by Anna Herran
“I cherished the hope that in America, and with President Wilson particularly, good fortune would attend me. My personal and family ties with America were close. I had been there repeatedly, from 1878 onwards; and American democracy and the development of American civilization had aroused my lively interest from the beginning of my scientific and political career.”
-Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1)
Between 1957 and 1961 the American Post Office Department issued a series of stamps titled “Champions of Liberty,” which featured non-Americans who had fought for freedom in their homelands. As part of the series, one featuring Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, was issued in 1960 (pictured above). (2) The idea of liberty is central to Masaryk’s relationship with the United States. Up to 1914, T.G Masaryk was a determined defender of democratic ideals within the framework of Austria-Hungary. Masaryk understood democracy in terms of rule by the people, self-government, at all levels, respect for individuals, and a strong base of freedom and morality. Many of these aspects were present in the idea of American democracy, which Masaryk deeply respected, and which influenced his political thought. Masaryk came to know the United Stated well from first-hand experience through trips he took between 1878 and 1907. These allowed him to become familiar with American values and customs, as well as to develop an extensive network, which would later prove to be incredibly valuable during the struggle for Czechoslovak independence. Masaryk’s last visit to the United States during the First World War would be essential to the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic.
There are three main interconnected levels to Masaryk’s relationship with the United States: a personal, an intellectual, and a politic one. Masaryk’s most personal connection to the US was his marriage to an American citizen, Charlotte Garrigue, whose last name he adopted as his middle name, and who had an intellectual influence on him. Masaryk himself would affirm that his marriage completed his education, and even attributed his interest in American literature to the influence of his wife. (3) Masaryk met Charlotte in Leipzig in the summer of 1877 and was immediately captivated by her and her personality which he described as “well-educated, emancipated, and modern.” (4) In August of the same year, they got engaged and agreed that once Masaryk’s academic obligations in Vienna were complete, he would rejoin Charlotte in New York and marry her. The wedding took place in March 1878, during what was Masaryk’s first visit to the United States. It is hard to assess the influence that this first visit had on Masaryk at an intellectual level, for very little evidence of this trip has been preserved. It is safe to assume that the two-week stay was mainly one on personal grounds and that most of his time was spent with the Garrigue family. Nonetheless, in a letter that Masaryk wrote to one of his friends back home, he mentioned that this visit had also been valuable from the perspective of “sociological knowledge”. (5)
Twenty-four years passed before Masaryk returned to the United States. In the meantime, he had become a well-known figure in Czech public life, particularly since; his appointment as professor of philosophy at the newly-founded Czech University in Prague, his involvement in the Hilsner Affair and other campaigns against chauvinism, and his election to the Austrian Parliament. In 1902 Masaryk was invited to lecture at the University of Chicago. The invitation came from the American philanthropic industrialist Charles R. Crane who had established a foundation for Slavic Studies in this university. Coincidentally, Crane happened to be friends with the then President of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson, a fact that would prove particularly helpful in 1918. Masaryk’s notoriety in Czech public life and knowledge of English made him an attractive guest lecturer in Chicago. Right before his departure, Masaryk was interviewed for by Leo Wiener, an American scholar who had helped with the founding of Slavic studies as a discipline in the United States. Wiener wrote what was probably the first report on Masaryk to appear in the American press. This report presented Masaryk as “one of Bohemia’s most prominent sons” who, at the same time, “had the appearance of an American”. (6)
In addition to lecturing, Masaryk took the opportunity to visit Czech immigrant circles across the United States in Chicago (which at the time was the third largest Czech city after Prague and Vienna), New York, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Cedar Rapids. During this and his subsequent trip in 1907, Masaryk became particularly interested in understanding the moral and spiritual condition of the Czech-American communities across the country, and more generally the conditions of immigrants in the United States. Already by 1902, Masaryk’s thoughts on social problems, immigration, and the difficult circumstances of immigrant children in America attracted interest from American journalists, who then published articles presenting Masaryk’s point of view on these issues in American newspapers, thus providing Masaryk with some publicity at the time. Masaryk also received an honorary doctorate from Chicago University during his 1902 trip. (7)
