FOLLOWING RUSSIA’S WITHDRAWAL from the war in March 1918, Moscow began shipping home more than 2.3 million German and Austro-Hungarian POWs aboard trains from camps across all of Soviet Russia. More than 200,000 of the men in Austro-Hungarian uniforms hailed from the more obscure corners of the Habsburg realm, and they were known to their rulers—but almost no one else—as Bohemians, Czechs, Moravians, or Slovaks. They and their leader, a philosophy professor named Tomáš G. Masaryk, wanted a nation of their own. And they were willing to fight for it. From his London exile, Masaryk had traveled to Russia under an assumed name early in 1917 to persuade the men to fight for France on the Western Front, in return for which the Allies would consider creating a new nation, Czecho-Slovakia. Between 50,000 and 65,000 of these Czechs and Slovaks would throw in their lot with Masaryk.
On May 14, 1918, in Chelyabinsk—a Russian frontier settlement on the steeper, more fractured, eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, the gateway to Siberia—about eighty Hungarians, hardened survivors of war and imprisonment, former POWs being returned to the Austro-Hungarian Army, sat waiting in the last three cars of a westbound train otherwise full of refugees.
Their steam-powered locomotive was replenished with wood and water. The bored, brooding veterans awaited the sudden jerking motion that would bring the creaking wood-and-steel train back to life and resume its languid journey west through the Ural Mountains, in the direction of Austria-Hungary. They had survived the Eastern Front, hellish conditions in Russia’s POW camps, and several Siberian winters. And now many of the men—still loyal to the Habsburg dynasty—understood that they would be thrown back into combat. If no longer imprisoned, they may have felt doomed.
Across the platform stood a train facing east crowded with men who had also worn Austro-Hungarian uniforms, but these strangers appeared to be in better spirits. They were Czechs and Slovaks—part of the more than fifty thousand in Russia who had become followers of Masaryk—washing down stale black bread and blood sausages with kettles of strong tea. Strangers in a strange land, they had reason to be hopeful that they might win a nation for their people. Unlikely as it seemed, this was their moment.
The cars that carried the Czechs and Slovaks had been moved off the main track onto a siding, due to what Russian authorities claimed was a shortage of locomotives. These men, a handful of whom had deserted to the Russians and fought in a special unit of the tsarist army, won the new Soviet regime’s permission to organize their own trains and depart Russia via Siberia, keeping a small number of weapons for self-defense.
Their eastbound trains were destined for Vladivostok, a distant port on Russia’s Pacific coast more than thirty-one hundred miles away. In Vladivostok, the men hoped to board Allied ships that would circumnavigate the globe and deposit them in the trenches of the Western Front alongside their former enemies, the French. In return for fighting with the Allies, it was hoped, they would win freedom for their peoples. At least that was the plan.
If Russia decided to turn them over to Austro-Hungarian authorities, many of them would face certain imprisonment and possible execution. Several hundred of these men had innocently emigrated to Russia long before the Great War in search of jobs or land and had enlisted in the tsar’s armies in 1914 as a prudent obligation. A few thousand more had served in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front, but deserted to the Russians. For these men in particular, firing squads awaited them back home and the Austrian authorities were unlikely to exercise great care in deciding which among them was guilty. Those spared execution and deemed able to fight would be returned to the Austro-Hungarian army, perhaps to die facedown in the mud or snow for the privilege of preserving a German-speaking empire that held them firmly in second-class status.
Most of the Czechs and Slovaks traveling to Vladivostok, however, were newly released captives of the Russians. This motley legion had assembled because one elderly professor from Prague thought it was a good idea.
