The First Republic

Even though Czech history is full of oppression, absolutism and unfreedom in many eras, we can point to the origins of Czech democracy at the heart of the nation’s story. The 20th century was truly essential for the political and historical evolution of the Czech lands. At the beginning of the century, Czechs were citizens of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the end of WW1, Czechoslovakia received its independence but, with the outset of WW2, Slovaks created their own fascist state and Czechia transformed into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia under the Nazi Rule of Hitler’s Germany. Having reunited in 1945, Czechoslovaks decided to embark on a journey of communism. This journey took 40 years until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. For the recreation of the democratic state, the First-Republic democratic experience was crucial. The nation didn’t forget about its past and knew where to seek inspiration. Unlike in the case of Russia where no democratic history had ever existed, Czechs, Slovaks and other Central-European nations had a past which they could admiringly look up to. Hence, the political development after the fall of the Iron Curtain was totally different in Eastern and Central Europe. The First Republic helped modern Czechs regain democracy significantly. However, do you know what this epoch looked like?

The Velvet Revolution (1989)

Politics

Hearing ‘První republika’ (The First Republic), the first thing which comes to every Czech’s mind is Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Masaryk created the independent Czechoslovak state. However, if you want to learn more about the creation itself, take a look at my article ‘How It All Began’. The thing you probably don’t know is that Czechoslovakia might not have become a parliamentary republic. Because of the Germanisation of the Czech lands and Austro-Hungarian oppression of the Czech national identity, Czechs tended to admire the Russian empire as the only independent Slavic country. This was very popular in the 19th century during the so-called Czech National Revival, a process of recreation and reestablishment of the Czech national identity and the Czech language. Many of the National Revival activists idealised Russia immensely and ignored all the cultural, historical and political differences in order to convince the public to unite against Austria and Germany. It would be fair to mention that the majority of them didn’t even speak Russian. However, thanks to the trend of pan-slavism, the Czech language (which was used only in villages at that time) was preserved and Czechs started using it again instead of German.

Kramář

Before the official creation of the independent Czechoslovak state, Karel Kramář, an admirer of the idea of Russophilia and the first Czechoslovak prime minister, was propagating the idea of the unification of Czechoslovakia and Russia in order to found a great slavic empire. Masaryk (The first president of Czechoslovakia) and Beneš (Masaryk’s successor) were against it and they decided that Czechoslovakia would be a republic. So the First Republic was established in 1918.

Masaryk and Beneš

The first years of Czechoslovakia weren’t easy. Czechoslovak politicians faced numerous issues – Czechoslovakia didn’t have its own currency, Slovakia was enormously economically underdeveloped and paradoxically, more Germans than Slovaks lived there. Some of the problems were solved successfully, some weren’t. During the first years, Czechoslovak used Austrian crowns as their official currency. Austrian crowns were replaced by the Czechoslovak ones in 1919. Banknotes were designed by elite Czech painters including Alfons Mucha, author of the The Slav Epic. Slovaks use Euro nowadays but Czechs have kept their own currency for more than 100 years – in the Czech Republic, we still pay with the Czech crowns.

The post-war situation of Slovakia was incomparable with the Czech situation. The Czech lands were the richest and the most industrialised part of Austria-Hungary. Slovakia was mainly rural and most Slovaks had problems with education. Because of Hungarisation, the Slovak language was mainly spoken and there was a huge minority of Hungarians in the south of the country. Because of the complicated state of Slovakia, many Czech soldiers and actors left for Slovakia so that they could educate the Slovak people. In 1919, the first Slovak University was founded in Bratislava. Czech and Slovak are very similar languages and both nations understand each other perfectly. Masaryk and other politicians used this mutual-comprehension argument for justifying the existence of just one nation – the Czechoslovaks. This argument had its political and social reason – as I have already stated, in Czechoslovakia, there were more Germans than Slovaks. Concerning that, Slovaks would have had to be considered to be just a national minority and the country could have been called Czechogermania if the nations had been recognised separately.

Masaryk

German minority was perhaps the greatest concern for independent Czechoslovakia. Germans had been living in the Czech lands for centuries – since the medieval times. Most of them lived in the border regions, also known as the Sudetenland. Even though the attitude of the Czechoslovak government was lenient towards national minorities – they could have their own political parties, schools and organisations, Germans didn’t like the fact that, as members of one of the most powerful European nations, had to live under the rule of Czechoslovaks whose state was created in a very short time under very special circumstances. Their opinions were gravely radicalised after Hitler’s success in elections in 1933. Czech Germans felt supported by the Nazis in Germany and the Czechoslovak government had to militarily intervene in borderlands many times to secure peace.

Sudetenland – the percentage of German-speaking population

In 1933, the Sudetendeutsche Partei (Sudetenland Party) was founded by a German PE teacher Konrad Helein in Czechoslovakia. SdP was basically a Czechoslovak version of the German NSDAP. However, SdP mainly focused on the borderlands’ issues and demanded the unification of the Sudetenland with Germany. The climax of their activities was the The Karlsbader Programm (called after the City of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad in German) where the SdP meeting took place). Leadership of the SdP presented several demands addressed to the Czechoslovak government there.

