Daily Archives: 10 June 2016

Habsburg POWs in Russia, WW1

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.

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Czech “Enemy Aliens” in Russia, 1914

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.

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Czechs on the Eastern Front, Christmas 1915

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.

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