USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Thomas Masaryk, Introduction

Tomas Masaryk was the first president of the newly created Czechoslovakia after WWI. The excerpt that follows from his Making of the State is tremendously illuminating for the study of global history in the era from 1914 to 1945.

Though the following chapter comes toward the end of the book, it opens a new part of the book and begins with an introduction—one that looks forward to the future instead of mainly looking back at the past. In the first part of the chapter, Masaryk attempts to define the historical moment – that moment coming right after WWI and national independence for Czechoslovakia. The war, says Masaryk, signaled a larger historical clash between the old and the new, the good and the bad. It was a “fight between theocratical absolutism and democratic humanity” (368). Masaryk goes on to say, “Before the war, 83 percent of mankind lived under monarchical and only 17 percent under republican systems. Today, the preponderant majority is republican; the minority, monarchist” (369). Masaryk is presenting here what one might call a progressive, liberal, or “Whig” idea of historical development. In this version, society moves from despotism toward freedom, from centralization and foreign domination to localization and national political administration. For Masaryk, the breakup of the multi-ethnic empires of Germany, Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire was a massive advance toward a new era of democracy and human freedom. That is to say, despite the narrative of the decline of civilization that we see in many parts of Europe (including and especially Germany) there was also an amazing amount of hope in the post-WWI era, especially among newly empowered peoples like the Czechs and the Poles. Masaryk captures this most clearly when he says, “The World War was the climax of a movement begun by the French Revolution, a movement that liberated one oppressed people after another, and now there is a chance for a democratic Europe and for the freedom and independence of all her nations” (372).

Despite the optimism, Masaryk sees three areas as particularly important for the creation of European stability, and in this sense, he is both a bit over-optimistic and incredibly prescient. 1) The stability of the newly created states as democratic political entities. 2) Cooperation and friendship between nations, cutting against historical, cultural, or racial definitions. 3) The status and treatment of minorities within nation-states. I’ll take each issue in turn.

Democratic stability: Masaryk writes, “If the democratic principle prevails all round, one nation cannot suppress another” (372). In the post-WWI moment, this might have seemed like a valid position. Apart from the French Revolution, there was not yet the full history of the breakdown of democratic systems, despite the anti-democratic theories of Plato, etc. Republicanism and corresponding democracy were seen as bulwarks against oppression and external aggression. And yet, as we know, in the coming two decades very few—almost none—of the newly created democratic states would succeed. One after another, they would fall to authoritarianism. In general, the international environment and economic turmoil of the global economy combined with the historical weakness of new democratic institutions to render these systems incredibly vulnerable and fragile. While democratic institutions can quite easily unmake themselves or be unmade by authoritarian/populist movements, they are incredibly hard to re-constitute. Once broken, they are next to impossible to put right again. Masaryk, married to an American and a long admirer of the Anglo-American political traditions, was much too optimistic about the durability of democracy.

Regional/World Relations: Perhaps the most significant part of the following chapter is Masaryk’s discussion of the new international political dynamics in Europe, especially in remade Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. While Masaryk is not naïve (he sees the incredibly precarious and complicated position of Czechoslovakia in the new Europe) he does seem, as with his belief in democratic institutions, to think too highly of the potential for cross-border cooperation and friendship. He refers, for example, to tensions between Serbs and Croats as “foolish dissentions” when, in fact, these were rivalries intent on ripping the state apart. He mentions the Northern States as being ripe for cooperation, despite tensions that would lead to war between Poland and Lithuania. As I discuss in the previous sections in this chapter, the newly constructed zone between Germany and Russia was a cauldron of violence, aggression, score-settling, and instability in the years after WWI, fostering and deepening conflicts with strong historical roots. We will come to see just how negatively this failure to cooperate will be to the region as Germany once again mobilizes for another push toward the east in the late 1930s. Had Masaryk and his successors been able to forge real regional stability and mutual support, especially between Czechoslovakia and Poland, had Masaryk and company been able to cement the status of Czechoslovakia in the consciousness of Western Europe (France, England), the nation and the region would have been much less vulnerable to renewed aggression. Obviously, from a position of hindsight, we can say that Masaryk’s assessment of Weimar Germany was part-sober, part-wildly optimistic. He was quite right to caution against the German “Urge toward the East,” but was perhaps too ready to believe in German democratic culture and the possibility for political rapprochement between Germany and France. That said, there was no predicting the rise of Nazism in the early 1920s. And, for sure, Masaryk sees the grave danger of internationalist racial political categories like Pan-Germanism or Pan-Russianism. Pan-Germanism was, of course, the most dangerous; it threatened to encircle Czechoslovakia and even to infiltrate into the nation itself with its massive German minority.

Minority Status: the last point above, the existence of large ethnic minorities (especially ethnic Germans) in various European states, was a cause of concern, anxiety, and potential instability. Masaryk recognizes this quite acutely and presents an excellent liberal case for tolerance and multiculturalism. We know, all too well, that this position was not successful. I’ll end this introduction with a quote that should resound in your thoughts as we move into the 1930s and those cataclysmic years between 1937 and 1945:

“The relationship between the nation and mankind, between nationality and internationality, between nationalism and humaneness of feeling is not that mankind as a whole and internationalism and humaneness are something apart from, against or above the nation and nationality, but that nations are the natural organs of mankind. The new order in Europe, the creation of new States, has shorn nationalism of its negative character by setting oppressed peoples on their feet. To a positive nationalism, one that seeks to raise a nation by intensive work, none can demur. Chauvinism, racial or national intolerance, not love of one’s own people, is the foe of nations and of humanity. Love of one’s own nation does not entail non-love of other nations.”

We can judge as historians whether Masaryk’s decoupling of nationalism and chauvinism proved possible in the years after WWI. And we might judge anew with each era, including our own. Does the slogan of the rightwing radical Trump movement “Make America Great Again,” for example, imply a belligerent posture toward other nations? It most certainly does. Does it contain clear, strong elements of racial intolerance? Absolutely: at its heart, the Trump movement is a white power movement, infused with overt racism, misogyny, homophobia, and antisemitism. In a broader sense, can, as Masaryk maintains, nationalism ever be only “positive"? Or has Masaryk misread nationalism in his eagerness to act on the emancipatory potential of the post-WWI moment for the Czechoslovak people?  


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