These demands were:

  1. The recognition of full equality and equality with the Czech people.
  2. Recognition of the ethnic group as a legal entity to safeguard its equal status in the state.
  3. Establishment and recognition of the German settlement area.
  4. Establishment of German self-government in the German settlement area in all areas of public life, concerning the interests and affairs of the German ethnic group.
  5. Creation of legal protection for those nationals living outside the closed settlement area of their nationality.
  6. Elimination of the injustice inflicted upon the Sudeten Germans since 1918 and reparations for the damages they have suffered.
  7. Recognition and implementation of the principle that the public employees within the German territory are German.
  8. Full freedom of the right to declare a German nationality and to the German way of life, view and ideology.
Konrad Henlein

Under unimaginable pressure, the Czechoslovak government refused to accept these demands and offered the SdP a compromise – more autonomy. However, SdP’s intention wasn’t to find a compromise – they wanted to radicalise Germans from the Sudetenland and the disagreement of the Czechoslovak government could provide them a good reason to be displeased. Furthermore, France and the United Kingdom found the demands adequate and Czechoslovakia was stabbed in the back. Having lost all democratic allies, Czechoslovakia caused the Sudetenland to be annexed as a result of the Munich treaty from 30th of September 1938. Hitler’s armies seized the rest of the country in March of the following year.

British prime minister Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Benito Mussolini and Herman Göring in Munich

Despite all these challenges, Czechoslovakia represented one of the most progressive democracies in the world. In 1919, one year after the creation of the state, Czechoslovakia instituted suffrage for all women. Masaryk had been supporting emancipation for a long time but he got a chance to truly change things as a president. Thanks to that, numerous feminist organisations were founded in Czechoslovakia. The greatest figures of the Czechoslovak feminist movement were Masaryk’s wife and the first Czechoslovak ‘first lady’, Charlotte Garrigue Masaryková, and also Milada Horkáková, a Czechoslovak politician and a victim of the communist political trials in the 1950s.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his wife Charlotte

Culture

The most amazing aspect of the First-Republic era was undoubtedly its culture. Czech artists and intellectuals were mainly inspired by France which became Czechoslovakia’s closest ally after WW1. Culture was thriving in all branches – literature, art, architecture, music and also in a new phenomenon called ‘film’. A new generation called Avant-garde appeared on the Czechoslovak artistic scene. Jazz and blues were permeating into the repertoires of Czechoslovak musicians and the array of architectural movements expanded immensely. Painters and sculptors reflected these changes in their works as well. Secession, cubism, surrealism, fauvism, dadaism or functionalism – Czechoslovakia was at the peak of its cultural and intellectual revolution. For the best introduction to the culture of the First Republic, I decided to illustrate this part with famous songs of this era. First-Republic music will help you travel back in time to the Czechoslovakia of the 1920s and 1930s.

Literature

The First-Republic literary revolution began with Karel Čapek’s translation of French poetry in a publication called ‘French poetry of a New Age’ containing poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Tristan Corbière, Grégoire Le Roy, Gustave Kahn, Max Elskamp or Charles Cros. Čapek himself was one of the best authors of this era and his works became famous in the whole world. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times in total. His most famous works are ‘War with the Newts’, ‘R.U.R.’, ‘The Absolute at Large’ or ‘Krakatit’. In his works, Čapek, as a critic of Nazism, Fascism and Communism, mainly discusses issues and challenges of society. Totalitarianism, the exploitation of modern technologies, freedom, guilt and war are the main themes of Čapek’s novels and plays. He also published a book of his conversations with the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Karel Čapek was also the first person to ever use the word ‘robot’. He invented it together with his brother, painter Josef Čapek, using the lexical root of the word ‘robota’ which means ‘work’ in archaic Czech. Robot quickly became an international word and one of the most potent of our time. Although he got a chance to go to exile in England after the Munich agreement, Čapek refused to leave Czechoslovakia. His decision was very brave since the Nazi Gestapo had previously denoted him “public enemy number two” concerning his anti-fascist attitudes. (Un)fortunately, he died on the 25th of December 1938 of pneumonia.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Karel Čapek
Karel Čapek

Another famous First-Republic author was surrealist poet Vítězslav Nezval. Just like many other surrealist poets, Nezval sympathised with communism. Nezval travelled to the Soviet Union, Greece, Italy and France. He also worked as a translator of French literature – he translated many poems by Charles Baudelaire. During his journeys, Vítězslav Nezval met renowned surrealist poets like Philippe Soupault or André Breton. Thanks to their influence, Nezval chose surrealism as his literary movement. His most famous poem became ‘Edison’ from 1928. During WW2, Nezval risked his life publishing patriotic poems aimed against the Nazi invaders. After the communist coup d’etat in 1948, Nezval started writing in the spirit of Socialist Realism. His work includes a poem called ‘Stalin’. He died in Prague in 1958.

