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Playwrights, Presidents, and Prague

ISSUE:  Winter 2003

The press reports that Czech president Vaclav Havel recently unveiled a bronze statue of Masaryk in a Washington park. Masaryk, for most American readers, is only the dim memory of a foreign minister found dead in a Prague courtyard, after the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948. But that was Jan Masaryk. The monument is to his father, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president.

When T. G. Masaryk died in 1937 he was perhaps the best-loved European. His public image owed much to the work of a friend, the playwright Karel Capek. The friendship between the respected old statesman and the imaginative younger writer was extraordinary and effective. But as they talked, and acted, their democratic republic fell increasingly in the shadow of large tyrannies—Fascist, Nazi, and Soviet.

When the Communists fell from power in Prague in 1989, the new president who took Masaryk’s old seat in Prague Castle—and who was to hold that seat until 2003—was also a playwright, Vaclav Havel. There are interesting comparisons to be made between Masaryk, Capek, and Havel, against the background of a nation that has suffered, and accomplished, more than many others.

Capek’s high estimate of T. G. Masaryk was shared by many others in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Emil Ludwig, biographer of the world’s most famous, saw Masaryk as a Goethean figure, a less melancholy Lincoln. R. H. Bruce Lockhart, an Englishman who knew nearly every European statesman between the two world wars, called Masaryk the noblest figure and the fairest-minded man that he had met in any country. H. G. Wells thought Masaryk and Lenin were the two most impressive men he ever met; Lenin for his part called Masaryk his most important ideological opponent in Europe.

The Russian and the Czech came from opposite backgrounds. Lenin, who preached a dictatorship of the proletariat, was the son of a school inspector and member of the nobility; Masaryk was born in 1850 in a Moravian village, the son of an illiterate coachman. The Czech lands—Bohemia and Moravia—were then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the elder Masaryk worked on an Imperial estate. Young Tomas saw his father dealt with rudely by his masters, and quickly learned to hate them. Sometimes a group of the great people from the imperial court would come for a hunt, and leave their fur coats in the Masaryk cottage while they went coursing across the fields. Masaryk never forgot how as a boy he had seen those elegant coats, and wanted to rip them up with his knife.

As the boy grew, he learned his nation’s history. The high point had perhaps come with the great Czech King Charles IV, who built Charles Bridge, Charles University, Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), and Karlstejn castle; he was Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful European monarch until his death in 1378. Later, things turned worse in the Czech lands. In November 1620—as the Pilgrims on the Mayflower were nearing Cape Cod full of hopes—a divided Czech nation with a weak foreign king was defeated by the army of the Hapsburgs. With official backing, the Jesuits and other Catholic orders put down the Czech Protestant movement which had begun a century before Luther. Many Czech leaders fled; 27 were executed on Old Town Square in Prague. German was substituted for Czech, and thousands of books in Czech were burned. The Czech language became a tongue for peasants only, and for the next three centuries the Czechs remained subjects of a German-speaking empire.

In 1869 young Masaryk went to Vienna, managed to gain a university education, and began to rise in academia and politics—an interesting contrast to another provincial youth named Adolf Hitler, who came to Vienna three decades later and failed miserably to make a career there for himself. In 1882, Masaryk took a position in the reborn Czech-language university in Prague. Even before the First World War, he became convinced that the Austro-Hungarian Empire could not last. After the war began, he fled to avoid imprisonment if not execution for treason. During the next four years, first in Italy and France and England, then in Russia, and finally in America, Masaryk led the fight for Czech and Slovak independence. In December 1918 he returned to Prague as the first president of the independent Czechoslovak Republic. Soon he was to meet the much younger Karel Capek, and the two men would begin their unique, long-lasting collaboration.

Masaryk had married, when a university lecturer, a young American named Charlotte Garrigue, and he took her last name as his own middle name. The couple worked together in the Czech women’s movement, and Charlotte Masaryk did the first Czech translation of John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women. Tomas Masaryk lectured in the United States twice before the First World War. During the war, he came to Washington and convinced Woodrow Wilson, who in his Fourteen Points had called only for autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary, to support full independence for the Czechs and Slovaks joined in a single republic.

