Category Archives: Slovakia

Who All “Collaborated” with Nazism 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. 366-368:

The frequently reiterated assertion that the clearance of German populations from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary has in some way prevented the outbreak of World War III is a proposition so obviously false as hardly to deserve rebuttal. What made for peace in Europe was a lengthy occupation of Germany by both superpowers, which in itself offers a complete explanation of why, so long as it continued, no danger was to be apprehended from that quarter. The successful rehabilitation of the German political system, the inculcation of democratic habits and instincts among the people, and the binding together of postwar Germany within a larger European union are nearly as important factors in the transformation that has taken place in the character of European nationstate interactions since 1945. In these circumstances, the continuing presence of significant ethnic German minorities in Italy, Romania, Hungary, and Russia has not threatened the peace of the continent. There is no reason to suppose that if others had remained in their ancestral homelands a greater menace was to be apprehended.

Lastly, the suggestion that the ethnic Germans were, as presumed fifth columnists before the war or eager Nazi collaborators during it, especially if not uniquely deserving of punishment is no easier to sustain. As we have seen, a rule specifying a minority nationality’s unconditional duty of loyalty to a state to which it has been unwillingly attached that can be depended upon to vindicate the Czech or Slovak nation’s stance in 1918 [deserting in great numbers to fight for Russia rather than Austria-Hungary] and to condemn that of the Sudetendeutsche twenty years later is difficult to formulate. As for their wartime record, evidence is scanty that it was any worse than, or different from, that of the German people as a whole. Unquestionably that is quite bad enough, and I should not wish to be interpreted as contending otherwise. But even if all Germans, ethnic or Reich citizens, were equally guilty, not all Germans were equally severely punished. Why the Volksdeutsche, who if the worst that can be said about them is true came late to Nazism, should have been imprisoned, expropriated, and deported when the people of the country that originated Nazism and exported it abroad by the most brutal means suffered none of these things is hard to square with notions of strict and impartial justice.

More to the point, it conveniently elides the wartime record of the majority populations, which itself did not always bear close examination. Many Slovaks, for example, bore little less responsibility for the dissolution of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Conference than did the Sudeten Germans. For most of the Second World War, Slovakia was a German client state; Slovak troops took part in the invasion of Poland alongside their German allies in September 1939, and of the Soviet Union in June 1941. With only a single dissenting voice in the Slovak parliament, the great majority of the country’s Jewish population was expelled to German-controlled territory, from which only a comparative handful returned alive. Yet few Slovaks were punished after the war for these offenses, and none expelled. Besides, at a more mundane level the postwar meaning of “collaboration” was highly variable, with the same actions—or inactions—attracting either official toleration or condign penalties based on one’s ethnicity. During the Great War of 1914–18, J. R. Sanborn points out, some of the inhabitants of central and southeastern Europe “held affinities for one occupying force or another … but most people wisely tried to keep their heads down, to stay out of danger when they could, and, when all else failed, to run away. Nothing got you on the end of a rope faster than taking sides in a fluid war with an uncertain outcome.” In the Second World War also, this inglorious but time-tested formula for survival was the most popular strategy practiced by ethnic Germans, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and most other peoples who were given the opportunity to do so by their Nazi overlords, or, in eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941, their scarcely less vicious Stalinist counterparts. (Tragically, it was an option denied to Jews, Sinti, and Roma.) For only the Germans, though, was it adjudged a “passive war crime” at the end of the conflict.

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Czech and Polish “Wild West” in 1947

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 255-257:

The removal of the ethnic Germans was not just an enormous logistical undertaking. It was also the source of a highly disruptive economic and social transformation of the affected areas, one whose impact remains to the present day. In much the same way that the wartime cooperation of ordinary Germans (and, indeed, Poles, Ukrainians, and other nationalities) in the persecution and removal of Jews had been obtained by the opportunity it provided to appropriate Holocaust victims’ property, Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian citizens’ enthusiasm for the expulsions owed a great deal to the prospect that they would profit from the confiscation of their German neighbors’ wealth. The new borderlands, however, proved to be no Eldorado, and the new economic and social realities that were produced under abnormal circumstances brought a fresh set of unforeseen complications in their train.

