Skip to main content

Ninety-five years of Masaryk University

Extraordinary stories from its long life.

The first President of Czechoslovakia Masaryk.

People were still recovering from the First World War, the independent state of Czechoslovakia was only a few months old, and all the films in the cinemas were silent. This was the world of 1919 into which Masaryk University, the second Czech university, was born.

Thanks to the passing of Act no. 50 on 28 January 1919, the university has been able to provide education and spread knowledge at home and abroad for 95 years.

The Masaryk University of the early days was very different from the school of today. At its founding it offered disciplines at Faculties, of Arts, Medicine, Law and Science. These four were joined gradually by others, some of which came and went.

Students and staff at the Faculty of Law experienced both dissolution (in 1950) and re-founding (in 1969). The reason for the dissolution? According to Karel Schell and Ladislav Vojáček, authors of a publication on the university, the Ministry of Education of the time defended its decision with the claim that under the newly-established regime ever fewer lawyers would be needed. In its long life the university has produced many other interesting stories. Judge for yourself.

Attempts to found a university
The act providing for a university was one of Czechoslovakia's first. But the university was not set up from one day to the next. Its founding was preceded by decades of negotiation and an even longer period of consideration. This was a revolutionary step, after all. Moravia's first institute of higher education – a Jesuit school – was founded in Olomouc in 1573. Following the dissolution of the Jesuit congregation in 1773, the school was placed under state control.

“In those days Moravia had two centres: Brno for administration, Olomouc for church matters," explains Jiří Pulec, director of Masaryk University Archives. “When the university was a church institution, it was logical that it should be in Olomouc. After it was taken over by the state, people began to think about moving it to Brno."

The university did indeed migrate to Brno, in 1778, as a result of the reforms promulgated by Empress Maria Theresa. But university teaching in 18th-century Brno lasted only four years.

The 1860s witnessed a strong wave of efforts to establish a university in Brno. The first such initiative was by representatives of Moravian municipalities, who complained of discrimination against the region. Then the first President of Czechoslovakia got involved.

Thanks to President Masaryk
When Masaryk became a leading figure in the movement for the establishing of a university in Moravia, he was not yet head of state but a teacher at Prague's Charles University. “Whoever knows university life will agree that if we are to have one university, we need two," the future statesman wrote in Athenaeum magazine in 1885.

He based this claim on the belief that a school prospers most when it has competition and points of comparison. For many years his efforts came to nothing, not least because of infighting as to where the new school should be situated.

Although Brno was a strong favourite in this imaginary contest from the beginning, the difficulties were far from over. The Czech-speaking population of Brno and Moravia liked the idea of a new university, but their German fellow citizens were against it.

“Brno was bilingual, as was Moravia in general," points out Jiří Pulec. “Brno City Hall was dominated by Germans, who didn't want the Czech element in the city and Moravia as a whole to be stronger. They proposed building a university elsewhere - in Prostějov, for instance."

The death of a labourer
Parties representing both sides of the argument wrote petitions to Vienna and held various meetings to promote their cause. The conflict escalated in early October 1905, when the German population met at the 'Volkstag' congress.

“They gathered at Deutsches Haus on Moravia Square, a building that is no longer there. On the same day the Czechs gathered at Besedný dům," continues Pulec. “Events culminated in a street fight in which a labourer called František Pavlík lost his life." The university had its first martyr before it even existed.

It was not until after the creation of Czechoslovakia that the time was right to establish the university. By then it was natural that it should be given the name of the man who had done so much to make it happen.

Instruction began in autumn 1919. The university was given a grand opening on 11 November in the temporary main lecture theatre at the Bishop's Alumneum (an educational facility for students without means) on Smetana Street. The following day Professor Edward Babák began teaching the course 'An Introduction to the Study of Medicine' to the first generation of medics.

Difficult beginnings
The main lecture theatre was not the only thing that was temporary; in the early years there was something provisional about much of the instruction, too. Establishing the university was just the first task. Where would it put all its students, teachers and staff (albeit there were hundreds of them, rather than tens of thousands, as would be the case today), its classrooms, offices and laboratories? Brno didn't have many suitable buildings. Nor did the law have specific advice to give, stating only: “The final accommodating and equipping of the new university and all its institutes and clinics in buildings fit for purpose should be achieved by 1930 at the latest."

So arrangements were made as the situation permitted. The first home of the Faculty of Medicine was in rooms of the erstwhile barracks on the corner of Úvoz and Údolní streets; students attended clinic at St Anne's Hospital. Lawyers had to make do with a number of rooms in the Bishop's Alumneum. The Faculties of Arts and Science, too, were forced to compromise – the former occupied the hastily-repaired building of a workhouse on the streets Veveří, Kotlářská and Kounicova, the latter an erstwhile orphanage on Falkensteiner Street (today's Gorkého).

The Academic Quarter – a project that was never finished
It was clear from the beginning that such arrangements were unsatisfactory, so plans were made for an 'academic quarter' with enough permanent space for all faculties. The university leadership of the time envisaged that it would occupy four locations, but the winning proposal had it built on land close to the Czech Technical School between the streets Veveří and Kounicova.

In 1932 the first new university building – the Faculty of Law, which is still there today – was opened. But the big plans were not fulfilled: this building would be the only one. Economic crisis took hold, so work on the Faculty of Arts, the next on the list, was never even begun.

Hard (post-) wartime
Regrettably the building of the Faculty of Law was soon serving non-educational purposes. In 1939 the Nazis ordered the closure of the Czech universities.

“Every non-democratic regime keeps an eye on the meetings of educated people," explains Jiřina Kalendovská of Masaryk University Archives. “By the time the Germans arrived in Brno their informers had provided them with lists of people to whom they should pay particular attention."

These lists contained the names of many students and teachers at the university, some of whom were active in the resistance, some of whom were returned to the Faculty of Law building against their will – for this was the place where the Nazis conducted their interrogations. The Gestapo adapted the vacated lecture halls to their needs, while their administration was managed from staff rooms and classrooms.

Václav Neumann, then Rector of the University, estimated the damage caused to the university by acts of war at 14.5 million Czechoslovak crowns. To account for losses of physical resources, it is necessary to multiply this sum by at least three. Worse than the loss of property was the loss of life. It is difficult to account for this in numbers, as information is incomplete. It is known that the Faculty of Science lost one quarter of its teaching staff. In May 1942 the Nazis carried out the collective execution of many of the university's associate professors and professors at Mauthausen.

The advent of the communist regime was followed by more purges against and limitations on universities. For instance, 46% of students at the Faculty of Law were forced to abandon their studies. But the communist era was also a bringer of good things – the Faculty of Education was added to the university family, and in 1958 cardiac surgeon Jan Navrátil performed central Europe's first heart procedure with extracorporeal circulation, by a method that today is used in most heart surgery.

Post-revolution boom
After November 1989 the university underwent a phase of rapid development. (Incidentally, many of its students were actively involved in the collapse of the old regime.) Gradually the school grew to comprise nine faculties, including the Faculty of Economics and Administration, which as the first one founded after the revolution is practically the same age as the Czech market economy. The university launched a pioneering information system. In place of the never-finished Academic Quarter it now has a new campus in Bohunice, the outcome of many decades of discussion. For 95 years old, the university is in pretty good shape.