IT is not extraordinary -- not rare even, in our democratic era -- for a man of modest conditons to become cabinet minister or head of the state. But the case of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, President of the Czechoslovak Republic, who will celebrate his eightieth birthday about the time these lines appear in print, is unique. The son of a coachman on an imperial estate in Moravia, then an apprentice to a locksmith and later at a blacksmith's shop, a teacher whose extraordinary capacities led to his becoming university professor at Vienna and then at Prague, deputy and leader of a small fraction in the Austrian parliament, a refugee during the years of the Great War, and finally the founder of a new state and its first President -- this bare outline of his career is enough to show why President Masaryk's portrait hangs among the foremost of all in the gallery of contemporary history, and why it has already become a matter of legend. Comparing himself with Beneš, his young supporter, he wrote in his memoirs: [i] "For both of us it was good that we had led what is called a 'hard life.' We had made our own way, worked ourselves up from poverty, which means acquiring practical experience, energy and boldness." But of course this is far from explaining how Masaryk became what he is -- a sort of Solon or Lycurgus to his people. It shows the method but it does not show the leading idea which through all the activity of his long life he pursued and in the end accomplished, the leading idea which gave his work wonderful unity and harmony. He had the rare happiness to work for the regeneration of his country and to achieve its independence without having to sacrifice a jot of his lofty ideals, nay, even to see them, through his personal influence, embodied in concrete and lasting form.

Even to an extraordinary man like Masaryk his task may well have appeared hopeless. A conjunction of exceptionally favorable circumstances was needed to bring the scheme to completion. This was furnished by the World War. But there also was needed a man who would see and grasp the possibilities of the moment, who could combine a feeling for the strivings of his people with an understanding of the needs and aspirations of Europe. It was good both for his country and for Europe that Masaryk was in the right place just when and where such a man was needed.

Masaryk was steeped in the traditions and history of his people. But he knew how to make them accord with international ideas and aspirations. There had been moments in Bohemian history when European questions were at stake. One such was the preaching of Luther's predecessor, John Huss, and the long struggle for liberty of conscience which followed his martyrdom (he was burnt at the stake in 1415). It exercised a great influence on the founder of the Union of Bohemian Brethren, Peter Chelčicky; on the national King and hero, George of Poděbrad; and on the renowned pedagogical writer, Comenius, a leader in the struggle against foreign domination as well as against pedantry in education. These all in turn became Masaryk's models. At the same time he ardently combated the forged nationalistic legends which tended to support Czech chauvinism. "It is a deliberate and discerning love of our nation that appeals to me," he used to say, "not the indiscriminate love that assumes everything to be right and righteous merely because it bears a 'national' label." He also objected to "theocracy," which he found to be the opposite to democracy. At the same time he wished to preserve the religious feeling in its modern form of morality. "No state or policy can prosper unless the groundwork be moral. . . . The ethical basis of all politics is humanity, and humanity is an international program."

Religious feeling is the most prominent feature of Masaryk's personality, but it is the kind of religion in a philosophical setting which Schiller spoke about in his little verse "My Creed." "What is the religion you belong to? Neither of those you mention. But why? For the sake of religion." Masaryk has always been attracted by every new attempt at religious teaching. Twice he went to Russia in order to have a talk with Leo Tolstoy, and he was deeply interested in Dostoievski's effort to regenerate the religious feeling among the Russian intelligentsia. But he does not accept "Tolstoism," and to Dostoievski he opposes Hume and Kant, whose philosophy he rates more highly because they give preference to reason and to scientific conscience above blind instinct. "Russia is the infancy of Europe" -- such is the conclusion of his deep study of Russian thought and feeling.

