A State without Suicide

The Passions of T. G. Masaryk
Tomáš G. Masaryk (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)

Which nightmare of modern times would we make disappear if we could? Few people would hesitate to answer “Nazism”—a word that has come to symbolize evil. But like all evil, Nazism was historical, the creature of a particular time, and its development depended upon people who could have acted differently. National socialism—that is what Nazism stands for—appeared in late-nineteenth-century Europe and developed in two streams: one the epitome of fascism, taking millions of lives; the other a tolerant democratic party that respected human rights. Of the two leaders who took the movement in such different directions, one, Adolf Hitler (born 1889), is infamous, while the other, Tomáš G. Masaryk (born 1850), is today all but unknown.

Early national socialists spoke to and for the lower classes, who faced a decline in status because of major economic shifts, and feared that this decline might have to do with foreigners who lived in their country. Like today’s populists, they said that the elites in far away capitals did not care enough to help. Like Hitler and Masaryk, they came to life in the Habsburg heartlands of Austria and Bohemia.

The earliest manifestation of their politics of fear was an 1882 meeting of German liberals in the provincial city of Linz. The mostly young men were alienated by their party elders in Vienna, laissez-faire liberals who hardly lifted a finger for shopkeepers or workers. These elders were also clueless about lower-class German fears around economic advances and the culture of Slavs and Eastern European Jews. At that time, Germans constituted an overwhelming majority in Austria, but only about one-third of the population in Bohemia. Like middle-class whites in our society, many worried about relative decline in status. Bohemia, once dominated by German culture, was in danger of becoming Czech.

The young Germans’ Linz program featured populism’s odd mix of right and left: on the one hand, defense against “foreigners,” primarily Czechs and other Slavs; on the other, economic protection for workers and small businesses. Soon the rebels abandoned liberalism and evolved in different directions: the left, led by Viktor Adler, formed Austria’s Social Democratic party in 1889, while the right, under “Knight” Georg Ritter von Schönerer, took up anti-Semitism, portraying Jews as the ultimate economic and cultural danger. The vainglorious knight proved an inept leader and his popularity was limited largely to students.

In 1903 one of his disciples, the Bohemian German Karl Hermann Wolf, formed a splinter “German workers party” in a town just north of Prague. After World War I, this party became the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). By then, Wolf had faded into the background and was replaced by a young veteran named Adolf Hitler, party member #79. Hitler united the Nazi Party in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, and by 1938 had brought the Germans of these lands into one state, the “Third Reich.” But he never forgot the socialism part of national socialism, and instituted social and accident insurance that would be the envy of U.S. workers today.

When Tomáš G. Masaryk was born, the Czech majority of Bohemia were a despised underclass of workers and peasants. By the 1880s they increasingly challenged German dominance, forming their own parties, the strongest of which was the Social Democrats. But in 1898 these Czech followers of Karl Marx committed a major blunder. As internationalists, they sought a solution to Bohemia’s nationality problems, and agreed with their German comrades to divide Bohemia into districts: some controlled by Germans, others by Czechs. Though reasonable in the abstract, this solution violated a dogma of Czech nationalism—that the ancient kingdom of Bohemia, founded in the twelfth century, was a Czech land, one and indivisible. The Czech word for Bohemia happens to be Čechy, implying that the very soil was Czech. Yet for centuries Bohemia officially belonged to the (German) Holy Roman Empire, and Czechs felt their claim was not secure. They also believed that an up-and-coming European nation needed bounded space, not squares on a checkerboard.


Making a Czech state great meant making it humane.

Rejecting the Social Democrats, renegade Czech workers founded the Czech National Socialist Party—a party that would not forget that Bohemia was Czech and Czech workers were Czech nationals. Like its German counterpart, the Czech National Socialist Party contained chauvinist elements, but over time those elements receded. The party became a mainstay of Czech democracy, and remained one until the Communist coup of 1948. The party’s best-known politician was Edvard Beneš, Czechoslovak president from 1935 to 1948. But Beneš had been secretary to Masaryk, and it was the latter who had the decisive influence on the party’s evolution.

Like most of the Czech elite, Masaryk came from a humble background and never lost touch with the common people. More importantly, he succeeded in convincing his compatriots that ethnic hatred was incompatible with Czech identity. Making a Czech state great meant making it humane.

If this was an odd message for a nationalist, Masaryk was an odd kind of nationalist. Into his thirties he did not even think of himself as Czech. He came from the eastern stretches of Bohemia, son of a Slovak coachman and a Moravian maid who taught Tomáš to pray in German. If he had any loyalty, it was to his village, and though he sympathized with Slavs in the struggle against German culture and spoke Czech with boyhood friends, he considered himself an Austrian rather than a Czech.

