THE MASARYKS: the making of Czechoslovakia, by Zbynek Zeman. 230 pages (Weidenfeld and Nicholson). £6.50.
There has long been a feeling of mutual identification between the peoples of Czechoslovakia and Israel.
Both achieved independence during the same period of history after countless centuries in the service of other nations. Since he Second World War, the sympathy of the one for the other has been marked.
The democratic ideals of Czechoslovakia were destroyed by the crude anti-Semitism of the Slansky trial and the degradation of the Soviet -invasion which terminated the experiment of socialism with a human face.
Israel, luckier in some ways, managed to maintain its territorial integrity and continued to proclaim its adherence to democracy and social justice despite its threatened destruction by its Arab neighbours and its diplomatic isolation by other nations.
The mutual respect of these two states stems from the well-springs of morality which govern one’s attitude to one’s fellow beings. Judaism has always taught such values. Chaim Weizmann cemented them in the character of the modern state or Israel and, despite pressures from both outside and within, they form the code of ethics which colour Jewish life today.
The Czechs, however, although an ancient people, did not possess the religious, cultural and historical experience of the Jews. Their code of conduct was impregnated on the nation by the founder of the State, Tomas Masaryk.
An academic himself by profession, he showed himself to be the conscience of his people, even in minor matters. He wrote: “the honour of the nation requires that truth be advocated and recognised and the moral strength and courage of those who acknowledge a mistake is greater than that of those who uphold a mistake even though the whole nation may share it”.
In 1899, the body of a missing girl was discovered in a wood. No traces of blood were found, which inevitably led to the conclusion that the Jews had murdered her and used her blood for ritual purposes at Passover.
A 20-year-old retarded Jewish vagrant, Leopold Hilsner, was soon selected as the victim. After the due processes of law, during which several prosecution witnesses offered their services, Hilsner was sentenced to death.
Within Bohemia, the verdict found general acceptance in the growing spirit of national consciousness. No one dared to oppose this new force for fear of being labelled unpatriotic — no one, that is, except Masaryk. He took his stand against the blood libel on the purely ethical grounds that it belonged to the Middle Ages.
He thus became a target for irrational hatred himself. At his university, there were student demonstrations; reactionary clerics denounced him; embryonic Nazis denounced him.
One of his students summed up the case against Masaryk on a blackboard in a lecture theatre. He wrote: “We hold against Masaryk that in such difficult times, when it is essential that the nation should stand united as one man against the Government which is our enemy, he wants to divide the whole nation for the sake of a Jew and, by dividing it, he weakens it. He plays into the hands of the aggressive Germans! … even Hilsner could not get a drop of Czech blood out of him”.
The appeal against the death sentence on Hilsner was upheld. Even so, Masaryk was shunned by prominent Czechs, because of his stand.
Masaryk did things his way. He spent the First World War in exile rather than support the Austrian war effort. In 1917, his work bore dividends when the allies made a reference to the “liberation of the Czechoslovaks from foreign domination”.
The Czechs thus had their Balfour Declaration some nine months before the Jews acquired the affirmation of their right to national self-determination.
Shortly after, Masaryk travelled to Russia and organised the Czech prisoners of war into a national army. He was motivated by the same preoccupations that led Vladimir Jabotinsky to create the Jewish Legion at the same time. In 1918, with the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire, Masarykbecame the first President of the new state of Czechoslovakia.
During the next 17 years, he was elected four times. His rule was based on a paternal, benevolent hierarchy. Always playing off one party against another, he left the real decisions to be made by himself and a small group of admirers around him.
In this respect, Dr. Zeman’s book shows some of the blemishes in the image of the philosopher-statesman figure that past biographers have omitted, perhaps out of respect for Masaryk.
Much less of the book is devoted to Masaryk’s son, Jan. In his early years, Jan had been a gambler and a womaniser — the impoverished playboy of the western world.
After his father’s ascendancy to power, a place was found for him in the diplomatic service. Before long, he was appointed Czech Ambassador to London where he remained until the Munich crisis. He became an enthusiastic anglophile and had many Jewish friends. Indeed after the war, he often told friends that he believed that Jewish blood ran through his veins somewhere.
When Masaryk junior returned to Prague in 1945 as Foreign Minister, the old order of things had been destroyed. The Jews had been exterminated. Munich and the war had eliminated much that was good in the Czech character and indeed in, country itself.
They were hard for a man used to the life of bourgeois in the London of the 1930s. His father had fortunately died before the Nazi threat engulfed Czechoslovakia. The son was not so lucky.
All his values and lie withered away before his eyes as the Communists became more powerful and found themselves accepted by many of the workers, as the answer to Czechoslovakia’s ills.
Jan Masaryk remained as Foreign Minister in the new Communist Government of February 1948. Two weeks later, his dead body was found In the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry.
Both Tomas and Jan Masaryk are long since dead and the social orders which they created no longer exist. Yet the name Masaryk still has meaning for the Czechs. It is not associated with politics or ideology. It conveys certain human qualities which the Jewish people also hold dear.
In Prague, the authorities officially forget that he ever lived. Yet during the Prague Spring in 1968, Tomas Masaryk was voted into first place among the greatest personalities of Czech history.
Masaryk’s morality was recognised by Dubcek in 1968. Dubcek’s morality has now been indirectly and grudgingly recognised by Brezhnev at the recent European Communist summit.
Let us hope that the day is not far off when the name of Masaryk will be restored to its place of pride in Czech national life and recognised as it is today in Israel.
Jewish Observer 13 August 1976