Category Archives: Czechia

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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Austria-Hungary’s Military Incompetence in WWI

From Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, by Prit Buttar (Osprey, 2016), Kindle Loc. 251-74:

Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of Austria-Hungary’s general staff, had been a hugely important figure in the years before the war, with a hand in almost every aspect of army training and doctrine. During the years in which he dominated the training of staff officers and the drafting of manuals for the infantry, artillery and cavalry, he preached the supremacy of offensive operations, and the need to press home attacks at close quarters. The use of artillery and infantry fire to suppress defences was often ignored or minimised, and attacks were to be carried out repeatedly against the enemy’s forces in order to break their will to fight. Retreat was something to be avoided at all costs, and if an enemy attack gained ground, it was vital that this ground was recovered with counterattacks as soon as possible, so that the enemy did not gain any advantage in terms of morale from his success. The importance of morale was something that Conrad repeatedly stressed – it was the currency that determined how long an army could continue offensive operations.

It was a huge tragedy for the kaiserlich und königlich (Imperial and Royal, usually abbreviated to k.u.k., a reflection of the arrangement by which Franz Joseph was Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary) Army that Conrad was wrong in almost every respect. In their attempts to turn their chief’s visions into reality, the commanders of Austria-Hungary’s armies squandered hundreds of thousands of lives in the opening battles of the war, and then steadfastly failed to learn from their mistakes in the months that followed. By the end of 1915, the Germans were convinced that their ally was incapable of mounting any operations unless there was substantial German involvement, and the Russians too were aware of which of their opponents was the weakest.

The problems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire extended beyond the disastrous errors of Conrad’s planning and doctrine. There was no clear war plan, other than to tie down large numbers of Russian troops until Germany could turn east in strength. Conrad repeatedly called for a grandiose pincer attack against Warsaw, with Austro-Hungarian troops advancing from the south while German forces pressed down from East Prussia in the north, but the Germans never agreed to such a plan before the war, and its implementation once hostilities began was beyond the limited resources available. Although the ruthless mobilisation of reserves and the shortening of basic training to an absolute minimum allowed the k.u.k. Army to recover its numerical strength after the crippling losses of 1914, the delicate structure of the regiments and divisions was lost forever. The multi-lingual and multi-national empire had organised its regiments along national lines, with officers speaking the same language as their men; as reserves were poured in to refill the depleted ranks, it proved impossible to maintain this arrangement. With growing alienation between officers and men, the forces of Austria-Hungary were already showing signs of war-weariness by the first winter of the war, and by the end of 1915 there were persistent concerns about the reliability of many formations, particularly those made up of Czech and Ruthenian (Ukrainian) personnel.

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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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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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