There are many military clubs and associations in the Czech Republic honouring the Czech soldiers who fought in the wars of the 20th century, but only a few are active outside the country. A US-based project is now trying to revive the memory of the Czechoslovak legions from the First World War, whose contributions were purposely overlooked in communist Czechoslovakia.
The Czechoslovak legions were founded as small volunteer units at the beginning of the First World War even before there was a country called Czechoslovakia. Volunteers fought in various countries against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Towards the end of the war, their numbers in Russia alone reached more than 60,000. The story is now being revived in Chicago, the home of the Czech Legion Project. Bruce Bendinger, the founder of the project, recalls how he first became interested in the history of Czech independence.
"My daughter writes and directs movies and about eight years ago we were talking about stories that have never been told. And I remembered when I was a young boy, seeing a photograph of some really cool guys on a really cool train and it was the Czech Legion that fought their way across Russia during the Russian Revolution and World War I and I said, you know, there was this thing that happened during WWI and I don't know a lot about it but I think it was pretty interesting."
The role of the Czech volunteers in the First World War was celebrated during the period known as the First Republic as they were instrumental in the creation of independent Czechoslovakia. But after the Communists took over the country in 1948 the story was suppressed together with other historical facts: anything which had an air of liberty or demonstrated the values of the First Republic was frowned upon.
"I think one other thing to mention is that we are really trying to bring justice to a crime. A crime has been committed, history has been stolen. And an amazing piece of the history of the Czech nation has been has been erased from common knowledge. The photographs that we scanned, the negatives were destroyed. The story was repressed for fifty, sixty years so that few people know about the bravery and the endurance and the intelligent diplomacy of President Masaryk and the bravery of the legionnaires."
To date the Czech Legion has created a website with photographs, comments and other information in English, Czech and Slovak; Bruce Bendinger describes their next steps.
"We are in the process of doing a TV documentary, and a book, and educational material so that this amazing and important historical story is not lost. We will do this TV documentary for the world's second largest Czech nation, which of course is the United States of America, we are in the world's third largest Czech city, Chicago, and we will also do it for schools here in the Czech Republic and anywhere else that people want to know about this wonderful and important story."
Anyone interested in learning more about the Czech Legion Project can do so by visiting www.czechlegion.com.