Milan Rastislav Štefánik

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Milan Rastislav Štefánik
Milan Rastislav Štefánik.jpg
1st Minister of War of Czechoslovakia
In office
October 28, 1918 – May 4, 1919
Personal details
Born (1880-07-21)July 21, 1880
Košariská, Kingdom of Hungary
Died May 4, 1919(1919-05-04) (aged 38)
Ivanka pri Dunaji, Czechoslovakia
Resting place Brezová pod Bradlom
Occupation Military, Astronomer, Mathematician, Pilot, Meteorologist
Religion Lutheran
Awards Légion d'honneur
Štefánik's statue on Prague's Petřín
Identical statue atop war memorial in Paulhan, France
Statue in Bratislava

Milan Rastislav Štefánik (Slovak pronunciation: [ˈmilan ˈrascislaw ˈʃcefaːɲik]; July 21, 1880 in Košariská, Austria-Hungary – May 4, 1919 in Ivánka pri Dunaji, Czechoslovakia) was a Slovak politician, diplomat, and astronomer. During World War I, he served as a General in the French Army and, at the same time, as the Minister of War for Czechoslovakia. As one of the leading members of the Czechoslovak National Council (i.e. resistance government), he contributed decisively to the cause of Czechoslovak sovereignty, since the status of Czech- and Slovak-populated territories, among others, was in question until shortly before the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

Štefánik's personal motto was: To Believe, To Love, and To Work (Veriť, milovať, pracovať).


Štefánik was born in Košariská, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia), on July 21, 1880.[1] He had 12 brothers and sisters, two of whom died at a young age. His father, Pavol Štefánik, was a local Lutheran pastor, and his mother's name was Albertína Jurenková. As a strong Slovak patriot, he had problems at Hungarian schools (Slovak schools were prohibited due to active Magyarization), and he had to change high schools several times (Pressburg, Sopron, Szarvas).[1]

In 1898, he began studying construction engineering in Prague. In 1900, he transferred his studies to Charles University, where he attended lectures in astronomy, physics, optics, mathematics, and philosophy.[1] For the 1902 summer semester, he was at university in Zürich.[2] The Prague years had a great impact on Štefánik because he met many important personalities there. The philosophy lectures were given by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (the future first president of Czechoslovakia), who inspired Štefánik with the idea of cooperation between the Czechs and the Slovaks. Furthermore, Štefánik very actively participated in the work of the Slovak student association Detvan (and within Detvan, the so-called Hlasists group), where he became acquainted with Vavro Šrobár. His studies were largely financed by Czech associations including Českoslovanská jednota (Czechoslavic Unity) and Radhošť, since he himself could not afford them. In Prague, he wrote political and artistic texts in which he tried to inform the Czechs of the disastrous situation of the Slovaks at that time. He graduated in 1904 with a doctorate in philosophy, and with thorough knowledge of astronomy (he finished his studies with a thesis in astronomy). He wrote his thesis about a star which was discovered in the Cassiopeia constellation in 1572.[1]

France, Tahiti and other countries [1][edit]

In 1904, he went to Paris to find a job in astronomy with a recommendation from a Czech professor who was known in Paris. Initially, he had no money and no command of French, but was nevertheless able to obtain a job at the famous Observatoire de Paris-Meudon, whose director, Pierre Janssen (one of the co-founders of astrophysics), saw Štefánik’s talent. Štefánik owed to Janssen and Camille Flammarion his social, political and scientific career. The observatory was the most important centre for astronomy at the time, which meant he gained a huge amount of prestige from the job.

Between 20 June and 4 July in 1905, Štefánik climbed Mont Blanc (later he climbed it several times) in order to observe the Moon and Mars. Then he took part in an official French expedition which observed and recorded a full eclipse of the Sun in Alcossebre, in Spain. Thereby, he established his own reputation in the French scientific society. He worked with Gaston Millochau, who was a member of the Académie Française, so some of its members read his work. -His studies and the results of his observations were published in reports to the Académie Française and he received several awards for them - Later, he was invited to an international astronomer conference in Oxford which was interested in solar research. Between 1906 and 1908, he was co-director of the Mont Blanc observatories company.

At the end of 1907, however, Pierre Janssen died and Štefánik lost his job. Since 1908, he had been charged by the French authorities with astronomical and meteorological observations, (mainly observations of solar eclipses) and political tasks in various countries all over the world including (Algeria, Morocco, Turkistan, Russia, India, the USA, Panama, Brazil, Ecuador, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Fiji, and Tonga). In Tahiti, he also built an observatory and a network of meteorological stations (rumor has it that he spent much of his time in the Pacific spying on German positions). Between these voyages, he regularly returned home to Košariská (the last time in 1913 for his father’s funeral). While in South America (especially in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador), he had an opportunity to show his diplomatic skills for the first time.

