Category Archives: Hungary

Sudeten Germans in 1930s Czechoslovakia

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 11-12:

When the ailing and elderly Masaryk stepped down from the presidency in 1935, he carried away much of the Sudetendeutsch community’s goodwill with him. In contrast to the charismatic Father-Liberator, Edvard Beneš, his long-time heir apparent, seemed a colorless and uninspiring replacement. Across the political spectrum, Czechoslovaks paid tribute to Beneš’s intelligence, diligence, and efficiency. In administrative ability he stood head and shoulders above his peers. But if his talents were those of the skilled bureaucrat, so too were his flaws. Thin-skinned, intensely self-righteous, cold, and prone to bearing grudges, he was to prove an unfortunate choice as Masaryk’s successor. His own secretary, Jaromír Smutný, acknowledged that although a “brilliant master of tactics and strategy, the greatest Machiavelli of our time … he is unable to awaken the enthusiasm of the masses…. People leave him persuaded, but not feeling entirely with him, full of confidence but without affection.” Beneš also had a tendency toward political idées fixes that would twice prove disastrous for his country. An ardent Francophile, between the wars he placed his complete trust in the relationship between Prague and Paris, only to be abandoned by the French at Munich. A similar disillusionment lay in his future, after he transferred his unquestioning and unrequited confidence to the Soviet Union. The Sudeten German population’s attitude to Beneš, hence, was at best one of reserve. It was suspicious of his efficient public relations network that ceaselessly reiterated to Western Europeans what they wanted to hear about Czechoslovakia’s and its president’s exemplary liberal and democratic credentials—an image it knew to be more than a little rose-colored. It recognized him as a committed Czech nationalist, whose regard for minority rights owed more to pragmatism than conviction. And it had little confidence that in any situation in which Czechoslovak and Sudetendeutsch interests were in conflict, Beneš would treat the two communities even-handedly and impartially. When the resolution to confirm Beneš in the presidency was put before the Prague parliament in 1935, not a single Sudetendeutsch deputy voted in favor.

The differential impact of the Great Depression on Czech and German communities intensified the Sudetenland’s sense of alienation. As one of the most export-dependent parts of the country, the Sudetenland was hard hit by the contraction in international trade. But the Prague government added greatly to the region’s distress by its practice of preferring Czechs for public-sector jobs, dismissing thousands of Sudetendeutsch workers in the process. Germans, more than 23 percent of the population in the 1930 census, five years later made up only 2 percent of the civil servants in ministerial positions, 5 percent of the officer corps in the army, and 10 percent of the employees of the state railways. Not a single ethnic German was to be found in Beneš’s own Foreign Ministry. State contracts, even for projects in the German-speaking districts, were steered toward Czechoslovak firms. By 1936, more than 60 percent of all Czechoslovak unemployment was concentrated in the Sudetenland. No less injurious to German sensibilities was Prague’s dismissive response to their complaints of discrimination. It was unreasonable, Czech leaders argued, for the Sudetendeutsche to complain about their exclusion from public-sector employment while they remained equivocal in their loyalty to the very state that they expected to pay their wages. Germans, on the other hand, recalled that Czechoslovakia had come into existence as a result of Czech and Slovak soldiers deserting from the Austro-Hungarian army during the Great War and forming a Czechoslovak Legion to join the conflict on the Allied side against their former comrades in arms. For Beneš and his followers, with their record of disloyalty to the Hapsburg Empire at a moment when it was fighting for its life, to preach to anyone else about minority nationalities’ duty of fidelity to countries to which they had been unwillingly attached seemed to most Sudetendeutsche the epitome of hypocrisy.

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Missing Migration History in Europe

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 1-3:

Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Allies carried out the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history. With the assistance of the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments, millions of German-speaking civilians living in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the parts of eastern Germany assigned to Poland were driven out of their homes and deposited amid the ruins of the Reich, to fend for themselves as best they could. Millions more, who had fled the advancing Red Army in the final months of the war, were prevented from returning to their places of origin, and became lifelong exiles. Others again were forcibly removed from Yugoslavia and Romania, although the Allies had never sanctioned deportations from those countries. Altogether, the expulsion operation permanently displaced at least 12 million people, and perhaps as many as 14 million. Most of these were women and children under the age of sixteen; the smallest cohort of those affected were adult males. These expulsions were accomplished with and accompanied by great violence. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands lost their lives through ill-treatment, starvation, and disease while detained in camps before their departure—often, like Auschwitz I, the same concentration camps used by the Germans during the Second World War. Many more perished on expulsion trains, locked in freight wagons without food, water, or heating during journeys to Germany that sometimes took weeks; or died by the roadside while being driven on foot to the borders. The death rate continued to mount in Germany itself, as homeless expellees succumbed to hypothermia, malnutrition, and other effects of their ordeal. Calculating the scale of the mortality remains a source of great controversy today, but estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present. Much more research will have to be carried out before this range can be narrowed to a figure that can be cited with reasonable confidence.

On the most optimistic interpretation, nonetheless, the expulsions were an immense manmade catastrophe, on a scale to put the suffering that occurred as a result of the “ethnic cleansings” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in the shade. They took place without any attempt at concealment, under the eyes of tens of thousands of journalists, diplomats, relief workers, and other observers with access to modern communications, in the middle of the world’s most crowded continent. Yet they aroused little attention at the time. Today, outside Germany, they are almost completely unknown. In most English-language histories of the period they are at best a footnote, and usually not even that. The most recent (2009) edition of Mary Fulbrook’s excellent History of Germany 1918–2008 disposes of the episode in a single uninformative paragraph; the antics of the tiny ultraleftist Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 1980s, in comparison, rate four. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany is typical in not according the expulsions even a single mention. What is true of German history textbooks is also the case with those dealing with the history of Europe as a whole, and even of the central European states most directly concerned. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield’s fine survey of the region in the postwar era, Return to Diversity—by far the most accessible and reliable one-volume treatment of the subject—takes a cumulative total of less than a page to explain the means by which Poland and Czechoslovakia, until 1939 among the most heterogeneous and multicultural countries in Europe, had just ten years later become ethnic monoliths. It is, then, entirely understandable why so many of my splendid and learned colleagues on the Colgate faculty should have expressed their confusion to me after reading in the newspapers in October 2009 that the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, had demanded that the other members of the European Union legally indemnify his country against compensation claims by ethnic German expellees, as the price of his country’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. None had been aware that anything had occurred after the war in respect of which the Czech Republic might require to be indemnified.

It would be incorrect, however, to attribute this pervasive ignorance of the expulsions, their context, and their consequences to any conspiracy of silence. What has occurred in the postwar era is something less calculated in nature, but more insidious in effect: the phenomenon of a historical episode of great significance that is hidden in plain sight. Certainly information, albeit of highly variable quality, on the expulsions is available—for those who possess the requisite language competence and are prepared to go looking for it. A 1989 bibliography lists almost five thousand works dealing with them to some degree in the German language alone. Even today, some sixty-five years later, living expellees are not hard to find; it has been calculated that a quarter of the current German population are expellees or their immediate descendants. What is denied, then, is not the fact of the expulsions but their significance. Relegated in textbooks to a single passing mention in a vaguely phrased sentence referring to the “chaos” existing in Germany in the immediate postwar era, or simply passed over in silence, the impression is effectively conveyed that they occupy a less important place in modern European history than the cultural meanings of football hooliganism or the relevance of the Trabant automobile as a metaphor for East German society.

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Siam Enters World War I

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 285-286:

Siam declared war on Germany on 22 July 1917. The 1855 Bowring Treaty had limited its tariffs to 3 per cent and secured extraterritorial jurisdiction for British citizens, soon to be followed by those of other Powers. By 1914 Siam had ceded more than one-third of its territory to French Indochina and to the British Malay states. That its core remained independent owed something to it suiting Britain and France to keep Siam as a buffer, and something to King Rama V (reigned 1868–1910) and his advisors. Rama appointed Prince Dewrawangse as foreign minister, who served for thirty-eight years, and by 1914 was vastly experienced and temperamentally cautious. When Rama VI acceded to the throne in 1910, he kept Dewrawangse on.

