Few people are aware that, implausibly, Czechoslovak independence was declared from Philadelphia 100 years ago. That’s because Tomas Masaryk, the father of the new state, was in the U.S. seeking support from President Woodrow Wilson as world war one was winding down
Masaryk was born in 1850 to a Czech mother and a Slovak father who was a coachman on a Hapsburg estate in Moravia. He rose to be a member of the Austrian parliament and professor of philosophy in Prague. As time went on Masaryk became convinced that his long-cherished goal of obtaining Czech and Slovak autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian monarchy wasn’t going to happen. Thus, at age 64 Masaryk turned to revolution.
Accused of treason by the Austrian authorities, Masaryk escaped and spent the war years in Paris, London, Moscow and Washington methodically building support for an independent Czech and Slovak state. His collaborator was his academic protege Edvard Benes, who would succeed him as president in 1935. “Without Benes,” Masaryk later wrote, “there would have been no revolution.”
In Russia Masaryk persuaded czarist authorities to arm Czech prisoners of war who had been captured while serving in the Austrian army. They returned to fight against the Austrians, winning an important battle in Ukraine. The Czech Legion eventually numbered 100,000 and was a potent tool in Masaryk’s drive for independence.
Masaryk spent six months in America where he assiduously promoted Slavic unity within exile communities. He met three times with President Wilson.
On May 30th in Pittsburgh Masaryk produced a unity declaration in which Czechs and Slovaks pledged cooperation in an independent state. The word “Czecho-Slovakia” came into being. Before Pittsburgh bilateral ties were weak as during 300 years of Hapsburg dominion Slovaks were ruled from Hungary while Bohemia and Moravia were administered from Vienna.
Masaryk was a skilled networker. Before he went to work on Wilson he had persuaded the British and French to endorse the concept of Czechoslovak independence.
In a letter to Wilson on September 11th, Masaryk essentially boxed the American president into an endorsement of independence:
“Mr. President: Allow me to express the feeling for profound gratitude for the recognition of our army, the national council and the nation.”
It was bravado assertion since the Czech army was in Russia, itsnational council in Paris, and the Czech lands still part of Austria.
Masaryk’s priority was obtaining independence before a peace conference as he fearedthe victors would redraw the map of Europe in a way unfavorable to Czechs and Slovaks. When the Austrians In October split with Germany and proposed negotiations to decentralize decision making within the monarchy, Masaryk turned his independence campaign into overdrive. He was adamant that the Austro-Hungarian empire must be abolished.
At Philadelphia on October 26, Masaryk declared Czechoslovak independence, its text closely modeled on its American precursor.Independence was similarly declared two days later in Prague. While still in America awaiting a ship home, Masaryk was elected president by the national assembly in Prague.
In his final meeting with Wilson on November 15th Masaryk advised the president not
to become personally involved in the peace conference that was to be convened. He feared Wilson’s lofty moral stature would be tarnished in rough and tumble negotiations.
He was right.
During six months of map making in Paris Wilson was chewed up. It became clear that Wilson’s call for self-determination would apply only to victors, not vanquished. Hungary, for example, would lose two-thirds of its territory and population to new states. Proposals for a Danubian federation that included Austria were still born as Czechoslovakia was already free.
John Maynard Keynes, part of the British delegation in Paris, called Wilson, “a blind man unbelievably out of touch with the reality of things.” The punitive Versailles treaty that imposed reparations on Germany, he argued, was wicked and invited future conflict. Despite shortcomings and Wilson’s failure to win congressional support for his league of nations, his good intentions won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920. Wilson died a broken man in 1924.
Independence, of course, did not assure lasting freedom for Czechs and Slovaks. After Munich in 1938 they endured six years of Nazi rule. Then in 1948 a Soviet backed coup resulted in 41 years of communist dictatorship, during which time Masaryk’s achievement was downplayed and his name seldom mentioned. His stature was restored only after the 1989 velvet revolution.
Finally, Czechs and Slovaks have emerged into what is already 29 years of freedom. They are members of NATO and the European Union. But the merged entity, Masaryk’s crowning achievement, expired with the 1993 velvet divorce. Despite the separation the two nations remain allies and best friends, and Slovaks no longer complain of being dominated by Czechs and run from Prague. #