11 June 2016
From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 252-285:
10 June 2016
From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1279-1300:
FULLY 90 PERCENT of the soldiers captured by Russia were Habsburg troops. Of the 2,322,378 total prisoners taken by Russia in the Great War, 2,104,146 were Austro-Hungarian. Russia captured only 167,082 Germans—despite the fact that the number of Germans on the Eastern Front equaled or surpassed the number of Habsburg troops from 1915 onward. These numbers have long fed suspicions regarding the loyalty of Vienna’s Slavic soldiers and the quality of her military leaders. All the more remarkable is the fact that Austro-Hungarian POWs represented more than half the number of soldiers Vienna mobilized at the start of the war—3.8 million—and almost one-third of its total mobilization for the entire war—7.8 million. Among them were 210,000 to 250,000 Czech and Slovak POWs—about 30,000 of them Slovaks. From these few hundred thousand men the Czecho-Slovak Legion would emerge.
Instead of victory, Russia’s offensives brought it more mouths to feed, men to clothe, and bodies to shelter—and burdened it with the care of millions of prisoners, when it could barely care for its own soldiers.
Once captured, Austro-Hungarian soldiers were made to march for days, sometimes weeks, before reaching a railroad station. The absence of harsh military discipline among starving, injured soldiers allowed ethnic animosity to surface. “The national antagonisms, artificially suppressed at the front with difficulty, broke out in full force here,” recalled one Czech prisoner, Josef Kyncl, of his march through Galicia. “The Slavs, Hungarians, Germans, Bosnians, Romanians—everybody was cursing everybody else and people were fighting for the least significant things every day.... We would say that Hungarians like to fight, but we were not any better in those days of hatred and rough passions.”
Reaching a train station, the men were packed into modified boxcars called teplushki. Equipped to hold sixteen to twenty-eight Russian soldiers, each car would often be packed with as many as forty-five POWs. A row of unpadded wooden bunks lined each side, and the men slept two or three to a bunk, lying only on their sides, squeezed tightly together. An iron stove sat in the middle of the boxcar and a single latrine bucket sat near the unluckiest prisoner. The trains deposited the men at one of three sorting camps near Kiev, Moscow, or Saint Petersburg, where they were formally registered. The Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Romanians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Ukrainians (Ruthenians) were separated from Austrian, Hungarian, and German prisoners, and shown preferential treatment. But the Russians were not able to provide the Slavs with better food, clothes, or medical care.
From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1184-1207:
Almost 900,000 emigrants arrived in Russia from Austria-Hungary between 1828 and 1915, among them tens of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks. The largest number resided in the vicinity of Kiev (Ukraine), where there was a Czech High School, a Prague Hotel, and, by 1910, a weekly Czech-language newspaper, the Čechoslovan. In most combat nations, “enemy aliens” were subject to internment, deportation, and expropriation of their property. Unlike in most countries, however, where enemy aliens often lived on the margins of society, in Russia the Czechs and Slovaks were business owners, managers, landowners, professionals, engineers, foremen, and skilled workers. Yet, at the outbreak of the war, the Russian public began targeting any person whose ethnicity, religion, or former citizenship might link that person to Austria-Hungary or other enemy nations. By 1914 there were about 600,000 “enemy aliens” and 100,000 visitors from enemy nations in Russia. Of these, about 200,000 were Czech and 600 were Slovak, with 70,000 of them in farming communities in Ukraine. More than half had arrived in Russia since 1885 and many had never become naturalized Russian citizens.
During the first week of hostilities, the Russian army sealed the borders to immigrants who might think of escaping the country. As early as July 25, 1914 (OS), the army ordered the deportation from areas under military rule of all “enemy-subject males of military service age,” specifically, “all German and Austrian males age 18–45 who were deemed physically capable of carrying a weapon.” This order was quickly extended to the entire Russian Empire and included women and children as well. As many as one-half of Russia’s 600,000 “enemy” subjects were sent to camps or designated areas held under police surveillance. As early as September 1914, the government ordered the confiscation of all property belonging to anyone who was even suspected of belonging to a pan-German organization. Given the use of German by many non-German Habsburg subjects and the dearth of information regarding Vienna’s non-German minorities, Czechs and Slovaks were easily targeted. “A sense quickly grew among officials that all enemy-alien property was fair game.” Factories, farms, and stores could be confiscated, often at the behest of disgruntled Russian customers or competitors who turned their business disputes into acts of revenge by denouncing their “enemy alien” owners.
