Category Archives: Eastern Europe

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.