To a substantial degree, the scramble for booty dictated the breakneck pace of the expulsions, as local authorities, militia bands, or politically connected individuals rushed to grab the most desirable German properties for themselves before others, or the central government, got in ahead of them. The lion’s share of the loot, nonetheless, wound up in the state’s hands, where it became an important instrument of communization. Before the Second World War, Communist parties had been negligible influences throughout central and eastern Europe. The Nazi-Soviet Pact; Stalin’s treacherous attack on Poland’s eastern frontier when the country was fighting desperately for its life; the expulsions and massacres that had followed, at the Katyn Forest and elsewhere; and the Red Army’s cynical abandonment of the Polish Home Army to the Nazis in the Warsaw Rising of August 1944 did nothing to persuade ordinary Poles that the Russian leopard had changed its spots. Though the USSR’s standing in Czechoslovakia was higher—thanks in large measure to the perception that Moscow, in contrast to the appeasement-minded Western powers, had been ready to assist Prague militarily before the Munich Conference—there was little enthusiasm for state socialism on the Soviet pattern. Because Communists controlled the Ministries of the Interior and of Agriculture in both countries after the war, however, they were also in a position to decide the redistribution of confiscated German property. They took full advantage of the rich sources of patronage this provided to buy, if not the support, then at least the acquiescence of citizens in their continued rule. The expulsions, then, provided the material basis that enabled the governments of the Soviet satellites to solidify their domestic standing at the moment of their greatest vulnerability.

As the dispute over the Jelonka Hotel demonstrated, though, property redistribution could be an instrument of social disruption as well as social cohesion. Disputes over the true ownership of a confiscated house or farm, in a situation in which the premises might have changed hands several times over the card table in a single weekend, would clog up the court systems of the expelling countries for years into the future. Overnight, the borderland areas were stripped not just of population but of agencies of government: when a German town was cleared of its residents, its local council, police force, municipal administrators, and providers of essential services like waste removal or water supplies usually went with them. Even in those relatively rare cases when replacement officials from the majority population could be found to take their place, Soviet military commanders, preferring to concentrate the skeins of power in their own hands, often prevented them from taking up their positions. In a literal and not merely a metaphorical sense, then, many of these districts became lawless areas—as the hapless Kazimierz Trzciński had discovered when he tried to take possession of his hotel. For several years after the change in jurisdiction, a vacuum of state authority existed and the rule of the gun prevailed. It was hardly surprising, then, that fewer people than resettlement authorities hoped were willing to put down permanent roots in such areas; or that a disproportionate number of those who did, like Trzciński himself, turned out to conform poorly to the image of the sturdy, self-reliant pioneer depicted in Communist propaganda. The name that both Poles and Czechoslovaks gave to their frontier regions after the war—the “Wild West”—reflected their awareness that even after the Germans’ departure, these were places that remained alien in many respects from the countries of which they were nominally a part.

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Imaginary “Werewolf Cells” in 1945

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 114-116:

The Ústí massacre quickly turned into a bitter point of contention between the Czechoslovak government and the Sudetendeutsch Social Democrats in London. The Cabinet in Prague, already rattled by reports arriving from low-ranking officers who were anxious to parade their vigilance by depicting every find of discarded weapons or discovery of a German civilian in possession of a pair of binoculars as evidence of a “Werewolf cell,” immediately put two and two together and made five. Even though the army stated that the cause of the explosion had not yet been determined, the Cabinet concluded that it was undoubtedly the fruit of a “planned sabotage action.” Unverified rumors were supplied to—and uncritically published by—the national and international press as confirmed fact, including a story that a Werewolf aircraft had flown low over Ústí and might have dropped a bomb on the ammunition dump at the time of the explosion. (Six weeks later, Wenzel Jaksch’s Social Democrats mockingly inquired of Prague why nothing had been heard since then from “the powerful Werewolf conspiracy, its radio stations, its grey airplanes, its centres in Belgrade, Paris and Argentine.”) For their part, Sudeten Germans aired their suspicions that the explosion had been the Czechoslovak version of the Reichstag fire of 1933, pointing to what seemed the remarkable coincidence that the Potsdam Conference was taking place at the same time. Rumors circulated in the Sudetendeutsch camp that printed notices imposing a curfew on Ústí to quell the disturbances had begun to be posted up on walls even before the explosion took place, and that the massacre had been deliberately staged to impress on the Big Three at Potsdam what would happen on a far larger scale if they did not give final approval to the expulsions. Neither the government’s nor the Sudeten Germans’ rival conspiracy theories, however, need be taken very seriously. The truth was almost certainly, as a pair of British-born residents in Ústí who had witnessed the killings reported to Ambassador Nichols, that a tragic accident had been followed by “a spontaneous outburst by Czech hooligans” in and out of uniform.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, public as well as official paranoia over Werewolf activity escalated considerably, with ludicrous claims like “hundreds of Werewolves have been destroyed and disposed of every day” and “our entire border is now a combat zone, where the hidden enemy launches attacks against the Czech people” appearing regularly in the popular press. The precise reason remains unclear. It may be that in the wake of the Potsdam Conference’s call for a temporary suspension of expulsions, Czechoslovak authorities felt themselves under pressure to generate the evidence that would prove the presence of the Germans to be an ongoing threat to the country’s national security and strengthen the argument for their removal. Tomáš Staněk also points out that the Communist-dominated Ministry of Information had a vested interest in generating a steady stream of stories about Werewolves and spies seeking to undermine the “People’s Democratic State.” At all events, from early August an atmosphere reminiscent of the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials prevailed in the Czech borderlands, in which numerous Germans were tortured to persuade them to reveal the names of members of Werewolf cells, who would themselves be subjected to equally rigorous interrogation to elicit still more names. As Staněk notes, a high proportion of the “confessions” thus obtained bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those extracted using identical methods from “counterrevolutionaries” and “capitalist spies” after the Communist coup of February 1948.