Vítězslav Nezval

Life is but once and then there is dark night

we are dying in the ruins of light

like day-flies, like a flash of lightning

And now the sky beyond the trees is brightening

electric wires tremble in the snow

now promenades and corsos are aglow

now our souls are viewed on the X-ray screen

like ichthyosauri from the pliocene

now the clock’s hand is moving towards six

now we go off together to the flicks

now spectral shades of gamblers and of witches

are put to flight by our electric switches

and now applause and cheers ring through the house

and Thomas Edison now takes his bows

The party’s over now your soul is dark

the guests have left and you are back at work

Look at those inventors and at their resources

yet the stars have not deviated from their courses

look at all those people living quietly

no this isn’t work nor even energy

this is adventure as on the high seas

locking oneself in one’s laboratories

look at all those people living quietly

no this isn’t work it’s poetry

It’s intention and a bit of accident

to become one’s country’s president

to become a poet who’s outstripped you all

to become a songbird holding you in thrall

to be always lucky at roulette

to be the discoverer of a new planet

A thousand apples have dropped in profusion

but only Newton drew the right conclusion

A thousand people have had epileptic seizures

Saint Paul alone had his converting vision

A thousand nameless deaf have sought a haven

but only one of them was Beethoven

A thousand madmen have considered ways

but only Nero could set Rome ablaze

A thousand inventions come to us each season

but only one of them was that of Edison

An excerpt from Edison

Jaroslav Seifert was the essential representative of Czech Avant-garde in literature. During the First Republic, Seifert was initially a member of the Communist party, then of the Social Democratic party. Seifert’s and Nezval’s works were originally associated with poetism. However, Nezval decided to become a surrealist and Seifert wasn’t willing to experiment with new literary movements. After WW2, Jaroslav Seifert supported the Social Democratic party in the 1946 elections. Because of his complicated relationship with communists who kicked him out of their party in 1946 for criticising Stalin’s perception of art, Seifert wasn’t allowed to publish his works freely. The main issue was his critical opinion of Socialist Realism. This was the controversial artistic guidance which aimed to make art accessible to the common people, and utilise it as propaganda. It limited experimentalism, and was often seen as overly rigid. Anyway, Seifert became the Czechoslovak national artist in 1966. In 1977, his signature appeared on the Charter 77 and he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1984. Aged 84, Jaroslav Seifert died in Prague two years later.

Jaroslav Seifert

Czech literature of the first half of the 20th century had many other great names to offer – Jiří Wolker, František Halas, Jan Zahradníček or Vladislav Vančura. The majority of Czech Avant-garde authors were active and passionate members of the communist party. However, many of them let go of their illusions after the 1948 communist takeover which led to intolerant Socialist Realism on the Czechoslovak literary scene. The afore-mentioned poet František Halas was one of them – travelling to the Soviet Union in the 1940s and seeing the result of communist reign, he was gravely displeased and disappointed. Freedom of art was forbidden. Propaganda was meant to be the main purpose of art.

František Halas

Despite the religiousness of his parents, Vladislav Vančura was a communist as well. Initially, Vančura wanted to become a painter but he wasn’t accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Hence, he began to write poetry and prose. In 1921, Vančura joined the communist party but he was expelled in 1929 for criticising (together with Jaroslav Seifert) its stalinist leadership. From 1934, Vančura publicly opposed Nazism and Fascism. During the war, he was an active member of the communist resistance. He was executed in 1942 during the nazi oppression which followed the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the acting Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the most important Nazis of the Third Reich. In memoriam, Vladislav Vančura was named the Czechoslovak national artist in 1946. Milan Kundera, a famous Czech author of the second half of the 20th century, is a great admirer of Vačura’s literature and he dedicated his book ‘Art of the Novel’ to this writer who inspired him significantly.

Vladislav Vančura

On the other hand, Jan Zahradníček was one of the most important Czech Catholic poets of the 20th century. His literature contrasted with works of communist Avant-garde writers and his opinions were strongly anti-communist. Because of his faith and his anti-totalitarian work, Zahradníček was condemned to 13 years of imprisonment for alleged espionage as an enemy of the Communist Party after the Communist coup of 1948. In 1960, he was released from prison thanks to an amnesty. However, he died in the same year. His texts were published particularly in a form of samizdat. Jan Zahradníček also worked as a translator – he translated works by famous German writer Thomas Mann as well as the Cursed Poets (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine…).

Jan Zahradníček

Art

The First Republic wasn’t just a golden age of literature, but also of art. Europe became a real birthplace of numerous artistic movements which pervaded the Czechoslovak culture as well. Secession, cubism, orfism, fauvism, surrealism, futurism, functionalism and expressionism found their fans among Czech artists. Moreover, Czechoslovak artists also created some artistic movements. I might mention a literary movement called ‘poetism’ which appeared in works of Vítězslav Nezval, Jaroslav Seifert, František Halas or Vladislav Vančura. Another important movement was cubism – its aspects are visible even in architecture which makes Czech cubism absolutely unique since, in the rest of the world, cubism was limited only as an artistic movement of painters or sculptors. Together with Vienna and Paris, Prague is still considered to be one of three capitals of secession. However, you can find secession even in smaller towns too. These modern movements weren’t only essential for Prague but can be found in the whole republic as well.

The Hypnotiser (Bohumil Kubišta) – Cubism

As I have already stated, secession was very important for Czechoslovak culture. The most famous Czech secession artist is undoubtedly the painter Alfons Mucha whose work is still very popular across the whole world – especially in Japan, South Korea and the USA. In Mucha’s art, slavic themes and representations of femininity are typical. Alfons Mucha was born in Moravia in 1860. Because of bad exam results, Mucha never finished secondary school but thanks to that, he discovered his real passion – painting. Travelling to Vienna and Southern Tyrol, Mucha gained experience and some important contacts. In 1885, thanks to recommendations of Mucha’s aristocratic patrons, he was accepted at Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Mucha met many artists there including Russian painter Leonid Pasternak, a father of well-known writer, author of Doctor Zhivago and Nobel-Prize holder Boris Pasternak. In 1887, he decided to leave for Paris where he intended to continue his studies. Remembering conservative Munich, Mucha was shocked when he saw modern Paris. At first, he studied at Académie Julian, then he transferred to Académie Colarossi. However, because of the bad financial situation, Alfons Mucha was obliged to leave the academy and started working as an illustrator.

