Category Archives: Germany

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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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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Czechs on the Eastern Front, Christmas 1915

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. 1072-1101:

THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL defection of Czech soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian army to the Russians occurred when 1,850 of the 2,000 men in the unruly Czech Twenty-Eighth Infantry Regiment disappeared into the Russian lines near the Dukla Pass, a gateway through the Carpathian Mountains from Russia into Hungary (today, on the border between Poland and the Slovak Republic). The mass desertion followed informal contacts between Czech soldiers on both sides in early April 1915….

On April 3 (OS), Cossacks and Russians prepared to attack the Twenty-Eighth under cover of darkness. But members of the družina who stayed behind heard only silence. “It was only at twilight that a Russian ‘hurrah’ was heard, and the whole Twenty-Eighth Regiment went over to the Russians without a shot fired,” said Wuchterle. Only the Austrian artillery fired at the enemy, wounding several Czechs.

Accounts such as this have been characterized as exaggerations by some who point to reports of at least some shooting, but even official Austrian reports concede that the gist of Wuchterle’s eyewitness account is accurate. The debate about whether the men were indeed deserters “became the subject of one of the fiercest arguments inside the Austro-Hungarian army.” Reflecting official suspicion and anger, the entire Twenty-Eighth Infantry Regiment was officially dissolved. Whatever the real motives of the men of the regiment, the družina was perceived to have lured Czechs into Russian arms. And this incident, says one historian, “was the first clear writing on the wall. The Austro-Hungarian authorities, civil and military alike, should have noticed that the war was unpopular with the Czechs, and that it was likely to become more so the longer it lasted.”

On Christmas Day 1915 amidst shooting between Austrian and Russian trenches, the members of the družina on the Russian side began singing “Stille Nacht,” the German “Silent Night.” The Austrians stopped shooting. When they were finished, one of the Czechs shouted a holiday greeting at the Austrians, to which an enemy soldier replied, “Wir danken” (“We thank you”). Members of the družina then began singing “Silent Night” in Czech, after which Czechs on both sides yelled greetings to one another. In such modest ways, the družina worked its will.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Trümmerfrauen, Kachelofen, Luftbrücke, OGs

I recently finished reading a new book, Journey Interrupted: A Family Without a Country in a World at War, by Hildegarde Mahoney (Regan Arts, 2016). It’s about a German family in New York City who planned to visit relatives in Germany. They set out in the spring of 1941, after the war had started, so they aimed to take the long way around, via the West Coast, Pacific Ocean, Japan, and Siberia, because the war in Europe had started, but the Eastern Front was quiet. They landed in Yokohama just as Germany attacked the Soviet Union, violating the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. They spent the war years in Japan, several postwar years in Germany, arriving back in New York a decade after they left.

I came across a few words of interest, which I’ll cite in context to give a small taste of the tale.

Trümmerfrauen (rubble women), from Kindle Loc. 2036-2042:

We devoured the food the waiter gave us, thrilled to have solid food to eat. The next stop we made was at the Red Cross. Once again, we were badly shaken at the sight of the many men we passed who had lost legs, arms, or both and had not yet been able to get prostheses. Turning the corner into the next street, we saw something we deemed highly unusual. There, in front of long planks of wood, sat a row of women, all with hammers in hand, chipping cement off perfectly good bricks and throwing the cleaned bricks on a pile. They proceeded to take another cement-caked brick off the pile of rubble, knock off its cement, and throw it on the cleaned pile. That procedure went on throughout the day in almost every city, and it was thanks to the many Trümmerfrauen (“rubble women”), as they were known, that the rebuilding of Germany had slowly begun.

Kachelofen (tile oven), from Kindle Loc. 2338-2342:

The very gray days were beginning to get shorter, and even during the midday hours it was difficult to distinguish between land and sky. In that part of northern Germany the days were uniformly gray, cool, and frequently misty and foggy. It was a time of year I did not like at all, remembering the freezing weather in Karuizawa. It was, however, a time to enjoy sitting around the old-fashioned tile oven in the living room. In those days there was no central heating. Instead, each room had a Kachelofen (a tile oven) in which one built a fire in the early morning that kept on heating the room throughout the day with the addition, from time to time, of more wood or coal.

Luftbrücke (airlift, lit. ‘airbridge’), from Kindle Loc. 2610-2614:

In May 1949, there was good news. The Luftbrücke, also known as the Berlin Airlift, which had begun in June 1948 in response to the Soviet blockade of Berlin—the United States, Britain, and France had been flying in supplies to the western sector of Berlin after the Russians had cut off all routes by land and sea—was winding down when the Soviet barricades were lifted. At the end of September, Luftbrücke finally ended its operation after more than a quarter million flights.