The fact nonetheless remained that proven cases of opposition to forced removals were somewhat nowhere to be found. The uniform, almost eerie, meekness of the German population was recorded in report after report in both Czechoslovakia and Poland. The month before the Ústí explosion, the commander of the gendarmerie declared the area to be entirely peaceful; and although the local SNB headquarters three weeks later complained of shootings and robberies occurring on a daily basis, it placed the blame for these on Czechoslovak military and Red Army elements. Elsewhere, even after the massacre, police and army accounts spoke overwhelmingly of the “passivity and servility” of the Germans; of their evident appearance of being “frightened” and “depressed”; and of the security forces’ confidence that any truly dangerous elements among them had already either been removed from the country or were safely in custody. Newspapers likewise testified to the Germans behaving with the “servility to which the Czechoslovaks ha[d] become accustomed.”

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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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Prewar Ethnic Cleansing 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. 39-41:

In one respect it is misleading to speak of “the postwar expulsions.” From the very beginning of the Second World War, the European totalitarian powers engaged in ethnic cleansing on a scale never before seen in history. For Adolf Hitler, a continent from which “undesirable” peoples—Jews, Slavs, Roma, and others—had been displaced to make room for incoming German colonists lay at the very heart of his nightmarish racial vision. Even the Holocaust, when it had finally been decided upon, was but a means to this larger end. But his fellow dictator Josef Stalin also had grand ambitions to redraw the ethnographic map of the continent. During the two years of their uneasy partnership under the Nazi-Soviet Pact, both men found it convenient to work together.

Neither was a newcomer to the task. Stalin especially had a notable record of moving potentially troublesome national minorities around his empire, both as a form of collective punishment and to ensure that vulnerable borderlands were inhabited by ethnic groups—principally Russians and Georgians—in whose loyalty he considered he could repose greater confidence. To be sure, the internal transfer of smaller nations falling within the Russian orbit already had a long and dishonorable history by the time Stalin assumed control. Tsar Alexander II, the ironically named “Tsar-Liberator,” displaced nearly half a million natives of the western Caucasus in 1863–64 to enhance the security of the border. His grandson, Nicholas II, would follow his example in the first months of the Great War, removing to the Russian interior the ethnic Germans of central Poland along with an even greater number of Polish Jews. With the front beginning to collapse in the face of Hindenburg’s counterattacks in January 1915, Army General Headquarters stepped up this purge of potentially disloyal German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish subjects, by the simple expedient of giving the expellees a short period to collect what goods they could and then setting fire to their houses and crops. As the displaced people fled east, without food or any semblance of an evacuation system in operation, they began to die in large numbers. In the central Asian regions and the Far East of the Russian Empire, Chinese, Korean, and Moslem populations were removed for similar reasons. But it was only after the Bolshevik Revolution that internal deportations of entire peoples became a regular instrument of state policy.