Once it was clear that mere suspicion of enemy support or sympathy could cost an immigrant freedom or property, thousands of aliens applied for exemptions and persons of Slavic ethnicity received most of them. The first exemptions were granted to Czechs. Committees of Czechs and Slovaks sprang up in the major cities to petition the government. Delegations met with the minister of internal affairs, Nikolay A. Maklakov, and the foreign minister, Sergey D. Sazonov, solemnly pledging their allegiance to Russia.
From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1072-1101:
THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL defection of Czech soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian army to the Russians occurred when 1,850 of the 2,000 men in the unruly Czech Twenty-Eighth Infantry Regiment disappeared into the Russian lines near the Dukla Pass, a gateway through the Carpathian Mountains from Russia into Hungary (today, on the border between Poland and the Slovak Republic). The mass desertion followed informal contacts between Czech soldiers on both sides in early April 1915....
On April 3 (OS), Cossacks and Russians prepared to attack the Twenty-Eighth under cover of darkness. But members of the družina who stayed behind heard only silence. “It was only at twilight that a Russian ‘hurrah’ was heard, and the whole Twenty-Eighth Regiment went over to the Russians without a shot fired,” said Wuchterle. Only the Austrian artillery fired at the enemy, wounding several Czechs.
Accounts such as this have been characterized as exaggerations by some who point to reports of at least some shooting, but even official Austrian reports concede that the gist of Wuchterle’s eyewitness account is accurate. The debate about whether the men were indeed deserters “became the subject of one of the fiercest arguments inside the Austro-Hungarian army.” Reflecting official suspicion and anger, the entire Twenty-Eighth Infantry Regiment was officially dissolved. Whatever the real motives of the men of the regiment, the družina was perceived to have lured Czechs into Russian arms. And this incident, says one historian, “was the first clear writing on the wall. The Austro-Hungarian authorities, civil and military alike, should have noticed that the war was unpopular with the Czechs, and that it was likely to become more so the longer it lasted.”
On Christmas Day 1915 amidst shooting between Austrian and Russian trenches, the members of the družina on the Russian side began singing “Stille Nacht,” the German “Silent Night.” The Austrians stopped shooting. When they were finished, one of the Czechs shouted a holiday greeting at the Austrians, to which an enemy soldier replied, “Wir danken” (“We thank you”). Members of the družina then began singing “Silent Night” in Czech, after which Czechs on both sides yelled greetings to one another. In such modest ways, the družina worked its will.
09 June 2016
Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1165-1180:
NO DOUBT ONE of the reasons the Czechs did not offer more resistance was the widespread assumption that the men would be home by Christmas. Millions would never see home again, of course, but the absence of a lengthy European-wide conflict during the hundred years prior to 1914 provided a—false—assurance that the war would be brief. Of the twenty-one wars fought in the nineteenth century, only one lasted more than a year. “The trend toward decisive campaigns and conclusive battles, followed immediately by peace talks, typified the modern wars of the nineteenth century in Europe,” according to military analyst Béla K. Király. Once assembled at a battlefield often some distance from a major town or city, opposing armies would commence narrow, if deadly, assaults. The side that began to suffer what it saw as unacceptable losses to its army would either flee the field, perhaps to fight another day, or capitulate and negotiate terms. Among combatants, casualties could be high, but professionals did most of the fighting, and civilians were less directly affected by large-scale, mandatory enlistments, or by the combat itself.