Masaryk’s last visit to the United States before World War I took place in 1907. This time, most of his lectures were conducted in Czech, targeted at the members of the Czech-American community, and dealt extensively with the situation of the Czechs in Austria-Hungary. His aim was to raise awareness among this community to the situation of those who had stayed in the Czech lands. Masaryk also discussed the religious situation in Austria-Hungary, making clear that for him the religious and social questions were both parts of a larger human problem. It is important to remember that religion was a key aspect of Masaryk’s thinking and writing and that it impacted most of Masaryk’s public actions. Indeed, even though Masaryk never fully elaborated on how he understood religion, his scholarly work reflects his belief that religion should be primarily ethical and practical. (8) During his 1907 visit, Masaryk also took part in the Congress of the Religious Liberals in Boston, where he approached the question of the religious situation in the Czech lands. (9) Another important issue with which Masaryk familiarized himself in 1907 was the dynamism of the Czech communities in America and particularly the fact that Czech Americans enjoyed a relatively fast upward mobility, especially when compared to other Slavic communities such as the Polish and Slovaks. By 1920, for example, four members of the Czech-American community were part of Congress. During his travels prior to the First World War, Masaryk had the opportunity to meet with many of the most remarkable personalities of the community, some of which – according to Masaryk – already had a certain influence on American society and would prove to be invaluable later. One of them was Emanuel V. Voska, a Czech immigrant who; arrived in the United States at the age of 19, became a rich entrepreneur, and was actively involved in various Czech-American organizations. In 1914, Voska offered his services to act as an intermediary between Masaryk and his contacts in the West. Indeed, Voska was one of the very first people to learn about Masaryk’s plan to create an independent Czechoslovak state, and he was essential in collecting funds to carry out this plan. (10)
Masaryk’s visit to the United States in 1918 is the best-known because of its significance in the creation of independent Czechoslovakia. This visit and the politics around it can be understood by looking at two major changes that influenced them. The first change was that one of Masaryk’s attitude towards Austria-Hungary. While Masaryk seemed to have lost hope for the possibility of reforming the Monarchy already by the 1880s (when he had considered emigrating to the United States), his decision to break definitely with Austria-Hungary and declare an independent state for Czechs and Slovaks dates from a specific period in 1914 that followed the Monarchy’s declaration of war on Serbia. (11) By late August 1914, Masaryk put into action his plan of going into exile to lead the resistance against the Monarchy from abroad. At this time, and because of Masaryk’s reputation as a political dissenter, he found little support among the Czech political elites. (12)
The second change took place later during the war and concerned Masaryk’s orientation towards the Allied Powers. Before the United States’ entry into the war, Masaryk’s strategy had largely focused on persuading the French and British governments of the importance of the Czechoslovak cause, while in America, his major aim was to mobilize the Czech-American community. Following the United States’ entry into the war in April 1917, and more specifically with Masaryk’s arrival on American territory in May 1918, Masaryk favored the promotion of the Czechoslovak cause among the American political circles, as well as the Slovak communities in the country. Nonetheless, it must be emphasized that from the beginning of the war, an important propaganda campaign promoting Czechoslovak independence had been taking place in America. It had initially targeted the Czech-American communities and increasingly had expanded to raise awareness among the American public in general. Masaryk had understood from the beginning of the war the importance of such a campaign and had made some of his supporters responsible for its operation. One of the actors responsible for the campaign was the aforementioned Emanuel Voska, who, in addition to raising funds for the Czechoslovak cause, also organized the organization in charge of disseminating pro-Czechoslovakia propaganda. Voska was particularly successful in dismantling the structures of Austrian and German propaganda and espionage in America, and in fact, was later hired by the American counterintelligence services. (13) Another key actor in bringing forward the Czechoslovak cause in America was Vojta Beneš, the older brother of Masaryk’s closest collaborator, Edvard Beneš. Vojta Beneš spent time in the United States between 1913 and 1914 when he had established a network of Czech schools for the children of the community. Upon his return to Chicago in 1915, he organized the Czech-American movement for independence and serves as editor in chief of the journal Poselství (message), which promotes the ideas of the Bohemian National Alliance, a political party that represented the Czech-Americans in favor of the establishment of an independent Czechoslovak state. Later in 1917, Beneš helped with the founding of the Slav press service, which centralized all the news coming from Central Europe before broadcasting them in larger American press outlets. (14) This propaganda system, which also received support from the aforementioned Charles R. Crane, was effective in raising awareness of the Czechoslovak cause in American public opinion, which in turn influenced the interest of American political figures in the cause.
