Category Archives: Eastern Europe

30 JULY, 1918: The Butterfly Bomb

The great trading or migration routes of the ancient ‘civilised’ world, that’s Europe and Asia to you and me, developed certain characteristics that inform their modern incarnations.  They were corridors.  Great wealth passed through them and so did a wide variety of races, elements of which tended to settle en route as fortune and ambition dictated, leaving the corridors quilted with different and sometimes incompatible cultures, each seeking to flourish on its own terms.  They were also great prizes, attracting conquest by powerful outside forces seeking control over riches and rival traders.  All these elements added up to a recipe for political instability.

These were lands blighted by tribal conflicts over shared territories, conflicts between emerging regional states, wars against potential or actual conquerors, and wars (or proxy wars) fought between those conquerors.  They were a mess, and many of them still are.

The Middle East and the Balkans are the most obvious through routes that still boil with modern versions of the old tensions, but they are by no means the only examples.  The Baltic States have been a corridor of power-mongering since Roman times and they fear for their future stability with an eye on their past history, while the land corridors linking Europe to the plunder of southern Asia, notably modern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, have never known lasting peace.  The elephant in the room here, seldom mentioned in the same category as the other deadly corridors of human traffic, is the vast strip of land between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, the longest and most open frontier between Europe and the cultures to its east.

We call it Eastern Europe – for all that it contains elements of Slav and other cultures – and because it includes peoples familiar to our geopolitical history as Europeans, analysts in the West have tended to view the region component by component.  Standard Western histories are inclined to treat Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the overlapping problems of Lithuania and its neighbours, the Ukraine and, up to a point, Georgia as essentially separate stories, and they each make for a wild and gripping tale.  We don’t tend to notice, or at least to discuss, that the whole of Eastern Europe has been one gigantic corridor of instability throughout recorded history.

One reason for that has been a lack of anyone willing to tell the coherent story of Eastern Europe as a whole.  More than a millennium of attempts to push European culture eastwards, whether by Teutonic knights or Panzer generals, and several hundred years of Europeanised Russian culture trying push itself westwards, have bequeathed us a history of spheres of interest, of geographical subdivisions invented to accommodate external ambition.  In all that time, the region has only twice been under the effective control of a single source of analysis.

Eastern Europe was certainly homogenised during the seventy or so years of the USSR, but Soviet historical analysis had very little to do with history and could only describe the region as an expanding frontier of world revolution.  The other power to gain complete control over the expanded corridor of Eastern Europe was the German Empire in 1918.  The German experience was brief, spectacularly chaotic and spawned its own swathes of ridiculous propaganda – but it did at least generate some relatively honest attempts to analyse the overall nature of the beast.

Between March 1918, when Lenin signed away Russia’s imperial pretensions at Brest-Litovsk, and the Armistice in November, the German regime took and held control over all of Eastern Europe. Whether its control was formal or merely practical, Berlin took its new empire very seriously, dedicating more than a million troops to its policing and sending in armies of bureaucrats or technocrats to manage regional politics and organise economic exploitation on a massive scale.

Serious commitment to empire-building: German troops in Kiev, 1918.

As Germany’s prospects against the Western Allies and the USA began to look increasingly bleak, the dictatorship led by Ludendorff and, in theory, Hindenburg focused state propaganda on its successes in the east, so that by the time German plans on the Western Front had come off the rails, in the summer of 1918, the condition of Eastern Europe was a matter of constant and high-profile national debate.

Those German observers enduring first-hand experience of life in the new empire, analysts from top to bottom of the government and army, the German press and that section of public opinion not yet alienated into irrevocable hostility to the regime were all in basic agreement:  Eastern Europe was a savage wilderness to match the Balkans, filled with feral peoples in need of discipline and organisation.  The real debate concerned what could be done to stabilise the region, and whether its contagion of revolutionary ‘Russian conditions’ posed a threat to German society.

