A scholar, adventurer, polyglot, diplomat, war hero and nation-builder, Milan Rastislav Štefánik's inspirational life story reads like that of a sort of real-life, Slovak Indiana Jones. Born in 1880 in Košariská, a village near Brezová pod Bradlom, he left Slovakia as a young man to study in Prague and then Paris.
Taking up astronomy, he travelled the globe, visiting Africa, South America, Russia, Central Asia, and the South Pacific. He climbed Mont Blanc six times, on the final occasion helping to disassemble and bring down an observatory from the peak. In a pre-war visit to Ecuador he added diplomacy to his skills, winning acclaim in Paris for securing France a contract to install a telegraphic network in the South American territory.
He then became one of the pioneers of military aviation, joining the French army at the outbreak of World War I (Slovakia was at the time part of German-allied Austro-Hungary) and, in a stellar career, rose from corporal to brigadier-general.
Along with the Czech statesmen Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, Štefánik was one of the triumvirate who led the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia at the end of the war. It was not just his diplomatic skills which helped bring about this achievement: as a military leader, he played a particularly significant role in forming and leading the Czechoslovak Legions which fought on the Entente side in the latter stages of the war and helped secure the new nation global recognition.
Štefánik’s monument, atop Bradlo hill.
Photos by James Thomson
Štefánik died in a plane crash near Bratislava in 1919, just a few months after Czechoslovak independence was declared. The sense of national loss was demonstrated by the huge crowds who mourned his death; and in the scale of the monument erected to him at Bradlo in the 1920s.
Whatever truth lies in the dark mutterings about a conspiracy, his loss would be keenly felt for a generation. The Slovaks were left without a prominent national leader and statesman during the First Czechoslovak Republic whose politics, partly as a result, were largely dominated by Czechs.
The extraordinary quality of Štefánik's story is telling: the reason that no Slovak leaders of equivalent stature emerged after he died may well have been that Slovakia was simply not equipped to provide them. Štefánik had had to leave his own country in order to get the education and experience needed to lead it. In 1919, Slovakia was still not ready to fill the breach.