Throughout the 19th Century, the Czechoslovak lands were experiencing a renaissance of national self- esteem, nationalism in the older sense (closer to the way we use the word “patriotism” these days). It was largely related to the cultivation and re-statement of the Czech language and carried out to great extent by cultural activities. Many of the time’s leading political figures were scholars. This includes the first president of the Republic.
Masaryk was already very well known towards the end of the century. He had decided to face the public opinion on two occasions. One was an anti-Semitic criminal case, where he defended the Jewish victim of the hatred campaign. The other was more damaging, as he argued the case against two fake Early Middle Age epics, written by two contemporary poets. The epics were widely accepted as true and statues were named after heroes of the texts. Together with a handful of other scholars, notably the linguist Jan Gebauer, Masaryk faced severe depiction. Many of the times’ great cultural figures joined the newspaper hotheads in labeling the scholars as agents of the Austrians or enemies of the nation.
Several decades later, as he accepted the role of the first president, he may have been the most beloved figure in the state. There was a lot of enthusiasm and naivety, Masaryk was often treated as a Tsar-like Father of the Nation, flawless, perfect, undisputed. The twist in the perception of this man was extreme. Why? Maybe the public took time and realized that national identity and dignity can’t be based on a lie, however well- meant may it be. And he proved his devotion to the Czechoslovak independence transparently enough on many occasions. A respected figure, he developed strong ties with the Western powers’, whose support was essential in 1918. Notoriously it was President Wilson’s claim of a right for self- determination and his explicit support of Czechoslovak independence. Not to forget Czechoslovak military units, the independent legions fighting abroad on the side of Allied powers.
What we should also bear in mind is the fact that there was no consensus about Czechoslovak independence within the country itself. Prague was indeed the centre of the movement against monarchy, but there were various voices, some advocating the view that monarchy should be preserved. It was, in eyes of many, at least a stable subject and there were fears about the new state’s vitality. This view was not shared by the public and Masaryk became the symbol of the more radical, uncompromising stance, trusted that he will manage the new state and in most respects he did.
Dec 19, 15:19 (Filed under: Chapters from history )