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Railway Giants: Izidor Zahradník, The Unsung Hero Who First Proclaimed Czechoslovak Independence

Railway Giants: Izidor Zahradník, The Unsung Hero Who First Proclaimed Czechoslovak Independence
photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain/Dr. Izidor Zahradník
05 / 02 / 2024

Izidor Zahradník, a trained priest who was the first to announce the establishment of the Czechoslovak state, also became the first Czechoslovak Minister of Railways. The turbulent story of one of the fathers of Czechoslovakia is told in the next installment of the Railway Greats series.

The Priestly Railway

The year is 1864, and we are in the small village of Hostačov near Havlíčkův Brod. In this place, a boy named Bohdan is born in the then-Austrian Empire. His mother, Marie Zahradníková, and his father, Karel Zahradník, make their living in Hostačov, aptly, as a castle gardener.

Bogdan attends the municipal school in his hometown of Hostačov, from where he proceeds to the Havlíčkobrod grammar school. Already there, it is clear he will not remain faithful to the gardening trade. Among the emerging ideologies in dynamic Europe, young Bogdan finds himself drawn to socialism, which defends the rights of workers often working in very poor conditions. The Catholic Church shows considerable support for socialism, so it comes as no surprise when in 1883, he enters the Premonstratensian Order and takes the name Isidore. A year later, he goes to Charles-Ferdinand University to study at the prestigious Faculty of Theology. After graduating, he is ordained in 1888 to the priesthood. The same year, he becomes a chaplain in Rochlice near Liberec.

In his sermons, Isidor criticises social inequality, calls for better working conditions, and his sermons carry a nationalistic tone. Not surprisingly, this is not to the liking of the large German minority. Despite this, his sermons are extremely popular. In 1890, he is transferred to the German town of Jihlava, where his patriotic speeches outrage the majority of the German population. These disputes bring him to the brink of dismissal, and he considers leaving the Order. The situation eventually calms down, but Isidor must leave. Fortunately, the Order offers him a rather pleasant job as a librarian in the Strahov library, part of the local Premonstratensian monastery.

VitVit / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia commons

Entering the Academic Community

The energetic Isidor completes his studies at the Faculty of Philosophy of Charles-Ferdinand University in 1897 and decides to enter the academic sphere. He is quite unique as a clergyman; in history, only 12 Catholic clergymen have entered the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts (CAVU). Initially, there is no indication that Isidor is to be one of them. His works resemble a rushed and often inaccurate flow of information, which are the main reasons why the General Assembly of the CAVU in 1902 does not accept him as an extraordinary member. Isidor will not be discouraged and on the contrary will work on the shortcomings. His perseverance pays off, and when he is admitted to the CAVU as an extraordinary member in 1904, one of his great goals in life is fulfilled. He becomes a member of the academic community.

However, politics has long been another idea in his head. When he leaves Strahov Monastery in 1906, he succumbs to pressure from his brother and joins the Agrarian Party, for which he successfully runs for the Reichstag in 1907. It is a huge controversy. Who has ever seen a priest run for a right-wing agrarian party and not for a traditional Catholic party, especially one considered to have socialist views? In this position, he lasts until the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, in the dismantling of which he is very actively involved. He is an active member of the first domestic resistance.

Long live Czechoslovakia!

Here we reach a pivotal moment in the story. It's 28 October 1918, and Isidor finds himself in the center of Prague when a crowd recognizes him as a member of parliament. The crowd escorts him to Wenceslas Square, to the statue of St. Wenceslas, where he becomes the first public official to proclaim the establishment of the independent state of Czechoslovakia with the words: "We are forever breaking the bonds by which we were tormented by the faithful, foreign, and immoral Habsburgs. We are free." The Czech nation would realize several times how naive and impetuous these words were, but that's another story. Moving forward, Isidor dashes from Wenceslas Square to the Emperor Franz Joseph I Station and dispatches the following telegram to the other stations: "Remove immediately all signs and marks of the former Austro-Hungarian state." Regardless of the historic destabilization of Central Europe that had just occurred—a situation from which the "Old Continent" would take a long time to recover—the priority was to remove the old symbols and erect new ones.

anonymous, unknown - Jaroslav Rošický: Rakouský orel padá (book, published in Czechoslovakia 1933) / Wikimedia commons

Despite having minimal experience in the field, Isidor is appointed the first-ever Minister of Railways in the newly formed Czechoslovakia. The first weeks and months of the new state are marked by confusion and chaos. A key task for Isidor Zahradník, alongside the director of the Czechoslovak State Railways, Jan Bašta, is to ensure the railway's operation. This involves dealing with the highly complex transformation of the entire railway apparatus in terms of personnel, property, and the orientation of the railway network. The main railway connections of the former Czech Crown lands are oriented towards Vienna, which is unsuitable for a new independent state. A reorientation towards the Prague railway junction is necessary, along with planning new lines to ensure the best possible functioning of the railway network in terms of main and local lines and connecting the Czech lands with neighboring countries. / Public domain

As a minister, he also made another significant historical contribution. He played a crucial role in authorizing the temporary transport of passengers from Podolí to Braník and back by ČSD trains on the factory siding until the tram line was extended to Braník. This siding was nicknamed "Isidorka" after his religious name.

After the elections and the fall of the Rašín government, he left his ministerial position in 1919, succeeded by Jiří Stříbrný. He then served as the Czechoslovak chargé d'affaires at the International Reparation Commission in Vienna until 1921. However, his energetic and sometimes rash actions did not sit well with Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš, who arranged for Isidor's dismissal. In 1924, he became the head of the Mortgage Bank, a position he would not hold for long. In a twist of fate, one of the architects of independent Czechoslovakia's creation breathed his last in February 1926 in Vienna, at the heart of a country to whose disintegration he had contributed.