T.G. Masaryk's War Years

About the Project

How often do we find ourselves wishing to pick someone’s brain? Reading someone’s handwritten notes is about as close as we might come to that, especially if said someone was a Czech statesman who lived a century ago. Thomas G. Masaryk was a Czech diplomat, historian, and nationalist who spent 1914-1918 in exile from Bohemia, lobbying the Allied powers to grant Czechoslovak statehood at the conclusion of the war. The Thomas G. Masaryk Collection, housed at the University of Pittsburgh Archives, allows for an extremely intimate look inside the mind of the Czech liberator. The collection features a number of unpublished letters, drafts, interviews, and other memoranda from the period 1917-1919. This date range is quite important, as it marked the final years and end of the First World War, as well as the fruition of Masaryk's work: an independent Czechoslovak state. This project explores some of these documents to understand how Masaryk used the notion of Czech democratic exceptionalism to lobby the Allied Powers to support the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. 

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Page 1 of the 32 page draft of The International Status of the Czechoslovak Nation.

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Pages 2-3 of the 32 page draft of The International Status of the Czechoslovak Nation.

Masaryk's Philosophical Foundations and Czech Democratic Exceptionalism

Partially handwritten, partially typed, The International Status of the Czechoslovak Nation is a draft for an article written by Masaryk to be published in The Nation in 1918. This document is a great microcosm of how Masaryk's thinking had evolved over the war years. Masaryk opens by pitching World War 1 as, at heart, a battle between Theocracy and Democracy. On the opening page, Masaryk defines democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people"--clearly an allusion to American democratic ideals, as Masaryk been courting the Americans to the Czechoslovak cause since their entry into the war. Masaryk continues to align the Czechoslovak cause with democracy, saying that Czech history has shown a remarkable predilection for resistance to German and Austrian oppression, and that the Czech nation initiated the Great Reformation (referencing Jan Hus and the Hussite wars of the early 1400s), "all the time... struggling for the modern principles of democracy and revolution... of the American and French Revolution". Later on, he also describes intellectual parallelism between the Czech nation and John Wycliffe (of England).

This is Czech democratic exceptionalism distilled. While this telological theory of history among nations is largely consistent with Masaryk's earlier philosophical framework (i.e. that history has a trajectory, nations are basic units of history, and this history is not accidental but rather Providential), he has stripped it of its religious framing and instead imbued it with rather revisionist characteristics to help his Czechoslovak independence diplomacy. Was Jan Hus a precursor to the Reformation? Absolutely. But were his 15th century followers fighting for the same democratic principles fought for in the American and French revolutions? That would be a stretch at best.

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Page 1 of First Outline of Nova Europa, 1918: Introduction and Topical Outline, With Index of Subjects.

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Page 9 of First Outline of Nova Europa, 1918: Introduction and Topical Outline, With Index of Subjects. In the top right corner are the words "the right of self determination of nations", a clear indicator of the influence of Wilsonian ideals.

The New Europe

Also published in 1918 was one of Masaryk's seminal works, The New Europe (The Slav Standpoint). These notes were written down by Masaryk on a journey from Russia, across Siberia, across the Pacific and to the West, where the first English edition of this book would eventually be published in London in 1918. In the introduction to The New Europe (The Slav Standpoint), Masaryk explains that he needed to create something “to make clear to our [Czech and Slovak] soldiers the fundamental problems of the war”, and so the book was originally written to expound these fundamental problems first to Czech and Slovak soldiers, and a year later it was revised and written in English to present the same fundamental problems to the “Anglo-Saxon public” (Masaryk, T.G. The New Europe (the Slav Standpoint). (Lewisburg PA: Bucknell University Press), 1973, 10-11). 

These notes show the inner workings of Masaryk's mind: they were written without any access to literature (he was on the Trans-Siberian railway at this time) and show us what Masaryk's prioritized mentally. In these notes, as in The International Status of the Czechoslovak Nation, we see Masaryk's ponderance of nations, states, and how they ought to relate: on page 9 (pictured), he scrawls quick definitions of nation:

Nation synonymous people… Nationality: modern principle; the moral and political foundation of it…

He had spent a good deal of his career writing on nations and nationality, and so it is not surprising to see him taking notes on such things. On page 10, the word "religion" is found next to the word "state". This association is also much in line with Masaryk's thought on the role of the nation and the state, as he viewed a national identity to be a new religion of sorts, and the state's role would be to foster that new identity. However, in the top corner of the page, overlooking everything, and in a small penciled box of its own, are the words:

The right of self determination of nations

This is a clear indication of Woodrow Wilson's influence on Masaryk's diplomatic process. After all, this text would be published for an English-speaking audience, outlining the reasons for the war, among them being the creation of independent nation-states and the dissolution of the Austrian Empire. Although Masaryk would end up tripping over his own stated ideals when it came to both the German and Slovak populations within Czechoslovak borders, he still rolled Wilsonian ideals into his diplomatic practices, attempting to configure Czechoslovak independence claims within a wider, Americanized conception of democracy and "self-determination".