The propaganda campaigns proved to be successful when they reached their main target in Washington. Much has been written on the relationship between Masaryk and the American President Woodrow Wilson, particularly regarding Masaryk’s influence over Wilson’s change of attitude towards Austria-Hungary in 1918. Masaryk himself alluded to the fact that he had not been entirely responsible for this change in his memoirs. As Masaryk noted he did not “prejudice the President against Austria,” but rather it was the case that American ideas of democracy themselves had influenced Wilson to change his mind and turn against Austria-Hungary and “German Prussianism” because of their anti-democratic nature. (15) The American historian Victor Mamatey, himself the son of the most significant personality of the Slovak-American community, (16) states in his chronological study of the relationship between Masaryk and Wilson that before Masaryk met personally with Wilson on June 19, 1918, he had been notified of a change in American policy on May 29, according to which, the United States now supported “the national aspirations of the Czecho-slovaks and Jugo-slavs for freedom.” (17) Mamatey presents this event as a proof that pro-Czechoslovak propaganda had impacted the higher circles of American politics.
In addition to influencing American public opinion through propaganda, Masaryk also engaged directly in discussion with American statesmen through articles in the press and personal interviews. Similarly, he aimed at making as many public appearances as possible, a tactic that allowed him to meet and discuss with many; journalists, members of Congress, scholars, activists and foreign diplomats over the few weeks he stayed in Washington. Ultimately, Masaryk’s influence on Wilson was mostly an indirect one, developed through his interactions with influential personalities such as Charles Crane, who had direct access to, and certain influence over, Wilson himself. Moreover, Wilson accorded a major importance to American public opinion, an area where the propaganda system developed by Masaryk and his supporters in the United States had been extremely effective.
In his memoirs, Masaryk recalled Wilson’s stand against Austria-Hungary as a major event that was recognized and celebrated by Czechs and Slovaks. This was reflected in the fact that many buildings, streets, squares, and institutions were named after Wilson following the declaration of independence. The most well-known instance was the renaming of Prague’s main railway station, previously named after Franz Joseph I of Austria, after President Wilson, as well as the construction of a statue of Wilson in front of this station. The name and statue remained throughout the interwar period until the Nazi invasion. A plaque located in the historical building of the station (pictured below) indicates that the historical name of Nádraží prezidenta Wilsona (President Wilson Railway Station) was re-introduced in 1990. This name, however, is rarely used. As for the statue, between 2006 and 2011, the American Friends of the Czech Republic rebuilt a new one near the railway station as a symbol “of a long-lasting friendship between Czechs and Americans.” (18) This organization was also responsible for the renewal of the statue to Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk located in Washington. (19)
Interestingly enough, Pressburg, the largest city in the territory of present-day Slovakia was briefly renamed after Wilson in 1918. However, this was not done in gratitude for Wilson’s recognition of Czechoslovakia, but rather as an attempt by the German and Hungarian majorities in the city to appeal to Wilson and the ideas of democracy and self-determination Wilson had addressed in his Fourteen Points Speech in January 1918, in order to establish a free city in the model of the Free City of Danzig. (20) Ultimately this plan failed, when the Czechoslovak troops took over the city in early 1919. It was later renamed Bratislava and declared the capital of Slovakia.
