Tomáš G. Masaryk. Un intellectuel européen en politique 1850-1937

TitleTomáš G. Masaryk. Un intellectuel européen en politique 1850-1937
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsMüller, Nils
Author(s) of reviewed materialDucreux, Marie-Élisabeth, Antoine Marès, and Alain Soubigou(eds.)

book. Title translated: Tomáš G. Masaryk. A European intellectual in politics 1850-1937

PublisherParis: Institut d’Études Slaves
ISSNISBN 2720404292
Review year


Full Text

According to the editors, Marie-Élisabeth Ducreux, Antoine Marès and Alain Soubigou, the volume Tomáš G. Masaryk. Un intellectuel européen en politique 1850-1937 has a manifest concern: to commemorate the life and work of the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic in present-day France, where he is supposed to be „largely forgotten and underestimated“ (p. 10). Besides a biography by Alain Soubigou [1], who is one of the editors of this volume, there is much less literature on him in French than in English or German, let alone Czech. This anthology, written by twenty-three – predominantly Czech – contributors, well-established researchers on this field, is designed to serve this purpose by providing a synthesis of scholarly knowledge on Masaryk: except for a few articles (e.g. by Otakar Funda on „the Masarykian conception of culture“), contributions tend to be short and reveal their original character as notes to a conference that was held in Paris in 2002.
The contemporary significance of Masaryk’s personality is supposed to be given by the striking similarities between his career and that of his latter successor, Vaclav Havel, since the political changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both of them performed publicly as „President Liberator“, a role that is strongly appreciated today by Czech public and political elites. Jaques Rupnik offers an explicit comparison of them („Masaryk and Havel: ethics of politics at the crucial test of power“), but references to Havel and Czech history after 1989 set the topical frame for the volume in general as well. Consequentially, the volume consists of three subject areas: Masaryk as an outstanding Central Europan intellectual, the influence his example has exerted on most recent Czech history, and – given the circumstances – his relationship to France. [2]
Masaryk’s public appearances as an intellectual already provide rich materials for study: starting his academic career in Vienna, but elected professor in Prague in 1882, this engaged, critical intellectual had to deal with the spread of antisemitism, fake sources on early Czech history, or the Zagreb trial for high treason in 1909. His main concern in the academic field was society and religion – both of these topics were interrelated with the aggrieving national struggles within the Habsburg monarchy in manifold ways. In her intiguing contribution on „Masaryk and protestantism“, Anna Petitova shows how central the use of the myths of the Czech protestant movement were in Czech nationalist ideology, not least as formulated by Masaryk himself, who otherwise dealt with religious questions in connection with matters of education and partly utopian visions of social renewal, as Miloš Havelka shows („Masaryk’s sociology of religion“). During World War I, Masaryk, having an established reputation as an expert in Russian-European cultural relations, resorted to Panslavic propaganda he otherwise rejected (Vratislav Doubek: „Masaryk and the Slav question during World War I“).
The declared focus of the volume is the relationship between his roles as intellectual and as politician, and the three contributions mentioned – all dealing with Masaryk’s public appearances before World War I – provide good examples of how these levels can be fruitfully combined. Petr Pithard („T. G. Masaryk, intellectual, politician, statesman?“) pays attention to this question in a short essay in which he stresses Masaryk’s problems with having to choose between his own convictions and the dictate of election polls – a familiar quandary of the modern politician. But Masaryk’s post-World-War-career as supposedly „the greatest democratic leader in Central and Eastern Europe“ (p. 158), as Francesco Leoncini puts it, is largely left out.
Cursory treatment of these more problematic acpects is a major flaw of the volume. Miloš Havelka brings up the more general question whether it is at all possible to give a synthesis of Masaryk’s life as an intellectual, a head of state and so forth (p. 57). Jaroslav Opat puts it more narrowly: “Historians will continue to abundantly examine whether Masaryk, as president of a national state, succeeded in acting in consent to the ideas he proclaimed.“ (p. 150) He notes that Masaryk’s speech and action never diverged fundamentally and refers to the necessities imposed by the threat from both sides of the political spectre in the interwar period. But besides that Masaryk’s policy as head of state, the political on-road test of the 1920s and 1930s, attracts surprisingly little attention. The major inner threat to the newly erected democracy in Czechoslovakia was the unruliness of large parts of the population, chiefly the Slovaks and the German minority. Both of them could base their claims on topics that were completely in conformity with the principles of Masaryk’s prewar career as a critical politician (such as the Pittsburgh declaration or the principle of self-determination in general). Not even Alain Soubigou’s article on „Masaryk, president of the republic“ bothers to deal with that question in detail. It becomes evident in many ways that the initial conference took place “at the eve of the accession of the Czechs to the European Union“ (p. 13), as the Czech ambasador Janyška remarks, and that it was the explicit will of the editors to give Masaryk and his œuvre „a place [...] in a European Union that is in doubt and in search for itself“ (p. 11). To that purpose this volume might prove adequate, but regrettably, it does not provide that broad analytical scholarly survey one might have expected, given the reputation of its authors.

[1] Soubigou, Alain: Thomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937). Biographie intellecuelle et politique. Paris 1999
[2] The book is divided into two parts, though: „Masaryk and his time“ and „What heritage?“. But this division is somewhat midleading with regard to the topics covered.