Of greater importance was the absence of any significant European conflict since the Franco-Prussian War—which lasted all of ten months—had ended in 1871. This was the longest period without war in European history. The last major conflict involving the Habsburgs was their defeat by Prussia at the Battle of Königgrätz (Hradec Králové, Czech Republic) in 1866, a conflict that some reference works call the Seven Weeks’ War. Habsburg subjects up through the age of fifty—including the vast majority of men in uniform—had absolutely no recollection or previous experience with war. It was only natural that most soldiers shared the same expectation about the length of the war. “We were convinced that it would be a short war,” said Kohn, the officer in the Czech unit, “probably over by Christmas, 1914.”
08 June 2016
Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1020-1060:
The Česká Družina, a small unit of Czech soldiers in the Russian army initially composed of Czech emigres to Russia, played a unique and decisive role in turning unhappy Austro-Hungarian soldiers into a rebellious army. Czechs and Slovaks fighting for Austria-Hungary were welcomed into the Russian imperial army in ways few other soldiers could be. Indeed, they were explicitly encouraged to defect.
In March 1915, two days after an Austro-Hungarian attack on the Russians was repelled, food and other supplies were growing scarce. Most of the professional Austro-Hungarian officers had been killed and lesser men were put in charge. Amidst heavy snows, strong winds, and freezing temperatures, a unit of Czechs in the Ninety-Eighth Infantry Regiment held a line near Gorlice, a town on the Ropa River in Austrian Galicia. Their Austrian commander took advantage of the weather by having hungry Czechs tied to trees as punishment for eating meager portions of the reserve food supplies.
“We all had had enough,” recalled one of the Czech soldiers, Josef Křepela, “of that suffering, hunger, berating, and hitting that our commanders subjected us to, and a thought about an end to all of this torture was secretly growing inside us.”
Each night fresh troops were dispatched to relieve the freezing, hungry men in the trenches, foxholes, barns, and shacks along the Austrian front above the Ropa River. Their commander, Lieutenant Reiman, spit out an ironic farewell to his Czech soldiers: “Auf Wiedersehen in Russland!” “And every morning,” Kŕepela recalled, “when he learned about a guard who disappeared somewhere behind the Russian lines, protected by the barbed wire, he would waste no time writing a criminal report to the closest commanding headquarters.” Once, when a good friend of Křepela’s disappeared during a snowstorm, a laughing Reiman showed Kŕepela a copy of the criminal complaint he filed against the missing soldier, telling him, “The Russians must now have a whole regiment of you Czechs!”
As darkness fell one evening that March and another snowstorm gathered force, Kŕepela was ordered to take a replacement unit to the front. Under the watchful eye of their gun-wielding commander, Reiman, Kŕepela ordered thirteen young men huddling in snow-covered trenches into the storm. He led them through waist-deep snow toward a burned-out village on the Ropa River, which had been trapped between the lines of the opposing armies. When the men stopped to catch their breath behind a partially collapsed barn, Kŕepela decided to act.
“I looked into the faces of these boys, pale, with snowflakes on their freezing faces,” he said. “How beat-up and absolutely non-soldierly they looked. It was evident they were not interested in any bravery, or a war medal, which they would gladly exchange for a piece of moldy bread now. Taking pity on them, I suddenly asked, ‘Boys, would you like to go to Russia?’ I will not forget the happy twinkle in the eyes of these poor wretches, who told me with one voice, ‘Yes!’”
With desperate enthusiasm—but without any more of a plan—Kŕepela gingerly led the men single file toward Russian lines. Crossing a bridge over the Ropa after midnight, the men walked carefully past the dead and dying soldiers from both armies. Former enemies lay together mortally wounded in the same shattered homes, bleeding, delirious, softly crying for help. Discarded weapons were strewn about. In one house, two dead cows competed for space with the body of their dead owner. The stench drove Kŕepela and his men away. Taking refuge in another abandoned home, where a pale young girl, shell-shocked, wandered aimlessly from room to room, the men warmed black coffee and waited for the heavy snows to stop. By 3:30 a.m., they collapsed onto the empty beds and the floor, exhausted.
They awoke a few hours later to bearded Russian soldiers holding bayonets at their faces.