Anna Herran is an MA student in European and Russian Affairs at the University of Toronto, Canada. During her undergraduate studies in history, she became increasingly interested in the history of Central Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia. She spent the summer of 2015 as an exchange student in Prague, traveling across the Czech Republic looking for the statues of T.G. Masaryk, and attending the celebrations for the 600th anniversary of the death of Jan Hus. Since then, she has developed an interest in commemoration practices and memory politics in Central Europe. Her current research looks at the 100th anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovakia and contemporary popular attitudes towards the figure of T.G. Masaryk in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. For this, she will be returning to the Czech Republic (and to Slovakia) in the fall of 2018. She currently works as a Research Assistant at the Herder Institute in Germany.
1 T. G. Masaryk. The Making of a State: Memories and Observations, 1914-1918 (New York: Howard Fertig, 1969) 212.
2 The author would like to thank Ms. Radmila Locher-Jeřábková of the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada in Toronto for providing this specimen of the Masaryk stamps issued in 1960.
3 Karel Čapek, T. G. Masaryk, Dora Round, and Michael Henry Heim, Talks with T. G. Masaryk (North Haven: Catbird Press, 1995) 111.
4 Alain Soubigou, Thomas Masaryk (Paris: Fayard, 2002), 50.
5 Ibid, 55.
6 George J. Kovtun, Masaryk & America: Testimony of a Relationship (Washington: Library of Congress, 1988) 3.
7 Soubigou, 136.
8 H. Gordon Skilling, T.G. Masaryk: Against the Current, 1882-1914 (Basingstoke: Macmillan in association with St Antony’s College Oxford, 1994) 94; Soubigou 130; Kovtun, 8.
9 Kovtun, 9.
10 Kovtun, 11; Soubigou, 134.
11 Soubigou, 197.
12 Ibid; Skilling, 38.
13 Soubigou, 251.
15 Masaryk, 283.
16 By the 1910s, Albert Mamatey was the president of the National Slovak Society and of the Slovak league. He was responsible for discussing an alliance with the Czech-Americans in 1915, leading to the Cleveland Agreement of 1915, in which Czech and Slovak Americans agreed to cooperate on the fight for independence and the establishment of a common, independent Czechoslovak state; Soubigou, 259.
17 Victor S. Mamatey, “Masaryk and Wilson: A Contribution to the Study of their Relations,” T.G. Masaryk (1850-1937) – Volume 2: Thinker and Critic (London: Macmillan, 1989) 192.
18 Pavla Horáková, “Woodrow Wilson statue returns to Prague after 70 years” Radio Prague. Last Modified October 5, 2011. http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/woodrow-wilson-statue-returns-to-prague-after-70-years.
20 Martina Kováčová, “Bratislava bola Wilsonovo mesto” (Bratislava was Wilson City) SME.SK. Last modified October 28, 2008. https://www.sme.sk/c/4146902/bratislava-bola-wilsonovo-mesto.html
Čapek, Karel. Talks with T. G. Masaryk. Translated by Dora Round. Edited by Michael Henry Heim. North Haven: Catbird Press, 1995.
Kovtun, George J. Masaryk & America: Testimony of a Relationship. Washington: Library of Congress, 1988.
Mamatey, Victor S. “Masaryk and Wilson: A Contribution to the Study of their Relations.” T.G. Masaryk (1850-1937) – Volume 2: Thinker and Critic. Edited by Robert B. Pysent. London: Macmillan, 1989. 186-197.
Masaryk, T. G. The Making of a State: Memories and Observations, 1914-1918. New York: Howard Fertig, 1969.
Horáková, Pavla. “Woodrow Wilson statue returns to Prague after 70 years.” Radio Prague. Last Modified October 5, 2011. http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs /woodrow-wilson-statue- returns-to-prague-after-70-years.
Skilling, H. Gordon. Mother and Daughter: Charlotte and Alice Masaryk. Prague: Gender Studies, 2001.
Skilling, H. Gordon. T.G. Masaryk: Against the Current, 1882-1914. Basingstoke: Macmillan in association with St Antony’s College Oxford, 1994.
Soubigou, Alain. Thomas Masaryk. Paris: Fayard, 2002.