Masaryk and the Poles

No politician did more harm to the Polish-Czech relations than Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. For him the “lordly” Poland symbolized everything he hated.

On December 28, 1918, on the eve of the expected annexation of the Zaolzie (Zaolší), Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk wrote to his trusted colleague Edvard Beneš: ”It would do the Poles no harm if they got punched in the mug, on the contrary, it would be very useful, for it would cool down the dangerous chauvinists.” At that time the Czechoslovakian delegation in Paris planned the demarcation of the future border with Poland through Bielsko-Biała. “Our Poles are on our side,” wrote Masaryk to Beneš, “they are afraid to live in Poland, thinking that there will be no order there. The Germans from Bilsko, from Cieszyn, etc. ask us not to give them to the Poles. They are afraid of the Polish mess.”

The founder and four-times president of the Czechoslovakian Republic was convinced that the reborn Poland was an anachronistic relic, that the Second Republic was going to be a classic seasonal state, torn by ethnic conflicts and having no chance of survival between Germany and Russia. In fact, such an opinion was widespread among the Czechs, shared also by the National Democrats leader Karel Kramář, to whom Masaryk wrote in February 1919, “Poles: their tactics will not save them. They face great internal problems: landed estates—the Jews—proliferation of parties and orientations… Only an ethnographic Poland can be stronger.”

In fact, the percentage of minorities in the Czechoslovakian state was similar to that in Poland, and the majority of more than 3 million local Germans never accepted their new state. Despite this, Masaryk thought that he and the group of his associates, commonly known as the “Hrad,” had a ready solution for all future crises: “It is the truest truth,” he wrote to Beneš, his most loyal associate and future successor, “that only we are prepared and we will manage to bring and maintain order. Our example will play a decisive role.”

Solidarity, Masaryk Style

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937) is an unquestioned authority in the Czech Republic until this day. Wanting to express their admiration for President Václav Havel, people often compared him to Masaryk, both at home and abroad.

There is a lot to say in favor of this analogy. Havel specialized in activities from the border between literature and politics, in accordance with the 19th century tradition of a small and disempowered nation, where culture was a substitute for politics during a greater part of its history. Also Masaryk was primarily a writer or, as we would say today, an intellectual, willing to forward his opinion on all possible topics: authenticity of artefacts of native literature, emancipation of women, alleged ritual murders, conflicts in the Balkans, the future of religion, global prospects of social revolution and the post-war order in Europe.

What brought him worldwide acclaim was his courageous protest against anti-Semitic hysteria which broke out in Bohemia when a Jewish apprentice Leopold Hilsner was accused of ritual murder in 1899. Even before World War I Masaryk was deservedly regarded as an eminent expert on Russia, and in 1912 he helped to prevent a conflict between Austria and Serbia (he was even mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize). But two years earlier the same Masaryk, when asked for his opinion on the future of the Habsburg Monarchy, said that the best solution would be to blow it up with dynamite. “It deserves nothing better.”

An opportunity for that arose in the summer of 1914, when an Austrian heir to the throne was killed by a Serbian terrorist in Sarajevo. Masaryk expected the defeat of the Central Powers in confrontation with the Entente. In the autumn of that year he travelled to the West to persuade the leaders of the democratic powers to create, on the ruins of the Habsburg monarchy, a new Czechoslovakian state—and he got his way. After the war he became one of the key players in the issue of new borders in Central Europe. Unfortunately, both then and later this sincere democrat and advocate of progress consistently acted against the interests of Poland.

In April 1919 he wrote to Beneš: “Poles are not a rampart against Bolshevism—they have not yet learned the administrative alphabet”. And in June of the same year, he added: “Restoration of historical Poland means renewing the mistakes of old Poland and is the embryo of its collapse.” Masaryk spread similar opinions in the West, making use of his excellent relations with owners and editors of major American, French and English newspapers. In this way he helped to create a negative stereotype of Poland in the West.

In July 1920 he discouraged Western diplomats from providing any aid to Poland. He said: “We should not organize any military help for the Poles,” as the British diplomat Lord Edgar d’Abernon recalled. Masaryk was convinced that Polish troops would not be able to repel the Bolsheviks, and the oppressed Polish workers and peasants would welcome the red commissars with bread and salt. And the Czech railwaymen, in solidarity with the Soviets, were not allowing transports ofWestern military aid for the“lordly” Poland to pass through their territory.

A Son of a Peasant

The reasons for the universal dislike the Czechs felt for the Poles in that period lay in the different social structures of the two nations and different models of modern nationalism. The Czechs rejected their native tradition of the nobility, they perceived themselves as an egalitarian, petit-bourgeois nation of peasant origin. The three most prominent Czech politicians: President Masaryk, Prime Minister Antonín Švehla and head of diplomacy Beneš, were sons of peasants. From their perspective, the Second Republic was a relic of feudalism, and leading Polish politicians in them generally elicited a (reciprocated) dislike.

“My father was a Slovak from Kopčany, he was born a serf and remained a serf,” Masaryk recalled in an interview with the writer Karel Čapek.“When he visited us in Prague much later, he was only interested in how the horses were shod, in what shafts, housings and wheels the carriages in Prague were equipped.”

