A man with a sharp and charismatic gaze and a garrison cap, elegantly concealing his bald head. This is the image that usually pops into one’s mind when Milan Rastislav Štefánik is mentioned.
Štefánik (1880-1919) was only 1.64 metres tall and died in the age of 39, but he managed to be a scientist, an astronomer, a diplomat, a brigadier general and, most importantly for Slovak history, one of the founders of the first independent Czechoslovak Republic.
However, he was not known among Slovaks during the war, mostly due to the efforts of the Austro-Hungarian government to conceal as much information as possible about the foreign resistance movement. After the war, that changed almost from one day to another.
“Štefánik quickly became a national hero,” Michal Kšiňan from the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the cult surrounding his personality grew even stronger after the statesman’s tragic death in a plane crash in May 1919.
Young man with a rich career
Born in the village of Košariská, which was then in the Hungarian part of the monarchy, as the sixth child of an Evangelical minister, Štefánik attended both Slovak and Hungarian schools. He spent his university years in Prague as an astronomy student. It was there where he first met members of the Detvan association supporting the idea of a common state of Czechs and Slovaks.