Mucha’s posters

In Paris, Mucha got to know many renowned French artists including Paul Sérusier and Paul Gauguin. When Gaugain got into a difficult financial situation, it was Alfons Mucha who accommodated him for some time in his flat. Many young artists started asking him for help with composition of their works and so Mucha decided to organise his own painting courses called ‘cours Mucha’. He also started painting posters at that time which made him truly famous. In 1896, Mucha got into an Avant-garde group of magazine La Plume contributors uniting artists such as Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Paul Signac, Georges Seurat, Odilon Redon and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. During the famous Exposition Universelle which took place in Paris in 1900, Mucha was chosen by Austro-Hungarian officials to represent the monarchy – Mucha was supposed to create several paintings of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a Balkan region occupied by the empire. For his amazing work, Alfons Mucha received the Imperial Austrian Order of Franz Joseph and the French Legion of Honour.

Alfons Mucha

From 1904 to 1909, Mucha spent most of his time in the United States where he gave several lectures in the Art Institute of Chicago and befriended American president Theodore Roosevelt. In the USA, Mucha got a chance to travel to New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. He was also asked to create a work about Slavic history which later became the most important work of his career – The Slav Epic.

The Slav Epic

The Slav Epic (Slovanská epopej – in Czech) is a monumental series of 20 large canvases depicting the mythology and history of Czechs and other Slavic nations. Alfons Mucha completed it in 1919. The Slav Epic was exhibited in places such as the Fair-Trade Palace in Prague and the Brooklyn Museum. In Brooklyn, more than 600 000 people went to see Mucha’s masterpiece. Alfons Mucha died in 1939. Shortly before his death, he was interrogated by the German secret police Gestapo as one of the most famous public figures in Czechoslovakia. During World War II, the Slav Epic was wrapped and hidden since Mucha didn’t want Nazis to steal it. After the 1948 communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia, Mucha was considered a decadent and bourgeois artist, contrasting with the ideals of Socialist Realism. In 2017, the Slav Epic exhibition was held in Tokyo. Within three months, more than 650 000 people went to see the cycle. Hence, it became the most visited exhibition of a 19th-century artist in 2017, and Alfons Mucha remains one of the most popular painters of Japan, China and South Korea.

The Slav Epic

During the First Republic, Mucha was an active artist. He created designs of Czechoslovak stamps and banknotes, and didn’t demand any financial evaluation from the Czechoslovak state. He died shortly after the German occupation. His family wasn’t allowed to organise a public funeral because of his patriotism. However, many people gathered at his grave on the day of his burial. Mucha became an icon of Czechoslovak art in the whole world.

An exhibition of Mucha’s works
The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia (1914)

František Kupka is internationally considered to be a co-founder of an abstract artistic movement called orphism, also known as orphic cubism. Kupka studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In 1892, he left for Vienna but after 3 years spent in Austria, Kupka was granted scholarship for the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris. During WW1, František Kupka joined the Czechoslovak legions in France (more information about Czechoslovak legions in my article ‘How It All Began’). During the battle of river Aisne, he was wounded but he continued helping with forming and organising units of Czechoslovak legions in Paris. Thanks to that, Kupka achieved the rank of captain in the army. After the war, he became a professor at the academy. František Kupka died in France in 1957 and he is buried at famous Père Lachaise Cemetery together with Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Molière, Frédéric Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Guillaume Apollinaire, Honoré de Balzac, Auguste Comte, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Éluard, Camille Pissarro and Alfred de Musset.

Kupka in a legionary uniform
Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors)
Amorpha – on the left side of the photo (Salon d’Automne of 1912)

Having grown up in Brno, Emil Filla started university studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. He left in 1906 after three years of studies. His early works were painted in the spirit of expressionism but Filla began to experiment with cubism later and it became his main domain under the influence of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Emil Filla was in Paris when WW1 broke out. He spent the war in Holland. There, he actively helped Masaryk’s illegal exile group called Maffie. Its main purpose was smuggling information from Austria-Hungary to the West. During the First Republic, Filla worked at the embassy of Czechoslovakia in the Netherlands and then at the ministry of foreign affairs. However, his greatest passion was art and so he decided to give up his diplomatic job. In his art, he also reacted to the danger of Nazism which was resonating in the Czechoslovak society immensely. Shortly after the German occupation, Filla was, like many other Czech artists and intellectuals including Karel Čapek’s brother Jan, arrested and sent to the concentration camp Dachau, later to Buchenwald. After WW2, his health situation wasn’t ideal due to the six heart-attacks he had during his imprisonment in Buchenwald. He was named professor of the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design. Although he joined the communist party because of his WW2 experience, Filla’s art couldn’t be exhibited because it didn’t follow the principles of Socialist Realism. In 1953, he passed away from a 7th heart-attack in Prague.