Siam was less developed than Greece or Brazil. Its population in 1910 was about 8 million, and Bangkok the one substantial city. Its principal export was rice and most of its foreign trade was managed by the British from Singapore and Hong Kong. Its government was an absolute monarchy, untrammelled by representative institutions, in which members of the royal family held key ministerial portfolios and several hundred foreign advisers worked in royal service. Insofar as public opinion existed, it might have been expected to be hostile to France and Britain; but Europe was distant and Germany and Austria-Hungary could not have aided the country. In fact such considerations were outweighed by the personal outlook of King Rama, who had attended Sandhurst and Oxford and undergone officer training with the Durham Light Infantry. In 1915–16 he made donations to widows and orphans of his former regiment, and he and George V exchanged the titles of ‘General’ in each other’s armies, despite German protests that such behaviour was un-neutral.

Unrestricted submarine warfare and America’s appeal to other neutrals to break off relations with Germany started a similar debate in Siam to those in Brazil and China. The initial response to Wilson was that Siam was very remote from the war, and preferred to see how the situation developed. This holding position was primarily due to Dewrawangse, who worked closely with the British minister in Bangkok, Herbert Dering, who in turn advised London that it was best to apply no pressure but let the situation mature, and this recommendation the Foreign Office heeded. Although it might be advantageous to control the nine German steamers in Bangkok harbour and expel the 300 Germans working for the Siamese government, the country had already cooperated in, for example, deporting Indian seditionists, and the advantages from its belligerency were marginal. Dering also feared the Siamese might seek concessions over the unequal treaties. The situation remained unchanged until Rama returned from a visit to the provinces, during which time Dewrawangse (with reluctant acquiescence from an impatient ruler) sounded out Siam’s overseas emissaries. In a Cabinet meeting on 28 May Rama intervened decisively. Dewrawangse reported that the diplomats were divided: the representatives in France and Russia recommended breaking off relations (as did the French and Russian governments), but the London envoy considered it unnecessary. The king, however, said Siam should join the Allies. Previously the Central Powers had seemed to be winning, but American entry altered the equation and delaying meant Britain would end the war with greater leverage than it had now. Rama hoped the unequal treaties could be revised or even abrogated, although he forbade his ministers from saying so. Instead Dewrawangse, who was uneasy but went along, drafted a note that blamed Germany’s persistence in an illegal method of warfare despite Siam’s protests. The government took over the German vessels before their crews could damage them, rounded up the German nationals, and asked the Allies how Siam could help them. When the communications minister voiced concern about running the railways without German experts, Rama replaced him. The kingdom had an army of 12,000–15,000 men, and initially it was not intended to send troops, but in 1918 a contingent of 1,254 volunteers went to France, where nineteen were killed. Siam attended the peace conference and urged amendments to the unequal treaties and recovery of full sovereignty, which America conceded in 1920 and Britain and France in 1925. In relation to the objectives set for it, Siam’s was the most successful of the 1917 interventions, despite the war being followed by a financial crisis. The story underlines how the new conditions forged opportunities for dissatisfied nations to press claims.

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Breakdown of Peace Feelers, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 268-270:

The breakdown of the 1917 peace feelers can be explained at different levels. Certainly it demonstrated the perils of amateur diplomacy. An older Catholic, aristocratic, and dynastic Europe, alongside the socialists and portions of the business elite, attempted to transcend divisions, as later it would support continental unification. Yet mediators such as Sixte and the Coppées helped sustain the contacts by over-representing to each party the other’s goodwill, and it is hard to see that professionals would have done better. Although the feelers made both sides review their war aims, they remained far apart. Admittedly, there were signs of movement: some French and British leaders were prepared at least to talk to the Germans; and the Germans to renounce the annexation of Longwy-Briey and give up the Belgian coast, while the Austrians considered ceding the Italian-majority areas of the Trentino (though both Central Powers hoped for compensations). But the Allies were less willing to jettison their claims. The British wanted full restoration for Belgium and to retain Germany’s colonies, while the German leaders, except for Kühlmann and briefly Bethmann, insisted on continuing control of Belgium. Nor would they cede more than a fraction of the Alsace-Lorraine of 1870, whereas the French wanted all of it, and preferably more. Italy’s Treaty of London claims on Austro-Hungarian territory were an equally formidable stumbling block. The territorial controversies really mattered, for economic and strategic reasons as well as on grounds of national self-determination, ethnicity, and international law and morality. But behind the territorial disputes lay a deeper issue: that the peace feelers served as weapons in the struggle, and especially to divide the enemy. The British and French saw the Sixte and Armand–Revertera affairs as such opportunities, as did Kühlmann the Villalobar contact. Both alliances’ efforts to shatter the other had been central to pre-1914 diplomacy, and this quest continued during the war.