T. G. Masaryk remained president of Czechoslovakia from 1918 until he reached the age of 85, in 1935, when much of Europe had been taken over by dictators. He died two years later with a book about Adolf Hitler at his bedside. In September 1938, just a year after Masaryk’s death, Britain and France betrayed Czechoslovakia at Munich by agreeing that Hitler could occupy the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia’s strategic and mainly German-speaking border areas. The following March the new president of Czechoslovakia, a meek judge named Emil Hacha, was summoned to Berlin and forced to agree to the occupation of all the Czech lands by the Wehrmacht. Slovakia announced independence; Poland and Hungary seized border areas. Adolf Hitler himself came to Prague, the capital of the republic he had just destroyed, to spend the night in Prague Castle. Hitler and his thousand-year Reich would die just six years later, but tragic times did not end. A new Czechoslovak Republic was created at war’s end, and at Potsdam the Allies agreed to the Czechs’ harsh solution to the Sudeten problem: the expulsion of several million ethnic Germans. Then, in 1948, began four decades of cruel Communist rule.

The non-violent Velvet Revolution of 1989 brought that leading dissident, Vaclav Havel, to the presidency of Czechoslovakia. After Slovakia split into a separate republic in 1993, Havel was elected the first president of the Czech Republic, and reelected for a term ending in 2003. Havel is like Masaryk a good democrat; he stood up to the Communists as best he could; he was imprisoned by them three times, for a total of almost five years.

When Havel was a very little boy, in the 1930’s, that other Czech playwright Karel Capek met an early death, just a year after the death of T. G. Masaryk. Capek, born in 1890, had escaped service in the imperial armies in World War I because of a spinal disorder. He went to work as a journalist, and soon was writing plays.

After the war, in January 1921, the National Theater in Prague put on a new Capek play with a strange title, seemingly English and not Czech: R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play begins in the R.U.R. factory producing robots, invented by the old philosopher Rossum. Capek loved to play with words. Rossum comes from Czech rozum meaning intellect or reason, and Capek invented “robot” from robota, the old Czech term for compulsory labor.

Capek’s robots are man-like in appearance, and provide cheap labor. They are also man-like in intellect; eventually they revolt and destroy the human race. At the end of the play, though, the last human survivor finds that the robots have also learned to love and procreate, so that “life will not perish. . . . Only we have perished.” Later critics would write of Capek’s apocalyptic vision; was he somehow foretelling the Nazi occupation of Europe? Capek himself wrote in 1923 that the play was “a comedy, partly of science, partly of truth.” Science, because Rossum’s invention, inspired by the foolish wish to prove God unnecessary, leads in the end to modern mass production which destroys the producers. Truth, because humans believe the robots emancipate man from manual labor—while the robots with equal reason believe they must revolt against these emancipated humans.

The play about the robots opened on Broadway in October 1922. John Corbin of The New York Times thought it might be “not merely socialistic but nihilistic.” Corbin had it wrong. Capek was no nihilist, and he wrote that he was not taking political sides but rather was reflecting a struggle in which “Conservatives or Socialists, Yellows or Reds” sought each in their own way to improve the human condition.

There was nevertheless still ground for a quarrel between Karel Capek and 1920’s America. In May 1926, after Capek had been reported as speaking out against the “Americanization of Europe”, he wrote in The New York Times Sunday Magazine that he was not questioning whether the American demand for speed, efficiency, and success was good for America. But he insisted that it was not good for Europe. In contrast to America, “Europe was in very little haste when she made her cathedrals and her philosophic systems. A man who wants to think out something does not hurry, watch in hand.”

Capek was soon answered by Glenn Frank, the popular young president of the University of Wisconsin. Frank said rightly that Europe was not going to remain some quiet Arcadia; “Capek’s Europe will build and buy more and more machines. And then Europe as well as America must decide whether mankind will master the machines or be mastered by them.” Meanwhile, he added, “I am a bit sick of the cultural snobbery of the professional European and of the flunky-mindedness of many Americans in the presence of anything European.” Capek did not continue the debate. Nor, although he traveled widely, did he ever visit America.