An ethical disposition of mind permits Masaryk to keep outside merely political strife. A group of his followers are called "Realists," but their tendency is more philosophical than political. The "realism" of Masaryk is an attempt to find a synthesis between extreme emotionalism and extreme intellectualism. In explaining in his memoirs why he could not join the party of the Czech Radicals, he says: "I thought we should take part in the Government not merely in order to reform the Constitution, but also to infuse a Czech spirit [which, as we have seen, Masaryk thought to be a religious and moral spirit] into administrative practice. I used to speak of 'unpolitical politics' and always insisted on the moral and educational side of public affairs. Seats in parliament and strictly 'political politics' did not seem to me to make up the whole of the real democracy."

These tendencies in Masaryk enabled him to take broader views of Czech policy than many of his fellow politicians, whom he accused of "parochialism" and "political and educational narrowness." There nevertheless was an intermediate step between the purely Czech standpoint and the larger European standpoint: the point of view of a Slav. Mazaryk often protests that he is a Slav and that he feels like a Slav, but among the other Czech politicans, and even among the Czech masses, he encountered a liking for a "Slav policy" that was not at all to his taste. It was based on a blind faith in Russia as the protector and eventual liberator of the whole of Slavdom. Now in Russia itself this idea was shared only by the conservatives, so that the sincere "Panslavism" of the Czechs was translated in Russia into Russian Slav imperialism. In Russia the idea of liberating Czechoslovakia was connected with the scheme of building up a set of states for secondary members of the Tsarist dynasty -- in case, indeed, it happened to be in the Russian interest to have a free Czechoslovakia at all. The Czechs, as Catholics, did not much interest the Russian "Slavophils," whose nationalist theory was based on Orthodoxy. Masaryk here followed in the steps of the Czech journalist Havliček, who was the first to discover the egotistic and conservative side of Russian official sympathy for the Slavs. He strongly objected to "the Slav messianic theory, as untenable as are the messianic yearnings of Pan-Germans and others." According to him, "deeper knowledge points to a synthesis of culture, to the influence of all nations, Slav and non-Slav, upon each other." The majority of Czech politicians considered this a great heresy.

Towards the other Slav nations, especially those to the south, Masaryk stood in a very different relationship. From all through Austrian and Balkan Slavdom young men gathered around Masaryk's university chair and drank in the spirit of his philosophical and social teaching. Thus the fame of the "lonely Slovak in Prague," as Herman Bahr called him in 1909, was spread widely over Slav territories. I myself, wherever my wanderings at that time took me, came upon his pupils and disciples. It was especially the young generation that juravit in verba magistri. Nevertheless Masaryk himself had in view not so much political federation as spiritual intercourse. "Reciprocity of culture," he said, "depends upon educated circles and educational institutions, not upon government alone"; and the new Slavonic intelligentsia prepared by Masaryk had to work out this kind of intellectual reciprocity.

Of course Masaryk's activity was bound to have some political results in that it served as a connecting link between the Slavs of the Hapsburg Monarchy and the Slav nations which enjoyed political independence. His discovery of Count Aerenthal's forgery of documents in the effort to convict certain Serbo-Croatian leaders of conspiracy with the Serbian Government was known to every Slav, and every Slav thus knew on which side Masaryk was to be found in the coming conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. In his memoirs Masaryk avows that he "began early to waver between loyalty and antagonism to Austria." "In later years," he goes on, "especially after 1907, the better I knew Austria and the Hapsburg dynasty the more was I driven into opposition. This dynasty which in Vienna and in Austria seemed so powerful, was morally and physically degenerate. Thus Austria became for me both a moral and a political problem." Here again the moral argument was decisive.

Finally came the World War. It found Masaryk much better prepared to understand its causes than any other politician in Europe. If not the only one, then certainly he was one of the few to see its deeper meaning and tell it to others. This is why he so rapidly secured such an exceptional influence over important politicians in the great European nations.