The belligerent governments were cognizant of the rising threat of revolution and Czernin tried to use it as a lever. But none, except for Russia, stood quite yet on the verge of insurrection. Socialist and labour movements had gained support, but a renewed and strident nationalism rallied against them, and governmental concessions to the Left—such as pledges to support a League of Nations—were cosmetic. The domestic balance in the major belligerents shifted in favour of anti-war forces, but not, until the Bolsheviks seized power, by enough to end the conflict. The Reichstag peace resolution meant less than it seemed. Moreover, if the diplomatic and domestic political elements in Europe’s stalemate softened rather than dissolved, the same was true of the military deadlock. By summer 1917 both unrestricted submarine warfare and the Allies’ Chantilly offensives had failed to deliver. But by the autumn Russia’s collapse opened new prospects for the Central Powers, especially in conjunction with tactical innovations that brought renewed successes for their armies. And conversely America’s deepening engagement gave the Allies reason to hope that time still favoured them. Ribot and Lloyd George gambled on victory coming with American aid, and that in spite of Wilson’s palpable aloofness the Allies could still attain their objectives. It is surprising how little America featured in the 1917 debates, but without it Britain, France, and Italy would most likely have been forced, at best, into the unfavourable compromise that they dreaded. Wilson not only gave them economic, maritime, and psychological support, but also diplomatic backing, by rejecting the Stockholm conference and the papal peace note. For Wilson, too, had decided not to settle for a peace based on the pre-1914 status quo ante, and American power would be applied to forestall one. In the coming winter Washington would assert its leadership of the anti-German coalition. Before considering that development, we must explore the wider world, and the spreading shock waves from the European strife.

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Aftermath of Caporetto, 1918

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 229-230, 232-233:

Caporetto transformed rather than terminated Italy’s war. The tensest period was late October, when sbandati [“disbanded” soldiers] and civilian refugees swarmed over the Tagliamento bridges. By the 31st the main Italian forces were over the river, but four days later the Central Powers crossed it and Cadorna ordered a retreat to the Piave. By 10 November the Italians held the new position and assaults immediately began against it, at the same time as Conrad, belatedly and with much weaker forces, attacked in the Trentino. A further month of fighting followed until the Central Powers, having failed to make significant gains in either sector, wound the campaign down.

The campaign failed, therefore, to knock Italy out, but it was even more successful than the attackers had anticipated. The Italians no longer menaced Trieste, and would launch no further major offensive until October 1918. They withdrew by up to 150 kilometres, and an area normally inhabited by 1.15 million people fell under occupation. The Italians lost 294,000 prisoners (thousands of whom perished), 12,000 battle dead, and 30,000 wounded, as well as half their artillery. Given that over 350,000 became ‘disbanded’, only half the field army remained operational. In comparison, German and Austrian killed, wounded, and missing totalled some 70,000, of whom about 15,000 were German. Even so, Hindenburg felt ‘a sense of dissatisfaction’: the triumph was incomplete.

The new team at the top in Rome would make a difference only gradually, and even the French and British divisions, though doubtless a morale booster, came too late to decide the battle of the Piave. The major part in halting the invasion came from Italian soldiers, whom opponents such as Rommel now found were fighting harder. Orlando told Diaz it was ‘absolutely vital for the national interest’ to hold the new front, which was 170 kilometres shorter than the old one, from which change the Italians benefited. In addition, the collapse had largely been confined to the Second Army, whereas the Third and Fourth held the Piave line, and the sbandati were reintegrated into new units. The government also called up the 1899 conscript cohort, so that before the year ended the army was almost back to pre-Caporetto numbers, while by the spring it would largely recoup its equipment losses. To be sure, British and French deliveries assisted, especially British gas masks, but Italian industry accomplished most of the task. Psychological recovery was harder,  as over the winter food supplies remained critical and in several regions the civilian mood was fragile. The army sat out the cold in improvised positions and the military authorities, who continued monitoring troop morale, were nervous. The first two wartime prime ministers, Salandra and Boselli, were among many politicians who now doubted whether it had been right to enter the conflict. None the less, with the Germans gone the Austrians were again on their own, and from now on conditions on their home front and among their troops deteriorated while those of the Italians improved. 1918 would see less fighting than in 1917, much of the action being confined to the unsuccessful Austrian attack on the Piave line in June and the final Italian advance at the battle of Vittorio Veneto. This was a transformed front, and one that became the Austro-Hungarian army’s major commitment. Yet although Caporetto in the short term had spectacularly fulfilled the Central Powers’ objectives, in a curious way it weakened them in the longer, as Tenth and Eleventh Isonzo had weakened the Italians. Italy’s political unity and military morale improved in the aftermath and it received more Allied aid. But in the longer term still, among the consequences were the strengthening of ultra-nationalism and the PSI’s move towards extremism, paving the way for the rise of Fascism.