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Page 1 of Masaryk's Letter to President Wilson on the Mid-European Union.

Direct Diplomacy

A letter to President Woodrow Wilson himself, written just ten days before the end of the war, illustrates Masaryk's acceptance and encouragement of American democratic ideals. He implores Wilson to support his vision of a Mid-European Union and repeats the goals of the war: the dismemberment of Austro-Hungary and the "reconstruction and regeneration of Europe". Masaryk cries out for the many oppressed nations toiling under the yoke of that "degenerate dynasty and reckless feudal aristocracy" of the Germans and Magyars, before calling Wilson "one of the greatest leaders of modern democracy". This document tells us less about Masaryk's intellectual underpinnings, and more about the process by which Masaryk lobbied the Allied Powers: using appeals to democratic values and by hammering home the oppression of many nations by the Austro-Hungarians and the Germans.

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Page 1 of Interview with an Unidentified English Journalist, February 1919.

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Page 3 of Interview with an Unidentified English Journalist, February 1919. A the bottom, Masaryk clearly ellucidates a notion of Czech exceptionalism.

Cultural Diplomacy

However, it must be understood that the kind of direct diplomacy seen in Masaryk's letter to Wilson went hand in hand with his cultural diplomacy, i.e. the publishing of texts such as The New Europe (The Slav Standpoint), and The International Status of the Czechoslovak Nation, as well as other publishings in periodicals (including his own periodical, also titled The New Europe, created during the war to garner support for his independence project in the Allied countries). 

In Interview with an Unidentified English Journalist, from February 1919, Masaryk (who rarely gave interviews!) once again gets to work on some more cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy was very important to Masaryk since the outset of war, as he believed that in order to secure independence, the political elites and intellectuals of the Allied countries would need to know about, and thereafter take an interest in, the plight of the Bohemian lands. Since 1914, when he first got in contact with Robert Seton-Watson (British expert on Central Europe and founder of the School of Slavonic Studies formerly at King's College London), Masaryk had been in contact with the intelligentsia of England, America, and France, giving lectures and writing articles about Czechs during WWI. This cultural mission certainly played a big part in the success of his work, and this interview is a prime example of his cultural diplomacy. 

Masaryk tells this interviewer, first and foremost, that Czechoslovakia would be a Western foothold in Central Europe and act as a deterrent to Pangermanism (German expansionism) in the future. Masaryk says Czechs are "of Slav blood and Western education", a clear nod Czech democratic exceptionalism (taken from page 1, pictured). Later on in the interview, Masaryk says that Czechs never took to Bolshevism because their socialist leaders "have all studied their theory very intelligently, and a great part of them rejected Marx as a result (page 14)." Masaryk is subtly (again) contrasting this imaged of well-educated Czechs to his less-developed Slav neighbors--a question which the interviewer directly poses, in fact, when he asks Masaryk why the Czechs have fared so well in comparison to the "inefficiency of Slav mentality (page 3)?" Masaryk responds by emphasizing Czech democratic exceptionalism. From page 3, pictured: 

You must not forget that we were the first nation in Central and Eastern Europe to have a university--our university was founded in 1348-- then the very strong tradtion of our Hussite movement and Bohemian brethren--all those things point to a tendency on the part of our people to think, to desire to know the truth.

Masaryk has deftly combined his national teleology (seen in The International Status of Czechoslovak Nation) with a notion of Czech exceptionalism as compared to not only his Slavic neighbors, but all of Central Europe. At the end of this interview, he also mentions that the English and Czech nations have a close spiritual and religious history (alluding again to Hus and Wycliffe). In all, this interview is a great work of cultural diplomacy, as Masaryk clearly expounds his claims for Czechoslovak independence by way of his own national philosophy, Czech exceptionalism, and Anglo-Czech similarities. 


Thank you to everyone who made ASRA possible: Jeanann Haas, Laura Nelson, Gesina Phillips, and Patrick Mullen. I would also like to thank everyone behind the scenes at the Office of Undergraduate Research and at the ULS Archives who made this possible.

Thank you to my two mentors for this project: my faculty mentor, Irina Livezeanu; my librarian-archivist mentor, Dan Pennell. Without your guidance, this would not have happened at all. 

About the Creator

Gabriel Slon is a fourth year student at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in History and writing his thesis on Masaryk. He is cool and nice. 

T.G. Masaryk