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Sites of memory, sites of rejoicing. The Great War in Czech and Slovak Cultural History

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This article’s title alludes to Jay M. Winter’s influential Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. By considering the interwar Czechoslovak memory of World War I, the article demonstrates that Winter’s conclusions – drawn from British, French, and German evidence – do not apply across Europe. While Czech and Slovak veterans whose only fighting experience was in the Habsburg army recalled the war in ironic terms similar to those of Winter’s soldiers, veterans of the Czechoslovak Legions produced unequivocally romantic memoirs. Regardless of wartime trajectory, moreover, Czechoslovak motivations for representing memory differed significantly from those farther west. Narrative theory, emphasizing narrators’ perceptions of agency within social relationships, can help explain these differences and facilitate a genuinely pan-European understanding of the Great War’s impact on cultural history.

On the basis of literature produced by veterans of the western armies, World War I has often been seen as an appalling and needless slaughter that dragged the world into modernism. In Paul Fussell’s (1975) interpretation, the Great War accomplished the transition from a “low mimetic” to an “ironic” mode of symbolic representation, which he equates with modernism. Soldiers with direct experience of the front condemned the naive and romantically patriotic representations of the war that civilians at home produced, offering instead their own, eventually dominant interpretation of the war as cruel, meaningless, and dehumanizing.1 More recently, Jay Winter has shown that the war did not really mark a sharp break between “traditional” and “modern” forms of representation – that in the face of the “symbolic collapse” caused by the war, many Europeans found refuge in the traditional language and representational forms of mourning. Winter concurs, however, that soldiers experienced the war as dehumanizing, and that it engendered a crisis of meaning which effectively expunged simple patriotism and heroic romanticizations from veterans’ symbolic vocabularies (1995, 204, 226).

Fussell and Winter base their arguments on evidence from Britain, France, and to some extent Germany, but evidence from other parts of Europe suggests that their conclusions are not valid for the continent as a whole. Czech and Slovak representations of the Great War between 1918 and 1938 are a case in point. Though Czechoslovak veterans writing about the war in these years may have agreed that it had been cruel, they were far from unanimous about its being meaningless or dehumanizing. On the contrary, veterans of the Czechoslovak Legions, which fought alongside the Entente in Russia, France, and Italy, were virtually unanimous in describing their years in the Legions as the most meaningful, indeed the most beautiful and empowered of their lives. Whereas soldiers on the Western Front evidently rejected the romantic representations of warfare used by ignorant civilians, Czechoslovak Legionaries on all fronts used forms that can only be called romantic, comparing themselves to medieval knights on a quest to liberate their (feminine) homeland.2 Interpretations of the war more consistent with the standard Western understanding were voiced by Czech and Slovak veterans who had not joined the Legions, remaining until war’s end in the Austro-Hungarian army or as prisoners of war in Entente countries, but it was the Legionary memory that came to be privileged in the First Czechoslovak Republic, informing officially sanctioned literature, monuments, and sociopolitical rituals from 1918 to 1938. Subsequent developments largely erased this memory, however, so it has been easy for scholars to overlook it. Since it was Legionary veterans who most vociferously, albeit fruitlessly, advocated armed resistance to Hitler in the late 1930s, the Nazis proceeded to destroy monuments and literature about the Legions when they occupied the Czech lands in 1938–39. In rump Slovakia – an independent state allied with Germany from 1939 to 1945 – the new regime had no choice but to rely on Legionary veterans to fill commanding positions in the army and foreign service, such that active suppression of the Legionary memory did not commence until the Legionary-supported Slovak National Uprising of 1944 and the resulting Nazi occupation of the country. In southern and eastern Slovakia, however, Legionary monuments and records were destroyed when Hungary annexed these territories in 1939. The Communist regime was no less hostile to the Legionary memory of the war, privileging instead the narratives of socialist non-Legionary veterans, whose memory was more in line with the standard Western narrative.3 A quarter-century of post- Communism has not sufficed to restore what previous regimes destroyed.

By examining the Czechoslovak memory of World War I in the interwar period, this article aims to accomplish two things. First, it seeks to extend scholarship on the memory of the Great War beyond its existing western European boundaries, to contribute to the integration of “western” and “eastern” European history. Second, it proposes to correct common wisdom about the “sobering” cultural legacy of World War I by demonstrating that there were more ways of remembering the conflict than scholars have hitherto addressed. To fulfil these tasks, the article analyzes the memoirs of Czech and Slovak veterans written between the two World Wars. This was a period of considerable cultural and political freedom in the newly created, independent Czechoslovakia, such that memoirs could be written and published without the kind of censorship which distorted some other nations’ memories of the war (see, for example, Orlovsky 1999). The only factors preventing an author from publishing his memoirs were those normally operative in a free society: sufficient leisure for the author to write and cooperation of a publishing house. (Failing the latter, some writers arranged the printing and distribution of their memoirs independently.) Memoirs published in this period are therefore quite likely to reflect the authors’ real opinions, though, as we shall see, opinions prevalent in society did not fail to exert a shaping influence. Before discussing the memoirs, however, it is appropriate to review the seminal literature on the memory of the war in the West.