Josef Čapek, younger brother of Karel Čapek, left for Paris in 1910 where he attended the famous Académie Colarossi just like Alfons Mucha and Paul Gauguin had several decades before. During WW2, Čapek wasn’t recruited to the army because of his poor eyesight. Instead of fighting, Josef Čapek worked as a journalist and caricaturist. He was helping his brother too – together, they wrote several plays, articles and books. It was Josef who advised Karel to use the revolutionary word ‘robot’. His art was mainly expressionist and cubistic. He was also a naysayer of Nazism and Fascism. After the triumph of Adolf Hitler in the 1933 elections, Čapek created a collection of paintings called ‘In the Shade of Fascism’ in newspapers reacting to the political establishment in neighbouring Germany. Another series of drawings called ‘the dictatorial boots’ was published in 1937. He also put together a collection called ‘Modern Times’ as a reaction to the Spanish civil war. As a defender of democracy, Josef Čapek felt betrayed after the Munich agreement. Shorty after the Nazi occupation, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the concentration camp in Dachau, and later to Buchenwald. There, he painted the family trees of high-ranking SS officers. In 1942, he arrived at the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen where he illegally translated several pieces of English, Spanish and Norwegian poetry. He spent his last days in the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen where he died during a typhus epidemic in 1945. Josef Čapek’s symbolic grave is situated at the Vyšehrad Cemetery in Prague, the most famous Czech cemetery. Aside from Josef Čapek, the cemetary also contains the graves of Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, Karel Čapek, Ema Destinová, Max Švabinský, Josef Václav Myslbek, Václav Levý, Mikoláš Aleš, Vojtěch Hynais, Julius Mařák, Svatopluk Čech, František Hrubín, Ferdinand Peroutka, Božena Němcová, Jan Neruda, Karel Hynek Mácha, Jaroslav Vrchlický, Josef Hora, Julius Zeyer, Alfons Mucha, Vítězslav Nezval, Josef Václav Sládek, Václav Hanka, František Křižík or Jaroslav Heyrovský. Some of these names have been already mentioned in my articles but if you don’t recall, you can use Google to find out who these great Czechs were.

Josef Čapek
Karel Čapek and Josef Čapek
His self-portrait

Otakar Kubín was another student of the Prague Academy of Fine Arts which he attended until 1904. He also joined several speleologist expeditions organised by Czech archeologist Karel Absolon who discovered the famous statue Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a ceramic figure of a nude female figure dated to 29,000–25,000 BCE and one of the most significant prehistoric artefacts in the world.

Venus of Dolní Věstonice

In 1913, he moved to France and in 1925, Otakar Kubín received French citizenship. Therefore, his works usually contain a signature ‘Coubine’, the French transcription of his name. Unlike other artists of his time, Kubín’s art was only slightly influenced by Cubism. Instead, Kubín’s art follows the style of neoclassicism. He also joined Parti communiste français, the French communist party. In 1969, Kubín died in Marseille aged 85.

Josef Šíma came from an artistic family – his grandfather was a sculptor and his father was a draughtsman-professor. He spent his secondary-school years in Brno but, for his university studies, he moved to Prague where he began studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. During WW1, he served as an Austro-Hungarian soldier. In 1920, he moved to France where he worked as a vitrage restorer in numerous churches. In 1921, he moved to Paris. He obtained French citizenship in 1926 and in 1927, he co-founded an artistic group movement called Le Grand Jeu which united artists such as Roger Gilbert-Lecomte or Roger Vailland. Šíma also contributed to the Czechoslovak First-Republic press with his articles about France, French art and culture. His art was mainly influenced by civilism, poetism, symbolism and, eventually, surrealism. He’s considered to be one of the greatest Czech artists of all time. Josef Šíma died in Paris in 1971.

Toyen (Marie Čermínová) and Jindřich Štyrský were the most famous Czech surrealists. Jindřich Štyrský studied at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts and in summer of 1922, he met Toyen in Croatia. The afore-mentioned poets and Marie Čermínová’s friends Jaroslav Seifert and Vítězslav Nezval were the authors of her pseudonym Toyen which they proposed to her in 1922. After that, the name stuck. Toyen’s close friend, poet, psychoanalytic, sociologist and literary critic Bohuslav Brouk interpreted here pseudonym by a short sentence ‘To je on.’ (That’s him.) which referred to her aversion to femininity. Toyen was always dressed in man clothes (trousers, vests, hats), had short hair and she used the masculin gender while she was speaking about herself. Toyen and Štyrský were both very passionate artists and they moved to Paris in 1925 where they founded a new artistic movement called artificialism which was based on Czech poetism and represented a new alternative to surrealism and modern abstract art. In Paris, they befriended renowned surrealists André Breton and Paul Éluard.

Štyrský and Toyen

Surrealism was banned by the Nazis during WW2 so the artists couldn’t exhibit their works freely. In 1942, Jindřich Štyrský passed away in Prague and Toyen remained in Paris alone. In Toyen’s Prague flat, her friend Jindřich Heisler was hiding because of his Jewish origin. After WW2, Toyen could shortly exhibit freely in Czechoslovakia again. However, she left the country in 1947 anticipating the communist coup d’état which would happen a year later. She died in Paris in 1980 and was buried in the Batignolles Cemetery alongside her friends – the poets André Breton and Benjamin Péret.

