Category Archives: Germany

Choices Facing the Czech Legion, 1918

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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Filed under Austria, Czechia, democracy, Germany, Hungary, language, migration, nationalism, Russia, USSR, war

Habsburg POWs in Russia, WW1

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

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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Filed under Austria, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, language, military, nationalism, religion, Russia, war

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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Evaluating Romania’s Antonescu

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. 139-141:

Who was Antonescu, really?

A French assessment of him in 1922, when Antonescu was forty and a military attaché to Paris, stated: “A well-tried intelligence, brutal, duplicitous, very vain, a ferocious will to succeed … an extreme xenophobia, [these are] the striking characteristics of this strange figure.” To read Deletant, Hitchins, and others, we can say that Antonescu was a realist, militarist, nationalist, and authoritarian, who had no use for parliamentary democracy. But neither was he strictly fascist: he purged the fascists from his regime early on and had a disdain for pageants and parades. He believed in order, but not as a prerequisite to freedom, only as an end in itself. His support for Hitler was heavily determined by the calamitous international situation he inherited from Carol II and Romania’s tragic position on the map between Nazi and Stalinist empires. Antonescu made the cold calculation that an alliance with Germany was simply the best option for regaining territories that Romania had lost to the Soviet Union. As Antonescu reportedly told journalists a few days after Pearl Harbor: “I am an ally of the Reich against Russia; I am neutral between Great Britain and Germany; and I am for the Americans against the Japanese. But at the same time, Antonescu could also say that “Europe has to be liberated once and for all from the domination of Free-Masons and Jews.”

If not a proponent of the Final Solution itself, Antonescu was among the twentieth century’s great ethnic cleansers. He spoke about the need to “purify” and “homogenize” the Romanian population, and rid it of “Yids,” “Slavs,” and “Roma.” (Antonescu’s deportation of the Roma people to Transdniestria—where some 20,000 died of disease, starvation, and cold—was not a result of German pressure, but something he had initiated on his own.) One of Antonescu’s ministers stated that the circumstances of German military successes provided Romania with a unique opportunity for a “complete ethnic unshackling.” Antonescu himself saw the Jews as a “disease” and as “parasites,” in Deletant’s language, “to be cleansed from the body of Romania.” The deportation of Jews from quasi-historical Romanian lands of Bukovina and Bessarabia to Transdniestria, a region where Romania had few historical claims, should be seen in this light.

And yet it cannot be forgotten that Antonescu kept, by some statistical reckoning, the largest number of Jews away from the Final Solution in Axis-dominated Europe. He did so in large measure because of “opportunism” and extreme nervousness as to his own fate, as the Soviets and Western Allies began to tighten the noose on Hitler’s war machine. The end to deportation and mass murder in Transdniestria and the decision not to send Romanian Jews from inside the country to death camps in Poland were all actions taken after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad, when Antonescu began to realize that Hitler might not, after all, win the war. Radu Ioanid might refer to this as “opportunistic mercy.” Antonescu was more of a realist than a fanatical fascist, and so he was always sensitive to shifting geopolitical winds. There was also Antonescu’s own proud and autocratic character. The idea of the Führer ordering him from abroad to give up his Jews did not sit well with him. As someone in direct contact with Antonescu at the time observed, the Marshal “did not like receiving orders; he liked giving them.” There was also pressure brought to bear upon Antonescu from Romanian intellectuals, from the queen mother, Helen, and from the National Peasant Party leader Iuliu Maniu to save Romanian Jewry. Again, this all must be seen in the context of Soviet and American victories on the battlefront.

Antonescu was toppled in a palace coup on August 23, 1944, just as the Red Army was already marching triumphantly into Romania. He was tried by pro-Soviet Romanian authorities, duly convicted, and executed in 1946 by a firing squad at Jilava Prison near Bucharest. Antonescu was a mass murderer without strictly being a fascist. The fact that he kept an astonishingly larger number of Jews from death cannot erase the fact that he killed an astonishing number—in indescribable suffering. There is no moral ambiguity in that.