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Italy vs. Austria-Hungary, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 205-207:

On Wednesday 24 October 1917 German and Austrian forces launched one of the most daring attacks of the war. Breaking through Italian positions in the upper Isonzo river valley, within two weeks they had advanced over 100 miles. Almost half the Italian army were killed, wounded, or captured, or discarded their weapons and streamed to the rear. Territory that had taken more than two years and 900,000 casualties to capture was abandoned within hours. Amid the dreary litany of failed offensives and attrition battles, the name of Caporetto stands out, and in Italy has remained a shorthand for rout and fiasco. Even so, for most of the war it had been the Italians, not the Central Powers, who had been on the attack, in conditions often even worse than on the Western Front. In part, the collapse grew out of overstretch. To understand how the Italian army became so exposed, we must consider not only the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (as the Italians officially entitled Caporetto), but also the Tenth and Eleventh. It is further necessary to survey the operations themselves, from Austro-German breakthrough to Italian recovery. Devastating though Caporetto was, in many ways it strengthened Italy’s war effort.

Between 1882 and 1914 Italy had regularly renewed its Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. In 1914 it stayed neutral, and in May 1915 it joined the Allies, following the secret Treaty of London concluded with Britain, France, and Russia in April. Italy’s nineteenth-century national unification had left some 800,000 Italian-speakers under Austrian rule. But the Allies promised Italy not only the ethnically Italian areas in the Trentino and the environs of Trieste, but also the German-speaking South Tyrol and the Slovenian and Croatian territories of Istria and Dalmatia. And to incorporate any of these areas the Italians would have to conquer them. As France and Britain would enter any peace negotiations handicapped unless they dislodged the German army from France and Belgium, so too would Italy unless it dislodged the Austro-Hungarian army from the areas promised. In both theatres, if the Central Powers defended successfully they would win.

In both, however, they defended with one hand tied behind their backs. The Germans kept on average a third of their field army on the Eastern Front. The Austrian army was smaller, and because of its commitments in the Eastern and Balkan theatres, in 1917 only one-fifth of it faced Italy. Even so, this fifth included some of its best units, and the Italian war, imposed by an aggressor, was less unpopular than were other fronts. The Austrians also benefited from geography. The Front ran for 375 miles from the Swiss border to the Adriatic Sea, but much was so mountainous as to be completely unsuitable for operations (though fighting none the less occurred—trenches being dug in ice fields and thousands perishing in avalanches or freezing to death). The exceptions were the Trentino and the lower stretches of the Isonzo. The Trentino was one of the Italians’ target areas, but it was remote from the Austro-Hungarians’ urban and industrial centres, and easily defended. Projecting southwards, it formed an obvious jumping-off point for driving into the Po valley and cutting off the main Italian forces. For these reasons the Austrians had attacked there in May 1916, and although the Italians had rallied with assistance from Russia’s Brusilov offensive, the Austrians had pushed them closer to the plateau edge. They would be still more vulnerable if Austria-Hungary attacked again. None the less, the fighting concentrated on the Isonzo. Between May 1915 and September 1917 no fewer than eleven battles were fought there. In rocky terrain, bitterly cold in winter, it was hard to excavate dugouts and trenches, and stone splinters magnified the impact of bombardment, both sides sheltering in cliff-side caves. The quantities of heavy artillery, gas, and aircraft were smaller than in France, and to begin with the Italians were poorly equipped. Only in August 1916 did they achieve their first big success by switching reinforcements rapidly from the Trentino battle, gaining surprise, and taking Gorizia. Three more Isonzo battles that autumn, however, led to no further progress, and left the army exhausted before a prolonged winter pause. By this stage the Italians held most of the Isonzo except for an Austrian bridgehead round Tolmino. But east of Gorizia a natural ‘amphitheatre’ of encircling peaks overlooked their positions, and to the north and south lay the limestone plateaux of the Bainsizza, the Ternova, and the Carso. Rising to over 2,000 feet, the plateaux were waterless, treeless, and largely devoid of roads and settlement. But beyond them lay no comparably short and defensible line between the Italians and the goals set by their commander, General Luigi Cadorna, of  Trieste (Austria-Hungary’s one significant port) and Ljubljana, whence a further advance might threaten Vienna.

