In today’s world of relative values, a leader who takes great personal risks to champion causes seems an anachronism. Quaint. Our heroes, most of them, could be credited with achieving the opposite of what they intended, looked at from their victims’ point of view. Writers, if they want to be taken seriously, champion the irony not the causes. I am not immune to this plague of our times. So it is with some hesitation, some worry that I must be missing the obvious, that I offer Masaryk. He did sign up for a lousy job and he was honored for not betraying the many who believed in him.
In October 1918, Masaryk returned from exile to Prague and Hradčany Castle to take over as President of Czechoslovakia, an alliance between Czechs and Slovaks (it helped that Masaryk had a Slovak father). Between then and his death in September 1937, Masaryk would be elected President of the newly formed democracy four times.
The times were not easy. In May 1919, 30,000 industrial workers left their factories to crowd into Old Town Square to plunder the black-market shops that were bringing down wages by selling goods well below market value. Rampant poverty among the workers led to the young Communist Party in 1921 winning 18% of the popular vote. Already with a population of 770,000 in 1922, Prague badly needed to build decent affordable housing. Peter Demetz reports in Prague In Black and Gold that 81% of the apartments available for rent in Prague early in Masaryk’s career consisted of single rooms and lacked baths. Given the crude living conditions, in the 1935 election, many ethnic German-Czechs not surprisingly voted for the Sudeten Party, the Party backing Hitler.
With a growing cloud of military threat darkening Europe, no one leader had everyone’s sympathy, not even Masaryk. Still, he died peacefully (no coup) at age 87 on September 14, 1937. Hitler was already throwing his weight around in the Spanish Civil War. A show of military strength was considered useful, so it was decided that the army should conduct Masaryk’s funeral. The event was popular. While he lay at rest in his coffin in Plečnik Hall in the Castle, 600,000 well-wishers waited in long lines to file past and say goodbye.
One million people crowded the streets of Prague on September 21 to watch the funeral procession wind down from Hradčany Castle to Old Town then up to Wenceslas Square. For the last time in Europe, Russian legionnaires, 25,000 strong, marched in lock step with troops from France and Italy. A Czech air force squadron flew over the procession.
Benes, Masaryk’s replacement, delivered an epic speech to the gathering in Wenceslas Square that would be quoted verbatim in Prague newspapers. In my novel, Better You Go Home, my narrator’s father, a teen at the time of Masaryk’s death, recalls that speech:
“Those were words you don’t forget.” My father looks off across Prague’s vaunted spires as though he could still hear the joyful sound of the cheering multitudes. I call you all without exception, from the left to the right, from the most remote hamlet to this capital city. The crowd was quiet. Everyone expected this much. But he finished with a line that made everyone cheer like they had heard St. Peter’s call to heaven.
“In English it translates, ‘To the bequest which you placed in our hands, we shall remain faithful!’ That’s a famous quote from Hus. He was a patron saint for us. ‘Faithful we shall remain!’ ‘Věrni zůstaneme!’ You should have been there. You should have heard it.”
My narrator’s father thought of Masaryk as a hero. Many did. Many also did not trust Benes to live up to his words. As though to prove his doubters correct, Benes actions went in the opposite direction to his message. He was not faithful. He was no Masaryk and he quickly proved it. He disbanded the army and fled.
Demetz, an eyewitness to the funeral, captures the ironic mood of that moment well:
“I remember the eerie silence… You heard only the muffled sound of the horses’ hooves, the clink of wheels and weapons, the infantry boots on the cobbled streets, and quiet sobbing in the crowds.”
That “clink of wheels and weapons” would soon echo in the most awful way possible. The Czech air force, in under two years, would be handed over to the Wehrmacht one plane at a time. By October 1938, Benes, in London, lacking the respect accorded Masaryk, the charismatic champion of hopeless causes, failed to persuade the Brits and Americans to stop the Munich Accord, which essentially gifted Czechoslovakia to Hitler.
It would be a long time before a leader such as Masaryk would again emerge, a leader willing to risk even life and liberty to defend the few values we hold in common, values handed down via the Magna Carta, with the addition of the right to form our own government.
Very few these days are applying for Masaryk’s job. It’s easier to point blaming fingers. I don’t plan to apply. If I write about characters who on some level embody the right questions, that’s pretty low risk for me. Let’s be honest about that. At least at this time, I am not likely to go to prison or to be tortured for my characters’ indiscretions. That I can live this way might be considered the kind of triumph Masaryk would have wanted.