Bohemia's case for independence/The Czecho-Slovaks and the War, 1914

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VI

 

THE CZECHO-SLOVAKS AND THE WAR, 1914

 

(a) The Attitude of the Czech Nation and the Conduct of Czech Soldiers

 

It is therefore obvious that the German plan, as well as the Austro-Hungarian policy of violence, was solely based on the annihilation of the Czecho-Slovaks. It is therefore perfectly comprehensible that from the very commencement of the war the Czechs sided against Austria-Hungary. The whole nation immediately realised that the victory of Germany and Austria would signify the realisation of the Pan-German dream—the taming of Austria and its subservience to Germany.

Immediately after the mobilisation, they undertook to thwart the plans of Berlin and Vienna. By reason of their geographical and political situation they were only able to offer a passive resistance, which nevertheless rendered a great service to the Allies.

All political parties refused to swear loyalty to Austria. The people did not conceal their hostility towards the government, which several times provoked brutal repressions; the Press, in spite of the censorship, fought its uttermost against Austria in making known to the public by allusions and hints the true situation, and in cleverly bringing to light the contradictions and lies of the official information. The population flatly refused to subscribe to the war loans or to deliver up the reserve of foodstuff, thus helping to bring about the financial bankruptcy of the Monarchy and rendering the blockade of the Central Empires more efficient. And, finally, the Czech soldiers—and this is the most important service that the Czechs have been able to render the Allies in this war—systematically refused to march and fight for Austria. Thus they contributed in the most effective manner to the disasters of Austria-Hungary during the first year of the war, and they were able to disorganise almost completely the Austro-Hungarian army.

One must examine the behaviour of the Czech soldiers in detail from the very commencement of the war to understand the part they have played in checking the Austro-German combinations. From the first day of mobilisation the reserves from the small towns and country openly showed their attitude. In the outskirts of Pilsen, there were mass demonstrations and the soldiers openly declared that they would turn their arms against the officers and the Germans. Many arrests were made, and certain death sentences pronounced as early as the first days of August 1914.

Contrary to the expectations of the government, these executions did not succeed in intimidating the Czechs. Towards August 10th, demonstrations recommenced at Prague. All the Czech soldiers, without exception, thought it their sacred duty to make known to their compatriots their hostile sentiments towards Austria, and they openly vowed to each other not to fire on the Russians or Serbs and to surrender at the first opportunity.

From the month of August till the winter of 1914 we daily witnessed these demonstrations of the Czech soldiers, demonstrations which, according to the military authorities, constituted the crime of high treason. In September 1914 the attitude of the 8th regiment of the Czech Landwehr, recruited from the outskirts of Prague and sent to the front against the Russians, provoked sanguinary riots. Soldiers singing national songs refused to enter the station, ill-treated their German officers, grievously wounded their commander, and at last massed themselves inside the station and refused to entrain. The German 75th Regiment was then called out to force them into the carriages.

As a result of these incidents the War Minister forbade under the most severe penalties the Czech soldiers to carry the colours and standards. Since then every company of Czech soldiers going to the station of Prague for the front is escorted by a double number of German and Magyar soldiers. Nobody is allowed to speak to them as they pass through the streets, or to say "Good-bye," or even to smile at them, and the German soldiers who march on either side of the Czech soldiers see to it that no such crime is committed—and punishments are reserved for any offenders.

The Czech soldiers, however, took their revenge as soon as they got on the battlefield, and acted in conformity with their sentiments. The 11th Czech Regiment of the town of Písek, who refused to march on Valjevo in Serbia, was on two different occasions decimated. The rest were put in the front of Serbian guns and finally crushed by the Magyar artillery, who seeing themselves in danger thus cruelly revenged themselves on the Czechs.

The 36th Regiment of Mladá Boleslav were mutinous in barracks and were consequently massacred; the 88th Regiment, who attempted to surrender in the Carpathians, succumbed to the cross fire of the Prussian Guards and the Magyar Honveds. The 35th Regiment from the town at Pilsen, sent by train to the battlefield of Galicia, found themselves half an hour after their arrival in the Russian trenches, where they were enthusiastically received. A part of the regiment who did not succeed in reaching the Russians were massacred by the Austrians and the Prussians.

