Milan Rastislav Štefánik

As soon as you land in Bratislava (if you go there by plane), you’ll notice that Bratislava’s international airport (letisko) is called Milan Rastislav Stefanik. Therefore, we figured that our series of Slovak personalities should start with him.

So, who was Stefanik?

Milan Rastislav Stefanik, born in 1880, was a Slovak politician, a diplomat, a General and an astronomer. In WW1 he served both in the French Army, as a General, and for Czechoslovakia, as its first Minister of War. He was one of the leading figures of the Czechoslovak National Council, which, at the time was the resistance government and pleaded for the cause of Czechoslovak sovereignty. Stefanik’s motto was Verit’, milovat’, pracovat’ (To Believe, To Love, To Work).

Stefanik received a comprehensive education: he started studying in Bratislava, Sopron and Szarvas. Later on, he studied construction engineering in Prague. In 1900 he started attending Charles University, where he was interested in astronomy, physics, optics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1902 he went to Zurich and studied there for one semester. While in Prague, Stefanik met numerous personalities who would influence and inspire him, including Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who at the time was giving Philosophy lectures, and who would later become the first president of Czechoslovakia. He graduated in 1904 with a doctorate in Philosophy. However, he finished his studies with a thesis in astronomy.

He moved to Paris in the same year to find a job as an astronomer. Although he had no money and he didn’t speak French, he managed to get a job at the Observatoire de Paris-Meudon, whose director at the time was Pierre Janssen, one of the founders of astrophysics. Stefanik was a dedicated astronomer: in order to observe the Moon and planet Mars, he climbed Mont Blanc several times. He took part in various French expeditions and some of his studies were published in reports to the Academie Francaise. He soon established a name and become a known figure among French astronomic community. His great talent as an astronomer was recognized in 1907 when he received the Prix Jules Janssen, the highest award of the French Astronomic Society.

After Pierre Janssen’s death in 1907, Stefanik lost his job and the French authorities commissioned him with various political tasks in different countries, including Algeria, Russia, India, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti. In Tahiti he built an observatory and a network of meteorological stations.

In 1912 he received French citizenship. On 20th of  October 1917 he was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour.

When WWI started, Stefanik believed that the defeat Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany would offer Czechs and Slovaks the chance to get their independence so he enlisted in the French army and trained to be an aviator. In 1916, Stefanik started to organize Czecho-Slovak troops to fight in the resistance. Thanks to his diplomatic skills, The Entente recognized the resistance government as the de facto government and the Czechoslovak troops as allied forces.

On 4th of May 1919, Stefanik was flying from Italy to Bratislava, to see his family. His plane crashed near Ivanka pri Dunaji and Stefanik died along with the rest of the crew.

Stefanik’s tomb was built between 1927 and 1928 on Brado Hill, in Brezova pod Bradlom.

As you can see, I think it’s safe for us to say that Stefanik was a global citizen who dealt with world’s problems at the time and who reshaped and helped rebuilt part of Danubian Europe after WWI.