US author highlights legionnaires’ role in founding Czechoslovakia

Photo: Public Affairs Books

‘Dreams of a Great Small Nation’ is a book by US scholar and historian Kevin J McNamara. It traces the circumstances surrounding the exploits of the Czechoslovak legion during WWI and in particular their takeover of the Trans-Siberian railway and most of Siberia in 1918. McNamara characterises the legion as “a mutinous army that Threatened a revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe.”

Photo: Public Affairs Books
What’s certain is that they were a crucial factor in the founding of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, if only by proving that there were Czechs and Slovaks ready to take up arms.

We talked to McNamara recently and he recounted how the story of his book began with a trip taken on the Trans-Siberian Railway in the early 1990s when his curiosity was aroused by the tale of a foreign army fighting in a far away country.

“What brought me to this story was that the briefing documents for the trip provided a very superficial history of Siberia. In it, it was mentioned that an army of 50,000 men had marched back and forth across Siberia multiple times from 1918 to about 1920. They become involved against their will in the Russian Civil War, which followed the Bolshevik seizure of power and then went on to create the Soviet Union. I was amazed that these men survived multiple Siberian winters and fierce fighting across a moonscape that is really large enough to stretch from New York to Honolulu. People still don’t appreciate just how large Siberia is just by itself.

“Given that the war had been over, I was also confused who had this army and why. It all seemed amazing but also mysterious. So when I came back to the United States I resolved to read up all about it and started looking for books about this episode. I could not find them to be frank. I could not find any good books in English that were still in print. After more research, I concluded that nothing had been written in English ever that really reflected the viewpoints of the men themselves. It was really an amazing story and to my amazement it had been largely overlooked.”

And the memories of the soldiers, where did you go to find those?

“It was really an amazing story and to my amazement it had been largely overlooked.”

“Well, I was doing a lot of research and trying to meet the sons and grandsons and daughters and granddaughters of legionnaires. I met a few, but not that many. So, I was really scrambling for many years how to tell the story that would have brought something new to the table. A colleague of mine alerted me in late 2001, now that is a good eight or nine years later, that there were these volumes for sale on e-bay. There were five volumes, dusty old volumes, that were produced in the 1920s. But because of the German and Russian invasions and occupations of Czechoslovakia they had been kind of banned and not widely available till 1991, when Communist power collapsed in Eastern Europe.

“What they were was that when all these men finally got back to Prague, and it took them many years, and Czechoslovakia was declared independent in 1918 and some of these men did not get back until 1922. But when they got back, many of them were apparently sat down with somebody who took down their most interesting stories. And so there were more than 400 first hand stories of various kinds by these men produced in five volumes and the five volumes were published over many years in Prague.

“They were, of course all in Czech. So what I did was purchase the five volumes for about 160 dollars from a guy in Switzerland and then I hired a Czech-American student to translate the titles for me. From those translations I figured out that around 107 of these stories were most relevant to the story I wanted to tell. Then I hired another Czech-American translator, a professional, to translate all of the stories.”

And why do you think this episode was so important to Czechoslovakia, both before independence and, probably, after as well?

Kevin J. McNamara,  photo: archive of Kevin J. McNamara
“Well, one of the reasons it remains very important today is that the Czechs and Slovaks remain very largely unaware of it themselves. It is the story of their founding that after 1938 was pretty much banned in their own country. The translator I hired grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia and it turned out he wanted to do this work for me because his uncle had been one of these legionnaires. But when he was a boy growing up, he came into school one day and began speaking about this story, show and tell. And the teacher grabbed him, yanked him out of the class and told him he was never to talk about this story ever again. The reasons were twofold: Czech nationalism always marched arm in arm with anti-German sentiment. The Czechs won their freedom against a German dynasty. But the legionnaires in 1918 in Siberia had actually fought the Soviet Red Army and had defeated that army, for some months anyway. So the Germans did not like this story and the Russians did not like this story, so until around 1991 the story was not told.”

But more about the important to independence… going back to the year before independence was declared, Masaryk could point out and say these are Czechs in a far away country fighting and it gave his movement a lot of prestige and some room to maneuver with the allies which otherwise they just would not have had?

“The legionnaires in 1918 in Siberia had actually fought the Soviet Red Army and had defeated that army.”

“Absolutely, the army in Siberia was ultimately the trump card for Masaryk, Beneš, and Štefánik, the three men who clearly worked so hard for the independence of Czechs and Slovaks. It is hard to grasp, but about 100 years ago knowledge of the world and its many peoples and cultures was not quite what it is today. So even when Masaryk met with Allied leaders they had no idea what a Czech or Slovak was. They had no idea who these people were. More specifically, Masaryk understood that he could not win independence for his peoples and secure that independence with the help of London and Paris unless he could help the Allies win the war. And what the Allies desperately needed was one: more troops on the Western Front and two: any troops on the Eastern front that might reopen the war. This was because Russia, which had been allied with London and Paris, had dropped out of the war under the Bolsheviks.

“So Masaryk, who had travelled to Russia to organized the Czech and Slovak POWs held in Russia. They had been soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian army. And he created from them a distinct and subordinate unite that would serve under the French army. He promised the French he would march them across Siberia, board them on ships in Vladivostok, circle the globe, land them in France, and fight for the Allies. That was the plan.

Czechoslovak legionnaires in Russia,  photo: Public Domain
“Instead, a fight broke out when they were at the Chelyabinsk train station on May 14, 1918. A Czech was killed, a brawl broke out, there was a lynching. The local Bolsheviks arrested some legionnaires and then the Soviet Red Army commander, Leon Trotsky, basically lost his head. He threatened the legionnaires with their lives and their freedom and they revolted in self defence. Fighting broke out all long the Trans-Siberian railway, all 5,000 miles, and by September 1918 the legionnaires controlled all of Siberia and the Trans-Siberian railway.”

And eventually this was front page news in America, it was on the front pages of the newspapers?

“Yes, and in Europe as well, and the first reports were not quite understood or believed. And this was both good news and bad news. So Masaryk, Beneš, and Štefánik are travelling the world trying to convince people that their people deserve a country of their own, but no-one really understand what this means, who they are, and why they should be given their freedom. But the Allies really wake up when they see there is an army in Russia that is friendly and wants to fight. And so the Allies begin to see the Czechoslovaks not as reinforcement for the Western Front but as an army that can reopen the Eastern Front.”

But that really never happened. They fought the Bolsheviks but the Allied intervention was fairly limited…

“The Allies really wake up when they see there is an army in Russia that is friendly and wants to fight.”

“Yes, limited, that is the nicest thing you can say about the Allied intervention. It was confused, very confused, entirely inept and not coordinated. The Allies never agreed among themselves on intervening in Russia against Russia. [President Woodrow] Wilson’s policies were very confused unto themselves. So the intervention never went anywhere and unfortunately by September 1918, while the legionnaires had taken over all of Siberia they had done it with only 50,000 men. And at the time of their greatest victory they were immediately overstretched, outnumbered, and they were not being supplied by anybody. And so from September 1918 they start to fall back and die, frankly, while Trotsky builds up this Soviet Red Army. And the fighting goes on for a long, long, time and the men are virtually abandoned by the Allies except that back in America and Western Europe Masaryk is being hailed as a hero and a savior and the Allies give the Czechs and Slovaks their country at Versailles in 1919.”