My Century And My Many Lives, by Frank Munk
Frank Munk, my grandfather, wrote this autobiography to record his memories
from 1901 onwards. This history and its postscript are available on our family website in his
memory as they tell a complete story of the 20th century. These memoirs may be referenced as
long as proper attribution is made; our family retains ownership and copyright. We have one
request: if you reference this material in any way, please send us email at
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© Copyright 1993, 1994, The Munk/Ragen Families
Contrary to what
you might expect, I did not do much studying while a student in Prague. I had
more important things to do.
When I got to
Prague in the fall of 1919, I found all institutions of higher education in a
state of disorganization. Nobody had expected a sudden influx of thousands upon
thousands of students, all flushed with a sense of freedom and new, unlimited
horizons. The result was a sudden shortage of classroom space. When I first came
to class, I found the hall already crammed, so we had to stand outside and
listen to the lecture through open windows. The students protested but to no
So a colleague of
mine, Josef Hlinomaz from Moravia, and I decided that something had to be done.
We called a student strike. The response was sudden and overwhelming. I was the
main speaker and the experience of speaking to hundreds, and soon thousands, of
students did something to me which I never forgot.
The authorities did
not like it at all and they struck back: Hlinomaz and I were called before the
Rector of the university who read us the riot act with the admonition that we
must call off the strike without delay, or face exclusion from all institutions
of the country. We said No, and called another mass meeting.
Next morning we
were told to immediately see the top official, the Minister of Education, Gustav
Habermann, an old Social Democrat, who had called workers' strikes in the past
himself. We thought we would be arrested on the spot. Instead the Minister
informed us that the Council of Ministers discussed the strike, the first in the
short history of Czechoslovakia, decided that our demands were reasonable, and
that he had already given the necessary orders. Specifically, a large new
building, originally destined for the German university, would be assigned to
the Czech university. We went back to the mass meeting and I have never been the
same: I will never forget the triumphal reception we received.
I was something of
an immediate celebrity among students. Before I knew it, I was elected to the
executive committee of the newly organized Central Union of Czechoslovak
Students and shortly thereafter I was head of its Foreign Department. That
launched me into a veritable career. I spent much of my time after that in my
office of the former Strakova Akademie, later and presently the seat of the
Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia.
I must remind you
that students in Czechoslovakia always played an important political role,
unlike students in the United States. Their interest was always politics, not
sports. Suffice it to mention that the Velvet Revolution, which led to the
overthrow of Communism in 1989, was almost entirely the work of students.
Before long I spent
much of my time traveling throughout Europe attending congresses, giving
lectures and meeting leading political figures. Soon after that I was elected
Secretary General of the International Confederation of Students, with Prague
its headquarters. One reason for my advancement was that I could speak German,
French, and English in addition to my native Czech. I was also propelled into
continuous contact with government officials and politicians.
I was especially in
daily touch with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located close to Prague
Castle, and occasionally with the Foreign Minister, then and for many more years
Dr. Edvard Benes. His twin strategies consisted of a close alliance with France
as well as the so-called Little Entente (CSR, Yugoslavia, Romania), and of
strengthening the League of Nations, with headquarters in Geneva. I travelled
frequently to Geneva, sometimes as a delegate to some committee of the League.
My relations with
the government were frequent and close. Whenever I wanted to go to some meeting
abroad, all I had to do was to call Dr. Hyka at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
or Dr. Praus at the Ministry of Education, and he would immediately authorize
the disbursement of the necessary funds.
In fact, the
government made use of my services whenever it was felt that a mission had to be
undertaken by someone not directly connected with the government. I vividly
remember one example, although it happened much later. Some time in 1937, as the
Sudeten crisis was coming to the boil, the Ministry asked me, if they could get
me an invitation to Cliveden, the famous home of Lord and Lady (Nancy) Astor in
England. It was our Ambassador to Great Britain, Jan Masaryk, who was behind the
invitation. I was duly invited for a weekend at Cliveden and I went. It is not
one of my most pleasant memories. The so-called Cliveden set was then, and is
now, regarded as a nest of Nazi sympathizers.
I forgot the names
of the other people invited by the Astors, but I remember I was told the German
ambassador, Herr Ribbentrop, was at Cliveden the week before. At a magnificent
dinner I sat opposite Mr. Garvin, editor of the "Observer," next to me was a
well-known British society painter, Mr. Lászlo, born in Hungary. When he learned
I was Czech, he started quite a tirade, that Slovakia should be returned to
Hungary. I did not fare much better with my hosts and the other guests when it
came to the question of Hitler's plans for Czechoslovakia. I must say it should
have served as a warning to me and to the Czech government, but I am afraid
neither of us read the leaves correctly at the time. The year was 1937.
One of the
international meetings I remember well was the Congress of Slav Students in
1922. Slavism (or as it is usually, if incorrectly, called Pan-slavism in this
country) was an ideology that was very current at the time among the Slavic
peoples, viz. the Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Croat, Bulgarians, to a lesser
extent the Poles, but above all the Czechs. The suggestion came from Dr. Benes.
There were at the time many animosities among the Slavs, which made the holding
of the congress difficult, the most dangerous one being the old enmity between
Serbs and Bulgars, primarily over Macedonia.
I was delegated to
bring the Bulgarians and the Serbs together so they both would attend the
Congress, soon to be held in Prague. My most vivid memory relates to my first
visit to Belgrade, capital of the recently formed Yugoslav Kingdom. I happened
to have an uncle, who was a businessman in Belgrade since long before the war
and for all practical purposes a Serb, he had excellent connections to the
former Serbian army. The day I arrived, he had an invitation to a party
organized by the Chief of Staff of the new Yugoslav army. The party took place
on a steamer that plied the Sava and the Danube. It was summer, the sun shone
brightly, a military band played and all the officers wore resplendent white
uniforms. Everything looked great.
From Belgrade I
went to the capital of Macedonia, Skoplje (now Skopje, formerly Uskub in
Turkish). I was asked by the Chief of Police to see him and the first thing he
told me was not to venture outside at night, because the hills surrounding the
city were full of guerillas and there was lots of shooting. the guerillas were
remnants of the old pro-Bulgarian Revolutionary Macedonian Organization. At any
rate, the Congress was held. For a while the animosities were forgotten, but not
for long, Dr. Benes was the main speaker. I should have mentioned that from
Skoplje I went to the Bulgarian capital Sofia and brought the two groups
I confess to having
participated in student events long after I finished my studies. I was not an
outstanding student, but I got my degree at the proper time. My main
concentration was in economics and I happened to attract the attention of Dr.
Josef Macek, who influenced decisively my future career.
During my days and
years as a "student diplomat" I made many friends all over Europe, like the
President of the International Confederation, Jean Gérard, a Frenchman, Jean
Baugniet, a Belgian, (later Sir) Ivison Macadam, who became head of the Royal
Institute of International Affairs in London, and many others. They proved
helpful in my activities later. I am afraid they are all dead now.
Let me add one
other thought: Most of my immediate friends at home were naturally Czechs or
Slovaks. I would never have believed they would separate. Some of the Slovaks
who were close to me were L'udovit Ruhmann, Karol Zibrin and especially Vlado
Clementis, who later became Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Communists and
who was still later executed by the same Communists. So were many of my early
associates, including my successor as head of the Foreign Department, Josef
Holyy, who was also executed by the Nazis. This, my century, turned out to be
very bloody -- and it has not ended yet!
books listed below provide additional background on this period of history to
help illustrate this portion of my grandfather's memoirs.