On 30 July 1918 the German military commander (and effective dictator) of the Ukraine and Crimea, Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn, was killed by a bomb thrown from a car in Kiev.  Coming just as news of the Tsar’s death was sending shivers of fear through Germany’s anti-Bolshevik majority, and not long after Bolsheviks had murdered the German ambassador Russia, Count Mirbach, the assassination propelled German debate about Eastern Europe to a new peak of intensity.

Eichhorn had been supervising the process of bleeding the Ukraine white to feed the Fatherland’s needs, while his troops were busy propping up a puppet Ukrainian regime against threats from revolutionary Bolsheviks, counter-revolutionary nationalists and everyone in between – but he wasn’t an especially deserving case for assassination.  There is no evidence that German occupation of the Ukraine was much more or less unpopular than its equally ruthless equivalents in other parts of Eastern Europe, and Eichhorn was by all accounts a cultured and generous-spirited soldier. Eichhorn was also, and remained, the most senior German officer to be killed during the First World War, and that added to the shock felt in Germany when it became clear that his murder had more to do with revolution than occupation.

The killer was one Boris Donskoy, a Russian member of the Left Socialist Revolutionary party, one of several radical factions overtaken by the Bolsheviks in the race to power as the Kerenski regime collapsed.  The Left SRs had been allied with the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution.  They had filled a number of senior government posts until opposition to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty prompted their resignation in March 1918, and had continued to support the Bolsheviks until earlier in July, when they had been expelled from the Fifth Congress of the Soviets.

News of the split was communicated swiftly across Eastern Europe to any place former Russian Army soldiers were active in fostering revolution, and the assassination seems to have been Donskoy’s way of trumpeting the doctrinal superiority of the Left SRs.  Its ultimate aim was to dissuade regional Bolsheviks from their temporary cooperation with German occupying forces against Ukrainian nationalists with counter-revolutionary tendencies.

Eichhorn’s death was headline news in Germany…

The sad futility of Donskoy’s gesture, which made absolutely no difference to the seething chaos of Ukrainian politics, was not lost on the German press, which turned fear and loathing of Bolshevism up to eleven, raising the spectre of imminent revolution across Europe and spreading alarmist rumours about the enormous number of Russian prisoners – 1.25 million of them – resident in Germany.

… and so was his funeral

The irony of this approach was that it helped cement the popular and official view that all of Eastern Europe was awash with a contagion that, unless suppressed, would sweep through Germany. At time when the German war effort was on the point of atrophy, that belief added urgency to the right’s need to destroy the left, or at least blame it for defeat, and added energy to the rising revolutionary tide uncorked by the failure.  Donskoy’s gesture may have done nothing to help his own cause, but it was one of the straws that broke the back of the German Empire and readied it for civil war.

This somewhat airy post does, believe it or not, have a small point to make.  There is a price for interference in, or attempts to control the world’s corridors of power-mongering, because cross-cultural influence is a two-way street and a region’s inherent instability can damage its would-be controllers.  Eastern Europe as a whole was one such corridor in 1918, when the military-industrial dictatorship running Germany paid the price in a hurry, and there’s no real doubt in anybody’s mind that it still is.  So while the world’s big hitters are locking horns, yet again, over the futures of the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Georgia, we should maybe brace for impact.

31 MAY, 1918: Fame and Fortune

Today marks the centenary of the Pittsburgh Agreement, sometimes called the Accord or Pact.  Signed by representatives of Slovak-Americans and Czech-Americans resident in the US, and presided over by the visiting (half-Czech, half-Slovak) nationalist leader Tomas Masaryk, the Agreement declared the participants’ intention to form an independent Czechoslovak state from ethnic lands within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and committed the new state to a democratic constitutional framework.  It was discussed and signed in Pittsburgh because the Pennsylvania mining industry had become a centre for Slovak immigrants, and talks were timed to coincide with what was then Memorial Day in the US (30 May) so that Czech immigrants from other regions could attend.