Štefánik worked in astrophysics and solar physics, and became well known for his spectral analysis of the sun's corona. He was involved in perfecting spectrography and has been considered a predecessor of Bernard Lyot. He also attempted to construct a machine for color photography and cinematography, and had his design patented in 1911.

In addition to his scientific missions overseas, he also performed diplomatic tasks. He established contacts and friendships with leading scientific, artistic, political, diplomatic and business personalities. He participated in the establishment of business enterprises in France and other countries. His friends included physicist Henri Poincaré, count Eugéne Aymar de la Baume, Joseph Vallot (who was the richest man in France), architect Gustave Eiffel, prince Roland Bonaparte, Prime-Minister Camille Chautemps, a French entrepreneur called Devousoud from Chamonix, American astronomer and admiral Simon Newcomb, and American diplomat David Jayne Hill. In 1912, he received French citizenship, recognition, and access to the French elite. On October 20, 1917, he was made a Grand Officier of the Legion of Honour. At the same time, he had some personal problems and a serious stomach illness (which did not get better even after surgery). Moreover, World War I started in Europe.

World War I and struggle for independence[edit]

Masaryk and Štefánik's monument in Košice, Slovakia

Štefánik believed that the defeat of Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany after the First World War would offer an opportunity for the Slovaks and Czechs to gain independence from Austria-Hungary. Therefore, he enlisted in the French army and trained to become an aviator. He flew MFS-54s for the 10th Army on the Artois and was later transferred to MFS 99 Squadron on the Serbian Front. In May, 1915 he flew a total of 30 missions over enemy territory. The Serbian campaign was unsuccessful, but French aviator Louis Paulhan is credited with the world's first "medevac" when he flew the seriously ill Milan Stefanik to safety.[3]

He returned to Paris at the end of 1915, where he became acquainted with Edvard Beneš and renewed his association with his former professor, Tomáš Masaryk. In 1916, these three men founded the Czechoslovak National Council (the government of Czecho-Slovak resistance abroad, leading to the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918). After 1917, he became vice president of the council. Thanks to his diplomatic skills, Štefánik was able to help Masaryk and Beneš to meet, and obtain the support of, some of the most important personalities of the Triple Entente. For example, he organized Masaryk’s meeting with the French prime minister, Aristide Briand.

In 1916, Štefánik and the Czecho-Slovak resistance started to organize Czechoslovak troops (legions) that would fight against Austria-Hungary and Germany. For this purpose, Štefánik (as the Czechoslovak Minister of War and as a French General) went to Russia in February 1917, and then to the USA. He also organized legions in France and Italy. It was largely due to his personal diplomatic skills and contacts that the Allies (Entente) recognized the Czechoslovak National Council as a de facto government and the Czechoslovak troops as allied forces in the summer and autumn of 1918. In May 1918, Štefánik went to Russian Siberia, where he sought to rally the Czechoslovak legions to a renewal of the Eastern Front, as Bolshevik Russia had withdrawn from the war by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany and Austria-Hungary in March 1918. The Czechoslovak legions rebelled against a subsequent Bolshevik order to disarm, thus gaining the support of the Allies. Due to these events, Štefánik decided that his initial plan was no longer feasible.

In January 1919, when the war ended, Štefánik went from Russia to France and Italy, where he organized the retreat of Czechoslovak troops from Siberia to Paris in March. In addition, his diplomatic skills were needed in order to solve disagreements between the French and Italian missions in Czechoslovakia. In April, he went from Paris to Rome to negotiate at the Italian Ministry of War, where he also met with his fiancée Juliana Benzoni for the last time. Then he went to the main Italian military base in Padua, where he agreed with General Armando Diaz on the dissolution of the Italian military mission in Czechoslovakia.

Sources do not substantiate rumors of disagreements arising between Štefánik and Beneš or Masaryk, mainly regarding the position of Slovakia within Czechoslovakia. On the contrary, telegrams sent by Štefánik from Vladivostok to the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris on 7 December 1918 indicate that Štefánik had a good relationship with them. To Masaryk, he wrote, "with my filial feelings and a great patriotic happiness, I salute you, venerable professor, as the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic." To prime-minister Kramar, he wrote, "Thank you, my dear president (of the council), for having chosen me as member of our National Ministry. You and your other co-workers can be sure of my loyalty and my fraternal feelings." To Edvard Beneš, he was even more friendly, addressing him with informal grammar (in French, "tu"), while he addressed Masaryk and Kramar with the respectful formal second person pronoun (in French, "vous"). "Mr. Beneš, Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague: je t'embrasse afectueusement (I hug you with affection), my loyal and precious companion during the hours of anxiety." In French, the verb "embrasser" means either a very friendly hug to a close friend, or even the French kiss on the cheek among very close male friends.[4] These telegrams appear to show that Štefánik had given his full support to the union of the Czechs and Slovaks into a Czechoslovak republic led by Masaryk. Masaryk, for his part, continued to accord Štefánik his full confidence to the last days of his life, as demonstrated by the challenging issue Štefánik had to solve while Minister of War of the Czechoslovak Republic - disputes among the military missions of France and Italy on the territory of Czechoslovakia, according to his telegram to Masaryk on 21 April 1919 - only a few days before Štefánik's death on the 5th of May, 1919.[5]