Now what was that deeper meaning of the war, and what was Masaryk's contribution to the understanding of it? Let me answer this central question with Masaryk's own words. Referring to his inaugural lecture on October 19, 1915, at the King's College, London, on the subject of "The Problem of Small Nations in the European Crisis," he writes: "The lecture brought out for the first time the political significance of the zone of small peoples in Europe that lies between the Germans and the Russians. It enabled me to put both the German Drang nach Osten and Russian policy in a new light and to show the essential characters of Austria-Hungary and Prussia. In this light, the breaking up of Austria-Hungary by the liberation of her peoples was revealed as the main requirement of the war. Finally, I argued against the fear of the so-called Balkanization of Europe and urged, convincingly I think, that small nations are capable of, and have a right to, independent development as States, each according to its own culture. . . . Henceforth the small peoples and the possibility of their independence were seriously talked and written about. The positive side of the war -- reconstruction -- came into the foreground, replacing the conception that its object was either defense against the Germanic Powers or their overthrow, and placing the war in its true light as the beginning of the great re-fashioning of Central and Eastern Europe and, indeed, of Europe as a whole."

There may be controversy about these assertions. Some people may still think the "negative" side of the war was just as important as the "positive" side which Masaryk emphasizes. Masaryk knew only too well that the struggle against the policy of "the mailed fist," the war for "right" as against "might," had a positive meaning by itself. As he says, he "had long pondered over war and revolution, for they are the main moral problem." But he was not a "Tolstoian," nor did he share the opinions of Romain Rolland about non-resistance to evil. He also did not approve "a pacifism of the naturally weak and timorous, a pacifism of the terrified and sentimental, and a pacifism of speculators," or that of the "extreme international Socialists." He accepted the western view of the war as "a great fight for freedom and democracy," and on the question of war guilt, while emphasizing the direct guilt of Austria-Hungary, he admitted that German "imperialistic militarism" contributed to make the war inevitable.

On the other hand, one may challenge the Czech claim to have popularized the idea of the right of small nations to independence. But the chapter of Dr. Beneš's memoirs in which he describes the propaganda of the "oppressed nationalities" shows how much detailed work was needed to familiarize the leading European politicians with this Wilsonian idea. The Czechs had first to persuade the Allies that the complete destruction of Austria-Hungary was necessary and inevitable. This was a hard task. Did not even the renowned Czech historian Palacký assert that if Austria had not existed it would have been necessary to invent her? In France this pro-Austrian view was deeply rooted. And of course no responsible diplomatist would engage himself to promote the thesis before military events indicated that it was a practicable one. Yet by 1918 the principle of the liberation of "oppressed nationalities" had been worked up into an official doctrine of the right of peoples to dispose of themselves, and this doctrine (as Dr. Beneš testifies) was accepted by the Allies as "so natural, justified and necessary that one was rather astonished to see it subject to doubt." The Rome Congress of April 1918, at which all the oppressed nationalities of Austria-Hungary agreed on a common program of action, contributed very much to secure general acknowledgment of the idea. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that, in preparing the ground for this Congress, Masaryk and Beneš addressed themselves to intellectuals and scholars rather than to politicians. They tried to influence actual diplomacy through public opinion, and succeeded.

When Masaryk in December 1914 made his decision to emigrate and start his propaganda abroad he was a private man, with no backing except from a small group of friends who worked at home in secret. The responsible Czech politicians were undecided as to what line to take. Most of them hoped for and passively awaited the coming of the Russians to Prague. The utmost that could be expected from them was silence. Money was scarce. And though the popular mood was admirable, and though the Czech soldiers did not wish to fight for Austria and deserted by whole regiments, the masses were not organized and did not understand the situation. The same may be said about the Czech colonies abroad. The colony in Russia, a particularly numerous one, was even hostile to Masaryk. Under these conditions his chance of success seemed small. Benes even heard Masaryk asking himself, in a moment of despair, whether it would not be better for him to go back to Vienna in order to be shot and thus serve the national cause by providing it with a national martyr.

