In The Midst Of Chaos : The Beginnings Of The Czechoslovak Legions In Russia
The Czechoslovak legions, as they were later called military units, composed of Czech and Slovak soldiers, were an extremely important part of the foreign resistance during the First World War, which sought to create an independent state of Czechs and Slovaks. As Masaryk later said, the main figure of the foreign resistance, without legionnaires there would be no Czechoslovakia.
The most numerous Czechoslovak legions were formed in Russia. Before the outbreak of World War I, several tens of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks lived here. They laid the foundation for a volunteer unit that would fight against Austria-Hungary within the Russian army. It was a tactically important step, because many Czechs and Slovaks living in Russia were citizens of Austria-Hungary, a hostile state, and were threatened with deportation to Siberia after the outbreak of war.
At the same time, the creation of such a unit would achieve that the Czechs and Slovaks who wanted to fight on the side of Russia would not be scattered throughout the Russian troops. On September 28, 1914, the Czech company was formed by a solemn oath. This date was later celebrated as the day of the establishment of the Czechoslovak army. Although this unit was called “Czech”, from the beginning it was intended as Czechoslovak, as evidenced by its flag with the symbol, which also contained the Slovak emblem.
In the years 1914 – 1915, the Czechoslovak military units performed mainly reconnaissance tasks and in the rear of the enemy they tried to get defectors from the ranks of Czech and Slovak soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army. In May 1915, however, the Russian government rejected a proposal to create an independent Czechoslovak unit. At the beginning of 1916, the Czech company was renamed the Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment and in May to the Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade. However, this unit was still not a separate unit, separated from the Russian army.
1917 – Czechoslovak premiere
By participating in World War I, socially and economically backward Russia got into a difficult situation. At first, although it achieved military success against Austria-Hungary, Germany soon inflicted heavy blows on it, and Brusilov’s last major offensive, undertaken by the Russians in the summer of 1916, was only a partial success. In addition, general dissatisfaction was growing in Russia.
The result was the dramatic year 1917, marked first by the detetronation of Tsar Nicholas II. in March 1917. His brother Mikhail, who was thought to take over the government, did not dare to take over the throne. The country began to be administered by the Provisional Government, headed by Georgiy Lvov, who was later replaced by Alexander Kerensky. It was during the Kerensky government at the beginning of 1917 that the Russians attempted a new offensive against German and Austro-Hungarian troops in the Galician region.
Part of this so-called Kerensky’s offensive was also the battle of Zborov from the beginning of July, in which Czechoslovak soldiers excelled. Kerensky, who originally did not show interest in solving their position, subsequently allowed the formation of an independent Czechoslovak army. The Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade was transformed into a division, to which the second division soon joined, and the number of Czechoslovak soldiers approached 40,000.
The creation of an independent Czechoslovak army would not be possible without the activities of two representatives of the resistance in particular – TG Masaryk and MR Štefánik. In the period from May 1917 to March 1918, Masaryk was in Russia, where he tried to build Czechoslovak troops, met with soldiers and negotiated with Russian politicians.
Stefanik had traveled to Russia earlier, in the summer of 1916. He met with the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Army and also with the Tsar. In the first half of 1917, Štefánik was again in Russia and contributed to the organization and formation of Czechoslovak military units. The partnership between Masaryk and Štefánik symbolized the joint resistance of the Czechs and Slovaks with the same goal.
At the same time, Štefánik himself took a strictly Czechoslovakist position. At a meeting in New York in the summer of 1917, where he arrived from the Russian mission, he spoke alternately Slovak and Czech, while also presenting his favorite formula for supporting Czechoslovak unity: “We must not be divided into Czechs or Slovaks, but the eyes are only as if the Czechs were Slovaks living in Moravia and Bohemia and Slovaks living in Slovakia. ”
When he wrote to the American Czechs and Slovaks at the turn of 1917/1918, he referred to them as “members of the Czechoslovak nation.” Štefánik also determined by military order that the official language of the Czechoslovak legions in Russia should be Czech. He justified it pragmatically – the army cannot have ten official speeches. According to Štefánik’s order, Slovak soldiers also had to report “here” instead of “here”.