At first the Italians fought against Austria-Hungary alone, declaring war on Germany only in August 1916. They sent contingents to the Balkans but not the Western Front, and the Germans stayed out of the Italian theatre. The other allies resented the high price paid for Italian intervention, and the lack of Italian progress.

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Cemeteries of Przemyśl

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 241-242:

Przemyśl buries its dead to the south. Today, if one walks from the city’s clock tower down what used to be called Dobromil Street, whose end destination now lies cut off across the Ukrainian border, the municipal cemetery soon comes into view. Turn right up a twisting, undulating road which in 1914 led past some of the Fortress’s main powder magazines, and very soon you reach the military burial ground. For all its tranquility, this is a sad place. A pretty, lightly wooded field lies at the top of the sloping grounds. Only a monument, flanked by two imposing Byzantine crosses, warns visitors that below their feet is the mass grave of some 9,000 Russian soldiers. The Austro-Hungarian cemetery across the road appears more organized, with row on row of dark stone crosses. Yet no plaque records how many men lie here—as if that were still a military secret—and the crosses have no inscriptions; these peasant soldiers are in death, as in life, anonymous. The empires for which they fell would within just a few years both lie in ruins. Yet the violence unleashed by their war would live on. Silent witnesses to future, even greater horrors lie nearby: in a Polish military cemetery for soldiers killed fighting German invaders in 1939 and Ukrainians in the 1940s, and, just to the east, in the city’s eerily beautiful Jewish burial grounds.

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Ethnic POW Gulags in Russia, 1915

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 250-251:

The prisoners were driven by knout-wielding Cossacks “like cattle” on long marches to rail stations. Most entrained at Lwów or, another 90 kilometers (around 56 miles) to the northeast, at the Galician frontier town of Brody. Nearly all passed through the Tsarist army’s large transit camp at Kiev, 600 kilometers (370 miles) from Przemyśl. Here, prisoners’ names, ranks, and regiments were recorded. Above all, the Russian army was avidly interested in prisoners’ ethnicity. Its officers’ racialized thinking had already been evident in Przemyśl. There, first the Hungarian regiments were sent away—for the Russians regarded them as the most dangerous—then the Austrian Germans. Slavic units, whom the conqueror hoped were less hostile, were dispatched last. In Kiev, a more thorough sorting took place. Magyars, Germans, and Jews were separated to be cast into the harshest camps. Serbs and Romanians in Honvéd uniforms were sought out and earmarked for privileged treatment as “friendly” peoples. Hundreds of Przemyśl prisoners were transported to Russia’s capital, St. Petersburg, where they were paraded humiliatingly before the public along the main thoroughfare, the Nevsky Prospekt. Then they, too, were made invisible.

Most of the Przemyśl prisoners were incarcerated deep in Asian Russia, in the region of Turkestan (in today’s Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). The rail journey lasted two to four weeks. Cattle wagons, those functional items of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution that, in the dehumanizing twentieth, became icons of ethnic cleansing and genocide, were provided for transport. Cold, dark, overcrowded, and stinking, they were breeding grounds for disease-carrying parasites. The wagons rolled slowly. Food was distributed only irregularly and could be barely edible. When the weak men eventually disembarked, they found themselves in a strange climate. Turkestan was a place of extremes. In the winter, it could feel like the arctic. In summer, temperatures soared up to 45°C (113°F). Its unsanitary camps were overseen by brutal guards, and epidemics raged through them in 1915. Everybody contracted malaria. Dysentery, cholera, and typhus killed thousands.