Štefánik's tomb

Finally, Štefánik wanted to return home to see his family. He decided to fly from Campoformido near Udine, Italy, and to use an Italian military plane, a Caproni Ca.3. On May 4, 1919 around 11am, his plane tried to land near Bratislava (which was a military conflict area between the First Republic of Czechoslovakia and the Hungarian Soviet Republic at the time), but crashed near Ivanka pri Dunaji. Štefánik died, along with two Italian officers. The reason for the plane crash is disputed. The official explanation at the time was that the airplane crashed due to bad weather. At the time of the crash, Šrobár and his entire government had left Bratislava for Skalica to plant trees as a memorial to the founding of the new Czechoslovak Republic.[6] It is unlikely that[clarification needed] his plane was shot down by Hungarian communists standing in the middle of Bratislava's Franz Joseph bridge.[6] Another rumor at the time purported that the Italian plane's identifying colors were mistaken for the similar marking of a Hungarian plane, and as such, the unannounced, unknown airplane was shot down by the Czechoslovak army. However, the respected Zrínyi Miklós National Defense University in Budapest, in a joint article with the Armed Forces Academy of General Milan Rastislav Štefánik in Slovakia, published a paper citing the Italian eyewitness first lieutenant Martinelli-Scotti as saying "in the course of the first landing attempt, the wheels touched the landing path, after which the cooling water immediately started leaking. That caused the overheating of the engines. During the second landing attempt, one of the engines exploded, resulting in catastrophe."[7] The paper also states that the accident report from the Italian inquiry board was biased toward trying to rule out human error by the Italian crew, as well as any manufacturing defects[7] - probably because it would affect the reputation (and sales) of the Italian airplane builder. The Italian board's lack of transparency would have contributed to the several rumours and unverified versions of Štefánik’s death. Unfortunately, Štefánik’s sudden death contributed to Slovak suspicion of the Czechs during the existence of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia.[6] Štefánik's tomb was built in 1927-28 on Bradlo Hill in Brezová pod Bradlom. The monumental, yet austere, memorial was designed by Dušan Jurkovič.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Valóság - A tudós, a francia tábornok, a csehszlovák miniszter és a szlovák hazafi" (in Hungarian). Dr. Tőkéczki László and Dr. Kapronczay Károly. 2008. Retrieved 3 August 2008. 
  2. ^ Bohumila Ferenčuhová: Vedec, politik a diplomat
  3. ^ L'homme-vent, special issue of L'Ami de Pézenas , 2010, ISSN 140-0084
  4. ^ Source: Mission Militaire Française in Siberia, SHD/GR, 7 N 1622, in La Mémoire Conservée du Général Milan Rastislav Štefánik, page 205, by Frédéric Guelton, Emanuelle Braud, and Michal Ksinan, Service Historique de la Défense, 2008
  5. ^ Source: Lettre du général Štefánik, ministre de la Guerre, au president de la République Tchécoslovaque à Prague, 21 avril 1919, SHD/GR, 1 K 288(1), in La Mémoire Conservée du Général Milan Rastislav Štefánik, page 211, by Frédéric Guelton, Emanuelle Braud, and Michal Ksinan, Service Historique de la Défense, 2008
  6. ^ a b c Marcell Jankovics, "Húsz esztendő Pozsonyban", p. 89 (Hungarian)
  7. ^ a b Milan Rastislav Štefánik (1880-1919), by Dr. Klára Siposné Keckskeméthy and Alexandra Sipos, in Hadtudományi Szemle, p.91, Budapest, 2010, (Hungarian), online, Retrieved 08/21/15
  • Jankovics, Marcell (2000). Húsz esztendő Pozsonyban (Twenty years in Bratislava) (in Hungarian) (2nd ed.). Pozsony: Méry Ratio. ISBN 80-88837-34-0. 
  • Richard McKim: "Milan Štefánik and the rotation period of Venus", Journal of the British Astronomical Association vol. 117, p. 7-8, 2007.
  • Kautský, Emil Karol: Kauza Štefánik - Legendy, fakty a otázniky okolo vzniku Česko - Slovenskej republiky. Matica Slovenská. Martin, 2004
  • Štvrtého mája - atentát na slovenského kráľa
  • M.R.Š. 1880 - 1919 at Milan Rastislav Štefánik museum
  • Milan-Rastislav-Stefanik-(1880-1919) at
  • The Czech and Slovak Legion In Siberia, 1917-1922. McFarland Publishing, 2012