After the second Battle of Lemberg and when Przemysl was taken for the first time, the Czech soldiers, seeing the disorganisation of the army, endeavoured to render it more complete, and timing the retreat towards Resov, Nový Sandec, and Moravská Ostrava, purposely created a panic in the ranks. Taking advantage of the confusion, they fled as far as Olomouc (in Moravia) and many even reached Prague. The disorder was so great that even the heads of the army failed to observe which regiments were annihilated, captured, or fugitive. Prague rejoiced at the part taken by the Czech soldiers in the Russian victory.

To complete this sketch it is necessary to recite the tragic tale of the surrender of the 28th Czech Regiment of Prague. which caused such a stir a year ago, and which illustrates best of all the true spirit of the Czech nation.

This regiment had surrendered to the Russians in the Carpathians on April 3rd, 1915, with all their arms and baggage, not even excepting their military band. In this way nearly 2000 men went over to the Russians and the greater part of the regiment commenced immediately to fight the Austrians. After that they were transported to Kieff, where they were received with enthusiasm. The Emperor, in the Order of the Day read to all the soldiers, dishonoured for ever this regiment, ordered it to be dissolved, and its colours placed in the military museum in Vienna.

Connected with this incident there is a very painful story for the Czechs, which was enacted on the Italian front, and which has since been mentioned in the Italian Press. The news of the dissolution of the 28th Regiment had everywhere made a great stir abroad and had given the lie to all the Austrian gossips, who were pretending that everything was going well with the Empire. It had also provoked sentiments of revolt among the Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia. The military authorities of Vienna, therefore, determined to correct this impression and to revenge themselves on the Czechs in the most brutal manner. Last autumn they formed a new battalion, the 28th Regiment, composed exclusively of young men of twenty; they were sent to the Isonzo front and without pity or regard, and without the slightest sample were exposed to the most murderous Italian artillery fire near Gorizia. Only eighteen soldiers survived the massacre, the rest of the thousand young men remained on the battlefield. Immediately afterwards, the Emperor caused a new Order of the Day to be read to the army, proclaiming that the disgrace of the 28th Regiment of Prague was atoned for by the sacrifice of this regiment on the Isonzo.

The few soldiers who survived this crime related that it was an absolute carnage to which they were sent, as they were put in a place where they were inevitably massacred, and the incident has been used since to incite them. Prague was not duped, she well understood the odiousness of this detestable attempt on the part of the Viennese government to revenge itself, and than to make the fact serve its own interests.

Bad treatment of the Czech soldiers by German officers constantly led to disturbances, local mutinies, refusals to obey, which ended frequently in sanguinary brawls; and a number of plots were detected among the Czech soldiers to surrender en masse.

Towards the month of May 1915, after ten months of continuous effort, the Czechs had succeeded in completely disorganising the army. But at this period the Germans of the Empire took over the management of the Austro-Hungarian armies, disbanded the Czech regiments, and dispersed the Czech soldiers among German and Magyar regiments. Mass surrenders now became almost impossible. Yet in spite of all they continued their practices on the Isonzo front and notably in Transylvania, as was shown by the debates in the Hungarian Chamber on the 5th September 1916, and by the fury of the Magyars.

In all these cases the spirit which the Czech propaganda had created in the Austrian army persisted, in spite of the terrorism by which the Prussians had succeeded in re-establishing military discipline. It was thus that during the retreat of the Russians in Galicia last summer, the anti-Austrian attitude of certain Czech regiments hindered the manoeuvres of the Austrian Generals, and led to their defeat by the Russians close to Tomaszov. The military circles at Vienna then threatened the Czech deputies to make Bohemia pay dearly after the war for the treachery of her soldiers.