The biography of Masaryk from when he was about seven is slightly similar to the life of the protagonist of the classic novella Antek by Boleslaw Prus. As little boys, they were both fascinated with windmills and both were sent to the blacksmith as apprentices. But Masaryk had an intelligent mother, who earned a living as a servant, but insisted on turning her sons into “lords.”

Thanks to his own perseverance, talents and help of kind people, at the age of 26 Masaryk obtained a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Vienna. In his youth he was keenly interested in Polish culture, he learned the language and often took the Polish side during university disputes with his pro-Russian compatriots. At that time, he perceived the Poles mostly as victims of Russian imperialism, about the nature of which he never had any illusions. When in the autumn of 1876 Czech students in Vienna welcomed him with the Russian anthem, Masaryk intoned the Polish one.

With time, his attitude towards Poland changed dramatically. This progressive philosopher, advocate of universal suffrage, emancipation of women and separation of Church and state, came to the conclusion that the Poles were an inherently conservative and authoritarian nation, which would be happy to turn from victim to persecutor should an opportunity arise.

Risking His Neck

He was confirmed in this view by what he perceived as excessive territorial acquisitions of Poland in the east (and the west) and its policy towards ethnic minorities. Masaryk believed that a Polish-German and Polish-Soviet conflict was only a matter of time and he did not intended to “risk his neck” for the Poles. At the same time he was convinced that the borders of Czechoslovakia were permanently safeguarded thanks to the alliance with France and Great Britain. A potential alliance with Poland, which after the coup of May 1926 was consistently drifting towards authoritarianism, went against both his democratic tastes and cold calculation.

According to Masaryk’s plans, the democratic Czechoslovakia, with the support of France and the USA, was to be the Central European hegemon, in the strict sense of the word. From his perspective the independent Poland constituted the largest obstacle to achieving this goal. Therefore Masaryk consistently thwarted any proposals and attempts at establishing cooperation with Poland, initiated both by Warsaw, and by Czechoslovakian military circles, who were increasingly aware of the German threat.

In 1930, the president sparked off a diplomatic scandal, saying in an interview with a German journalist: “There are now two main threats to peace in Europe. One of them is the corridor [Gdańsk], the other is Hungary. As far as the Polish corridor is concerned, in my opinion Germany will never reconcile itself with the current state of affairs, where East Prussia is cut off from the Reich.”

Masaryk later withdrew that statement under the pretext that it had been misinterpreted. In fact, these words were an expression of his view that Poland—for the sake of peace in Europe— should agree to a revision of its borders with Germany. This is why three years later, after Hitler had come to power, he rejected a proposal of a military alliance with Poland, and why Czech diplomats warned Berlin at his command about the “Polish intention to carry out military action close to the eastern border of Germany,“ that is about the so-called pre-emptive war planned then by Marshal Piłsudski.

Instead of an alliance with Poland, Masaryk agreed to the Pact of Four proposed by the leader of fascist Italy Benito Mussolini, giving the UK, France, Germany and Italy the right to settle border disputes in Europe. Although the pact never came into force, the Czechoslovakian president sanctioned in this way the partition of his country in Munich in the autumn of 1938.

Silesian up to the Vistula

We should give it to Masaryk that he had a benevolent attitude towards the Polish population of the Zaolzie. He personally intervened on their behalf. At the same time, it was Masaryk who ordered the Czechoslovakian army to occupy this disputed territory in the autumn of 1918 and then he was against holding a plebiscite there, and finally he sought the arbitrage of great powers to demarcate the border, which occurred on July 28, 1920—that is in the least opportune moment for the Polish side.

The dispute over the Zaolzie poisoned the relations between the two nations throughout the interwar period. Czech nationalists sought to uproot local Poles, while Warsaw counted on a military solution of the problem. But it is a mistake to assume, as many people do, that the Polish-Czech antagonism in the interwar period started and ended with the issue of the Zaolzie. In fact, this was a matter of a powerful symbolic, but symbolic only, importance. Especially for Poland.

The Czechs reached for the Zaolzie mainly for one reason. They needed the local coal and the railway line, at that time offering the only connection between Bohemia and Slovakia. For them the Zaolzie had a strategic importance. For Poland—virtually none. In the autumn of 1919 the majority of Poles did not even know that some of their compatriots lived across the Olza (if they even had heard about the Olza river).

The biggest obstacle to Polish-Czech cooperation— not just in the interwar period—was procrastination in Czech foreign policy, embodied by Masaryk and Beneš and their—as Janusz Gruchała put it in his excellent biography of the Czech politician—“tendency to avoid risks and fence-sitting”.

So Masaryk’s critical (and often justified) attitude to Poland’s interwar social realities, as well as towards exaggerated ambitions of its elites, was not the reason for his reluctance to co-operate with Poland, but only a pretext. It would be a mistake to perceive him as a son of a serf who took revenge on the “lords” for the wrongs done to his father, a simple coachman on the estates of the Habsburgs.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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