On May 4, 1919, the plane carrying Milan Rastislav Štefánik, one of the founding fathers of Czechoslovakia, crashed near Bratislava in mysterious circumstances.
Born in 1880 in Austria-Hungary (modern-day Slovakia), Milan Rastislav Štefánik moved to Prague in the late 1890s, where he studied engineering, astronomy, physics, optics, mathematics, as well as philosophy, and where one of his professors was no other than Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the future first President of Czechoslovakia.
During the years he spent in Prague, Štefánik was active in a number of student and civic associations, meeting numerous key figures of the future First Czechoslovak Republic, and started advocating for a rapprochement between the Czech and Slovak strives for independence.
From Prague to Paris: The travelling astronomer / diplomat
With barely any knowledge in French, he moved to Paris in the 1900s and landed a job at the Paris-Meudon Observatory, one of the most prestigious centers for astronomy and astrophysics at the time. One of the first missions he undertook was a historic ascent of the Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak in the French Alps, to draw observations of the sun and atmosphere in the observatory built by Gustave Eiffel.
Widely recognized for his precocious skills, expertise and knowledge, Štefánik’s astronomical and meteorological contributions opened him the doors of the French scientific intelligentsia.
Noticed in the high circles of power, the young Slovak astronomer and philosopher was soon tasked by the French government to carry out political and diplomatic tasks, often combining them with his scientific research in missions that took him all around the world (including to Russia, Algeria, Tunisia, Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Panama, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, United States, Tahiti, and Morocco).
With friends and connections in political, business, scientific and artistic circles, Milan Rastislav Štefánik received the French citizenship in 1912 and was awarded some of France’s greatest honours for his diverse work and contributions.
World War I and the road to independence
When World War I broke out, believing that Czechs and Slovaks could gain their independence in the event of Austria-Hungary’s defeat, Štefánik enrolled in the French army. Trained as an aviator, he flew dozens of missions in enemy territory, including on the Serbian front, where he was wounded.
He returned to Paris in 1915, where he got acquainted with the leading figures advocating for Czech and Slovak independence, including his former teacher Masaryk and Edvard Beneš. Together, the three men founded the Czechoslovak National Council, spearheading efforts to convince Allied powers to recognize the independence of Czechoslovakia throughout the war years.
Štefánik’s diplomatic skills and connections were instrumental in raising support for the Czechoslovak cause in Europe and beyond. As a French general and the Minister of War of the provisional Czechoslovak government, he also played a crucial part in the organisation of Czechoslovak legions, some 90,000 Czech and Slovak volunteers formed in France, Italy and Russia to fight the Central powers.
Czechoslovakia officially declared its independence on October 28, 1918, just two weeks before the end of the war. In the following months, Štefánik busied himself with solving a number of diplomatic disputes and grey zones linked to the newly established First Czechoslovak Republic, including managing disagreements between the French and Italian military missions in Czechoslovakia.
The death of Milan Rastislav Štefánik
Flying home from Italy on May 4, 1919, Štefánik’s plane crashed near Bratislava, at the time a conflict area between Czechoslovakia and the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, which occupied parts of southern Slovakia. 38-year-old Milan Rastislav Štefánik and the rest of the crew, including two Italian army officers, were all killed in the crash.
To this day, the cause of the crash still hasn’t been conclusively established. An accident caused by bad weather and/or human error? Throughout the years, many scenarios have tried to shed some light on the tragic crash: the plane could have been shot down by Hungarian communist forces led by Bela Kun, some ventured, or even by Czechoslovakia’s own army, which would have mistaken the Italian military plane’s flying colours for the enemy Hungarian flag.
Other conspiracy theories, regularly unearthed by Slovak nationalists, suggest Štefánik was flying the plane himself and committed suicide, or that Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš ordered the aircraft to be shot down. More than 100 years later, the mystery remains.
Milan Rastislav Štefánik remains one of the most-beloved and influential figures in the history of Czechoslovakia – mainly in Slovakia, and less so in neighbouring Czech Republic, where the role of the astronomer was overshadowed by figures like Masaryk, Beneš or Havel in the great national narrative.
Štefánik’s monumental tomb was built in the late 1920s on Bradlo Hill, in western Slovakia. Bratislava’s airport was also named after him, as was a minor planet discovered in 1982. On the 100th anniversary of his tragic death in 2019, nationwide commemorations were held in his honour, and a television poll named him as the Greatest Slovak in history.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.