tool was pubUcity in magazines he put out in the Allied countries. In private conversations with western European leaders like Prime Minister Aristide Briand of France, he called for a Europe rebuilt on the principle of nationality, acknowledging that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had no place in this new political world. In November 1915, he made these views public in a manifesto published by his Czech Committee Abroad. Masaryk spent most of the early wartime years in London. He mixed his political efforts with teaching stints at the University of London's King's College. The first promising results of his efforts surfaced at the start of 1917. Then, the governments of Britain and France suggested as one of their war aims the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire and the creation of a number of successor states, Czechoslovakia among them. In May 1917, following the revolution in Russia that had toppled the old monarchy, Masaryk traveled to Petrograd. He had long advocated the formation of an army consisting of Czech and Slovak prisoners of war in Russia. It would be a potent tool in promoting the idea of an independent Czechoslovakian state. The effort to form such a force and to transport it to France kept him in Russia until early 1918. Masaryk made his way to the United States via Tokyo starting in March 1918. The United States had declared war on Austria-Hungary in December 1917, and he saw the government in Washington as a crucial center of power in the struggle for a Czechoslovakian state. He toured the large Czech and Slovak communities in the United States, and met with President Woodrow Wilson. In late May, Secretary of State Robert Lansing announced American backing for an independent Czechoslovakia. In the next months, the initiative of Eduard Benes, Masaryk's energetic colleague in western Europe, won over first the French, then the British government to the same goal. With the Central Powers collapsing, the pace of events quickened. On October 18, Masaryk rejected an offer from the young Emperor Charles of Austria-Hungary to transform the empire into a federal state. Czech leaders in Prague declared the establishment of a Czechoslovak state on October 28. Slovak leaders issued a similar declaration on October 31. In early November, Masaryk, still in the United States, received word that he had been named the president of the new republic. The former professor served as his nation's leader for the next two decades. Despite the difficulties in governing a multinational state that i«cluded a large German minority, Masaryk maintained a democratic form of government. Historians consider him the most successful government leader in the newly independent states of eastern Europe. Masaryk retired from office in 1935 and died at his country home outside Prague on September 14, 1937.

 

 

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