Karel Capek first met Tomas Masaryk when the president came to see a play of his in 1922. Masaryk was 40 years older than Capek; he was also a cultured man and, like Capek, a prolific author. Capek hosted a series of literary Fridays to which he invited younger Prague writers and journalists. With perhaps a gulp in his throat, he asked the president if he would honor them with his presence one Friday. One Friday in March, he came. The following summer he invited them all out to the presidential country house at Lany, and writers and journalists and president sat under the big trees and discussed the world.

Masaryk and Capek discovered that each had a use for the other. Masaryk, who had literally created the new Republic, was now as the chief of state supposed to hold himself above, and detached from, the day-to-day conduct of government. That was difficult for a man of action. In 1920, Masaryk took action. The Communist International was wooing the Czech Social Democrats, and with unrest looming Masaryk dismissed Prime Minister Vlastimil Tusar, a Social Democrat, and named senior civil servants to run the government. The next year normal parliamentary government resumed, leaving the president again looking for ways to maintain not just moral but practical influence. Newspaper interviews with Karel Capek proved to be one way.

Beyond interviews, Capek found the president receptive to ideas for speeches and to political advice, all of which Capek was happy to provide. Czechoslovakia was one of the world’s most advanced industrial countries, and Masaryk had brought about a true democracy on a continent where, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, dreams of democracy were being dashed and systems turned authoritarian. But Czechoslovakia had serious problems, including imbalance between the heavy industry of the Czech lands and poor rural Slovakia; the large German-speaking minority, whose export businesses were hit especially hard by the Great Depression; a sizable Czechoslovak Communist party; even a Czech general who was both a fascist and a Soviet agent. Through all these problems Masaryk steered the nation calmly, helped measurably by Capek’s advice.

Masaryk was half-Slovak, and liked to vacation in Slovakia. On a rainy day during one such vacation, sitting around the fire with a few friends including Karel Capek, President Masaryk began to reminisce about his experiences in the Great War—and Capek began to take notes. Later, a publishing house asked Capek if he would be interested in writing a biography of Masaryk. Capek mentioned this to Masaryk, saying “I could put down the things you’ve told me on occasion; they’d make a biography by themselves.” Masaryk laughed and told Capek to do what he liked. The result was three little volumes called Talks with T. G. Masaryk published in 1928, 1931, and 1935. It was a unique work, not autobiography, not exactly dictated; but Capek, who published the volumes under his initials rather than his name, had given his texts in draft to the president, who made thorough revisions.

Talks with T. G. Masaryk begins with the president’s account of his boyhood in the Moravian countryside, where a boy learned “to shoot a sling and a bow, hit a target with a rock, ride a horse, crack a whip, climb any tree, catch crawfish and beetles, swim, make a fire, skate, sled, throw snowballs, walk on stilts, and who knows what else.” It is the portrait of a poor youth who made his way upward and became a man who acted on principle. In 1886, Masaryk argued against touting latter-day forgeries as major medieval works of Czech literature—and his enemies delayed for 15 years his appointment as full professor. In 1899, he came to the defense of a young Czech Jew accused of the ritual murder of a Christian girl—and was attacked by his own students and townspeople. In 1907, he took up the cause of Serb and Croat nationalists on trial for treason, and proved they had been framed by the Austrian authorities.

Masaryk led an adventurous life; much of the adventure came after he had reached what other men would think retirement age. He was 65 when he fled abroad in 1915 to fight for Czechoslovak independence. In London he was followed, and perhaps poisoned, by Austrian or German agents and the head of Scotland Yard arranged an alias and false passport for him. Two years later he was in Russia, arriving in Moscow literally under fire and organizing a Czechoslovak Legion to fight Germany and Austria. In 1918 he traveled east across Siberia and the Pacific to reach Washington, where at 68 he learned to jump a horse in Rock Creek Park when not bending the ear, and the opinions, of President Wilson. Masaryk commented once that his wartime adventures were the stuff for a novel.

