Czech Presidents, Tomas Masaryk

Tomas Masaryk – First Czech President

What an amazing life this guy had and it can be divided into three very distinct parts. Firstly, his fight to raise himself from the poor land he was born into. Secondly, the development of that intellect into a political tool. Lastly, as founder of a new country.

In 1850 he was born in the Moravian town of Hodonin in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a poor family and an illiterate father but he fought his way out of that existence using his sharp intellect. By the age of 22 he had made it to Brno university and, with a short break in 1878 to get married to Charlotte Garrigue in New York, completed his studies with the completion of his thesis “Suicide as a Social Mass Phenomenon of Modern Civilization” whereupon he lived in Vienna.

Tomas Masaryk, First Czech President
Tomas Masaryk, First Czech President

It’s only in 1881 that the now Tomas Garrigue Masaryk moves to Prague and becomes a Professor of Philosophy at the Charles University the following year.
It’s around this time that he must have considered the rising Czech Reformist movement not just as a political base but also as an entity which had far reaching cultural aims. His support of this movement was not open but it’s clear that by 1883 he was using his role in the Czech part of the Charles University along with his publication of a Czech culture magazine to test the water. The authorities were clearly not concerned as Masaryk served in the Austrian Legislature until 1893.

Things start changing in 1900 with the formation by Tomas Masaryk of the Czech Realist Party whose main aims were unification and democracy. These views and how it may be possible to change the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a Federal sovereign state will have been at the forefront of his mind for the next decade.

1914 brings a sea-change in the thinking of Tomas Masaryk. A move from trying to change things from within to changing things from outside meant he went into exile. In successive years, 1915 in London, 1916 in Paris and in 1917 post-revolution ST Petersburg. In all of these places Tomas Masaryk sought to persuade them to support the ending of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, establishing a network of contacts and in the case of Russia, the formation of the Czechoslovak Legion military force.

1918 saw the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation of Czechoslovakia. In quick succession, October 14th 1918 recognised as head of the Provisional Czechoslovak Government, October 28th Independence Day, November 14th elected First President of the Czechoslovak Republic and on December 21st 1918, takes his place in Prague Castle. As President it was his role to provide the continuity and stability needed for the newly established country to find it’s feet and in this he was largely successful. Initially the constitution allowed only for a 2-term limit but Tomas Masaryk was exempted from that and served 4 terms before retiring in 1935.

With hindsight he should have created a constitution that gave power equally between the President and the Prime Minister. The 1918 constitution (amended in 1920) put more power in the hands of the Prime Minister.

His Presidential successor Edvard Benes would pay the price for that decision.