The Agreement made a big global splash at the time, at least in those countries drawing on Allied propaganda for their world news, but today’s Anglophone Great War showreel seems to have forgotten about it.  That’s a shame, because it shines a light on the Czech and Slovak campaign for national status – a struggle that pre-dated the First World War and was one of the very few with a happy ending, at least in the short term – and demonstrates the transformative power of mass communication in the propaganda-fuelled, proto-populist world of 1918.  And it gives me an excuse to talk about both.

In 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire housed some 6.5 million Czechs, concentrated in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia, who were among the most literate and urbanised peoples of Eastern Europe.  Officially classified as Austrians, they played an active role in imperial government and administration, while the 2 million Slovaks were officially Hungarian citizens and, though ethnically self-aware, largely excluded from that kingdom’s political life.  Both shared homelands with about four million linguistically distinct Ruthenes (85 percent of them in greater Austria) who were among the least developed rural elements of imperial society.

Czechoslovakia, as imagined in 1918 and pretty much as it came into the world.

Czech nationalism had been a pre-War political force in Vienna, with two parties (the radical Young Czech Party and the more moderate Realist Party) well represented in the imperial parliament (Reichsrat), and future wartime leaders Masaryk and Eduard Benes well established as prominent campaigners for independence. Slovak nationalist ambitions were already dependent upon and largely intertwined with Czech political activity, and would remain so throughout the War.

Masaryk and Benes – good friends and a brilliant political team.

Czechs, like other ethnic groups within the Habsburg Empire, faced mass conscription into the Austro-Hungarian Army from July 1914. Although large numbers of them went to war with the same, essentially patriotic enthusiasm seen elsewhere in Europe, some dissent and anti-imperial agitation affected Czech units from the start.  During the first years of the War this was less damaging to Army efficiency than many of the largely German-speaking officer corps believed (and liked to claim as an excuse for failures), but desertion, mass surrender and refusal to fight became more common among Czech troops as both military and civilian conditions worsened.

With parliamentary activity suspended at home, the wartime political campaign for Czech independence was mostly conducted by exiles, and inevitably looked to the Allies for support.  Russia was seen as a possible liberator until mid-1915 – by which time Russian military victory seemed unlikely and St. Petersburg was (somewhat discouragingly) floating the idea of annexing Slovakia – after which nationalists focused on winning support from western Allied leaders through the Czechoslovak National Council, based in Paris and led by Benes.

As long as they held out hopes of a separate peace with Austria-Hungary, the British and French governments were unwilling to promote its future partition, but the diplomatic tide was turning by February 1916, when French premier Briand declared his support for an independent Czechoslovakia.  The real breakthrough for Czech nationalists came in 1917, with general Allied recognition that Vienna could no longer separate its fate from that of Germany, and the introduction of two very positive new elements into Czechoslovakia’s popular and political international profile.

President Wilson’s declaration of war gave a huge boost to the Czech and Slovak cause in the US.  A romantic attachment to national self-determination built into the US political psyche, stimulated in early 1918 by a commitment to Czechoslovak independence in Wilson’s popularly acclaimed Fourteen Points, generated rapid growth in popular and political support for nationalist representatives of the country’s large ‘hyphenated’ Czech and Slovak populations.  Given Washington’s global diplomatic clout in 1918, and the acquiescence of the European Allies (confirmed by Italy’s recognition of the Paris Council as a government-in-exile in April 1918), the question at issue by the time those populations came together on a public holiday in Pittsburgh was not whether there would be an independent Czechoslovakia, but which peoples it would include and how it would be run.

Before I get down with the planning of a nation in Pennsylvania, another element in the Czech wartime story demands a mention, because massive global interest and sympathy made the desperate adventures of the unit known as the Czech Legion the great emblem around which international support for independence gathered.

A number of specifically ‘Czech’ formations fought with the Russian Army against the Central Powers at various times during the war on the Eastern Front.  The first, formed in 1914 from among the 100,000 or so Czechs and Slovaks living inside the Russian Empire’s Ukrainian provinces, was disbanded and distributed among Russian units after the military disasters of 1915.  A Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment was established in December of that year, and was expanded to become a Rifle Brigade during the spring and summer of 1916, by which time it mustered about 2,500 men – but the brigade’s units were scattered among various Russian armies on the central and southern sectors of the Eastern Front, because the Tsarist government had no desire to foster nationalist movements on its western frontiers.

