Category Archives: Europe

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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Three Keys to Czechoslovak Independence

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. 4095-4115:

LOOKING BACK YEARS later, R. W. Seton-Watson credited three tactical achievements for the success of the Czecho-Slovak independence movement. The first was Masaryk’s decision to go to Russia in May 1917 to organize the legionnaires. The second was the work of Beneš and Milan R. Štefánik in promoting the Italian-Yugoslav rapprochement after the Battle of Caporetto and the holding of the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Rome in April 1918. The third achievement, he said, was Masaryk’s ability to reach Washington in time to influence President Wilson’s relations with Austria-Hungary, modifying his peace terms. “That America might help did not occur to me,” Masaryk said of his thinking as he left Prague in 1914. Now in America, Masaryk gave a face to the exploits of the legionnaires, which were jumping off the pages of American newspapers just as the professor began making speeches, granting interviews, and, especially, lobbying the White House. Once again, he was in the right place at the right time.

Masaryk arrived in Vancouver aboard the Empress of Asia on April 29, 1918, where he was met by Charles Pergler, the Czech-born Iowa lawyer who generated much of the exile movement’s publicity in America. Based in Washington, DC, Pergler was vice president of the United States branch of the Czecho-Slovak National Council. “During my whole stay in America he was with me, working indefatigably,” Masaryk said. The presidency of the US council was reserved for a visiting member of the Paris National Council, in this case Masaryk. While the efforts of the exiles in Europe was limited to one-on-one meetings with key officials, American democracy and the size of the Czech and Slovak communities in the United States enabled Masaryk to launch a public-speaking campaign to thank his American brethren for their financial support, raise additional funds, and show US politicians how popular the Czecho-Slovak cause was. His efforts were immeasurably aided by the generous and positive coverage in American newspapers of the emerging epic of the legionnaires battling their way across Siberia. “The effect in America was astonishing and almost incredible,” said Masaryk. “All at once the Czechs and Czecho-Slovaks were known to everybody. Interest in our army in Russia and Siberia became general and its advance aroused enthusiasm. As often happens in such cases, the less the knowledge the greater the enthusiasm; but the enthusiasm of the American public was real.”

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Czech and Slovak Secret Agents in the U.S., World War I

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. 2257-2284:

That “the world must be made safe for democracy” remains perhaps the most famous of Wilson’s utterances, a line that reverberated then, as now, in one of the most highly regarded US presidential speeches of all time. It also elicited one of the most raucous outbreaks of applause in Congress. “Lansing’s argument was not lost on the president,” says diplomatic historian George F. Kennan. “The view he put forward not only found reflection in the message calling for a declaration of war, but soon became the essence of the official interpretation of the purpose of America’s war effort.”

ANOTHER FACTOR CONTRIBUTED to the White House’s push for a declaration of war: Emanuel Voska’s campaign to unearth and publicize the efforts by Austria-Hungary and Germany to finance espionage and sabotage inside the United States. Having returned to the United States, Voska waged a counterespionage campaign against spies and saboteurs of the Central Powers. Known as “Victor,” Voska managed eighty-four agents and supplied information to British and US intelligence while also operating a global intelligence and courier service for the Czech and Slovak independence movement. Historian Barbara W. Tuchman calls Voska “the most valuable secret agent of the Allies in the United States.” George Creel, the combative propagandist who led Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, called Voska “the greatest secret agent of the war.”

Vienna’s ambassador to the United States, Konstantin T. Dumba, was expelled in September 1915 after British intelligence intercepted—with Voska’s help—documents indicating that Dumba was conspiring to foment labor unrest among Habsburg subjects working at US steel and munitions industries. His successor was never formally accredited. German ambassador Johann von Bernstorff and two military aides, Captain Franz von Papen and Captain Karl Boy-Ed, were earlier implicated in schemes to violate American neutrality, including covertly supplying goods to German vessels, which invariably had Czech or Slovak crew members, and the two aides were also expelled. And there was the infamous Zimmerman Telegram, the leaked diplomatic communication named for the German foreign minister who offered Mexico the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in return for joining the Central Powers in a declaration of war against Washington. The telegram was given to the US government in late February 1917.