Toyen

Adolf Hoffmeister was a Czech writer, dramatist, painter, draughtsman, translator, diplomat and lawyer. He was born in Prague in 1902. In 1919, he befriended the Čapek brothers and in 1925, he received a master degree at the law faculty of Charles University in Prague, one of the oldest universities in the world. Hoffmeister had many interests and so he attended one semester of Egyptology at the University of Cambridge. In the 1920s, he spent a lot of time abroad, particularly in Europe. He knew many famous intellectuals of that time – e.g. Gilbert Keith Chesterton or George Bernard Shaw. It was he who accommodated the well-known Russian poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky in his flat during the maestro’s sojourn in Prague. Together with Vítězslav Nezval, Hoffmeister guided the renowned French poet Philippe Soupault through Prague. He also worked as a journalist and lawyer. After Hitler’s acquisition of absolute power in Germany, his law chambers defended the prestigious author and the Nobel-Prize holder Thomas Mann. Aside from that, he also organised many exhibitions of his art – even abroad, for example in Paris or Brussels. Hoffmeister was in touch with the most famous Czech Avant-garde artists including Nezval, Werich, Ježek, Toyen, K. Čapek, J. Čapek, Štyrský and many others. In 1931, he travelled to the Soviet Union where he met Anatoly Lunacharsky, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Tairov, Hannes Meyer and Erwin Piscator. On the way back, he had an appointment with Aldous Leonard Huxley and George Bernard Shaw in Leningrad (today Saint Petersburg).

Adolf Hoffmeister

In the 1930s, Hoffmeister and Nezval met James Joyce in Paris but were also in contact with Le Corbusier, Paul Valéry, Tristan Tzara or George Grosz. Thanks to the invitation of French writer Louis Aragon which he received two days after the German occupation in March 1939, Hoffmeister got to France. There, he founded Maison de la Culture Tchécoslovaque in cooperation with French communist organisations. However, after the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, he was imprisoned with other communists in France as a potential ‘agent of Moscow’. He was released from prison in 1940 but after the German attack towards France, he moved to Morocco and then to Lisbon. Thanks to help of other Czech emigrants Jan Werich, Jiří Voskovec and Jaroslav Ježek, he could sail to the United States. Living in New York, Hoffmeister began to work as a broadcaster of the Voice of America in the Czech language. After the war, he joined the communist party and he got a job at the ministry of information. In 1947, as a member of the UNESCO commission, Hoffmeister travelled to Mexico where he met Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. In 1948, he was named the Czechoslovak ambassador in France. In Paris, Hoffmeister coordinated Czecho-French cultural relationship and cooperation with the above-mentioned painter Josef Šíma. He led the Czechoslovak OSN delegation twice at meetings in New York in 1948 and 1949. In 1951, Hoffmeister was fired from the Czechoslovak embassy in Paris and he wasn’t able to return to France. He became a professor at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. At that time, he met with the famous Chilean author and Nobel-Prize holder Pablo Neruda in Prague. In 1955, he was sent to China, in particular to Beijing and Shanghai, as a cultural commissioner. In the same year, he was Tristan Tsara and Fernand Léger’s guide in Prague.

In 1956, he was allowed to return to Paris for a meeting with his friends Jean Effel and Louis Aragon. Having returned to Prague, Hoffmeister met Diego Rivera who was on the way back from the Soviet Union. In December 1956, he travelled to India as a member of the Czech cultural delegation. The following year, Hoffmeister participated in the international secession of the PEN club which took place in Tokyo. There, he met John Steinbeck, Alberto Moravia or John Dos Passos. In 1962, he was delegated to South America (Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Mexico, Cuba) to join the Czechoslovak government officials. On this tour, he met Jorge Amado, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Hoffmeister was very active during the era of the Prague Spring and its violent end disappointed him. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre visited him in Prague.

In 1969, he hosted Graham Greene in Czechoslovakia and travelled to France where he met Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, André Malraux, Jean Effel and Louis Aragon. However, since 1970, he hadn’t been able to continue doing his intellectual and cultural activities because the normalisation of Czechoslovakia began. He died in 1973, aged 70.

Václav Havel by Adolf Hoffmeister

Architecture

When the Czechoslovak Republic was created in 1918, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk appointed Prague Castle to be the official office of the president. However, reconstruction of the castle was necessary and so he asked renowned Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik for help with this task. From 1918 to 1929, the castle was being reconstructed. The deadline year 1929 wasn’t chosen randomly. In 929, the patron of Czech lands Saint Wenceslas (whose famous statue by Josef Václav Myslbek is located in the Saint Wenceslas square in Prague, in front of the National Museum)  was murdered by his brother Boleslav. Every Czech knows this legend and Masaryk wanted to use the renovation of Prague castle to mark the 1000th anniversary of this event. Anyway, today, we know that Saint Wenceslas was murdered in 935. Plečnik finished his work on time and you can judge his results from the following pictures.

St. Vitus Cathedral
St. Vitus Cathedral

Prague has changed a lot. Here, you can compare Charles Bridge and other places in Prague from the First-Republic era and nowadays.

Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge
The National Theatre
The National Theatre
Nerudova street
Nerudova Street

One thing you can’t find anywhere in the world but in Czechia is cubist architecture. Josef Gočár is probably the most famous Czech architect of the First-Republic epoch. During WW1, Gočár served in the Austro-Hungarian army and in 1924, he became a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Thanks to his design proposition of the Czechoslovak pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts which took place in Paris in 1925, he received Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit. His cubist ‘House of the Black Madonna’ in Prague or the ‘Bank of the Czechoslovak Legions’ are even today among the most iconic Prague buildings.