The Kerensky offensive, like the previous ones, eventually ended in failure, followed by general demoralization and the disintegration of Russian troops. However, developments in Russia were already moving towards the events of November 1917 and the civil war.
Neutrality – yes or no?
When Lenin and his well-organized Bolshevik party came to power in Russia in November 1917 and in the following months, Czechoslovak military units in the vast Russian background represented virtually the only organized force, of considerable military value.
However, after the Brest-Lithuanian peace in March 1918, during which Lenin’s Russia accepted humiliating, practically capitulating conditions, the stay of Czechoslovak legionaries in Russia made no further sense. In addition, the Czechoslovak legionaries did not join the Bolshevik revolution for two main reasons. They would damage or even impede the liberation efforts of Czechoslovaks and legionnaires, although the vast majority were workers and peasants, left-wing and agreed with the attitudes of some of their Russian counterparts, rejecting the violent methods of the Bolsheviks.
They listened to TG Masaryk, who declared neutrality on the issue of the Bolshevik revolution. The later first prime minister of the Czechoslovak government and the leading figure of the domestic resistance, Karel Kramář, rebuked Masaryk for not using the present military force of the Czechoslovak legions to suppress the Bolshevik revolution, and thus did not rid the world of the dangers of communism.
On the contrary, communist politicians, publicists and historians blamed Masaryk for not taking the side of Lenin’s revolution with the legions and turning the newly formed Czechoslovakia into a “bourgeois” and “imperialist” state.
What were Masaryk’s reasons for declaring neutrality? His primary goal was to create an independent Czechoslovak state. This could only be done by defeating Austria-Hungary in the war, a power that rejected any idea of such a state. The Russian Social Revolution was an internal affair of the Russian state and was not a topic or goal of the Czechoslovak resistance.
It did not address the position of Czechs and Slovaks in the Habsburg monarchy. In addition, the Soviet government, led by Lenin, concluded peace with Germany and Austria-Hungary, in which no Czechoslovak independence was resolved, but, on the contrary, accepted degrading conditions, including the withdrawal of all of Ukraine, the Baltics, the Don region and the Caucasus.
If Masaryk wanted to achieve his goal, he had to follow the current conditions of power. It was not possible to conquer the new state only on its own, the help of those powers that were able to defeat Austria-Hungary was important, and Russia was certainly no longer such a power. The whole resistance, therefore, necessarily had to focus on the Western powers, which continued to wage war against the Habsburg monarchy.
Although the Bolshevik revolution theoretically proclaimed the right of all nations to their self-determination, on a practical level it had no significance for the efforts of the Czechs and Slovaks. In addition, Russia, with its separate peacetime, weakened the position of the Western powers and spread propaganda among its population and troops, which encouraged rebellion against its governments and military commanders in the name of the communist revolution. The inclination towards the Bolshevik Party would be perceived by the Western powers as a betrayal and this would mean the end of their support for the national liberation struggle of the Czechs and Slovaks.
The Czechoslovak legionaries thus had to resist efforts from both sides to involve them in the ongoing civil war in Russia. One such action was, for example, the efforts of the Czech communists Alois Munu and Arn Hais to create Czechoslovak Red Guards to fight on the side of the Bolsheviks.
However, this plan ended in fiasco, and only a few hundred legionnaires out of a total of 50,000 joined Mun’s Red Guards. Nevertheless, in May 1918, Muna and Hais founded the Czechoslovak Communist Party in Russia and thus became the first leaders of Czechoslovak communism.
However, in the chaos of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War, the legionaries longed to reach the West as soon as possible and join the fight against the Central Powers. They did not succeed until the end of the war. They could not return to their new homeland – the Czechoslovak Republic – until 1920 after the famous Siberian vicissitudes and conflicts with the Soviet government.