“These great political conspiracies,” Vojta Beneš wrote to Masaryk, “by which the official participation of Austria-Hungary and Germany in the crimes against American munition industries [has] been ascertained, have been exposed solely by Mr. Voska.” Beneš added, “Mr. Voska’s revelations had an immense influence on public opinion in America.” Diplomatic historian Betty M. Unterberger confirms this, saying, “During the early years of World War I, the two events which aroused the strongest public opposition to the Austro-Hungarian regime and at the same time engendered the greatest sympathy for the Bohemian liberation movement were the Dumba revelations and the Alice Masaryk affair.” The Czech and Slovak exiles exposed both controversies.

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Trans-Siberian Railway to 1916

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. 2982-3019:

A LITTLE MORE than one hundred years ago, two elements were introduced into Russia without which the Russian Civil War would not have been so consequential or so deadly. One element was the Czecho-Slovak Legion, which quickly emerged as the most disciplined fighting force in that conflict. The other was the Trans-Siberian Railway. According to Harmon Tupper’s history of the railway, “The Trans-Siberian is inseparable from the history of this bloodshed.”

Virtually completed as the war dawned over the neighboring continent of Europe, the Trans-Siberian was designed chiefly to move settlers and soldiers across distant lands Russia first claimed in 1582, when Vasily Timofeyevich, the Cossack known as Yermak, embarked on an expedition beyond the Urals with an army of 840 men. Although Yermak was paid by the wealthy Stroganov family, he claimed Siberia for Tsar Ivan the Terrible, with whom he hoped to make amends for past crimes. Siberia gave the tsarist kingdom at Moscow the world’s largest land empire and the reach and resources of a great power, without which she would have remained just another European power on a par with France or Italy.

The Trans-Siberian infused this empire with a thin metal spine that extends from the Ural Mountains to the edge of the Pacific, stretching almost five thousand miles. Siberia’s 5 million square miles are bounded by the Urals in the west and the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan in the east. To provide perspective, Siberia could contain the United States (including Alaska) and all of Europe (excepting Russia) and still have 300,000 square miles to spare.

In 1891 Tsar Alexander III’s ministers announced their intention to build the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the heir apparent, Grand Duke Nicholas—the future Tsar Nicholas II—broke ground for the rail line at Vladivostok on May 19, 1891 (OS). The line would connect Vladivostok with Chelyabinsk, the frontier town on the eastern slopes of the Urals, which was already connected with European Russia’s rail network. To save money, the designers adopted building standards far below those used elsewhere. Plans called for only a single track of lightweight rails laid on fewer, and smaller, ties and a narrow, thinly ballasted roadbed, while timber was used for bridges crossing three-quarters of the streams. All this parsimoniousness raised safety concerns, though Italian stonemasons built the massive stone piers supporting the steel bridges over Siberia’s widest rivers, most of which still stand. While most Siberian towns and cities were built on rivers, further cost saving dictated that the Trans-Siberian cross those rivers at their narrowest point, which placed most train stations one to fourteen miles from towns. Three miles outside of Chelyabinsk, construction of the eastbound route was begun on July 19, 1892, eventually linking the city with the cities (west to east) of Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk.

Discouraged by the rough terrain between Sretensk and Khabarovsk—where steamships along the Shilka and Amur rivers filled a gap in the railway, but frequently ran aground—the Russians in 1896 negotiated a loan and treaty of alliance with China to build a line from Chita to Vladivostok across Manchurian China, reducing the length of the rail journey by 341 miles. China surrendered a strip of land more than nine hundred miles long to the Russian-controlled Chinese Eastern Railway Company and construction began in 1897. The Chinese Eastern lines connecting Chita with Vladivostok, through the city of Harbin, and a branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur, opened in 1901. With the start of regular traffic on the line in 1903, the Trans-Siberian Railway was complete—except for a 162-mile missing link around the southern tip of Lake Baikal.