A youthful Stalin cut his teeth as an architect of forced removals when as “Commissar for Nationalities” he assisted his fellow Georgian, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, to clear out the Terek Cossacks from the northern Caucasus in 1920. In the second half of the 1930s, movements of this kind reached unprecedented levels. “Between 1935 and 1938,” as Terry Martin notes, “at least nine Soviet nationalities—Poles, Germans, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Koreans, Chinese, Kurds, Iranians—were all subjected to ethnic cleansing.” Most of these movements were connected to the Soviet leader’s paranoia over “spies” and “wreckers” within the country. In 1937, for example, 11,868 ethnic Germans living in the USSR were arrested as suspected Nazi agents; the following year no fewer than 27,432 were detained on similar charges. The number of Soviet Poles held for espionage was greater still. The majority of these detainees were executed; the peoples to which they belonged were internally exiled by police and NKVD units. During the years of Stalin’s “Great Terror,” a total of approximately 800,000 members of national minorities were victims of execution, arrest, or deportation—generally to the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which began to rival Siberia as convenient dumping grounds for peoples the government viewed with disfavor.

Although Hitler had less scope than his Soviet counterpart for large-scale transfers of population, he too worked energetically to convert Germany into an ethnically and racially homogeneous state even before the war. The persecution of the Jews since 1933 had the explicit intention of compelling them to leave the country: in its crudest form, this consisted of physically pushing those who held dual citizenship across the borders into the territory of neighboring countries. A further wave of coerced migrations, this time under international auspices, ensued as a result of the Munich Agreement, which provided a six-month window of opportunity for ethnic Czechs and Slovaks to move out of the Sudetenland (and Germans elsewhere in Czechoslovakia to transfer in) and established a German-Czechoslovak commission to “consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population.” In the spring of 1939, Germany browbeat neighboring Lithuania into ceding the largely German Memelland to the Reich, though tens of thousands of Volksdeutsche were left in the areas remaining under Lithuanian control. Lastly, at Mussolini’s behest, Heinrich Himmler opened negotiations with Italy in May 1939 to secure the removal of the 200,000 ethnic Germans of the Alto Adige region in the Italian Alps. Notwithstanding his “Pact of Steel” with Hitler concluded in the same month, the Duce had not been oblivious to the recent fate of countries bordering on the Reich that harbored German minority populations. After the Nazi state’s absorption of Austria in the Anschluss of 1938, Mussolini considered it wise to remove temptation, and his ethnic Germans, from his new partner’s field of vision. By July, an agreement in principle had been reached for the “voluntary” departure of the German-speaking population, though no decision was taken as to their ultimate destination. Although the pact supposedly required the ratification of the ethnic Germans themselves in a plebiscite, an affirmative vote was ensured by declaring that any who elected to remain ipso facto consented to be resettled anywhere within the Italian domains that Mussolini chose to send them. According to rumors deliberately spread to make certain that voters saw the matter in the correct light, this was to be Abyssinia.

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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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Habsburg Landsturm: Alien Officers and ‘Army Slavic’

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 57-59:

As a guest list for a gentlemen’s club dinner, the officers’ roll of III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18 would have promised a fascinating evening. However, as a warrior fraternity, a band of brothers sworn to defend to their dying breath the realms of a venerable emperor, these officers were unlikely to strike fear into many enemy hearts. In this terrible war, their ranks began to thin immediately….

Beyond the almost complete absence of military qualities, what is also striking is how entirely alien the officers of the regiment were to the men they led. Of course, class distinctions between officers and their soldiers were virtually universal among the armies of 1914, and they even had advantages: the self-confidence, self-control, and education associated with an elite upbringing were, commanders insisted throughout the war, the best foundation for military leadership. However, the officers of the battalion were also geographically remote. Most lived 500–600 kilometers (310–375 miles) from Czerteż. Eight came from Vienna, five from Brno, and nine from other parts of Moravia or Bohemia. Only two, one Pole and one Ukrainian (this last a cadet rather than a full officer), were from Galicia. The cultural gulf between these officers—bourgeois big city slickers from the most economically advanced western regions of the Habsburg Empire—and the Central Galician battalion’s rank and file was immense. In the eyes of the pious middle-aged peasants they led, the officers might as well have landed from Mars.

