We start this series with one of the great European democrats of the 20th century, Czechoslovakia’s first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Born in 1850, he was already in his late sixties when he became president in November 1918. He took inspiration from the western democracies, in particular the United States and Britain, having spent time in both countries during his First World War exile. But he was also a passionate European.
In 1932 he sings the praises of George Washington on the 200th anniversary of his birthday, as one of the fathers of modern democracy. “Democracy,” Masaryk says, “is not just a state form, but a method of all private and public life. The state is a bond of citizens built on reason and morality.” But Masaryk also has words of warning to Britain and the United States: “The times of any thoughts of splendid isolation are over. We are all in the same boat.”
And many years before the foundation of what is now the European Union, he outlines his vision of an integrated Europe: “I am happy to remember that our Bohemia King George in the 15th century tried to organise a pan-European league for international peace. There can, of course, be no doubt that political difficulties and crises are to a certain extent rooted in economic difficulties, just as, on the other hand, economic difficulties and crises are influenced and graduated by political difficulties… I am convinced that here too it is mainly a matter of how to return to international solidarity and collaboration… For cooperation with Europe, all people of goodwill must get together to work towards the ultimate ideal, which means not only to get out of the present crisis, but also prepare the absolutely necessary atmosphere for lasting peace…”
In the podcast we also hear the voices of people who admired Masaryk, in particular the American Chargé d’Affaires in Prague in the early 1930s, Frederick P. Hibbard and the British historian, Robert Seton-Watson, who was a long-time close friend of the president and influential in lobbying for the creation of Czechoslovakia after the First World War.
And we get a glimpse of the Masaryk behind the more formal mask. In the garden of his official residence at Lány Castle, he talks about his enthusiasm for the new medium of film. He even predicts the invention of something that sounds remarkably like the internet:
“If I observe the inventiveness of our modern scientists, I sometimes fancy a much greater invention – to see and hear in the distance without any wires. Just imagine: you could observe, from your place in the sitting room, the jungles of Africa and what the wild beasts are doing there. You could see and listen to the jungles of our human society. Every man then would be forced to be honest and there would be no secret plotting any more of all the wickedness. Wonderful….no?”