looking back

‘Looking Back’: Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

By Kinen Carvala

How was the founder of one country connected to suppressing the independence of another country?

Thomas (or “Tomáš”) Garrigue Masaryk (March 7, 1850 – Sept. 14, 1937) is honored with a monument in Golden Gate Park. Masaryk was an important leader in the establishment of Czechoslovakia and became its first president in 1918. He was re-elected president of Czechoslovakia three more times consecutively. 

Photos by Michael Durand.

The Habsburgs royal family, starting in the 1200s, slowly gained control over larger parts of Central Europe, eventually forming the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was on the losing side of World War I and split into several countries, one of which was Czechoslovakia.

During World War I, the British Empire was an Allied power fighting the Central Powers, which included Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany attempted to weaken Britain by supporting Asian-Indian nationalists wanting to break away from the British Empire, including Indian nationalists in San Francisco. In his autobiography, Masaryk credited another Czech, Emanuel V. Voska, for forming a spy ring that kept tabs on various German plans for sabotage and arms smuggling in North America.

Twenty-nine people were convicted in U.S. District Court in San Francisco of “setting on foot a military enterprise in the United States” on April 23, 1918 (SF Chronicle) as part of a “Hindu-German conspiracy” against Britain. (“Hindu” was used at the time to refer to Asian Indians, regardless of religion.) The plan was to smuggle guns and ammunition from the U.S. to India. One of the 29 was E. H. von Schack, German vice consul in San Francisco. He planned for one ship to transfer arms to another at the remote Mexican island of Socorro. 

Defendant Ram Chandra received $1,000 each month from the German Consulate, but witnesses testified he was misusing funds. Chandra was shot to death by another defendant in the courtroom, Ram Singh, earlier on April 23. Singh, in turn, was shot and killed by a marshal in the courtroom melee.

Another German plan unintentionally drove the U.S. to declare war against Germany. In early 1917, a German proposal to help Mexico reconquer Texas, New Mexico and Arizona from the United States was revealed when the “Zimmermann telegram” was intercepted by the British. It was deciphered and made public, according to Jay Bellamy’s article in Prologue Magazine.

The Thomas Masaryk Memorial consists of a bronze bust of Masaryk atop a seven-foot-tall marble column.

The year of the memorial, 1926, is inscribed on the north side of the bust’s base. The same side also has the signature of the sculptor, Josef Mařatka (1874-1937). He studied at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague and Academy of Fine Arts in Prague before moving to study under Auguste Rodin from 1901 to 1904, according to the National Gallery Prague.

Sokol, a Czech-Slovak/American fitness association, provided $10,000 for the marble column, according to the Smithsonian Institution. The Golden Gate Park dedication on Oct. 30, 1960 – 23 years after Masaryk’s death – was attended by then-mayor of San Francisco, George Christopher, according to the SF Examiner.

The bust was shown at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. Czechoslovakia opened its exhibit there on March 4. On March 15, the dawn of World War II, Germany invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak exhibit manager insisted that the exhibit would remain open and not be under control of the German contingent at the fair, according to the Fresno Bee newspaper. After the fair ended, Sokol in San Francisco kept the bust for safekeeping, according to a 2016 Czech Consulate newsletter. (Note: the U.S. held two different 1939 Fairs: one on Treasure Island and another in New York.)

Shirley Temple Black, an American former child actress, visited Masaryk’s bust in Golden Gate Park in 1968 after she was evacuated from Prague. Czechoslovakia’s attempt to loosen civil restrictions during “Prague Spring” was interrupted by Soviet invasion. More than 200 Czech Americans gathered at the bust joining Black in protesting the invasion, according to the SF Examiner (Aug. 25, 1968). Black was later appointed U. S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989 and served until July 12, 1992. In late 1992, Czechoslovakia became two separate countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia (both eventually became NATO members).

The memorial is in the southwest corner of the Rose Garden, under trees near JFK Drive.

Sokol will commemorate Masaryk’s birthday a day early at his memorial in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, March 6, by hiking to the bust from the Stow Lake Boathouse at 11 a.m. For more information about the March 6 event, go to sokolsf.org/activities-events/hike-to-tomas-g-masaryks-statue-in-golden-gate-park.

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