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The first Czechoslovak president actually defied death for almost three years. Although he maintained an admirable athletic condition for most of his life, strengthened by frequent walks and daily horse rides, from May 1934 his health deteriorated sharply, eventually leading to Masaryk’s premature abdication in December 1935, with his successor in the presidency he recommended Edvard Beneš to the office. After the abdication, he stayed at the castle in Lány, which he got to use for the rest of his life.
The clouds are closing in
So far, increasingly dark clouds have gathered around the Czechoslovak Republic he built. In Germany, Adolf Hitler ruled from 1933, and from the middle of September 1935, the Nuremberg Racial Laws were in force, which speak eloquently of the course this country took.
The German army reoccupied the Rhineland, and in the Czech border area inhabited mainly by Germans (the so-called Sudetenland), the head of the Sudeten German Party, Konrád Henlein, made himself heard more and more loudly. From 1937, in cooperation with Karl Hermann Frank, he began to apply the tactic of “always asking for more, than can be fulfilled’.
Although the government announced at the beginning of 1937 a program to eliminate all discrimination against Germans (in the filling of official positions and the like) and began to prepare various measures to achieve complete equality, Henlein quickly countered by declaring that this program was completely insufficient for the Sudeten German Party. The fact that the first Czechoslovak president died right in the middle of this difficult time was perceived by the nation as another blow of fate and a kind of sign that it no longer had any protector over it.
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“The funeral of the first president of the independent Czechoslovak Republic, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, became a manifestation of democracy and was at the same time a harbinger of the impending rise of Nazism and the horrors of war,” summarizes the atmosphere of the author collective of the book History of State Railways 1918 – 2018.
On the last trip
The last farewell to Masaryk took place at Prague Castle on September 21, 1937. The guard of honor at his coffin was Emanuel Moravec, later the most hated collaborator during the German occupation of the Czech lands, but at that time a recognized theoretician in the field of military strategy, a professor at the Military Academy and also a close personal friend of Masaryk. His presence at the place of honor at Masaryk’s funeral can thus be taken as proof of how complicated human destinies can be.
The funeral service began with the ringing of the bells of St. Vitus Cathedral, followed by a speech by Masaryk’s successor, Edvard Beneš.
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After its end, the funeral procession went from the first castle courtyard to the crowded streets of Prague. Crowds of people accompanied Tomáš G. Masaryk on his last journey. According to estimates from the press of the time, half a million people came to honor the memory of TGM, but perhaps as many as 700,000.
The coffin with the remains was draped with the national flag and transported on an artillery carriage pulled by a six-seater. All this accompanied by six ordinary soldiers, each of them representing one of the nationalities living in Czechoslovakia.
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General Jan Syrový, Inspector General of the Czechoslovak Armed Forces, rode at the head of the funeral procession, followed by soldiers with military banners, a detachment of legionnaires and falcons. Behind the coffin walked the president’s son Jan Masaryk and grandson Edvard Beneš, members of the government, representatives from approximately forty European countries, the Prague diplomatic corps, deputies, senators, delegations from foreign cities and church dignitaries.
The procession headed from Prague Castle along Chotková street to Klárov and Mánesův bridge via Pařížská tříd to Old Town Square, where it symbolically stopped at the grave of the unknown soldier. Then he continued through Mariánské náměstí, past the Charles Bridge and the National Theater to Wenceslas Square and from there to Wilson’s railway station, where a special train was already waiting.
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“A service car and three platform wagons were placed right behind the locomotive. Wreaths were placed on the first and third, the coffin was placed on a hearse on the middle car of the set. At the end of the train was the saloon car of the President of the Republic, where the son Jan Masaryk, grandsons and President Beneš sat with their entourage,” České dráhy describe their funeral procession.
She then went to Lán, where the president was buried while singing the song “Oh son, son”.
Hope from the race
The extremely sober atmosphere after Masaryk’s funeral affected the entire society and affected even actions and events that were seemingly unrelated to politics or the international political situation. One of them was the famous Czech international horse race Velká Pardubická, which took place less than a month after the funeral, on Sunday, October 17, 1937.
The severely tested nation desperately needed somewhere to draw new hope, some spark in the darkness to which it could cling and which would indicate that the times to come might not be so dark.
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It did not seem that Velká Pardubická could fulfill this need. At that time, sport really more than symbolized the struggle between democracy and Nazism and between the belief in human equality and the belief in the supposed superiority of the Germanic race, but it was at Velká Pardubická in recent years that it looked as if Germanic superiority was winning: Seven of the previous nine years The big Pardubice races were dominated by German or Austrian riders, and in four of them, high-ranking members of the elite Nazi combat forces won: SA Oberführer Heinrich Wiese, SS-Untersturmführer Hans Schmidt and SS-Obersturmführer Oskar Lengnik, who even triumphed in Pardubice twice, in 1935 and in 1936.
There was no indication that there would be a change in 1937. And yet it happened.
The grey-haired forty-two-year-old courageous rider Lata Brandisová, the fifth descendant of an old noble family, who for this occasion once again saddled a ten-year-old mare named Norma, descended from the family of golden Kinsky horses, stood at the start of the race. “It’s the last time, Norma has time to go to stud,” the owner of the horse and her distant cousin Zdenko Radslav Kinský, the chairman of the Czechoslovak Jockey Club, warned the rider.
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The entire German elite competed against the rider, a total of 15 horses were registered for the year. According to the rider’s memories, it was the most unpleasant race of her career.
The biggest German favorite fell on the Taxis ditch, thus the German jockey Willibald Schlagbaum made his way to the front of the race on the gelding Quixie, who had a reputation as a dishonest opponent capable of crossing the track of others. Nevertheless, Lata Brandis started to prosecute him. Schlagbaum did try to block her, according to her recollections, but the rider pulled the mare and went around the German rider on the inside in a thrilling finish. Czechoslovakia celebrated the Great Pardubice victory, moreover, for the first time and so far the last time in history thanks to a woman.
“For a nation teetering between defiance and despair, it was as if a Joan of Arc-like figure had appeared on the horizon,” wrote Britain’s The Telegraph about the victory. Lata Brandisová thus discussed the Czech Republic out of self-pity.