The gifted boy found German patrons to support his studies at Vienna, where he wrote the two doctorates required of Central European academics: the first on Plato’s politics, and the second on suicide. In 1876 he went to Leipzig for further studies, and met the American music student Charlotte Garrigue, a Unitarian of French Huguenot and Yankee background. The two discussed literature and philosophy on long walks through the city’s parks. In 1878 they married in the Garrigue house in Brooklyn and Tomáš took Charlotte’s maiden name as his middle name—a rare gesture reflecting his belief in the equality of the sexes.

At this point his future was up in the air. He might have received an academic position anywhere German was spoken—at Alsatian Strasbourg, romantic Heidelberg, or the eastern outpost Czernowitz in Austrian Bukovina. In that case, he would have become just another German professor. A call to the new Czech university in Prague in 1882 meant that Masaryk was drawn into a mostly Czech environment, yet he did nothing to endear himself to Czech nationalists.

In Bohemia’s capital, Masaryk became a man of causes. His first involved a dispute about manuscripts supposedly unearthed by a Czech patriot two generations earlier in a Bohemian castle. They told of a wise Czech queen Libuše who had reigned sometime in the eighth century, and caused a sensation because Czech patriots possessed no Czech-language sources prior to 1200. Despite doubts about their authenticity, the documents seemed indispensable evidence that Czechs predated Germans in Bohemia. Yet Masaryk examined the matter soberly and concluded that a serious European nation cannot build its future upon forgeries. Though reviled as a traitor, he slowly gained adherents, and whether people liked him or not, they knew where he stood.

His second cause made him even less popular. In 1899 charges emerged that the Jewish peddler Leopold Hilsner had killed a Christian girl, supposedly for Christian blood, and an Austrian court condemned him to death. Masaryk found that the charges had no basis, and joined a campaign for clemency that led to a commutation of the death sentence. He was especially horrified that Czechs succumbed to medieval superstition and redoubled his efforts to make them what history demanded they should be: rational, truthful, and concerned with “humanity.”

Masaryk claimed to get these ideas about the Czech character from deep history: the early Protestant reformer Jan Hus, the Czech Brethren who promised true Christian fellowship, and the philosopher and educator John Amos Comenius, who had been called to be president of Harvard. Academic critics objected that peoples have no characters and history provides no messages, but Masaryk believed Czechs needed a sense of what held them together as a community. If progressives did not create that sense, their opponents to the right would.

In 1909 Masaryk defended fifty-three Austrian Serb politicians whom the Habsburg state had charged with treason, using evidence supplied by one of the Linz Program authors. The penalty would be death by hanging. Masaryk journeyed to Zagreb, examined the evidence, and found it had been forged. The men were released.

In the tense years before WWI, he tried to mediate with Serbia, but Habsburg authorities showed no interest. After declaring war in July 1914, they drafted hundreds of thousands of Slavs into a cause meant to bolster German and Hungarian power in Central Europe. Dissenters were executed. Masaryk fled, and spent four years agitating for Czech independence in Western Europe and the United States. When Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris in 1918, no one was more highly esteemed in the new Europe than Masaryk, and indeed Czechoslovakia became the most successful of the new democracies, seeming to embody his ideals.


Masaryk’s legacy is clear—politics is a moral endeavor of using knowledge for the betterment of people, in material as well as spiritual terms.

Historians have wondered where Masaryk got his certainty that to be Czech was to be humane. The answer lies not in Czech history, but in his own life. When Masaryk was seven or eight years old, a young stablehand hanged himself at the estate where his father worked. He never forgot this horrible event. Suicide was the supreme immorality, not so much of the person who took his life, but of the circumstances that had made it thinkable. His biographer Emil Ludwig later wrote that Masaryk’s career in politics began with this concern about one human life.

In his dissertation, Masaryk found that in medieval Europe suicide was almost unknown. Something in modern life had brought a painful disharmony: the more educated people became, the more often they succumbed to despair. Modern schools actually produced “half-education,” Masaryk argued, forming people’s minds for school and career but not for life. Even at universities no one talked about ethics, but ethics was the passion that drove Masaryk in everything, including dozens of impromptu seminars he and Charlotte held at their apartment in Prague, where they raised five children and always had tea ready for visitors.

Masaryk idealized the Middle Ages as a time when society possessed a complete worldview. He knew life had been hard, but Christian beliefs gave consolation. Astoundingly, his academic thesis contained a paean to Christ’s role in history that seemed to draw upon deep faith:

Christ gave the new commandment of love, and that extended to one’s enemies. In the possession of this love, the Christian knows how to arrange his life in a Godly manner: it is the bond that connects him with heaven and earth. Who could despair if he only had a spark of the love that Paul describes in the unmatched hymn to the love of a Christian? This sublime system of theism, combined with the belief in immortality and the morality of love, has a living foundation and cornerstone in the mediation of the Son of God, in Jesus Christ. With belief in him all in religion that is abstract, unapproachable, and incomprehensible recedes: for Christ the Son of man becomes the object of faith, hope, love, devotion, sacrifice, reverence, and worship.