House of the Black Madonna
House of the Black Madonna
House of the Black Madonna
House of the Black Madonna
House of the Black Madonna
House of the Black Madonna
House of the Black Madonna
Bank of the Czechoslovak Legions
Bank of the Czechoslovak Legions
Bank of the Czechoslovak Legions
Bank of the Czechoslovak Legions

Film and theatre

Thanks to the technical progress and good relationship with western-European countries, a great film industry quickly developed in Czechoslovakia. Its quality was one of the best in Europe thanks to the generation of incredible actors who helped it immensely.

Oldřich Nový was born in Žižkov, a borough of Prague, in 1899. In the early 1920s, Nový performed in Brno and Ostrava theatres. However, he moved to Prague later where his film career began. In 1936, he married a daughter of a Prague bank manager, Alice Wienerová. His most famous film Kristián crowned his popularity in 1939. The song ‘Jen pro ten dnešní den’ (Only for this day) became an iconic song. However, years of happiness were about to end after the German occupation. German officials forced him to divorce with his wife Alice because of her Jewish origin. She was supposed to be deported to the Czech Jewish Ghetto Terezín which was a halfway point between the protectorate Bohemia and Moravia and Auschwitz. In order to avoid the deportation, she took a pill causing an epileptic shock on the day when she went to the building of Prague Gestapo. This saved her. Anyway, her family wasn’t that lucky and half of them died during WW2, including her father. Alice could never reconcile herself with that and she suffered from schizophrenia for the rest of her life. Neither did Nový evade the deportation – he was sent to the concentration camp Osterode in Saxony. Luckily, they both survived the war and they reunited in 1945. Nový never achieved his First-Republic fame again and Nový died alone in Prague in 1983 as a memory of the Czechoslovak democratic era.

Jen pro ten dnešní den in the film Kristián (1939)

Jen pro ten dnešní den

Vlasta Burian was born in Liberec, a northern-Bohemian metropolis, in 1891. There, he spent the first 10 years of his life, then his family moved to Prague. Young Vlasta was also talented in football and he even played for Sparta Prague – still one of the best Czech clubs. Hence, it’s possible that he played football against the 2nd president of Czechoslovakia, Masaryk’s successor Edvard Beneš, who played for Slavia Prague – another elite Czech club even today. Because of his attempt to avoid military service in WW1, Burian was imprisoned at that time. 

Sparta Prague – The First Republic
Sparta Prague nowadays
Slavia Prague – The First Republic
Slavia Prague nowadays

Burian became a legendary First-Republic comedian whose films are still popular. However, in his personal life, he was mostly melancholic and he often suffered from depression. The critical year for Burian was 1944 when Nazis closed his theatre. Consequently, Nazis forced him to record a radio play criticising and mocking the exile government which was in London during WW2. In 1945, Vlasta Burian was arrested as an alleged collaborator, imprisoned with SS officers and criminals and accused of numerous fictional allegations. Thanks to the intervention of Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak minister of Foreign Affairs and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk’s son, Burian’s trial was cancelled. However, almost all his property, including his luxury villa, was nationalised and Burian wasn’t allowed to perform as an actor. He started working in northern-Bohemian mines, then as a messenger and cook. Because of this, his physical and mental condition worsened significantly. Vlasta Burian passed away in Prague in 1962.

Vlasta Burian

The most famous actress of the First-Republic epoch was probably Lída Baarová. She was born in 1914 in Prague. Her professional career began in the 1930s when she starred as a beautiful young lady in contemporary films. She also had an affair with Vlasta Burian who wanted a divorce because of Baarová. However, her most famous affair took place during WW2. In the 1930s, Baarová starred in several German films as well and there, she met the well-known Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels fell in love with Baarová and his obsession with her was so great that he attended all her premiers. Goebbles’ enchantment was so great that Hitler had to intervene in the affair. German minister rather proposed his resignation and the idea that he could work as a German ambassador in Japan. Hitler couldn’t accept this and ordered Goebbles to end the relationship. Baarová wasn’t allowed to film in Germany and had to return to the protectorate. There, she had several affairs with high-ranked Nazis and members of the protectorate government. In 1941, she was banned from filming in the protectorate and so she decided to move to Italy. Her career was interrupted by the American Italian campaign.

Lída Baarová

She spent the end of the war in Germany where she was found by American Counterintelligence Corps and sent to Czechoslovakia as a collaborator. She was imprisoned for 16 months but she was released ultimately because her affairs weren’t based on ideological opinions but on her letch of starring in films. After the communist coup d’état, she emigrated to Austria. She got to Czechoslovakia again after the Velvet Revolution but she spent only a few days there. Lída Baarová died in Salzburg in 2000, aged 86.