The results of the behaviour of the Czech soldiers have been disastrous to Austria. Nearly 350,000 Czecho-Slovak soldiers have surrendered to the Serbs and Russians. In fact, at the beginning of 1916, the Austrian army counted only about 600,000 Czecho-Slovaks, who were all sent to the front. Of the 70,000 Austrian prisoners in Serbia, 35,000 were Czechs; in Russia there are more than 300,000 Czech prisoners, and among these many have entered the ranks of the Serbian and Russian army. Up to the Revolution only administrative difficulties and lack of good-will of the old government have prevented all Czech prisoners from being enrolled in the Russian army. But in spite of that, an important Czech Legion, forming a large distinct unit, fought in the Russian ranks, and the Russian tions of February 2nd, 1916, and March 29th, 1917, highly praised the services rendered to the Allies by these gallant soldiers.

They all fought heroically, and more than a third are decorated to-day. In the fighting on the Dobrudja in the month of October 1926, many thousands of Czech soldiers took part, and as General Zivkovic says, in the Order of the Day, "they fought heroically."

In France a Czecho-Slovak legion was formed too. On the day of the declaration of war, 471 Czech residents in France voluntarily joined the army. At the end of October 1914 they were already in the trenches in Champagne and in other sections of the front. In May 1916 they took part in the offensive near Neuville St Vaast, and their losses were very heavy; they took part later in the fighting near Souchez in the month of June, and in the Battle of Champagne, and finally in the Battle of the Somme. The greater number of them were mentioned in the Order of the Day and decorated with the Military Cross. The Czar, being informed of their gallant conduct, also conferred decorations on them. A certain number of them have now been sent to Salonika. Their losses to-day, in killed, wounded, and disabled, amount to more than fifty per cent.

In conclusion we must mention the Czech soldiers in the Serbian army, those who have now voluntarily enlisted in Canada and in England, and others at present prisoners in Italy, who also asked to enroll in the armies of the Allies to fight against their hereditary enemies.

This attitude of the Czech soldiers in Italy is very significant, seeing that lately the Austrian government has done all it possibly could to incense the Austrian Slavs against Italy and the Allies. Indeed, this unhappy Czech nation, whose situation during these two years of war can only be compared to that of martyred Belgium and blood-deluged Serbia, by contributing to the victory of the Allies, may be said to have almost achieved the impossible.

 

(b) Terrorism in the Czech Countries

 
We have seen that the Czechs have had a hand in the military disasters of Austria and that they continue to menace the Central Empires. The conduct of the Czecho-Slovak soldiers was the cause of terrible persecutions of the whole nation. During the whole time the war has raged, the Czecho-Slovaks have worked continuously, silent and martyred, but never faltering in their task. Isolated and dumb, they struggle for the triumph of the Entente without the consolation of encouragement. They know not the glory of sacrifice, only its bitterness.

It would he difficult to find in history a situation as tragic as that of the Czech people. Forced by their tyrants' bayonets into combat against their racial brothers, their youth is condemned to perish ingloriously on the battlefields for a cause they detest. The prisons are full of political prisoners: executions are frequent. Only a few representatives of the nation succeeded in escaping abroad to inform Europe of the aspirations, sympathies, and efforts of their people, the natural allies of the Entente, and to prevent, if possible, the escape of the Habsburgs from their just punishment.

Led by Professor Masaryk, deputy to the Viennese Parliament, at present lecturer at King’s College, London, they organised the Czecho-Slovak movement in the Allied countries, and are assiduously working for the liberation of their country.

The Belgians, the Poles, and the Serbs have at least the consolation that part of their nation is still free and able to defend their country by word and deed. The Czecho-Slovak countries have the misfortune to have been from the first day of the war in the hands of their enemies, terrorised by threats of imprisonments and executions, and completely isolated from the rest of the world. It is difficult to imagine a situation more disheartening, more unfavourable to resistance. The following facts will demonstrate better than long articles the desperate situation of the Czecho-Slovaks.

Since the day of mobilisation all political life has been suspended. The three parties of the Opposition—the Radical, the National-Socialist, and the Progressive Parties—were dissolved, their journals suppressed, their leaders, who at the same time were the national leaders, were either imprisoned or exiled; some Czech deputies were even sentenced to death, as for instance the leader of the Young Czech Party, Dr Kramář, Dr Rašín, Prof. Masaryk, and others.

