Category Archives: Czechia

Repurposing German Concentration Camps

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 132-133:

Linzervorstadt was a typical specimen of the thousands of improvised detention centers for ethnic Germans that sprang up across central Europe in the days or weeks after the retreat of the Wehrmacht. Used during the war as accommodation for itinerant workers of the German Labor Front, it consisted of five residential barracks with an administration block, kitchen, and infirmary. Even with two prisoners assigned to each bunk, its capacity of two thousand was quickly filled. Whereas one Sudetendeutsch prisoner sent to Linzervorstadt on May 10, 1945—forty-eight hours after V-E Day—received the camp number 682, the number assigned to a retired hairdresser detained in late July was 2212. Some of the camp’s administrators and guards, recruited personally by Hrneĉek, were themselves recently released inmates of German concentration camps; others were “young lads of 15 to 18 years of age who we [prisoners] called ‘partisans.’” They immediately proceeded to turn the camp into a Dachau on a smaller scale, establishing a regime for the local German civilian population modeled as precisely as possible on their own recent experiences at the Nazis’ hands. In place of the SS motto Arbeit macht Frei, the Biblical verse Oko za Oko, Zub za Zub (“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth”) was inscribed on the camp gate. Newly admitted inmates—often scooped off the streets of Ĉeské Budějovice [Budweis] by Hrneĉek himself, who roamed the area in a police car in search of potential detainees—were stripped and examined for SS tattoos; forced while still naked to run a gauntlet of guards who “initiated” them into camp life by beating them with rubber truncheons, canes, and clubs; shorn of all their hair; and issued with a convict uniform bearing colored markings (some inmates recalled these as being triangular in shape, others remembered stripes) according to their assigned status as “party members,” “collaborators,” or ordinary civilians. Punishments for such trivial offenses as forgetting to remove one’s cap in the presence of a camp “supervisor” or failing at all times to run at the double were frequent and severe, including such characteristic features of the Nazi concentration camp regime as pole-hanging (being suspended from a pole by one’s bound wrists tied behind one’s back), flogging with steel-cored whips, physical exercises while carrying heavy stones or bricks, and all-night Appelle or parades in which the prisoners were made to stand at attention from evening until the following morning. Josef Neubauer, a Catholic priest who was detained at Linzervorstadt until his expulsion from Czechoslovakia in November 1945, later testified about a flogging he received for breaching camp rules by administering the last rites to dying inmates in the infirmary.

Leave a comment

Filed under Czechia, democracy, Germany, labor, language, migration, nationalism, war

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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Czechia, Germany, migration, nationalism, publishing, Slovakia, war

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Austria, Czechia, democracy, economics, Germany, Hungary, industry, labor, language, migration, nationalism, Slovakia, U.S., war

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Baltics, Caucasus, Central Asia, China, Czechia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Korea, migration, nationalism, religion, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey, USSR, war

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Czechia, democracy, disease, Germany, Hungary, migration, nationalism, Poland, publishing, Romania, U.S., USSR, war, Yugoslavia

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Czechia, democracy, economics, education, Hungary, migration, military, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, war

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Czechia, democracy, Hungary, language, military, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Czechia, democracy, Germany, Hungary, language, nationalism, Poland, religion, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine

Congo Stanleyville in 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1797:

Stanleyville was a town of pastel inter-war buildings more suited to the French Riviera than Africa. It was there, after Lumumba’s arrest, that Antoine Gizenga declared himself Prime Minister of the Congo, dismissing Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu as traitors. The Congo now had two rival governments to go with its two secessionist states. Gizenga, a depressed-looking 35-year-old with a mouth like a trout, appealed to the Soviet Union for help.

‘If the imperialists think that we will surrender’, he said, ‘or if they think they will kill off the Congolese people’s liberation movement, they are wrong’.

Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev authorised a $500,000 payment to Pierre Mulele, the Stanleyville representative in Cairo. Spies suggested that Mulele skimmed some cash for himself. The Soviets looked the other way. Gizenga needed money to keep his 6,000-strong version of the ANC loyal.

‘It is clear that if the army does not receive wages it will refuse to fight,’ reported Czech newsman Dushan Provarnik from Stanleyville:

The Gizenga government has to pay its soldiers at least the same money that Mobutu gives his own soldiers, i.e. 2,000–6,000 Congolese francs depending on grade. Under the existing circumstances, when the government has no revenues, as taxes have not been raised, these expenses are a heavy financial burden.

Attempts to supply Gizenga with arms and advisors were less successful. A Czech air bridge from Prague through Egypt failed when Nasser refused access to his airspace. Lumumba’s former confidant Kwame Nkrumah seemed happy to help but somehow Soviet weapons sent via Ghana never reached the Congo. The Ghanaian leader did not reveal he was talking trade treaties with the Americans.

Leave a comment

Filed under Belgium, Congo, Czechia, economics, Egypt, Ghana, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR, war

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.

Leave a comment

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