by Maryann Sivak
During World War I, a group of Slavic nationalists met in Paris. Inspired by a vision of ethnic sovereignty for Central European peoples, they created the Czechoslovak National Council. They pledged themselves to promote an independent state carved from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was a professor, philosopher and a member of the Austrian Parliament. His father was Slovak and his mother Moravian. It seemed that prior to 1907, only Masaryk among prominent personalities was interested in uniting Czechs and Slovaks. For example, in 1902, Slovak physician (and later, pro-independence politician) Vavro Šrobár stated: “There cannot be any question of a fusion in the political sense; we are citizens of the Crown of St. Stephen [Hungary] and have recognized this publicly; we are obliged to defend the integrity of our homeland against anyone.”
Nevertheless, World War I began to change that apathy. In 1916, Professor Masaryk, Czech attorney Edvard Beneš, and renowned Slovak astronomer Milan Štefánik met in Paris to promote independence for a Czechoslovak State. They formed the Czechoslovak National Council, whereupon Austria immediately declared them traitors. Beneš promoted their cause in London and Paris. Štefánik championed independence in France and Italy. Masaryk travelled throughout Europe. In May, 1918, Masaryk, whose wife was Charlotte Gariggue from Brooklyn, would come to the United States to enlist American support for the proposed new nation.
From 1893 to 1913, some 300,000 Czechs, Slovaks and Rusyns had left Austria-Hungary for America. This was in large part stimulated by America’s need for industrial labor. Agents of the Carnegie Steel Company, for example, actively recruited Rusyns and Slovaks to work in the mills of Pittsburgh. These immigrants longed for their people in the homeland to experience the economic, religious, and political freedom that they found here.
The Pittsburgh area, as one would expect, included one of the largest concentrations of Rusyns and Slovaks outside of Europe. Many American Slovak and Rusyn newspapers and fraternal organizations traced their origins to the Pittsburgh area: the Slovensky Sokol, Slovanic-Carpathian Progressive Union, the National Slovak Society, Slovak League of America, First Slovak Evangelical Union, Živena-Fraternal for Slovak Women in America, and the Slovak Calvin Union. The national fraternals also had many lodges in this area, including: the Slovak Catholic Union, Pennsylvania Roman and Greek Catholic Union, the Slovak Lutheran Society, the Slovak Gymnastic Union Sokol, Roman and Greek Catholic Sokols, Mission of the Congregational Church, and the First Catholic Slovak Women’s League.
In September, 1906, Slovak newspaper writers from around the country had met with church leaders in Pittsburgh to organize the Slovak League of America. In 1915, the American Czech National Alliance invited the Slovak League to discuss a joint program for political unification of their homelands. At this time, the Czechs proposed a federal state that would maintain autonomous Slovak and Czech republics with their own languages, financial institutions, and diets.
In 1918, with a majority of the Slovak leadership behind him, Professor Masaryk toured America with a three-part agenda:
1. To meet with Secretary of State Robert Lansing
2. To raise money for the proposed new nation of Czechoslovakia
3. To recruit for and promote the Czechoslovak Legion as the military component of an allied state fighting the Central Powers and, later, the Bolsheviks
After visiting Chicago, then the country’s largest Czech community in May, Professor Masaryk arrived in Pittsburgh. On the May 30, the day before the signing of the Pittsburgh Agreement, an estimated 20,000 adherents to the Czechoslovak cause held a grand parade to show their support. They marched from the Allegheny Commons on the north side of the city to the Exposition Hall, then located at the point where the three rivers meet. Reporters claimed this was the largest political gathering that Pittsburgh had ever experienced. Professor Masaryk and several local dignitaries, delivered speeches to a crowd that filled the Hall and overflowed into the adjacent streets. Masaryk, as recounted by newspapers, was “greeted with tumultuous and thunderous applause,” delivering a speech which the Pittsburgh Daily Dispatch described as “striking heart fire.”
Albert Mamatej, President of the National Slovak Society, urged Masaryk to put his ideas in writing. Masaryk obliged by setting them down on a nearby napkin. After further consultation and modifications, five formal copies were made. The copies, in Slovak, were then signed in the old Loyal Order of Moose Building downtown on May 31. Over two dozen leading Czech and Slovak Pittsburghers added their signatures to Masaryk’s declaration. Masaryk’s own signature on the document made it an official declaration of the Czechoslovak National Council. Subsequently, the Pittsburgh Agreement was presented to Secretary of State Lansing, then to President Wilson himself at a meeting with Masaryk on June 19. On June 28, the State Department issued a strong statement supporting the freedom of the Slavic people from Austro-Hungarian rule. Shortly thereafter, Britain and France recognized Czechoslovakia as an Allied nation, with the Czechoslovak National Council as its official governing body
The United States extended recognition in September. On October 28, while Masaryk and Pittsburgh attorney Gregory Zatkovich attended a convention of “Independent Mid-European Nations” in Philadelphia, Czechoslovakia became an independent republic.
On November 14, Masaryk became Czechoslovakia’s first president. Known as “the President-liberator,” he held office until ill health forced him to resign in 1935.
One of the original five copies of the Pittsburgh Agreement was preserved by an American priest for decades, hidden under his bed for safekeeping. In 2007 the document was donated to the Senator John Heinz History Center on Smallman Street, Pittsburgh, where it continues to attract international visitors and historians.