Playwrights, Presidents, and Prague

By Bridges, Peter | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Playwrights, Presidents, and Prague


Bridges, Peter, The Virginia Quarterly Review


The press reports that Czech president Vaclav Havel recently unveiled a bronze statue of Masaryk in a Washington park. Masaryk, for most American readers, is only the dim memory of a foreign minister found dead in a Prague courtyard, after the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948. But that was Jan Masaryk. The monument is to his father, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president.

When T. G. Masaryk died in 1937 he was perhaps the best-loved European. His public image owed much to the work of a friend, the playwright Karel Capek. The friendship between the respected old statesman and the imaginative younger writer was extraordinary and effective. But as they talked, and acted, their democratic republic fell increasingly in the shadow of large tyrannies-Fascist, Nazi, and Soviet.

When the Communists fell from power in Prague in 1989, the new president who took Masaryk's old seat in Prague Castle-and who was to hold that seat until 2003-was also a playwright, Vaclav Havel. There are interesting comparisons to be made between Masaryk, Capek, and Havel, against the background of a nation that has suffered, and accomplished, more than many others.

Capek's high estimate of T. G. Masaryk was shared by many others in the 1920's and 1930's. Emil Ludwig, biographer of the world's most famous, saw Masaryk as a Goethean figure, a less melancholy Lincoln. R. H. Bruce Lockhart, an Englishman who knew nearly every European statesman between the two world wars, called Masaryk the noblest figure and the fairest-minded man that he had met in any country. H. G. Wells thought Masaryk and Lenin were the two most impressive men he ever met; Lenin for his part called Masaryk his most important ideological opponent in Europe.

The Russian and the Czech came from opposite backgrounds. Lenin, who preached a dictatorship of the proletariat, was the son of a school inspector and member of the nobility; Masaryk was born in 1850 in a Moravian village, the son of an illiterate coachman. The Czech lands-Bohemia and Moravia-were then part of the AustroHungarian Empire, and the elder Masaryk worked on an Imperial estate. Young Tomas saw his father dealt with rudely by his masters, and quickly learned to hate them. Sometimes a group of the great people from the imperial court would come for a hunt, and leave their fur coats in the Masaryk cottage while they went coursing across the fields. Masaryk never forgot how as a boy he had seen those elegant coats, and wanted to rip them up with his knife.

As the boy grew, he learned his nation's history. The high point had perhaps come with the great Czech King Charles IV, who built Charles Bridge, Charles University, Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), and Karlstejn castle; he was Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful European monarch until his death in 1378. Later, things turned worse in the Czech lands. In November 1620-as the Pilgrims on the Mayflower were nearing Cape Cod full of hopes-a divided Czech nation with a weak foreign king was defeated by the army of the Hapsburgs. With official backing, the Jesuits and other Catholic orders put down the Czech Protestant movement which had begun a century before Luther. Many Czech leaders fled; 27 were executed on Old Town Square in Prague. German was substituted for Czech, and thousands of books in Czech were burned. The Czech language became a tongue for peasants only, and for the next three centuries the Czechs remained subjects of a German-speaking empire.

In 1869 young Masaryk went to Vienna, managed to gain a university education, and began to rise in academia and politics-an interesting contrast to another provincial youth named Adolf Hitler, who came to Vienna three decades later and failed miserably to make a career there for himself. In 1882, Masaryk took a position in the reborn Czech-language university in Prague. Even before the First World War, he became convinced that the Austro-Hungarian Empire could not last.

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