Daily Archives: 8 June 2016

Imperial Russia’s 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. 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.

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Austria-Hungary: A Fairy-tale Kingdom

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.

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