Georgetown University professor Charles King, an expert in these matters, remarked that the best thing which can be said about Antonescu is that he was a conservative anti-Semite, not a millenarian one like Adolf Eichmann or Alfred Rosenberg.

Upon Antonescu’s removal from power, the Romanians switched sides in the war. For the remainder of the war Romania contributed more troops—538,000— to the Allied cause than any other country except for the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Romanian casualties against the Nazis in 1944–45 were some twenty-five times greater than those of Italy, another country that fought first for the Axis and then against it. Of course, Romania’s change of heart was a consequence of its need to regain all of Transylvania from Nazi-occupied Hungary. Self-interest dominates foreign policy thinking most of the time in most places. Yet rarely has national self-interest been applied so nakedly as by Romanian regimes during World War II, descending as it did to the level of sheer opportunism. It also bears repeating that the shamelessness of Romania evinced during the war was, in turn, partly a function of its impossible geographical position, especially after Munich, when Chamberlain abandoned Central Europe to Germany.

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European Naval Tactics, 1702

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), Kindle Loc. 739-785:

In the spring of 1702, England went to war, siding with the Dutch, Austrians, and Prussians against France and Spain. By doing so, they were setting the stage for the greatest outbreak of piracy the Atlantic would ever know….

In the early years of the conflict, the English and French navies clashed in two massive fleet engagements. These battles involved only the Royal Navy’s largest vessels, the ships of the line: enormous, lumbering, wooden fortresses bristling with three stories of heavy cannon. These ships, the first-, second-, and third-rates, were too slow and cumbersome to use in more subtle operations such as convoying merchantmen, attacking enemy shipping, or patrolling the unmarked reefs and shoals of the Caribbean. They were built for one purpose: to join a line of battle in a massive set-piece engagement….

Each of the navy’s seven first-rate ships had a crew of 800 men, who were crammed into a 200-foot-long hull with a hundred heavy cannon, and months of supplies and food stores, including live cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and poultry…. [Each] massive ship maneuvered into the line of battle, two hundred yards ahead of one ship, two hundred yards behind another. The enemy ships lined up in similar fashion and, after hours or even days of maneuvers, the two lines passed each other, discharging broadsides. The ships would sometimes pass within a few feet, blasting thirty-two-pound cannonballs into each other’s hulls. These balls punched straight through people, eviscerating or decapitating, and spraying the cramped gun decks with body parts and wooden splinters. Cannon trained on exposed decks were generally loaded with grapeshot or with a pair of cannonballs chained together, either of which could reduce a crowd of men into a splay of mangled flesh. From the rigging, sharpshooters picked off enemy officers or, if the ships came together, dropped primitive grenades on their opponent’s deck. Above and below, every surface was soon covered with blood and body parts, which oozed out of the scuppers and drains when the ship heeled in the wind. “I fancied myself in the infernal regions,” a veteran of such a battle recalled, “where every man appeared a devil.”

These early engagements took the lives of thousands of men but they were hardly conclusive. Seven English and four French ships of the line fought a six-day battle off Colombia in August 1702, for example, with neither side losing a single ship. Two years later, fifty-three English and Dutch ships of the line squared off with some fifty French vessels off Málaga, Spain, in the largest naval engagement of the war; the daylong bout of fleet-scale carnage ending in a draw.

By happenstance, the Royal Navy wiped out its French and Spanish rivals early in the war. In October 1702, an English battle fleet trapped twelve French ships of the line and most of the Spanish navy in a fjordlike inlet on Spain’s northern coast, destroying or capturing all of them. Five years later, an Anglo-Dutch force captured the French port of Toulon and so many men-of-war that the French were unable to engage in further fleet actions. Thereafter on many English ships of the line, crewmen had substantially reduced odds of dying in battle, though disease, accident, and abuse still carried off nearly half the men who enlisted.

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