Masaryk insisted these words reflected not faith but objective observation. He admitted there was no going back to a time when the church governed peoples’ minds. Nevertheless, if immorality derived from the loss of religion, then modern people would have to find a new one.

As a student Masaryk had abandoned the Catholicism of his childhood, and became a kind of Protestant with Christ as his only guide. Yet Protestantism tended to splinter endlessly and was no recipe for the society he hoped to build. When he and Charlotte settled in Prague in 1882, they discovered a new religion: the students that surrounded them, the readers of their essays, the Czech world of pubs, cafes, workshops, and fields. The Czech people became their cause and disciples, and also their source of faith.

But Masaryk’s ideas about his chosen people were not entirely new. In Prague he fell in with a national revival movement that went back to the time of Napoleon’s defeat, when small cadres of Slovak and Czech Protestant theologians had gone to study in Jena, and returned home imbued with the philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder. A Protestant preacher at Riga and Weimar, Herder contended that God had given each people a mission to humanity; the soul of a people was its culture.

The early Czech patriots standardized their language and wrote a Czech history where none had existed. Because most were theologians, this was history laced with parables and lessons. Masaryk got his idealized version of Jan Hus and the Bohemian Brethren from František Palacký (1798–1876), a Moravian theologian converted to Czech nationalism during his studies at the Lutheran seminary in Pressburg, today’s Bratislava. Pressburg had become a hotbed of Herder’s thought when Slovak students returned from Jena; from the 1820s Palacký guided the movement from Prague. Masaryk followed Palacký’s view that the Czech Brethren were not only the high point of Czech history, but also embodied “pure Christianity,” and he delighted in claiming that the reformers of Hus’s time were—much like himself—more interested in ethics than in theological doctrine.

Nationalism as a faith-justifying commitment never lost its connections to religion in Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia: but these were tenuous. In 1919, renegade Catholic priests tried to revive the Czech Brethren, but after three hundred years of suppression, their Czechoslovak Hussite Church never took off (though its modernist structures still impress). The population had been re-Catholicized in the seventeenth century after the Habsburgs hanged Czech Protestant rebels, and it remained nominally Catholic until World War II. Then it slowly became what it is today: Europe’s most atheist society. Counterreformation had stifled not just Protestantism but Christianity. But Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia was a place where the new national state was also social; during the Depression, it continued its generous provision of social benefits, and a Czech New Deal came before the American one.

Masaryk died in 1937, and the following year the Western powers surrendered his country to Germany at the Munich conference. In the decades of fascism and Communism that followed, statues of Masaryk were removed and his writings disappeared. During the same period, racism, intolerance, and violent anti-intellectualism took over. The Prague Spring of 1968 witnessed a reflowering of Masaryk’s ideas, but after the Soviet intervention they were again suppressed. Yet when, in December 1989, the playwright and activist Václav Havel became president and said that “truth will prevail,” everyone knew the source of those words: Masaryk; and before him, Jan Hus; and before Hus the gospels, slightly Czechified.

This year, on October 28, Czechs celebrate a century of independence, and most know that without “TGM” there would be nothing to celebrate (everyone knows what those letters mean). Masaryk’s legacy is clear—politics is a moral endeavor of using knowledge for the betterment of people, in material as well as spiritual terms. Czechs may not know the source of Masaryk’s fervor: the desire to make a society where no one would contemplate suicide. As far as we know, Masaryk never succumbed to despair, but one wonders what he would make of the malevolent national socialism—the populism—that has invaded East Central Europe in our time. In January, Czechs reelected President Miloš Zeman, a man who admits to drinking six glasses of wine and four of hard liquor every day. (One U.S. diplomat told me he had to meet Zeman in the morning; otherwise communication was hopeless.) Last year Zeman joked with Vladimir Putin that journalists should be liquidated, and he claims that the twelve refugees his country has admitted threaten its identity. His opponent in the election was very much in Masaryk’s mold: a professor, reasonable, decent, of mixed ethnic background—and a Protestant! Late last year, stories that he was a pedophile began appearing. The source was uncertain, but it was assumed to be Russia. The election was close.

Thanks to forms of distortion that Masaryk could not have imagined, this time the truth did not prevail; it was as compromised in Prague as it was in Michigan two years ago. Whether or not Providence assigns destinies to nations, their fates are inseparable. The Trump administration cares little about the ideals prized by Masaryk—humanity, truth, decency, solidarity—and the opportunist Miloš Zeman was the first European head of state to endorse Trump. Czechia, like the rest of the European states created a century ago, is at sea. Now is a good time to recall that none of those democracies, with their difficult, sometimes tragic histories, would have emerged without American advocacy of principles Masaryk learned in part from his American wife. And now is a good time to remember that democracy withers when reasonable-seeming people sneer at every form of faith, and dismiss truth, humanity, and reason as empty words.

Published in the October 19, 2018 issue: 

John Connelly teaches the history of East Central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley.

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