Russia was still putting the finishing touches on that link on February 8, 1904, when Japan opened a torpedo-boat attack on Russia’s naval squadron at Port Arthur. Competing with Russia to dominate Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, Japan decided to strike at Russia before the completion of the Trans-Siberian would allow for easier shipment of Russian troops into China—due to the gap at Lake Baikal that was not yet closed. In the peace treaty signed on September 5, 1905—mediated by US president Theodore Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts—Russia had to surrender to Japan its lease of the Chinese Eastern’s branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur; the southern half of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, which sits north of Japan; and an exclusive sphere of influence in Korea. Fearful that Tokyo might one day seize the Chinese Eastern Railway, Russia later built the stretch of the Trans-Siberian between Sretensk and Khabarovsk. The five-thousand-foot-long bridge across the Amur at Khabarovsk completed this stretch in October 1916, as well as the original dream of a railway crossing Russia entirely on Russian soil.

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Choices Facing the Czech Legion, 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. 252-285:

FOLLOWING RUSSIA’S WITHDRAWAL from the war in March 1918, Moscow began shipping home more than 2.3 million German and Austro-Hungarian POWs aboard trains from camps across all of Soviet Russia. More than 200,000 of the men in Austro-Hungarian uniforms hailed from the more obscure corners of the Habsburg realm, and they were known to their rulers—but almost no one else—as Bohemians, Czechs, Moravians, or Slovaks. They and their leader, a philosophy professor named Tomáš G. Masaryk, wanted a nation of their own. And they were willing to fight for it. From his London exile, Masaryk had traveled to Russia under an assumed name early in 1917 to persuade the men to fight for France on the Western Front, in return for which the Allies would consider creating a new nation, Czecho-Slovakia. Between 50,000 and 65,000 of these Czechs and Slovaks would throw in their lot with Masaryk.

On May 14, 1918, in Chelyabinsk—a Russian frontier settlement on the steeper, more fractured, eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, the gateway to Siberia—about eighty Hungarians, hardened survivors of war and imprisonment, former POWs being returned to the Austro-Hungarian Army, sat waiting in the last three cars of a westbound train otherwise full of refugees.

Their steam-powered locomotive was replenished with wood and water. The bored, brooding veterans awaited the sudden jerking motion that would bring the creaking wood-and-steel train back to life and resume its languid journey west through the Ural Mountains, in the direction of Austria-Hungary. They had survived the Eastern Front, hellish conditions in Russia’s POW camps, and several Siberian winters. And now many of the men—still loyal to the Habsburg dynasty—understood that they would be thrown back into combat. If no longer imprisoned, they may have felt doomed.

Across the platform stood a train facing east crowded with men who had also worn Austro-Hungarian uniforms, but these strangers appeared to be in better spirits. They were Czechs and Slovaks—part of the more than fifty thousand in Russia who had become followers of Masaryk—washing down stale black bread and blood sausages with kettles of strong tea. Strangers in a strange land, they had reason to be hopeful that they might win a nation for their people. Unlikely as it seemed, this was their moment.

The cars that carried the Czechs and Slovaks had been moved off the main track onto a siding, due to what Russian authorities claimed was a shortage of locomotives. These men, a handful of whom had deserted to the Russians and fought in a special unit of the tsarist army, won the new Soviet regime’s permission to organize their own trains and depart Russia via Siberia, keeping a small number of weapons for self-defense.

Their eastbound trains were destined for Vladivostok, a distant port on Russia’s Pacific coast more than thirty-one hundred miles away. In Vladivostok, the men hoped to board Allied ships that would circumnavigate the globe and deposit them in the trenches of the Western Front alongside their former enemies, the French. In return for fighting with the Allies, it was hoped, they would win freedom for their peoples. At least that was the plan.

If Russia decided to turn them over to Austro-Hungarian authorities, many of them would face certain imprisonment and possible execution. Several hundred of these men had innocently emigrated to Russia long before the Great War in search of jobs or land and had enlisted in the tsar’s armies in 1914 as a prudent obligation. A few thousand more had served in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front, but deserted to the Russians. For these men in particular, firing squads awaited them back home and the Austrian authorities were unlikely to exercise great care in deciding which among them was guilty. Those spared execution and deemed able to fight would be returned to the Austro-Hungarian army, perhaps to die facedown in the mud or snow for the privilege of preserving a German-speaking empire that held them firmly in second-class status.

Most of the Czechs and Slovaks traveling to Vladivostok, however, were newly released captives of the Russians. This motley legion had assembled because one elderly professor from Prague thought it was a good idea.

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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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