When the old president died on Sept. 14, 1937 the nation went into mourning and the Prague newspaper Lidove noviny carried a tribute by Karel Capek. Masaryk, said Capek, had been great, and wise, and brave, and at the same time simple and humane. Sometimes he had been like a great cathedral, other times like a simple country chapel out in the fields; but in him, Capek said, God had always resided.

Capek’s work with the president had never taken more than a part of his time. He continued into the 1930’s to produce a flow of books, plays, and articles. Capek’s masterpiece was perhaps a trilogy of novels, Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life. William Harkins has written that this trilogy “laid down a philosophical foundation for democracy which is well-nigh unique in modern literature.” The novels raise the basic question of how humans apprehend truth. Hordubal is a Slovak peasant who understands animals but cannot come to an understanding with his wife. The “meteor” is an unidentified pilot who has crashed and whose past is only speculation. The “ordinary” life is that of a petty official, not simple at all but a mirror of all humankind.

In 1936 Capek published War with the Newts, a novel with a theme reminiscent of the play about the robots. A previously unknown race of creatures like oversized salamanders turn out to have human-like intelligence and are soon put to work building harbors, docks, and bridges. Like the robots, they revolt and, although financed by the humans’ banks, they bring the human race to near extinction. Capek added a postlude suggesting that perhaps, in the end, the Newts would destroy each other and the human race would be saved, although “for a long time the ocean will stink with the decomposition of the Newts.” The new novel was, in part, quite funny, not terrifying like other works in the same genre such as George Orwell’s 1984. But the 1930’s were anything but a funny time in Europe. The Nazi regime in Germany was becoming an increasing threat to free Czechoslovakia, and the Nazis were not amused by Capek’s novel which seemed aimed at them.

Capek was a kind man, a man with a sense of humor. Much of the humor ran out in the sad weeks after the Czechs were betrayed at Munich in September 1938, but he could still write a friend to have faith in the future, saying that “this truck of ours will get pulled out of the mud, and start down a better road, and go far.” He wrote his wife that the Czechs were being treated brutally but that she should “be calm even if you are sad . . . depend on me and I will look for the right words and deeds. . . . we will all need strength and reason.” Then his own strength failed, and he died of influenza at 48, on Christmas Day of 1938.

Capek had long been worried about evil tendencies in man, and in his works of fiction about robots and salamanders that took over the world, many thought he had given an early warning of what totalitarian regimes might do. It was only later, after he died, that the worst eventuated and his fiction became truth. Some years ago Arthur Miller wrote of Capek that “in the old days his tales were possibly more mystifying than frightening. . . . Now his world is far less outrageous or even improbable. We have evolved into his nightmare.”

As an equally brave Czech writer named Ivan Klima has written, Capek was among the most resolute opponents of fascism, Nazism, and communism. He fought them not with slogans but through works that sought to make his readers understand human fallibility, absurdity, and weakness. He rallied his fellow Czech writers against totalitarianism through his long-term leadership of the Czechoslovak section of the PEN Club, the international writers’ organization. Above all, he wanted his fellow Czechs to stick together, and to believe that no matter what help or threat came from abroad, their future lay ultimately in their own hands. One of Capek’s fairy tales makes this crystal clear, standing Puss in Boots on its head. If, says Capek’s tale, his hero Vasek really did become king “it was not because of the cat, nor was it by virtue of his friendship with the princess. It was because of the mighty and heroic deeds that the princely Vasek carried out for the good of his whole country.”

Like both Capek and Masaryk, Vaclav Havel has been a prolific writer. Unlike Masaryk, Havel’s family had long been prosperous. The Havels strongly supported Masaryk’s democratic republic, and Vaclav Havel’s grandfather served in in the 1920’s as Czechoslovak ambassador to Hungary and then to Austria. The family survived World War II, although the Nazis destroyed their republic and killed many people. It was the Communists, who came to power when Havel was 12, who confiscated the family’s various properties, leaving Havel’s father in a menial job in a nationalized company.