“Then,” Kŕepela said, “happiness starts flowing through my body, and I shake hands with these good men, who are offering theirs. Moved, I speak the only Russian word I know—‘Zdravstvujte!’ (Hello!). We willingly gave them our rifles and all of our equipment, keeping only a beggars’ bag holding nothing but bread crusts.” Soon they were sitting on the floor with the Russians, forming a circle around a dim candle. “Are you all Czechs?” asked one of the smiling Russians. The Czechs nodded. Knowing what this meant, the Russian left.
A few minutes later, an officer wearing a Russian uniform entered the cabin. The officer lit a cigarette Kŕepela offered him, looked over the prisoners, and said in perfect Czech, “Hey guys, who among you is from Prague?” A confused silence hung in the air. “With open mouths, we look surprised. How did the Czech in the Russian uniform who is talking to us in such a friendly manner happen to show up here?” It turned out Reiman was right—a Czecho-Slovak regiment did exist in the Russian army, the Česká Družina.
From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 607-636:
By 1914 Austria-Hungary resembled a fairy-tale kingdom, with its aging, crisply uniformed monarch, regal castles, dashing aristocrats, large estates, illiterate peasants, rolling hills, dark forests, wolves, gypsies, and legends of Count Dracula. Yet it was being swallowed up in an alien urban landscape of cities, factories, railroads, electric lights, battleships, early automobiles, and the second metro line in all of Europe. It was becoming a place where bustling middle-class crowds no longer looked to the monarch and his fellow aristocrats for sustenance, guidance, or protection. The ruling aristocracy had come to seem majestically and powerfully irrelevant.
Still, Vienna had an impeccable pedigree. Unlike the modern, yet provincial, nation-states sprouting up all around it, Austria-Hungary emerged from the Middle Ages as the standard-bearer of Europe’s older, more cosmopolitan, political tradition—Christian monarchial rule over disparate lands and peoples. By 1914 it occupied present-day Austria, Hungary, Czech and Slovak Republics, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, northern Italy, southern Poland, and western sections of Ukraine and Romania. Its 52 million people were squeezed into an area the size of Texas, yet it entered the war as a great power, second largest in land and third most populated in Europe.
Once the embodiment, if now the corpse, of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary harked back to the fabled realm of Charlemagne. Each of these regimes shared a yearning to resuscitate ancient Rome’s original empire of law, peace, and order, “the fairest part of the earth,” said Edward Gibbon, “and the most civilized portion of mankind.”
The only common bond among Austria-Hungary’s dozen or so nationalities was the Habsburg dynasty, which collected lands and peoples the way less powerful families might collect works of art. Croats, Czechs (Bohemians and Moravians), Germans, Italians, Poles, Romanians, Slovenes, and Ukrainians (Ruthenians) ended up inside the Austrian half of Austria-Hungary, while Croats, Germans, Hungarians (Magyars), Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Ukrainians (Ruthenians) lived in the Kingdom of Hungary. “In all the Habsburg lands,” noted one history, “Vienna was unique in one important respect. Here was at least partially achieved that supranational, cosmopolitan consciousness which was the dynasty’s only hope for survival.” However, Europe’s other peoples were merging into more homogeneous nations, while Vienna ruled a polyglot rabble. Viennese culture was exquisite, but the Habsburg empire was ungovernable.
AUSTRIA-HUNGARY, MASARYK HAD quipped on May 26, 1913, in the course of his last speech to the Reichsrat in Vienna, was like a good man who had somehow swallowed an umbrella—and spent the rest of his life fearing that it might open. While Masaryk’s metaphor is memorable, the realm is little remembered today in part because it did not fit the modern definitions of statehood. It represented neither a nation nor a people but a dynastic empire. And like most great empires—from the Roman to the Soviet—it slowly decayed from within until an unanticipated crisis caused the elaborate, aging edifice, hollowed out at its core, to collapse.