The regional divide between III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18’s officers and other ranks raised practical problems of language. All the battalion’s officers, with the exception of the two from Galicia, had as their mother tongue Czech or German. Their men, by contrast, spoke Polish or Ukrainian. Occasionally, one came across a Yiddish-speaking Jew. Theoretically, this posed no great difficulty, for the Habsburg army had long experience of managing polyglot units. The army recognized three different types of languages. The “language of service,” which was German in most of the army, and Hungarian in Honvéd and Hungarian Landsturm units, was used for all communication above the company level. (The Magyar term for Landsturm was Népfelkelő.) More important for interaction between the officers and the men was the “language of command,” which was a list of eighty basic military words and phrases in either German or Hungarian, such as “March!,” “At Ease!,” and “Fire!” To cultivate deeper relations between ranks, all units also had one or more “regimental languages.” Any tongue spoken by at least one-fifth of the regiment’s personnel was so designated, and officers were obligated to learn every one of them in order to engage with their subordinates, bond with them, and exert influence over them.

In III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18, as in most wartime formations, such intricate arrangements were pipe dreams. For officers, a decent grasp of the German language was essential, as it was the medium for communication with the various levels of the Fortress Command and with other units. Within the battalion’s mess, German was also widely spoken, although, to annoy Major Zipser, the Czech officers made a special point of speaking their mother tongue to each other. Communication with the men was, kindly put, a challenge. Some officers may have gotten by with “Army Slavic,” a most peculiar military Esperanto blending Slavic grammar with German military terminology. Thus, for example, the battalion’s Poles could be ordered to antretować (from the German antreten—to form up) on parade, and would then narugować (nachrücken—to move up) to the front, before forming a szwarmlinia (Schwarmlinie—firing line). Others who spoke only German relied on the battalion’s few Jews to act as intermediaries. Still, even with goodwill, careful listening, and much imagination on all sides, frontline command of Landsturm troops was difficult.

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Multiethnic Przemyśl in 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 11-13:

The Przemyśl municipal authorities were keen to emphasize the Polish credentials of their city. This too was a mark of modernity, for nationalism was the new, exciting, and inspirational ideology of the late nineteenth century, promising the renewal of real and imagined past glories and a better, more efficient future. The reforms of the 1860s had placed Galicia in the hands of Polish conservatives and granted considerable powers of self-government to Austria’s municipalities. As in other Galician cities, Polish Democrats—more liberal and elite than their name might today imply—ran Przemyśl in the decades before 1914. Under mayors Aleksander Dworski (1882–1901) and Franciszek Doliński (1901–1914), the expanding city not only improved its infrastructure—building wells and drains, a municipal slaughterhouse, a hospital, and an electrical power station—but also asserted the Polishness of its public spaces. The most impressive new or rebuilt main streets were named after the most revered Polish poets, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński, or landmark events in Poland’s history, such as the May 3, 1791, constitution, or the medieval victory of Grunwald over the Teutonic Knights. Statues of Mickiewicz and the Polish warrior-king Jan Sobiecki III, funded by popular subscription, were raised by the old Market Square.

Przemyśl’s other ethnic groups were also caught by the new spirit of the late nineteenth century. The Greek Catholic minority generally had little opportunity to make much mark on the city in brick or stone beyond its historic churches. There was, however, one important exception: schools. Language issues, and the right to teach children in one’s mother tongue, were becoming central to identity and to political disputes across the Habsburg Empire, and Ukrainian-speakers—or Ruthenes, as they were known in this period—were no exceptions. In the late nineteenth century, elite boys’ and girls’ secondary schools teaching in Ukrainian were founded, augmenting existing primary provision and attracting pupils from far beyond the city limits. Ruthenes were deeply divided in their identity, and the fractures were reflected in their associations and in the press. “Ukrainian” at this time denoted a political stance: a conviction that Ukrainian-speakers were a distinct nation. The majority of the small clerical and intellectual elite adhered to this view. A lesser group, the so-called Russophiles, disagreed, regarding themselves culturally, and sometimes also politically, as a branch of the Russian nation. Though difficult to enumerate, a fairly large section of lower-class Ruthenes was mostly indifferent to the novel idea of the nation, and persisted in prioritizing the Greek Catholic faith as the foundation of their identity.