War and Memory

The pioneering work on the memory of World War I is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Fussell insists that the Great War generated myths that have become “part of the fiber of our own lives”; his task is to identify the forms these myths have taken (1975, ix). To do so, he employs the literary critic Northrop Frye’s theory of modes. Frye’s is a mimetic theory, according to which “fictions may be classified [...] by the hero’s power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same” (1957, 33). In classical myth, romance, and the “high mimetic” of epic and tragedy, the hero’s scope for action is greater than ours. In the “low mimetic,” exemplified in post-Enlightenment novels like those of Flaubert, Stendhal, and Proust, the hero’s power of action is roughly the same as ours. The final category, wherein the hero has less freedom to act than we do, is the “ironic” – which Fussell also calls “modern” – exemplified perhaps nowhere better than in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. In Frye’s scheme these categories follow one another in historic progression, beginning with classical myth and descending to the ironic before, he suggests, returning to myth. Fussell argues that the memoirs of World War I can be read as fiction (giving convincing examples of the overlap between the two), and that the memoirs of the Great War mark a transition from the low mimetic to the ironic. Memoirs of the Great War, Fussell writes, are replete with

literary characters (including narrators) who once were like us in power of action but who now have less power of action than we do, who occupy exactly Frye’s “scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity.” Conscription is bondage (“It was a ‘life-sentence,’ says Hale’s Private Porter); and trench life consists of little but frustration (Sassoon, Blunden) and absurdity (Graves). The passage of these literary characters from pre-war freedom to wartime bondage, frustration, and absurdity signals just as surely as does the experience of Joyce’s Bloom, Hemingway’s Frederick Henry, and Kafka’s Joseph K. the passage of modern writing from one mode to another, from the low mimetic of the plausible and the social to the ironic of the outrageous, the ridiculous, and the murderous. It is their residence on the knife-edge between these two modes that gives the memoirs of the Great War their special quality. [...] (1975, 312)

As a result of their position of powerlessness during the Great War, in other words, Fussell’s veterans remembered the war in ironic terms. To find symbols representing what they felt to be the essential meaning (or meaninglessness) of World War I, veterans scanned the field of physically remembered experience and selected scenes of irony and absurdity. Fussell can be criticized on two important counts. First, the lenses of perception he borrows from Frye are teleological, such that he sees evidence of transition from the low mimetic to the ironic among those writers who, he says, “most effectively memorialized the Great War” (1975, ix), while he dismisses evidence of continuity between pre- and post-war recollections. An example of how Fussell forces the evidence to fit his scheme is his presentation of “Thomas Hardy, Clairvoyant” (3–7). Fussell takes a collection of depressing, nihilistic poems written before the war as representative of the war, uncannily foreshadowing it. The Great War is then presented as the cause of a subsequent spiritual crisis of Western man. Another way of presenting the evidence, however, would be to argue that the crisis preceded the war and that the war, if anything, merely extended it or made it more visible.

In choosing his sources, it has been amply noted that Fussell relies “almost exclusively [...on] the ruminations of white Anglo-American males of literary inclination who served on the Western Front” (Vance 1997, 5; see also Hanley 1991, 18–37). While there is nothing wrong with focusing on Anglo-Americans if the goal is to understand Anglo-American memory, and nothing wrong with emphasis on males if the goal is to reconstruct soldiers’ memories of the war, there is a problem with relying disproportionately on veterans who wrote memoirs of “conspicuous imaginative and artistic meaning” (Fussell 1975, ix). The problem is a logical one, for if literary quality is the criterion for source selection, and if literary quality is defined as that which is “imaginative,” it follows tautologically that the sources will provide evidence of innovation. By assuming that sources of “literary quality” are most representative, the historian’s understanding of the social memory of the war is predetermined. While Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, et al. may have been talented writers, this does not mean that their memory was typical. Indeed, as Rose Maria Bracco (1993), David Englander (1994), and others have pointed out, tradition and conservatism were also prominent features of interwar memories of World War I in western Europe.

While Fussell sees the memory of the war expressed firmly in a modern, ironic fashion, Jay Winter adopts a more nuanced position. In Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, Winter argues that memories of the war involved both old and new forms of representation. Winter dispels the notion that forward-looking apocalyptic artists prior to 1914 somehow predicted the war, reminding us that there was already enough real or potential violence within their societies to warrant reference to despair and fiery transformation. While invocation of apocalyptic images remains an example of the ironic mode reaching back toward myth, Winter makes it clear that the crisis which motivated this invocation preceded the Great War (1995, 153).

