Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

Czech professor turned statesman, considered to be one of the fathers of Czechoslovakia and a national hero in today's Czech Republic. Born Tomáš Masaryk, he added the middle name Garrigue after marrying Charlotte Garrigue, a Brooklyn woman of French Huguenot extraction.

From humble origins in southern Moravia, where he was born the son of a peasant in 1850 and apprenticed to be a blacksmith, Masaryk became an eminent historian in Prague before the First World War, when the Czech lands and Slovakia belonged to Austria-Hungary. Economically the best developed of the Dual Monarchy's Slavic nationalities, the Czechs had the longest-established nationalist programme, although very few demanded more than the same autonomy accorded to the Magyars.

Several future nationalist leaders went to study under Masaryk, and he had already aided the Yugoslav cause in 1909 and 1910: he defended a number of Croat leaders against allegations of conspiring with Serbia against the Habsburgs, an incident known, predictably, as the Zagreb Treason Trial. He subsequently testified against the Viennese historian Heinrich Friedjung, who had (perhaps unknowingly) supplied the false allegations, in the trial for forgery which arose out of the collapsed Zagreb case.

Not long after war had broken out in August 1914, Masaryk went into exile and led a four-year campaign for Czechoslovak independence which would have exhausted many of his students, let alone a man of 64. Unlike many Czech nationalists who looked to Russia as their brothers in Slavdom, Masaryk was strongly oriented towards the West, even when it came to marriage. With the aid of fellow émigrés Eduard Beneš and Milan Štefánik, with whom he formed the Czech National Council in Paris, he was mostly involved in lobbying Britain and France to support the Czechoslovak cause.

He quickly made contact with British experts on Austria-Hungary. R. W. Seton-Watson obtained him a lectureship at King's College in London, and Henry Wickham Steed found him a solution to the dilemma that Russian soldiers were firing on Czech soldiers trying to desert. Steed, the foreign editor of The Times, suggested they sing a Czech national song, Hej, Sloveni, to identify themselves.

The song was also taken up by Polish troops in the Austrian army for the same purposes. After the war, Steed was amused - or so his memoirs relate - to hear the scholar Bernard Pares remember that, on a visit to the Russian lines, he had overheard what he took to be Russian soldiers singing the anthem of their Polish neighbours with whom they traditionally had less than cordial relations.

By 1918, the Allies had accepted, with a little prodding from Woodrow Wilson and various propagandists, that Austria-Hungary's days were numbered and that Czechoslovakia would be formed largely along the lines that Masaryk had suggested to the British three years before.

A victorious Masaryk, then in America, returned to Prague via London where a parade from Euston station was organised in his honour. The military band hadn't had quite enough practice at Hej, Sloveni, and improvised with a quick blast of See, the Conquering Hero Comes.

Masaryk was elected the first president of Czechoslovakia as soon as he came home, and was re-elected in 1920, 1927 and 1934. Under his presidency, Czechoslovakia bucked the authoritarian trend common to the other successor states of the Habsburg Monarchy, although Slovak dissatisfaction that they had not been given more autonomy proved to be a source of instability, as did the German minority which fell under Nazi influence.

For health reasons, the 85-year-old Masaryk handed over the presidency in 1935 to his foreign minister Beneš, and died in 1937, the year before the Western democracies acquiesced in Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland. His son, Jan Masaryk, was a politician in his own right and was found dead in mysterious circumstances under his bathroom window two weeks after the Communist takeover of February 25, 1948.

Masaryk University in Brno, the capital of his native Moravia, is named in his memory today, as is the main hall of the library at Seton-Watson's School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

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