Przemyśl’s Jewish community displayed some similar divisions. Orthodox Jewry had long predominated, and though this was still true in the early twentieth century, the modern era had brought schism and change. There were four synagogues in Przemyśl by 1914. The oldest, situated in the Jewish quarter, and eight other smaller prayer houses were frequented by the traditionalist, Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews who so fascinated Ilka Künigl-Ehrenburg. They were instantly recognizable, especially the men, with their curly sidelocks, beards, black hats, and black kaftans. To attend synagogue with them was a profoundly spiritual experience. Künigl-Ehrenburg ducked under the low doorway of the Old Synagogue one Sabbath and climbed up to the women’s gallery to watch. The faithful filled every inch of space. Some sat, others stood, all pressed tightly together. From above, a stream of light pierced the darkness and shone onto the silver-edged Torah scroll displayed by the altar. Wrapped in their gray-and-white striped prayer shawls, the believers rocked back and forth murmuring their sacred devotions. To the Styrian countess, it was strange—“oriental”—but very moving. “Everything was full of atmosphere, harmonious,” she wrote.

Times were shifting, however. Beginning in 1901, the kehilah, Przemyśl’s Jewish communal council, dropped Yiddish and instead conducted its meetings in Polish. The city’s three other synagogues had all been built since the 1880s and catered to wealthy, educated Jews. Jews—some of them—had particularly prospered from Przemyśl’s rapid expansion, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by their Christian neighbors. The town’s credit institutions were nearly all in Jewish hands. The majority of new manufacturing concerns and almost all trading and services were as well. The most intense civic development in the final thirty years of peace had taken place to the east of the old town and in the suburb of Zasanie, north of the San River. In these districts, the housing stock had more than doubled, and it was to there that well-off Jews had moved. They had bought up property on the smartest strips; it was a mild irony that on Mickiewicz Street, named for Poland’s national poet, no fewer than 74 of the 139 buildings were Jewish-owned. The synagogues serving these communities, like the people who attended them, took inspiration from modern liberalism and nationalism. The “Tempel” in the old city was home to Jewish progressives keen to integrate into Polish culture. Faced with red brick, like synagogues in the west of the empire, it celebrated Polish holidays and had sermons and prayers in the Polish language. The Zasanie synagogue was popular with Zionist youth.

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How Many Slavic Languages vs. Dialects?

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2006-26:

Whether they’re from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad or from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, there’s little difference in the way Russians speak. In Poland, the same holds true: North Poles and South Poles can chat away effortlessly to each other, as can West and East Poles. Even people speaking different Slavic languages can often communicate without much trouble. Bulgarians can converse with Macedonians, Czechs with Slovaks, and Russians with Belarusians and Ukrainians. And, for all their political differences, there is no great language barrier between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins. In fact, as the eminent nineteenth-century Slovak scholar Ján Kollár suggested, the Slavic world could, with no great effort on the part of its citizens, adopt just four standard languages: Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak and, lastly, what you might call Yugoslav or South Slavic.

There is one language, however, that wouldn’t so easily be absorbed into Kollár’s scheme: Slovene, also known as Slovenian. Admittedly, this is the language of a very small nation. Its entire territory fits no fewer than twelve times into the area of the UK (which is itself not large) and the population, at just over two million, is just a quarter of that of London. And yet, when Slovenes speak their local dialects, many of their compatriots can make neither head nor tail of what they are saying. So just imagine how these dialects would bewilder the members of some of the other nations that Kollár lumped together as ‘South Slavic’, such as the Bulgarians.

How come? Why does Russian span more than four thousand miles from west to east with next to nothing in the way of dialect diversity, whereas the Slovene language area, measuring just two hundred miles from end to end, is a veritable smorgasbord of regional varieties? Which in turn raises the question: how do dialects come about in the first place?

One school of thought, or rather thoughtlessness, holds that dialects are corrupted forms of the standard language – as, for example, in the view that ‘Scouse is just bad English’. This might be one’s automatic reaction, but it’s in fact the wrong way round: dialects come first, and tend to be at the root of any standard language, which is always an artefact. It would be nearer the truth to claim that standards are ‘corrupted’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverted’ dialects. For any other variation of any language, regional or otherwise, develops in a largely unselfconscious way, influenced chiefly by its degree of isolation and contact.

