The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 3/General Štefanik
Of the triumvirate who headed the Czechoslovak revolution abroad for three years one has already departed. General Milan Rostislav Štefanik, vicepresident of the Czechoslovak National Council from 1915 to 1918, and minister of war of the Czechoslovak Republic since November, 1918, was killed in an aeroplane accident on May 4. In him the Czechoslovaks lost a brave soldier, a great patriot, a talented diplomat, as well as a most romantic character.
Štefanik was born 39 years ago in the small Slovak village of Košarisk in the county of Nitra. His father was Protestant minister and was able to give Milan thorough schooling. Like all Slovak boys Štefanik had to study in Magyar schools, but after he completed his arts course he went to the University of Prague, where he was granted the degree of doctor of philosophy in 1904. He was a mathematician who decided to become an astronomer. Immediately after graduating in Prague Štefanik went to Paris and became assistant to Janssen in the observatory of Meudon. In 1905 and 1906 he was in charge of observation work on Mont Blanc, and later he visited Spain, Central Asia, Algiers and Sahara to watch various eclipses from points where they were best visible. In 1910 he passed through the United States on his way to the Tahiti Islands to watch Halley’s comet, and on that occasion Štefanik first got acquainted with his countrymen in America. When he was not traveling to the ends of the earth, he made his headquarters in Paris, where his reputation of savant and his wonderful tact gained him admission into the important social and political circles. He received prices from the French Academy and the cross of the Legion of Honor from the French government; and what is even more unusual in France, he was admitted to French citizenship.
When war broke out, Dr. Štefanik was traveling in the interests of science in Morocco. He came back at once and entered the French army as a private; soon he was transferred to the aviation corps and as a distinguished pilot rendered great services to France in the battles of Arras in the spring of 1915. In the summer of that year he established metereological stations along the French front. Just before Mackensen’s invasion of Serbia Štefanik was sent to Russia to serve there as an aviator, but when he was passing through Serbia, Bulgaria declared war and he was prevented from reaching Russia. He served therefore with the Serbian forces, followed them in their retreat and finally landed with his aeroplane in Valona.
He returned to Paris in ill health just before Christmas of 1915. His great work both for the Allies and for his own nation began then. Masaryk was already in London, making frequent visits to Paris, where Dr. Edward Beneš was in charge. The French government detached Štefanik from active army duties for which he was now incapacitated, and he devoted all his time to the work of organizing the Czechoslovaks for war on the Central Powers. In the newly established Czechoslovak National Council, the central organ of the revolutionary campaign, Štefanik had the post of vicepresident. While Masaryk remained in London and Beneš in Paris, Štefanik went everywhere. A great part of 1916 was spent in Russia with the aim of creating a Czechoslovak army there out of the prisoners of war; but the obstacles placed in his way by German sympathizers in high places made his task very difficult. The volunteers were there, but few were so fortunate as to secure release from prison camps; only three regiments were formed, scattered in scouting parties all over the southwestern Russian front.
His attention was devoted next to Italy, but there also was a lack of vision in 1916. What Štefanik succeeded in doing was to have Czechoslovak prisoners from Serbia transferred to France; for in France the work of Beneš and Štefanik among the statesmen of Paris was bearing fruit. France was ready to take the radical step of sanctioning a separate Czechoslovak army as one of the allied armies.
Where were the men to come from for the new army? In France there were but few Czech immigrants, and all able-bodied men had long ago joined the French Foreign Legion. There were a few thousand prisoners of war from Serbia, and as no Czechs were to be found in the German armies operating on the western front there was no fresh material coming in to use as a reservoir for the rebel army. There was, however, America, and thither Štefanik went in the summer of 1917, after the French had given him assurances that they would organize the new army, if he found the men.
At that time, only a few months after America’s entry into the war, there was not sufficient understanding in Washington of the importance of the Czechoslovak armed revolution against Austria, especially as the United States was not yet at war with the Dual Monarchy. But Štefanik was indefatigable, and with the cordial help of the French representatives finally secured permission of the United States government to recruit Czechoslovaks, not naturalized, for service under their own colors in France. In his work here Štefanik was ably seconded by the Washington representative of the American Czechoslovak organizations, Charles Pergler, Štefanik himself in his French uniform spoke at recruiting meetings in Chicago and New York. In the winter and spring of 1918 Štefanik, promoted to General by the French army command, spent his attention on the Italian problem. The army in France was growing every day by additions from Russia and from the United States; in Russia the biggest Czechoslovak army was guided by Masaryk himself. But in Italy there were tens of thousands of Czechoslovak prisoners of war, anxious to take a hand in the fight against Germans, but confined in camps. On April 21, 1918, Gen. Štefanik signed a convention with the Italian government on behalf of the Czechoslovak National Council; by this convention the Italians agreed to organize volunteers from among Czechoslovak prisoners of war into an army corps which should be subject to the supreme Italian army command, but politically would come under the jurisdiction of the Czechoslovak National Council.
Of Štefanik’s work in Paris which made of the French the warmest champions of Czechoslovak independence Dr. Beneš could say a great deal, if he thought it possible to speak now of the inner history of diplomatic moves. In the summer of 1918 one state act after another followed recognizing the Czechoslovaks as allies, and as a result the Czechoslovak National Council constituted itself the revolutionary Czechoslovak government in which Štefanik became the minister of war. Shortly after Austrian rule was overthrown in Prague, and when Masaryk was elected president of the republic, Štefanik was confirmed in his post.
As minister of war he had under his orders, at the time fighting stopped, Czechoslovak legionaries in France, Italy and Siberia. And so in November 1918 he crossed again the United States on his way to Ekaterinburg, the headquarters of the Czechoslovaks in Urals. Upon his arrival the Russian branch of the National Council turned over their authority to him; he reorganized the revolutionary army of exprisoners of war into the expeditionary army of an established republic and raised the morale of the discouraged soldiers by his appearance. In February of this year he sailed from Vladivostok to France by way of Suez. He visited Rome and Paris in March and April and was on his way home after many years’ absence, when death came upon him unexpectedly. Finding in northern Italy that train communications were extremely unsatisfactory, he obtained the loan of an Italian aeroplane to fly directly to Slovakia. On May 4 while nearing the end of the trip the machine in some unexplained manner became disabled and fell to the ground, causing the death of Štefanik and two Italian officers who accompanied him.
The loss of Štefanik is a real calamity to the young republic. He was like Masaryk a man to whom all parties looked with confidence; he was a hero of the revolution. His own people, the Slovaks, fairly worshipped him.
General Štefanik was slight in stature and had always been in poor health. During his campaign in Serbia he sustained an ugly fall, the effects of which made him suffer torments ever since. How he managed to do his tremendous work was a mystery to all who met him. His body was a broken reed, but his spirit conquered all obstacles. His courtesy and his gentleness gained friends for him, wherever he went. Those who knew him will remember him as a gallant gentleman and noble patriot.