Tomáš Masaryk Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Masaryk was a professor of philosophy, an author, and a statesman who was the principal founder and first president of Czechoslovakia. He secured the support of the Western liberal powers during World War I for the Czechoslovakian cause and was awarded numerous honors including a D.C.L. from the University of Oxford in 1928.

Early Life

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was born in Moravia in 1850 to a Slovak father and a German-speaking Czech mother. His homeland was part of Austria-Hungary and his father was employed as a coachman on an imperial estate. Because of the low social position of his parents, it was difficult for him to receive an education. His father encouraged him to enter a trade and for a while he worked as a blacksmith. He was finally able to attend school in Brno and completed his secondary education in Vienna in 1872. He supported himself by tutoring wealthy students, and in appreciation their parents helped him to further his education. He entered the University of Vienna and completed his doctorate in 1876. Following his graduation, he spent a year studying at the University of Leipzig, where he met an American student of music, Charlotte Garrigue. They were married in New York in 1878. She was a major influence in his life, causing him to have a greater understanding of international affairs than most Czech leaders of his day. In order to symbolize the closeness of this relationship, Masaryk adopted his wife’s maiden name and thus became known to the world as Thomas Garrigue Masaryk. Charlotte also influenced his religious views. He had already left the Roman Catholic faith in which he was reared, and now he adopted many of the Unitarian views of his wife. Not only did his marriage change his religious outlook, but also it led him to adopt English as his third language after Czech and German.

In 1879, Masaryk became a lecturer at the University of Vienna, and in 1882 he was appointed professor of philosophy at the Czech university in Prague. His position gave him the opportunity to become one of the leaders of the rising nationalist movement among his people. Masaryk’s mind had a practical bent, causing him to use his philosophic training to try to solve the problems of life and to work toward a more just society. He had little interest in problems of epistemology or cosmology. In the early stages of his career, he reacted against German philosophy, accepting British empiricism and logical positivism. His philosophical position can be described as realism, an outlook that accepts not only reason but also the will, the emotions, and the senses. His main interest, however, began to concentrate on sociology and the philosophy of history. These preoccupations were reflected in his book Der Selbstmord als sociale Massenerscheinung der modernen Civilisation (1881; Suicide and the Meaning of Civilization, 1970) and several other works on the Czech Reformation and the early nineteenth century Czech nationalist revival.

Life’s Work

Masaryk became one of the most popular teachers in the university at Prague, and he used his academic role to attack political and social injustices. As he elaborated his views they came to include a search for scientific truth, a pragmatic approach to life, a rejection of force and extremism in human affairs, and an emphasis on morality. As the author of numerous books and as a muckraking journalist, he entered into debates on the important social issues of the day.

Masaryk demonstrated his devotion to his ideals by exposing two ostensibly early Czech poems that were regarded as the Slavic counterparts to the Nibelungenlied but were in reality early nineteenth century forgeries. He also challenged the anti-Semitism of his homeland by proving the innocence of Leopold Hilsner, a Jew accused of the ritual murder of a Christian in 1899. Despite his involvement in these practical issues, Masaryk found time to publish several volumes including Česká otázka; Snahy a tužby národního obrození (1895; the Czech question), Die philosophischen und sociologischen Grundlagen des Marxismus (1899; the philosophical and sociological foundation of Marxism), and Russland und Europa (1913; The Spirit of Russia, 1919). These works assigned a key role in the improvement of the human condition to the Czech nation through the transmission of its ancient ideals as embodied in the Hussites and the Bohemian Brethren. Such an outlook, Masaryk believed, could be an effective antidote to the materialism, selfishness, and alienation of modern society. His writings and teachings were meant to educate the Czech people in their own tradition. As he interpreted their history, it was an enduring defense of democracy in church and state.

Masaryk believed that Hussite ideals would give his people an orientation toward the ethical and democratic outlook of Western civilization, and he was suspicious of the Pan-Slavism and communist ideology emanating from Russia. His book on Russia dealt with the philosophy, religion, and literature of his great Eastern neighbor. He was extremely critical of Russia, characterizing the land as preserving the childhood of Europe through the mass of ignorant peasants. Russian nobles were no better, he stated, because they were half-educated, immoral, boorish, cruel, and reactionary. Their example had set the pattern for the entire society. Those such as the Marxists who wanted revolution were suggesting a cure...

(The entire section is 2263 words.)