The Russian hell had many circles. There were prisoners who spent years in Turkestan. Others were moved around the Tsar’s empire. Sometimes Slavic prisoners—although not Poles, who were distrusted by the Russians—were set above their fellows and given privileged conditions; they themselves then became instruments of suffering. Many prisoners volunteered to work as a means of escaping the camps and earning money so they could supplement their meager rations. They might end up felling trees or plowing the fields on big landed estates. Those most fortunate were handed over to small peasant farmers who would treat them as one of the family. In contrast, labor in the mines of southern Russia could be lethal. Whether benevolent or brutal, however, employers had total power over their prisoners. For sure, they had duties of care, but often there were no checks to ensure these were observed. Instead, official regulations emphasized that “it is the duty of all prisoners to carry out all work to which they are commanded, no matter how heavy. If one refuses, he is to be… treated as a convict, and this punishment shall… last the entire period of his captivity.”

The deepest circle was the Tsar’s own Death Railway to Murmansk. This place of suffering was reserved largely for Hungarians and Germans. The line was urgently needed to transport war materials left by British ships at the northern port to the Russian armies at the front. Over 50,000 prisoners worked here until 1917 in conditions that in their hardship equaled, and even exceeded, those of the later Soviet Gulags.

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Officer POWs in Tsarist Russia

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 247-248:

An officer’s existence in captivity, although psychologically straining, was generally not physically arduous. The Hague Convention of 1907, the international treaty governing the laws and customs of war on land, to which both Russia and Austria-Hungary were signatories, dictated that officers could not be forced to work and guaranteed them a regular salary. Generals received 125 rubles per month. Regimental officers were paid an entirely adequate 50 rubles. Especially in 1915 and 1916, living conditions were fairly comfortable. Some officers were permitted to live in houses. In the prisoner-of-war camps, they could afford extra furnishings and had soldier-servants. Sports and educational activities were organized. The Berezovka camp in Siberia became famous for its “extraordinarily rich” library, which was well stocked thanks to “officers from Przemyśl who brought with them a major part of the Fortress’s library.” Not only post but also telegraphic services were accessible. For Gayczak, this easily compensated for all the other hardship. At long last, after eight months of aching worry, he was able to contact his family in Russian-occupied Lwów. On April 19, 1915, he received a five-word telegram from his wife that left him euphoric with relief: “Everyone alive and healthy, Lucy.”

The fate of Przemyśl’s other ranks was far grimmer. For them the war was by no means over. The Russian army took 2.1 million Habsburg prisoners during the First World War. Horrifyingly, one in every five—around 470,000 men—died during their captivity.

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Civilian Internments in Przemyśl, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle p. 71:

KUSMANEK’S FIRST TWO tasks at the war’s start were to protect the Fortress from surprise attack and to prepare it for siege. The third, however, was inward-looking: to maintain internal order. Kusmanek possessed formidable powers to fulfill this objective. Galicia fell within the extensive “Area of the Army in the Field” declared on July 31, 1914, in which military commanders were placed above the civilian administration. On August 2, repressive martial law was imposed throughout this area. Unrest or rebellion, high treason, espionage, lèse majesté, and a host of other offenses detrimental to smooth mobilization were henceforth to be tried in military courts. Through the Fortress Command court, over which Kusmanek presided, passed a stream of civilian cases from the surrounding region.

The Fortress Command, like other military and civilian authorities in Galicia, acted preemptively to smash all possible resistance. Lists of potential traitors had been drawn up by district officials in peacetime, and across the province, over 4,000 people were arrested in the first days of war. The Russophile intelligentsia was the primary target, but through paranoia, denunciations, and the cynical exploitation of the emergency by some Polish officials to rid themselves of troublesome local opponents, many Ukrainian nationalists, for whom rule by the Tsar would be a catastrophe, were also taken into a Kafkaesque “preventive detention.” The Greek Catholic Church, to which most Ruthenes adhered, suffered particularly grievously. The similarity of its eastern rites to those of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the fact that a small minority of its priests were Russophile, all fueled suspicion. Its churches around Przemyśl had been built with Russian funds, went one rumor, as landmarks to help orientate an invading army. In the Przemyśl diocese, where 873 clergy had their ministries, more than a third of the priests, 314 altogether, were interned.

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