That problem appeared to have gone away after the February Revolution of 1917.  The new Provisional Government, always keen to display its liberal credentials to the western Allies, quickly established good relations with the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris.  In mid-May Masaryk visited St. Petersburg, securing formal recognition of the Council by Czechs and Slovaks inside Russia and lobbying for creation of a unified Czech Legion that could fight for the Allies as a national force.  Russian military leaders remained suspicious of the idea, but their doubts about reliability and counter-revolutionary tendencies were silenced by the much-praised performance of Czech troops at the start of the July Offensive (1 July, 1917: The Last Straw), and orders were issued in early August to expand the Czech brigade into a full army corps

The new army’s formation in the Ukraine was delayed while Masaryk, unwilling to stake the great symbol of Czechoslovak nationhood on survival of the Provisional Government, negotiated successfully for the Legion to be formally identified as part of the French Army (under the aegis of the government-in-exile) and for some 30,000 Czech and Slovak prisoners of war to be sent from Russia to fight on the Western Front.  The corps finally came into being on 9 October – under Russian command because there were no experienced Czech officers in Russia – but was barely ready for action when the Bolshevik Revolution changed everything.

After initially declaring its support for the Provisional Government (against Masaryk’s instructions to maintain strict political neutrality) and taking part in skirmishes against Bolshevik forces in Kiev, the Legion remained virtually inactive on the southern section of the Eastern Front.  Meanwhile it attracted large numbers of deserters from the failing Austro-Hungarian Army, so that its strength had risen to about 100,000 men by the time the Brest-Litovsk treaty brought a formal end to hostilities in March 1918. The Legion’s global fame had grown even faster, because the British, the French, the Americans and the national council in Paris had all worked out that an anti-Bolshevik, implacably anti-German force, surrounded by enemies, fighting for a small nation’s right to liberty based on representative democracy was pure propaganda gold.

As a French Army unit, the Legion took its orders from the Allied Supreme War Council, which toyed with the idea of sending it north to protect Allied interests in Murmansk (of which more one day soon) but eventually instructed it to return to France… via Vladivostok, almost 10,000 kilometres to the east.  I’ll save the details of the Legion’s extraordinary long march for another space – or you can look them up pretty easily online – but by May it was engaged in heavy fighting with Bolshevik forces along the trans-Siberian railway, its every movement tracked and reported in heroic terms by the world’s press.

It’s 9,700km from Kiev to Vladivostok, so the Czech Legion took the trans-Siberian railway – and the ‘democratic’  world cheered it on.

When US Secretary of State Robert Lansing accompanied Masaryk to Pittsburgh on 30 May 1918, he addressed welcoming Memorial Day crowds with what became known as the Lansing Declaration.  In expressing his ‘earnest sympathy for the nationalistic aspirations of the Czecho-Slovaks and Yugo-Slavs to freedom’ he demonstrated that the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia was now as fundamental to Allied war aims as the restoration of Serbian and Montenegrin independence, the conflict’s original cause.

Czechoslovakia’s status as an Allied cause célèbre in 1918 reflected more than just the power of propaganda.  It owed a great deal to the capabilities, conduct and political unity of thousands of Czech and Slovak exiles, emigrants, soldiers and civilians – and a great deal to Tomas Masaryk, who would go on to become his country’s first and most revered president.  Masaryk’s work to shape the euphoria surrounding Lansing’s speech into the Pittsburgh Agreement typified his unifying influence, generating a written, very public guarantee that Slovaks would enjoy equal political status under a democratic constitution in the new state.  The formalities would take a few months longer, but the nature of future Czechoslovakia ­– a swathe of Eastern Europe that has since been a beacon for liberal values whenever left to its own devices – was fixed for all the world to see, in Pittsburgh, on 31 May 1918.