This year, 2019, represents the 100th anniversary of the death of one of the most important figures in the history of Slovakia, Milan Rastislav Štefánik. On May 4, the anniversary was commemorated with a talk by researcher Kevin J. McNamara of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who discussed “Six Events that Made Milan Stefanik a Founding Father of Czecho-Slovakia.” Friends of Slovakia co-sponsored the with the Slovak American Society of Washington DC (SASW).
McNamara’s talk was derived in part from the research for his book, The Dreams of a Great Small Nation, which described the role the Czecho-Slovak Legion played in the events of WWI and the subsequent creation of an independent Czecho-Slovakia out of the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire. The material McNamara compiled on Štefánik was largely edited out of the published book, but he thought that Štefánik’s role was so important that it deserves greater exposure, particularly as published research on Štefánik, in the English language, is rather limited. McNamara detailed six events involving Štefánik that he thought were important to the founding of Czecho-Slovakia.
Briefly, the events McNamara detailed were: 1) The fact that one of Europe’s best-known Slovaks joined the Czecho-Slovak independence movement provided it with credibility since its leader Tomas G. Masaryk was half-Slovak and hailed from Prague, and his other chief aide, Edvard Beneš, was Bohemian; 2) Štefánik arranged for Masaryk to meet with French Premier Aristide Briand, who subsequently issued a public expression of sympathy for the Czecho-Slovak cause; 3) Štefánik convinced Russia to support the cause by allowing Czech and Slovak veterans of the Austro-Hungarian Army, who were held in Russia as POWs, to join the Allied cause by fighting for France on the Western Front. After the Czar was overthrown, these troops became the Czecho-Slovak Legion; 4) Štefanik traveled to the U.S. to garner Slovak-American support and convinced former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt to support the Czecho-Slovak independence movement; 5) Štefanik represented Czechs and Slovaks at the Congress of Oppressed Minorities in Rome and garnered further support, particularly from Italy and France, for the independence movement. Subsequently, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing made a statement of sympathy for the Czecho-Slovak cause; 6) After Czecho-Slovak independence was declared on October 28, 1918, in Prague, Štefánik, although ill, traveled to Siberia to raise the morale of the Czecho-Slovak Legionnaires and facilitate their departure from Russia.
Once the Czecho-Slovak state was established, Štefánik was made Minister of War, but subsequently became caught up in its internal politics and saw his role diminished. Venturing home by way of Italy after the war, Štefánik planned to return to Bratislava first. He arranged to fly an Italian airplane but as he approached the Bratislava airport on May 4, 1919, his plane crashed, and he was killed, along with two Italian passengers. He was 39. McNamara noted that had Štefánik lived, the course of Czecho-Slovakia, and the role of Slovaks in the new nation, would likely have followed a different path. On the 100th anniversary of his death, Štefánik is still much beloved and venerated by the Slovak nation.
For more information about these historic figures and dramatic events, visit www.kevinjmcnamara.com