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From independent Czechoslovakia to the act establishing the second Czech university

The number 50 of the law shows how pressing this matter was, writes historian Lukáš Fasora.

It is quite common for the parliament of a new country to pass laws very quickly. The number 50 shows how pressing this matter was.

While most academics know that Masaryk University was established in January 1919, the exact date is not that well known and very few people would know the number of the actual act. Let’s start with some historical facts: MU was established on 28 January 1919 by Act No. 50. And it is this last number that I would like to focus on.

It is quite common for the parliament of a new country to pass laws very quickly. During the approximately six weeks that it was active in 1918, the National Assembly passed 94 laws. However, it is much less common for an act establishing a higher education institution to be included with what are usually key laws required for the state to function. The number 50 shows how pressing this matter was: the act establishing the Slovak university in Bratislava, also from 1919, is number 375.

Why was there a preference for a university in Brno over one in Bratislava? Establishing a university in Slovakia was also a very pressing matter for the new country; politically, it might have been more important than a university in Brno. However, Czechoslovakia was fighting a war with Hungary in the east and was waiting for the verdict of the Allies, while the situation in Moravia with Brno as the regional capital was relatively consolidated.

This quick and truly revolutionary establishment of a university in Brno can be explained by two main reasons. First, establishing a second Czech university was a strong symbolic gesture. The university in Brno was at the intersection of two simultaneous fights and its establishment symbolised victory in both of them – and especially in the fight for Czech political independence – in 1918.

During the 19th century, the Czech nation was able to match developed European countries in almost all respects, with the exception of the political successes of its leaders. The fight for Czech autonomy within Austria-Hungary had reached a deadlock, which turned into a trauma intensified by the frustration caused by the unsuccessful negotiations to establish a Czech university in Moravia, which dragged on for many years. While the Austrian state was willing to concede, the move was strongly opposed by German citizens. The defeat of Austria-Hungary and Germany in World War I undermined the strength of the German opposition and gave Czechs the opportunity to attain the unattainable: their own country and a Czech university in Brno.

The other symbolic meaning of the university can be summed up by a popular slogan of the time: “First Vienna, then Rome!” According to popular belief, Czechs would only be truly free when they not only broke the yoke of Habsburg rule but also removed the shackles that had been imposed on them by the Roman Catholic Church that had bound them since the times of the lost Battle of White Mountain, if not longer.

It was no accident that the list of faculties of the newly established university in Brno did not include the theological faculty, which traditionally, should have been the first. Establishing the new university was seen as the symbolic end of the cultural fight against “the Romanism inside us”: from 1918, the Czechs were to embark on a journey of truth and freedom in the way that President Masaryk associated it with the Protestant Hussite tradition.

The victors were, of course, convinced that the rushed establishment of a new university was justified and that their triumph was final. However, the number 50 is also symbolic of the fact that a number of important preparatory steps were neglected. In later years, the government in Prague was certainly one of those who did not approve of the revolutionary zeal of the MPs in establishing the university, since they were unable to provide it with the necessary facilities in order for it to fulfil its mission. Disputes over funding and buildings raged on for another twenty years.

And let’s not forget that the university was established as a symbol of the triumph of Czechs over Germans and that its establishment was not consulted with the political representatives of the German minority and no compensation was offered to the moderate wing of the German camp. With the radicalisation of Germanness and the onset of Nazism in 1930, it became clear that a significant part of the German citizens of Brno and Moravia wished to rescind the decision to establish a Czech university, and the university felt the full force of this disapproval during the Nazi occupation.

Lukáš Fasora, Department of History, MU Faculty of Arts.