He met a tragic fate 100 years ago on 4 May, leaving behind a fianceé, Italian Marchesa Giuliana Benzoni, when his plane crashed near Bratislava.
Štefánik was the son of a Slovak Lutheran pastor, who studied astronomy in Prague, then worked in France, including the observatory on Mont Blanc. He did research in far-flung destinations like Algiers, Tahiti, and Brazil. His notes, diary, and correspondence are full of descriptions of the cultures he encountered. When the First World War broke out, he joined the French army - an Entente power fighting against his native Austria-Hungary.
His loyalties were with the Slovak and Czech nations, rather than the Habsburg rulers. He'd had little choice but to get his early schooling in Hungarian, since policies of Magyarization left little room for other languages in the education system of the eastern part of the monarchy. He was one of those who saw his nation's best hope for self-realization in the formation of a republic of Czechs and Slovaks, where they would no longer be dominated by Hungarians and German-Austrians.
He was a pilot and, curiously, was the subject of the world's first medevac. He became seriously ill in Serbia and was flown to safety by pioneering French aviator Louis Paulhan. There's a statue of him in Paulhan, France, a sister city to Brezová pod Bradlom (more on that later) and to Košariská, Slovakia.
Štefánik rose to the rank of brigadier general in the French army and also became Minister of War in the government of Czechoslovak resistance abroad, which became recognized by the Entente as capable of setting up a successor state to the Habsburg Empire. In this capacity, he visited Russia and arranged to recruit Slovak and Czech prisoners of war - who had fought for Austria-Hungary, albeit with little enthusiasm; some had deserted - to form a fighting force that would join the effort against the Habsburg monarchy.
And thus the Czechoslovak Legions were born. They had actually been formed elsewhere in Europe, but those in Russia became the most legendary, thanks in part to the Bolshevik seizure of power. When Lenin's government made peace with the Central Powers, it was no longer in a position to support these troops who were now sworn enemies of imperial Austria and Germany. Attempts to disarm them failed, and they soon revolted, taking over most of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
When it was rumored - correctly - that these Legionaires were approaching the town where the last tsar, Nicholas II, was being held captive by the Bolsheviks, the decision was made to shoot the entire imperial family out of fear that the Legions would free them.
The Legions soon evacuated from Russia, taking the long route to the Pacific port of Vladivostok and returning to Europe by ship.
During his various political and diplomatic activities in Italy in autumn 1916, Štefánik met Giuliana Benzoni, an Italian aristocrat to whom he later became engaged. He visited her for the last time in Rome in late April 1919. After negotiations in Padua over the Italian military presence in Czechoslovakia, he flew from an airfield near Udine to Bratislava to visit his family, but one of the plane’s engines exploded during a landing attempt. The man who had done so much for his beloved Slovak nation, and could have done so much more, was dead at 38.
Štefánik’s grave is in Brezová pod Bradlom, an hour and a half northeast of Bratislava, a grey, stone, quasi-pyramidal structure with four obelisks surrounding the burial chamber. It stands atop a hill overlooking his nearby native village of Košariská, an exalted monument to a man of humble birth. I must admit it’s still on my bucket list; for various reasons I just haven’t managed to get there. Yet.
But I was privileged to be present at the unveiling of a plaque to Štefánik in Padua, Italy. I traveling as a member of the Slovak chorus Hron of Banská Bystrica. We’d just spent several days giving concerts and touring the Lake Garda region and were on the way to Croatia (both visits were carried out as part of exchanges with vocal ensembles in Italy and Croatia). So we stopped in Padua to sing Slovak patriotic songs as part of the ceremonies involving local dignitaries. It certainly gave me a stronger impression of Slovakia’s and Štefánik’s ties to Italy.
There are many reminders of his legacy. The Bratislava airport, planes, and military institutions bear his name. Last year, the Czech National Bank issued 10-crown notes with Štefánik’s image in commemoration of the centenary of Czechoslovakia’s birth, and Slovakia released 10-Euro silver coins for that anniversary. This year, Slovakia is minting 2-euro coins to mark the century since his death.
You can learn more about Štefánik on his Wikipedia page.