From the Archives The death of Czechoslovakia's "philosopher-king"

12-02-2011 02:01 | David Vaughan

The first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk is remembered as the founding father of the country. It was he who from his exile in Britain and then America in the First World War negotiated the terms for an independent Czechoslovakia. When he died on 14th September 1937 at the grand old age of 87, the whole nation went into mourning. In sombre tones, Czechoslovak Radio broadcast the entire funeral. The five-hour event was the radio's first major outside broadcast, using a whole team of the star presenters of the time.

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Robert Seton-WatsonRobert Seton-Watson Czechoslovak Radio used Masaryk's death for propaganda purposes, with a series of broadcasts to remind listeners of his standing as a democrat and humanist - highlighting the contrast with neighbouring Nazi Germany. The radio also had the idea of asking various well-known international public figures to talk about their memories of the president. One of them was the distinguished British historian, Robert Seton-Watson, who had been a close friend of the president during his exile in Britain in World War One.

"Many have paid tribute to his qualities as a man and a statesman, as one of the noblest figures in the long succession of your national torchbearers. It has indeed been said of him, without flattery or exaggeration, that Masaryk came nearer than any contemporary ruler to the old Greek ideal of the philosopher-king.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Lany, 1937Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Lany, 1937 "But this is not the note that I wish to strike, for I believe that from me you will expect something more personal, some memories perhaps of those troublous times, when he was cut off from the mass of his own countrymen by the iron barrier of war, but when I had the rare privilege of working with him in his self-imposed exile in London. It was a time when all his high qualities of faith and endurance were most needed and were most in evidence. If I say that he seemed to breathe a rarified atmosphere, this is not to suggest that there was anything cold or inhuman about him. On the contrary, he was intensely human, gay, simple, unperturbed, entirely natural. But shams and insincerities did not flourish in his presence. He was not exactly one of those of whom we say in English that he could not suffer fools gladly. It was rather that the foolish or the frivolous or the venomous wilted under his calm and often silent scorn."

The British historian Robert Seton-Watson, talking on the death of his friend President Masaryk in September 1937. For next week's programme we'll be looking at some recordings that remind us that 1930s Prague was a bustling, modern city.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 8, 2007.

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