But endurance, patience and an untiring activity had the best of it. The scattered Czech emigrés became a "National Council," and afterwards a government recognized by the Great Powers. The Czech deserters became the army of that government, and won their first laurels. On October 14, 1918, the National Council from abroad met the Prague National Committee at Geneva, and two weeks later, on the memorable day of October 28, the Austrian power was overthrown smoothly and without bloodshed in Prague. The Czechoslovak Republic was born, with Masaryk as its first President.

All the impulses and conscious actions in Masaryk's life converged in this happy result. Democrat by birth, democrat as a result of his early studies, democrat by his professorial teaching, the chief agent for the spreading of democratic ideas and sentiments among the young generation of Slavs, Masaryk won his war by producing a new democratic conception of war aims.

It was natural, then, for him to turn to the building of his state in the democratic spirit. Czechoslovakia is probably the only new state where there has been no talk of dictatorship. "I defend democracy," Masaryk says in his memoirs, "against dictatorial absolutism, whether the right to dictate be claimed by the proletariat, the state or the church. . . . During my years abroad I thought we should need a temporary dictatorship for our revolution . . . pending the establishment of a constitutional government by regular elections. . . . But things developed otherwise. . . . The dictatorship of the Revolutionary National Committee and of the National Assembly proved sufficient. . . . It had never occurred to me that I might be President. . . . I had conceived my future position as that of a writer and Member of Parliament. . . . I had busied myself with the purely theoretic question whether the presidency of a republic is not a relic of monarchism. . . . Some form of directory would respond more closely to the letter of democratic principle. . . ."

However, Masaryk is conscious of the fact that democracy is still to evolve. "The republic is the form," he says; "democracy is the thing itself." "The form," he adds, "the written constitution, does not always guarantee the substance." And it is to the "substance" that the attention of Masaryk is now directed. "Under Austria, the whole of our education was undemocratic. . . . The difficulty of passing from an aristocratic and monarchical to a democratic system arises from the failure of monarchical aristocracy to accustom citizens to bear responsibility and to take decisions. . . . Our republic has to educate its citizens in democracy."

Masaryk himself gives some indications as to the general direction which he wants that political education to take. First of all, he wishes his people to become aware of the great change that has occurred. "Now that we have won political independence and are masters of our fate," he says, "a policy conceived in the days of our bondage can no longer suffice. Emphasis was then laid upon our linguistic claims. Now our national program must embrace the whole domain of culture." "Nations are the natural organs of mankind. . . . Chauvinism, racial or national intolerance . . . is the foe of nations and of humanity. . . . The more humane we are, the more national we shall be." Masaryk thus wants to terminate the perennial strife between Czechs and Germans in Bohemia. "National character does not depend solely on language," he asserts, "and the national character of our state must be based upon the quality of a comprehensive educational policy, consistently pursued." The Czechs must get rid of their chauvinism and the Germans "must de-Austrianize themselves and get rid of the old habit of mastery and privilege."

Coming to the political institutions of democracy, Masaryk develops his old conception that "institutions by themselves are not enough." "The true reform of Parliament will be effected by reforming the electors, by their own political education and higher morality." Equally important is the reform of "bureaucracy or civil service." " In the Austrian Empire the lowest of the state railway officials lorded it over the public. . . . But under the truly democratic system the highest official is one of the people working for the people." "Democratic foreign policy means peace and freedom all round." Here, as in other branches, "Democracy and the Republic are more than negations of monarchy and absolutism. They are a higher, more positive stage of political development."

It is of course quite impossible to summarize here Masaryk's creative work for his new state. It is sufficient to say that, outside and inside, his personality merges itself with that of Czechoslovakia. One feels sure that as long as Masaryk is there everything will be all right. Happily for his country, his eightieth anniversary finds him as active and alert as always. And happily for us all, the world has in him a living lesson in modern democratic statesmanship.

[i]"The Making of a State," New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1927.

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  • PAUL MILIUKOV, formerly Professor at the University of Moscow, Foreign Minister in the Russian Provisional Government of 1917
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