The condemnations to death pronounced on civilians in Austria since the beginning of the war already exceed the huge figure of 4000, over one thousand of which are Czechs. A great number of the condemned are women. Also thousands of soldiers have been executed for treason.

In order to intimidate its adversaries, the government adopts most arbitrary and iniquitous measures against all Czech patriots who are working for the Czech cause abroad. Raids are made on their home; their families, relatives, and friends are persecuted. A certain number of politicians condemned to death are kept in prison, destined to be executed immediately a popular rising occurs. All that reminded people of the ancient independence of the Crown of St Venceslas and of the Slav solidarity of the Czech nation has been as far as possible swept away.

Almost all literary works which referred to Slav questions, and the majority of which have been sold for years past, have been confiscated. The following authors are on the index: Havlíček, Sv. Čech, Machar, Jirásek, Holeček, Tolstoy, Miliukoff, etc. Also portraits of the heroes of Czech history (Hus, Havlíček, Rieger, Žižka, etc.) are prohibited. Reprints of photographs of the Crown of St Venceslas and many national and folk songs were found seditious, as well as commercial articles, marks and labels printed in white, blue, and red, inscriptions in Slav languages, advertisements of grammars of French and Russian, etc. The "Czecho-Slav Commercial Academy" had to change its name into "Commercial Academy"; decorative plates representing the Bohemian Lion Rampant were removed from the bridges of Prague. Names of streets and public places reminiscent of other Slav countries were changed. Articles in school-books referring to Bohemian history were confiscated. The enumeration of similar chicaneries would necessitate the writing of whole books.

The government confiscated not only the property of political delinquents and of Czechs who had fled from Austria, but also the property of Czech soldiers who have been taken prisoners in Russia and Serbia. Thus the State derives a double benefit: it acquires property, and at the same time satisfies the vengeance of the Austro-Germans on the soldiers' wives and children, who are thus deprived of the means to live, and are doomed to perish of starvation.

In several cases the government tried to intimidate public opinion through infamous trials. The following are some of the most important ones.

The trial of Klofáč, leader oi the National Socialist Party.—Klofáč was arrested in September 1914 on a charge of high treason. He was reproved for his travels to Serbia and Russia, and his relations with Slav politicians. Documents produced by agents provocateurs presented Klofáč as a secret member of the Serbian "Narodna Obrana" Society, which, with Serbian aid, had stirred up revolt in Bohemia during the mobilisation. The trial was suspended owing to a lack of proofs, but Klofáč was left in prison.

The trial of the National Socialist Deputies, Choc, Voina, Buřival, and Netolický.—This trial, in which the accused were condemned on July 30th, 1916, for failing to denounce the revolutionary propaganda of Prof. Masaryk, is a judicial scandal. No serious proof was produced. The only documents were some notes by Prof. Masaryk, found by the police amongst his books, and referring to a conference held before the war.

The trial of Scheiner, President of the Slav Union of "Sokol" Gymnasts. He was arrested the same day as Dr Kramář and charged with having organised revolts of the "Sokols" on the battlefields, and with having kept up relations, with the enemies of the monarchy. Dr Scheiner was released later on, as the accusation was based on no positive facts.

The trial of Kramář, Rašín, Červinka, and Zamazal.—Deputy Kramář was arrested on May 27th, 1915; the other three accused were arrested at the end of June. They were charged with high treason and with the corruption of the army. The responsibility for the revolts of Czech soldiers at the front was laid on the leader of the Neoslav movement. The sentence to death was based on the evidence of former correspondence he had had with French and Russian statesmen, on his speeches and articles before the war, on his travels to Russia, etc. (see the document in the Appendix). Deputy Rašín was condemned as being the principal collaborator of Dr Kramář, Červinka, the editor of Národní listy, and the accountant Zamazal were condemned for espionage. The death sentence against all four was pronounced on June 3rd, 1916. Their appeal was dismissed. The new Emperor pardoned the condemned, commuting the sentence on Kramář to fifteen, on Rašín to ten, and on Červinka and Zamazal each to six years' hard labour.