Young Havel’s mother had once hoped that he might study at Harvard. He himself wanted to study film arts in Prague, but his bourgeois origins precluded that. He studied at Prague’s Technical University, served as an army private, found a job as a stagehand—and began to write plays. They were absurdist plays, that reflected the horrid grayness of an amoral police state. In Havel’s plays, friends betray one another, and there are faceless characters from offices of Inauguration and Liquidation that are finally melded into a single Central Committee for Inauguration and Liquidation.

In 1968, Alexander Dubcek came to power in the brief Prague Spring. Vaclav Havel, aged 32, paid his first visit to the United States that year, and found he identified with America’s counterculture. That August, the Prague Spring was destroyed by Soviet tanks and “normalization” ensued in Prague. Czechs tend to be efficient, and in the next few years the Czechoslovak police state, with KGB tutelage, again proved itself an efficient one. Those were years, Havel said later, when history stopped for the Czech nation.

In 1977 the opposition movement Charter 77 got under way, with Havel one of its founders. That was the year when he was first, briefly, imprisoned. The next year the police began to keep him under continuous, very visible, and annoying surveillance, hoping either to make him ask to leave the country or to provoke him to some act that could get him locked up. The police game failed, and so Havel and several friends were simply charged with subversion and sent to prison. His last stay in prison ended in May 1989. Seven months later he became President of a revived democracy.

Havel’s biographer John Keane finds a number of faults in his subject; he charges him with having grabbed the presidency away from other possible candidates. No doubt there are negative aspects of Havel’s life. So there were in the life of T. G. Masaryk.

When Masaryk fled abroad in 1915 to work for independence, taking his daughter Olga with him, he abandoned the rest of his family—a wife whose physical and mental health soon deteriorated, his son Herbert who attempted suicide before dying of typhus, his son Jan who was drafted into a Hungarian regiment, and his daughter Alice who was imprisoned in Vienna and threatened with execution as her father’s accomplice. He knew he had put them at risk; he felt he must put the nation first. Later, the president-liberator was almost universally admired as a moral leader. But, as his son Jan told his good friend Marcia Davenport, there was always some dirty work to be done even in a democracy, and Tomas Masaryk entrusted this to his deputy and eventual successor Edvard Benes. There were complaints that Masaryk’s influential advisers, the “Castle group,” represented mainly the rich and influential. One might also recall Woodrow Wilson’s complaint that Masaryk had failed to tell him that the new Czech and Slovak republic would contain three million restive Germans. (But Wilson should have known this in any case. Masaryk had stressed to British leaders as early as 1915 that he was not hiding the fact of this large German minority.)

Strong charges can also be made against American presidents—including Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The overriding fact is that in our continuing era of mediocre and sometimes even criminal leaders, the Czechs have been blessed in Masaryk and Havel with two principled and good presidents.

Masaryk once told his friend Capek that since the Great War he had suffered from insomnia, and so would lie in bed at night and “paint utopias.” He would imagine worlds that might exist in 20 or 100 years. They were practical utopias, he said; he thought of the best there was today, and just embroidered on it a little. Several years ago Vaclav Havel did something of the same, not in bed but in public, suggesting that before too many more years had passed the Czech Republic could be a solidly established, well governed, prosperous, and democratic country well linked with good neighbors. Such a modest Czech utopia seems closer now, when the Czech Republic is a staunch NATO member and hopes soon to join the European Union.

Jackson Diehl wrote in The Washington Post for May 27, 2002, that the departure from Central European politics of the ex-dissidents like Vaclav Havel in Prague, or Bronislaw Geremek in Warsaw, was marking a turn to ordinary democratic politics—in which morality could be trumped by nationalism and populism. Perhaps this is inevitable; one hopes it is not. One might also hope for a new Karel Capek, to remind us about the Czechs and the other bright peoples in the center of Europe—and to satirize this world that so often still goes wrong.


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