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Filed under Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechia, education, language, nationalism, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

Germans & Hungarians vs. Czechs & Slovaks in Siberia, 1918

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. 4818-4863:

WELL BEFORE THE revolt of the Czecho-Slovak Legion, on March 24, 1918, Secretary of State Lansing had warned Wilson that if reports of “German” POWs taking control of Irkutsk and other cities in Siberia are true, “we will have a new situation in Siberia which may cause a revision of our policy. . . . With the actual control by the Germans of so important a place as Irkutsk, the question of the moral effect upon the Russian people of an expedition against the Germans is a very different thing from the occupation of the Siberian Railway in order to keep order between contending Russian factions. It would seem to be a legitimate operation against the common enemy. I do not see how we could refuse to sanction such a military step.” Seen only as German or Hungarian, these POWS were believed to be affiliated with the Central Powers. Of course, the POWs were actually serving the Bolsheviks.

The size, composition, and combat role of the Internationalists were underestimated not only by contemporary observers in Siberia, but even later by scholars like George F. Kennan. His otherwise highly valuable work on revolutionary Russia downplays the role of the hundreds of thousands of Austrian, Hungarian, and German POWs fighting for Moscow, a result of his effort to dispel rumors that the POWs were being armed by Berlin. Kennan says, “there could not have been more than 10,000” armed Central Powers POWs and makes much of the fact that “there were relatively few Germans.” Basing his assessment on a flawed report by two hapless officers given the task of assessing the extent of the POW threat, British captain W. L. Hicks and American captain William B. Webster, Kennan concludes that “relatively few of these prisoners were ever armed and used,” which has since been disproven by much original documentation and by numerous other scholars.

The presence and influence of the German, Austrian, and Hungarian POWs astounded even high-level German officials in Berlin. In a December 5, 1917, report to Kaiser Wilhelm II, a German agent reported on the situation in Siberia following the Bolshevik coup:

Quite a number of different, independent republics have been formed. The latest of these, however, are the German Prisoners’ Republics. In various places where there are large prisoner-of-war camps, the German prisoners, finding that all order had broken down around them, took the business of feeding and administration into their own hands and now feed not only themselves, but also the villages around. The villagers are extremely satisfied with this state of affairs and, together with the prisoners, have formed something like a republican administration, which is directed by the German prisoners. This could surely be called a new phenomenon in the history of the world. Russia, even more than America, is the land of unlimited possibilities.

Captain Vladimir S. Hurban, an officer on the first legion train to cross Siberia, observed: “In every Soviet, there was a German who exercised a great influence over all its members.” On July 4, 1918, the US consul at Omsk, Alfred R. Thomson, had reported to Lansing, “In most places the chief strength of [Soviet] armed forces consisted in armed German and Magyar prisoners,” citing Soviet military leaders or entire Red units that were, in fact, Austro-Hungarian or German POWs in Omsk, Ishim, Petropavlovsk, and Irkutsk. Large Internationalist Brigades were established throughout Russia, particularly along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The Danish ambassador was quoted in a Russian newspaper on April 19, 1918, saying, “The report that war prisoners in Siberia are being supplied with arms is not subject to doubt. The number of men thus armed is very considerable and the Siberian authorities compel them to go into action.” The many congresses of Internationalist POWs that were held in cities across Russia might have provided additional evidence of a mass movement of prisoners enlisting in the Red Army.

Admiral Knight at Vladivostok reported on June 26 that Major W. S. Drysdale, US military attaché in Peking (Beijing), “fully confirmed” reports of twenty to thirty thousand armed POWS fighting the legionnaires on behalf of soviets in Siberia. “Drysdale, who has heretofore minimized danger from war prisoners admits they have now gone beyond [the] control [of the] Soviets,” Knight telegraphed Washington. The threat posed by the POWs was relayed to Lansing by William G. Sharp, US ambassador to France, as early as April 11, 1918. However, historian Donald F. Trask notes, “The United States government tended to discount this argument after receiving reports from American observers in Russia which indicated no immediate threat of such activity.”

To the legionnaires it made no difference whether Berlin, Vienna, or Moscow was somehow arming the POWS. The hostility that Austrian and Hungarian POWs felt toward the Czechs and Slovaks preceded—by centuries—the hostilities that broke out between Moscow and the legionnaires. While the Internationalists were not under Berlin’s command, there were significant numbers of German, Austrian, and Hungarian POWs that did not merely menace the legionnaires, but actually fought and killed them. By May 1918 it hardly mattered to the legionnaires which government was arming their avowed enemies.

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Filed under Austria, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, Russia, Slovakia, USSR, war