The trial of Prof. Masaryk and his daughter, Dr Alice Masaryk.—Immediately after the publication of the manifesto of the Czechoslovak National Council for Foreign Affairs, on November 15th, 1915, the Austrian Justice opened a judicial inquiry against the exiled deputy, who abroad became the leader of the movement for the independence of Bohemia. Unable to reach Prof. Masaryk, the military authorities imprisoned his daughter, who was not released till after an energetic Press campaign in the Allied countries and especially in America. The Reichspost of Vienna announced on December 6th, 1916, that Prof. Masaryk was sentenced to death in contumacia.

The trial of the Socialist leader, Dr Soukup, and his nine friends will be more complicated and more important than the other trials. The prosecution is trying to construct a vast conspiracy against Austria-Hungary, in which the following persons are implicated: Court Councillor Mr Olič, formerly President of the Police of Prague; two editors of Masaryk’s newspaper Čas, Messrs Dušek and Hájek; also Madame Beneš, wife of the author of this book, at present in Paris, charged with complicity with her husband; Madame Linhart, wife of a workman at present in Switzerland, and mother of three little children; a workman in Prague; two students, and the sister of the editor of L'Indépendance Tchécoslovaque, Mlle Sychrava Prague. The trial commenced on November 13th, 1916, but was again adjourned pending further investigations. The police know that the Czecho-Slovak National Council is in touch with Bohemia, from where it obviously receives information. The tribunal, however, felt the flimsiness of the "proofs." The relations of Bohemia with the Council have been neither discovered nor disproved.

Among other trials we may mention that of the municipal councillor of Prague, M. Matějovský, and of fifteen municipal clerks, charged with circulating the Russian proclamation to the Czechs, and with secretly publishing a journal. All the accused were sentenced, in February 1915, to many years' imprisonment.

At the beginning of May 1915 six persons, among whom were two girls, were condemned to death in Kyjov, Moravia, for having circulated the manifesto of Grand Duke Nicholas. On the same charge sixty-nine persons from Brno were brought before the court-martial of Vienna, and fifteen of them were sentenced to death. The Governor executed some of them merely to spread terror among the population.

To sum up, there is nothing more eloquent than the following facts, which show the political situation in Bohemia during the war:—

Klofáč, deputy, and leader of the Nationalist Party, in prison since the commencement of the war; four of his colleagues, all deputies to the Reichsrath, and important members of the party, condemned for high treason.

Kramář, deputy, and leader of the Liberal (Young Czech) Party, with his colleague, Deputy Rašín, condemned to death, and subsequently pardoned.

Masaryk, deputy, and leader of the Progressive Party, and the real intellectual leader of the whole nation, exiled, condemned to death.

Soukup, deputy and leader of the Social Democratic Party, charged with high treason.

Scheiner, leader of the "Sokols" and unquestionably one of the chief leaders of the nation, imprisoned, then released and put under police supervision.

To this must be added the shooting of soldiers en masse, and hundreds of political trials. All this needs no comment.

Financial circles in Bohemia also caused annoyance to the government on account of their reserved and hostile attitude towards war loans. The results of subscriptions in Bohemia were pitiful. Certain banking institutes in Prague were even suspected of keeping in touch with Russia and with Czech organisations in America, which conducted anti-Austrian propaganda. Police raids were ordered on the Živnostenská Banka (Trade Bank) and the "Bohemia" Bank, presided over by Dr Scheiner. The manager of the Živnostenská Banka, Mr Preiss, was imprisoned, with his four colleagues, being suspected of relations with Dr Kramář..

Fully three-quarters of the Czech journals and all Slovak journals in Hungary have been stopped. Those which are still being published in Bohemia and Moravia are filled with news supplied by the Official Press Bureau, which they are forced by the police to publish.

The newspapers of the Radical parties (the party for the independence of Bohemia, the National Socialist and the Progressive parties) were entirely suppressed during the first months of the war. The majority of the editors are in prison.