OGs (Office Girls, called OLs in Japan these days), from Kindle Loc. 2858-2864:

I started work at Time Inc. on the twenty-third floor, where the Time International offices were located. There, right off the elevators, was the office girls’ desk, where two of us were stationed at all times. We were known as OGs and did everything from making coffee first thing in the morning to sorting and delivering mail, sharpening pencils, and running errands. At the end of the day, we made the rounds of the offices and picked up any mail left in the outgoing boxes on the writers’ desks and worked with the mailroom when there were larger packages or boxes to go out. Most of the week things went pretty smoothly, except at the end of every week just before Time magazine was put to bed and press time approached. Then things would get pretty tense, as everyone was pressured and under the gun to meet the deadline.

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Habsburg Austria Like the European Union?

From In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2016), pp. 188-190:

Habsburg Austria was the last remnant of feudalism that had survived into the early modern and modern ages. Indeed, according to one of the leading historians of the Habsburgs, the late Robert A. Kann, the Austrian Empire was “more diversified … in regard to ethnic, linguistic, and historic traditions” than any other imperium in modern times. “It was closer to the European Community of the twenty-first century” than to other empires of the nineteenth, writes the Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris. The empire sprawled “clean across Central Europe,” observes the late Oxford scholar C. A. Macartney, from the Vorarlberg Alps and Lake Constance in the west to the edge of Moldavia in the east; and from the Polish Carpathians in the north to the Adriatic Sea in the south, uniting Germans, Slavs, and Latins. And yet “in no single case,” Macartney goes on, “was one of its political frontiers also an ethnic frontier.” Germans lay inside and outside the empire; so, too, did the Poles, Ukraines, Croats, Romanians, and so on. Thus, as Kissinger states, the Habsburg Empire “could never be part of a structure legitimized by nationalism,” for as nationalism in Europe had an ethnic and religious basis, this polyglot empire would have been torn apart by such a force. Making the Habsburg Empire doubly insecure and so dependent on the status quo was its easily invadable and conquerable geography, compared to that of Great Britain, Russia, and even France.

Habsburg Austria, whose history spans the late thirteenth century to the early twentieth, by simple necessity elevated conservative order to the highest moral principle. Liberalism was held in deep suspicion because freedom could mean not only the liberation of the individual, but the liberation of ethnic groups, which could then come into conflict with one another. Thus toleration, rather than freedom, was encouraged. And because (especially following the Napoleonic Wars) the status quo was sacrosanct in Vienna, so too was the balance of power.

For decades and centuries even, Austria’s sprawling imperium defined European geopolitics. Austria was the highly imperfect solution to Turkish military advances into Central Europe in the sixteenth century and the perennial Panslav stirrings that emanated from Russia, absorbing as Austria did the blows from both forces, even as the Counter-Reformation helped bind the heavily Catholic Habsburg lands together. Austria’s role as a geopolitical balancer was further fortified by its fear of vast, Panslavic, police-state Russia on the one hand and the liberal, democratic, and revolutionary traditions of France and the West on the other. Indeed, Austria’s position as a great power was threatened by Russian imperialsm from the east, while, as Kann puts it, “western liberalism threatened the durability of her domestic structure.” And yet Austria was so often weak, something inherent “in the far-flung nature” of her monarchical possessions and her attendant “extraordinarily cumbersome administrative and decision-making arrangements,” writes Cambridge history professor Brendan Simms. It was Romania’s geographical and historical fate to be caught between and among empires, with its position at the southeastern extremity of Habsburg Austria, the southwestern extremity of Russia’s imperialist ambitions, and the northwestern extremity of those of Ottoman Turkey.

According to other interpretations, Austria itself might have constituted a bourgeoisie civilizing force from the West, altogether benevolent in its influence. For Habsburg culture was reassuring, burgerlich, and sumptuous, at least compared to what those other, bleaker imperiums from the East had to offer—partially defined, as Austria and the Catholic Church were, by the inspirational miracle of Gothic and baroque art. But what Romanians too often received from Habsburg Austria was not inspiring aesthetics but simply the appalling hardship of war, so that the northern Transylvanian Gothic style was to remain an aspirational curiosity amid copious bloodshed as empires clashed.

But the EU lacks a Metternich.

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