Winter suggests that representations of the war, both during and after, looked back to traditional forms while simultaneously looking ahead to innovation. The reason, he argues, is that “the traditional vocabulary of mourning, derived from classical, romantic, and religious forms [...] helped mediate bereavement.” “The backward gaze of so many artists, politicians, soldiers, and everyday families [...] reflected the universality of grief and mourning” (1995, 223). Drawing on an impressive range of sources, including film, sculpture, painting, poetry, and prose, Winter finds widespread evidence of mythical and romantic representations of the war in Britain, France, and Germany. Examples include the images d’Epinal – posters which allegorized the war in a traditional, sentimental fashion, as well as the spiritualist poetry of Rudyard Kipling, in which fallen soldiers achieved peace in another world (72–73, 122–133). According to Winter, these naive and childlike representations were neither taken literally nor intended so. People knew that the reality was worse than the representation, but the romanticized representation made reality easier to bear (127). To reach his conclusions about the coexistence of the traditional and the modern, Winter considers not only veterans’ memoirs, but a host of material created by or designed for the families who stayed behind the front lines. He argues that they can be considered together with soldiers’ artefacts, because both soldiers and civilians were confronted on a massive scale with the death of loved ones as a result of the war. Nonetheless, he notes one significant way in which soldiers remembered the war differently from civilians: “What many soldier poets could not stomach were the loftier versions of civilian romance about the war. Those too old to fight had created an imaginary war, filled with medieval knights, noble warriors, and sacred moments of sacrifice. Such writing in poetry and prose, the ‘high diction’ of the patriots, was worse than banal; it was obscene” (204). It was obscene, Winter suggests, because it betrayed the memory of those who had fallen amid horrors which those at home could not imagine. In misrepresenting the perceptions of those who had experienced the war most directly, it betrayed a galling lack of concern for them. It revealed that those at home regarded the soldiers as means, not as ends. Winter thus meets Fussell in underscoring the sense of separateness which many soldiers felt with respect to those at home – the sense that they had experienced something civilians could not comprehend. Winter also echoes Fussell in writing that veterans sought to “expose civilian lies while expressing both the dignity of the soldiers and the degradation to which they had been subjected” (204). Using Frye’s mimetic standard rather than one based on representational form, the position of even Winter’s soldiers was ironic.

Curiously, in Czechoslovakia, it was not primarily “those too old to fight” who created an image of war filled with medieval knights and such; it was primarily the veterans themselves. Members of the Czechoslovak Legions fighting against the Central Powers identified with the early modern Slovak folk hero Janošík, or with Libuše, the mythical medieval founder of Prague.4 In visual representations of themselves, as well as in their memoirs, Legionaries portrayed themselves as the Knights of Blaník – the fulfilment of an apocryphal medieval prophesy that, when the Czech nation should be in greatest need, the knights of St. Wenceslas would emerge from Bohemia’s Mount Blaník to set their people free. Evidently, Fussell’s and Winter’s conclusions about the memory of the war do not apply universally.

Czech and Slovak Experiences of World War I

On the eve of the First World War, Czech opinions on the proper place of their nation vis-à-vis the Habsburg Monarchy were politically diverse. At one extreme, the Moravian Catholic Party argued for preservation of the monarchy in its existing, centralized form. At the other, the tiny State’s Right Progressive Party advocated independence (Mamatey 1977). Most Czechs envisioned a future within the Monarchy, but sought greater national rights and autonomy, either through recognition of the sovereignty of the Czech crown or some kind of trialism that would make the Empire’s Slavs equal to its Germans and Magyars in political power. When war broke out, there was deep ambivalence among Czechs about precisely what the conflict might mean to them. The schoolteacher Rudolf Medek, who ultimately became a Legionary, writes that when crowds gathered around the newly posted mobilization proclamations in Hradec Králové, they were hushed, with many faces pale. Some, he writes, thought that a “small punitive campaign” was an appropriate response to the assassination of Francis Ferdinand and his wife, while others grew dismayed at the idea of what the German emperor William II was calling “a war between Slavdom and Germandom” (1929b, 1:27–32). Virtually all eligible men reported for duty when called upon to do so, whether out of true loyalty to the Emperor or lack of other options. Whatever the reasons, enthusiasm for the war among newly mobilized Czech troops was noticeably less than among Austro-German or Magyar troops – instead, the evidence suggests that many Czech recruits felt immersed in absurdity. Men of the 28th Prague infantry regiment marched through the Bohemian capital bearing the Czech colours and chanting “jdeme na Rusi, nevíme proč [we’re marching to Russia, we don’t know why]”; later they surrendered en masse to the Russians (Paulová 1937, 205). Civilians cried “Don’t shoot your Slav brothers” to passing Czech soldiers, and trains bearing Czech troops to the fronts were chalked with anti-war slogans (May 1966, 1:353). Seasoned members of the 28th Písek home-defence regiment were even reported to have wept (Šefl 1922, 12–13).