Lída Baarová
Joseph Goebbels

Adina Mandlová was a sex-symbol of the 1930s in Czechoslovakia. She was born in 1910 in Mladá Boleslav (you may know this city thanks to the Škoda factory which is situated there). When she was 16, she was sent to a boarding school in Paris where she learnt German and French. After two years of studies, she was expelled because of bad behaviour. Having returned to Prague, Mandlová began her professional career as an actress which was, like in Baarová’s case, full of many romantic affairs even with many high-ranked nazi officers during WW2. After the war, she was accused of collaboration with the German invaders but there wasn’t enough evidence to imprison her. However, she didn’t get any job opportunities in Czechoslovakia because of that and so she emigrated to England in 1948. Mandlová visited Czechoslovakia again in 1966. From England, she moved to Malta and finally to Canada where she published her memoirs thanks to the ‘68 Publishers, an exile Czechoslovak publishing house in Toronto. This was founded by Josef Škvorecký, who became a famous Czech author after his emigration to Canada which was caused by the 1968 Soviet invasion to Czechoslovakia. This publishing house published works of authors whose books were illegal in Czechoslovakia such as Milan Kundera or Bohumil Hrabal. Mandlová returned to Czechoslovakia in 1990 and she died one year later.

Adina Mandlová
Oldřich Nový and Adina Mandlová

Jan Werich, one of the most important Czech avant-garde dramatists, was born in Prague in 1905. During his secondary-school studies, he met his partner and friend Jiří Voskovec. Later, Jan Werich studied at the Law Faculty of Charles University in Prague. However, his greatest passion was the theatre. Together with Voskovec, Werich joined the Liberated Theatre or Prague Free Theatre, a new leftist Avant-garde theatre based on dadaism, futurism and poetism founded in Prague. There, they were accompanied by musician Jaroslav Ježek who composed Jazz music for their plays. Works by Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Vítězslav Nezval or Jaroslav Seifert were adapted by the theatre. Because of their anti-fascist attitudes, Werich, Voskovec and Ježek emigrated to the Unites States in 1939.

Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec

They lived in New York and supported Czechoslovak foreign resistance as broadcasters of the Voice of America. They also helped Czechoslovak exiles such as Adolf Hoffmeister with leaving Europe. Having returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, Werich and Voskovec realised that political satire wasn’t possible anymore. Because of the escalation of the political situation in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Voskovec emigrated to France and later to the United States. Werich continued performing as an actor until the 1968 invasion. During the normalisation (1968 – 1989), Werich couldn’t appear anywhere publicly and his career came to an end. He died in Prague in 1980, aged 75. His fairy tales and songs are still extremely popular among Czechs.

Jan Werich

His greatest First-Republic songs are David a Goliáš, Ezop a Brabenec, Civilizace or Chodidla.

Voskovec and Werich

Jazz music

Jaroslav Ježek’s story ended a bit differently. He was born in Prague in 1906 and since his birth he had health issues – he was almost blind, his kidney didn’t work well and because of the scarlet fever he caught, he was almost paralysed. Voskovec and Werich later prepared a text for the song ‘Tmavomodrý svět’ (Dark blue world) referring to Ježek’s poor eyesight limiting him to see everything only in the dark blue hue. Despite all the health complications he had to face, he successfully proved his musical talent in being accepted to the Prague Conservatory as a piano player in 1921. At that time, he crossed paths, for example, with Vítězslav Nezval but particularly with Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich. In the 1930s, Ježek travelled to Paris where he discovered Jazz and joined the group of Czech surrealists unting names like Toyen, Nezval or Štyrský. As a co-author of anti-Fascist plays of the Liberated Theatre, Ježek emigrated to the USA accompanied by Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec in 1939. He died from his chronic kidney disease in New York in 1942.

Tmavomodrý svět

Tmavomodrý svět by Jan Werich

Jaroslav Ježek

Rudolf Antonín Dvorský, born in 1899, was the greatest Jazz-music composer of the First-Republic epoch. In 1929, he founded his own Swing orchestra called Melody boys which existed until 1945. Dvorský and his Jazz band quickly became the most famous music group in Czechoslovakia. If you listened to the songs which I used for the article’s illustration, I can tell you that the majority of these songs were composed by Dvorský or Ježek. Dvorský’s Melody boys also recorded many film music pieces including the legendary song ‘Jen pro ten dnešní den’ sung by Oldřich Nový. The band split up in 1945 because of the bad health state of R. A. Dvorský. Having failed in attempting to emigrate from communist Czechoslovakia to England in the 1950s, Dvorský was imprisoned for 3 years for treason. He died in Prague in 1966. If you have been skipping the songs while reading this article, it’s time to roll up and travel back in time to Czechoslovakia between 1918 and 1938 through some tremendous First-Republic hits.

Rudolf Antonín Dvorský

The grievous end

In Munich September 1938, Neville Chamberlain (Great Britain), Édouard Daladier (France), Benito Mussolini (Italy) and Adolf Hitler (Germany) sentenced democratic Czechoslovakia to forfeiture by allowing Germany to conquer the borderlands called the Sudetenland. This decision was made without representatives of the sovereign Czechoslovak state. In March 1939, Hitler seized the rest of the country (more in the article ‘Czechs under the Nazi Rule’). After WW2, Czechoslovaks, remembering the betrayal of the West, decided to try another alternative – Communism. This experiment lasted 40 years until 1989. Thanks to the First Republic, post-Velvet-Revolution Czechoslovakia returned to the model of liberal democracy instituted firstly by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in 1918. The First-Republic era is an example of the beauty of democracy and the unrelenting danger of losing it.

Munich Agreement (1938)

Vojta

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