Masaryk University was established in 1919, shortly after the creation of an independent Czechoslovak state. However, the decision to establish a university did not come in a sudden burst of revolutionary fervour. Rather, it represented the culmination of many years of effort on the part of Czech society, then in the process of developing rapidly on all fronts, to establish a second centre of national education and culture. The campaign was spearheaded by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who – as early as in the 1880s – stressed the need for the greatest possible diversity in scientific and scholarly life, pointing out that the single then existing Czech university, i.e. Charles University in Prague, needed a counterpart within the country if it was do develop properly. For many years the task of establishing a second Czech university was one of Masaryk's main political priorities. He was not alone in his endeavours: the university question was taken up not only by professors and students at Charles University, but by the public at large. For decades, motions calling for the establishment of a second university were presented in the Reichsrat in Vienna and at the Moravian Diet in Brno.
In Moravia the movement for a second Czech university was linked to a campaign for the reopening of a Moravian university which had been closed down earlier in the mid nineteenth century. As the capital and largest city in Moravia, Brno was deemed to offer the best conditions for the development of such an institution. However, the future location of the new university became a contested issue, one which stymied all efforts until 1918, especially due to the influence of the German-speakers of Brno, who controlled the city council and who felt that the establishment of a Czech university would considerably weaken their position. No agreement between the two communities was possible and nationalist disagreements even led to tragic street battles, sparked by the Volkstag, a gathering of the German-speaking community, held in Brno in October 1905. As a result, Brno had to wait for its own university until the end of World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. An act, signed on 28 January 1919, formally established a Czech university in Brno, complete with four faculties – law, medicine, science and arts. From the beginning it took the name of the man who had done more than anyone else to bring it into existence: Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. The mission of the new university, as set out in the founding document of 1919, was for it to “live, grow strong and flourish in noble competition with its older sister in Prague”.
From the outset, Masaryk University was successful in fulfilling its mission. Most of its new professors came from a young generation of scientists and scholars who had been educated either at Charles University or at the Czech Technical University. For these people, the establishment of the new university was a great challenge and a unique opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. Thanks to its academics, held in very high regard in many fields, Masaryk University was soon perceived as an institution with great intellectual vigour and ambition. The pride of the university was its Faculty of Law. The so-called Brno school of law, focusing on the teaching of normative legal theory, achieved international fame under the leadership of František Weyr. The Faculty of Law was also home to Karel Engliš, one of the leading economic theorists and public figures of the First Czechoslovak Republic and author of a teleological theory of national economy. The other tree founding faculties were likewise very active and successful. The field of Slavic studies, a critical area at the Faculty of Arts, was of particular note, especially thanks to the participation of scholars such as Bohuslav Havránek, Roman Jakobson and Arne Novák. Of the many outstanding fields taught at the Faculty of Science, mathematics claimed pride of place, with professors such as Matyáš Lerch, Eduard Čech and Otakar Borůvka. The great teachers of the founding generation found at the Faculty of Medicine included the physiologist Edward Babák, histologist and embryologist František Studnička and pathological physiologist Vilém Laufberger, who established a world-class institute for general and experimental pathology. A number of clinical fields were also successful, e.g. surgery (Julius Petřivalský), internal medicine (Rudolf Vanýsek) and paediatrics (Otakar Teyschl).
From the very beginning, the university played an important role in the scientific, scholarly, cultural and social life of the country. Its first honorary doctorate was awarded in 1925 to the composer Leoš Janáček, a man with very close ties to Masaryk University. His deep respect for the institution was manifested not only in compositions such as Sonata 1. X. 1905, dedicated to the struggle for a Czech university in Brno, or a cantata written specifically for the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone of the Faculty of Law building, but also in the generous donation of his entire work to the Faculty of Arts of Masaryk University. In the 1930s Masaryk University became the copyright holder of Janáček’s musical compositions and literary works and remains the guardian of his creative legacy to this day.
Ever since its foundation, the university suffered from a lack of funding. The buildings it was housed in were largely considered provisional, and even though the establishing act of 1919 envisaged the construction of a university campus which would be completed by 1930, the situation remained unchanged for several decades. On several occasions, the shaky state of public finance even led to proposals for abolishing faculties: the Faculty of Arts was to be closed on one occasion (1923–1925) and the faculties of arts and science on another (1933–1934). Only with the widespread support of the public was the university able to defeat these threats to its integrity. However, a much greater threat arose at the end of the 1930s when, like all other Czech universities, Masaryk University was closed down on 17 November 1939 by the Nazi occupiers. According to an internal order issued by Protectorate command, the Brno university was to be treated as though it had never existed. During the six wartime years, the university suffered incalculable losses. Worse than any material damage, however, was the loss of professors and other university employees as a direct result of Nazi persecution. The number of Masaryk University professors who were executed or tortured is exceptionally high; for instance, as a consequence of Nazi terror, the Faculty of Science lost an entire quarter of its teaching staff.
The successful post-war renewal of university life was brought to a halt by the Communist coup of 1948. The ensuing purges were particularly difficult for the student population: the number of students expelled ranged from 5 % at the Faculty of Education to 46 % at the Faculty of Law. The purge among employees was less drastic, with the exception of the Faculty of Law, where the dismissal of teachers was only the first step towards the subsequent closure of the entire faculty in 1950. However, this was only the first of many insensitive interventions on the part of the state into the structure and activities of the university. In 1953 the Faculty of Education (founded in 1946) was separated from the university and in 1960 Masaryk University reached the low point of its existence, being reduced to only three faculties following the closure of the Pharmaceutical Faculty, the only institution of its kind in all of Bohemia and Moravia. At the same time, the university lost its original name and was renamed to the Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Brno.
The 1960s were a somewhat happier period in the history of the university. A political thaw led to more favourable conditions for research and teaching. In 1964 the Faculty of Education was reincorporated into the university. Five years later, the Faculty of Law was re-established, only to find itself in the midst of the repressive "normalization" period which followed the invasion of the country by the armies of the Warsaw Pact in August 1968. The unfortunate results of the invasion continued to have a negative effect on the faculty for a long time and purges among teachers in the early 1970s dramatically influenced the character of the whole university for the next twenty years.
It was only after the Velvet Revolution that the university awakened from a long period of stagnation. It was renamed to Masaryk University in 1990. That same year saw the establishment of the Faculty of Economics and Administration, followed by the Faculty of Informatics in 1994, Faculty of Social Studies in 1997 and Faculty of Sports Studies in 2001. Research activities expanded greatly, as did international cooperation, both bilateral (with individual foreign universities) and within the framework of the Compostela Group of Universities. Within the context of Czech higher education, Masaryk University is thus regaining the position it enjoyed in the period between the two world wars.