Samostatnost (Independence), the journal of the Independence Party, was the first to be suspended. The editors were either imprisoned or sent to the front.

České Slovo (Czech Word), the journal of the National Socialist Party, was suppressed next. The editors began to publish a new journal entitled Naše Slovo (Our Word), which was also soon suppressed. The majority of the editors are in prison (Deputies Klofáč, Choc, Špatný, Skorkovský, and others).

Čas (The Times), the journal oi the Progressive Party of Prof. Masaryk, was suppressed in the summer of 1915. The editors, Dušek and Hájek, are accussed of high treason. All other journals of this party have been suppressed as well.

Národní Listy (National News), the journal of the Young Czechs, has been twice temporarily suspended. Its editors, Rašín and Červinka, as well as its proprietor, Dr Kramář, were condemned to death.

Lidové Noviny (Popular News), the journal of the Democratic Party of Moravia (owned by Dr Stranský), was also temporarily suspended, as well as—

Moravská Orlice (The Moravian Eagle), the journal of M. Žáček, formerly minister without portfolio (Old Czech Conservative).

Even the Catholic Press was not spared. Several of the clerical newspapers were stopped—Mladý Křestan (Young Christian), Český Západ (The West of Bohemia), and others.

The Press of the Social Democratic Party, which is greatly developed, especially in provincial towns of Bohemia, was suppressed almost entirely; exception was made with Právo lidu (Rights of the People) of Prague, and Rovnost (Equality) of Brno.

Several large provincial towns like Pardubice and Písek, which had five or six journals each before the war, are at present entirely deprived of their local Press.

According to statistics published by the Wiener Zeitung in 1916, seventy-eight Czech journals have been stopped during the months of April, May, and June alone.

Those newspapers which have been spared have to comply with the instructions received from Vienna. They are prohibited from commenting in any way on the official communications, or from quoting comments of neutral or enemy journals. They are not allowed to announce the Russian successes in capital letters. In December 1914 the President of the Police of Prague informed the chief editors of all Czech daily newspapers of the desire of the government that the Czech Press should show more patriotic sentiments, as the dry tone of the articles could probably be interpreted as a sign of sympathy with the enemy. They were further informed that the Official Press Bureau was prepared to supply them with patriotic articles ready to be published as though written by the editor. This proposal was rejected with indignation: the journals agreed to publish articles from the Press Bureau without comments, only if marked as such.

Slovakia fell a victim to the same treatment as Bohemia and Moravia. All Slovak politicians were reduced to impotence by the Magyars; some were imprisoned, others sent to the front. Those who escaped from both alternatives were put under strict police supervision. The country was depopulated—hundreds of people were shot when the Russians arrived in the Carpathians, and all Slovak papers and publications were suppressed. Today the country is absolutely silenced, and Tizsa's Magyar Government is triumphant.

Finally, the Austrian Government, completely in the hands of the Prussians, have decided to proceed with measures of Germanisation. The rights relative to the usage of the Czech language in the administration, before the courts of law, or on the railways—rights which for two generations had been the cause of severe political struggles—-were abolished by a single stroke of the pen. The railways were entrusted to the Prussian military; the Czech language was suppressed in administrative and other Civil Service offices, where it was formerly lawfully employed; the Czechs were deprived of their appointments as magistrates and other positions of authority. In this way is attempted the complete Germanisation and absorption of the Czechs and Austrian Slavs by the Prussians.

Such is approximately the state of affairs in Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. The people, deprived of their most elementary rights and victuals, impoverished by a devastating war, martyred by brutal and cruel persecutions on the part of the police, military, and government, deprived of their leaders, their newspapers, books, and national songs, are given over to an ever-increasing and shameless Germanisation. Disorganised, abused, completely at the mercy of their tyrants, far from their natural Allies, and demoralised by false information, the people find themselves in a desperate situation.

But in spite of everything they have never lost confidence in the victory of the Allies, never doubted their ultimate deliverance from the Austro-Magyar yoke.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1948, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.