Slovak attitudes toward the war reflected the rigorous Magyarization policies and limited political freedoms of the Hungarian half of the monarchy. Use of the Slovak language was forbidden in schools, so that upwardly mobile Slovaks tended to become Magyars; students who resisted were expelled and often went to study in the Czech lands, where they further cultivated existing pan-Slavic sentiments. The Hungarian government allowed only one Slovak political party to exist and frequently harassed and imprisoned those who dared run for office on its ticket, such that its official program was limited to proposing greater cultural rights for national minorities. When war broke out, there was no great enthusiasm among those Habsburg subjects who identified as Slovak, but few questioned their duty. As a result of Magyarization or uncritical loyalty to their King, Slovaks ultimately comprised only about 7% of the Czechoslovak Legions (Miskóci 1933, 9). Among this minority we can usually identify ambivalence toward the war and pan-Slavic sentiments similar to those among Czechs. Mikuláš Gacek, for example, recalls that as a nineteen-year-old on the train to Galicia in 1915 he and his friends practised Russian for their anticipated surrender, but he notes that his parents never understood his support for independence (1936, 7, 91).

Save for one small group, surprisingly little is known about the wartime experience of those who remained behind.5 The group in question consists of Czech and Slovak politicians – particularly the network that developed around Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Eduard Beneš, and Milan Rastislav Štefánik to work for the creation of an independent national state of Czechs and Slovaks. Masaryk, a Reichsrat deputy for the Czech Realist Party, and Beneš, also a Realist, left Austria early in the war to advocate the Czechoslovak cause in London and Paris; Štefánik, a Slovak, had already been in France when war broke out. For the remainder of the war, these three men worked and travelled in Britain, France, Russia, and the United States to influence public opinion and raise awareness among politicians and military leaders. At home the National Liberal Karel Kramář managed to pass an editorial through the censors, wherein he developed the notion that the war was a struggle between Germandom and Slavdom, implying that Czechs should side with the Russians and await liberation from this mighty Slav brother (Z. Zeman 1961, 43; Mamatey 1977, 7). Members of the State’s Right Progressive Party circulated copies of Tsar Nicholas II’s manifesto of solidarity with the Slavs of Austria-Hungary, attracting immediate repression (Rees 1992, 13). The Czechs Josef Scheiner (head of the Sokol nationalist gymnastics organization), Přemysl Šámal (head of the Realist Party in Masaryk’s absence), and František Soukup (a leading Social Democrat), together with the Slovak Vávro Šrobár (who had spent a year in prison for seeking election to the Hungarian parliament) joined Kramář in organizing a secret society, the “Mafia,” which sought to cooperate with Masaryk, Beneš, and Štefánik from within Austria-Hungary (Beneš 1971, 44–45).

Another group of Czechs and Slovaks who would play an important role in the war were those living abroad, especially in Russia. Over 120,000 Czechs and Slovaks were living in the Russian Empire in 1914, many of them descendants of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century agricultural immigrants, others technical advisors, apprentices, or students (Bradley 1991, 14). In the summer of 1914, just before Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, Czechs in Moscow asked to be allowed to establish a volunteer unit within the Russian army. Originally the army command intended this “Družina” (band) to be strictly an intelligence and administrative unit, but as the number of volunteers increased, they were allowed to fight alongside regular Russian troops (Bradley 1991, 16; Hoyt 1967, 21). The Russo-Slovak “Memories of Štúr” cultural organization endorsed the Družina, which Slovaks began joining (Bôčik 10). The Družina thus became the base of the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia; beginning in December 1914 the Družina was allowed to recruit members among Czech and Slovak POWs and in December of 1915 it was reorganized as a full-fledged regiment under Russian command (Bradley 1991, 17–19). The Revolution of 1917 substantially changed prospects for the growing Legion. In July 1917, after Czech and Slovak soldiers had distinguished themselves in the Battle of Zborov, Kerensky reorganized them into a division with four regiments under Czechoslovak command (Hoyt 1967, 50–52). Following the October Revolution and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, when the Eastern Front dissolved, Masaryk (who by this time had become the acknowledged leader of the Czechoslovak independence movement) decided to move the Legion from Russia to France. Initially the Bolshevik government permitted this, and a few companies left via the White Sea while the majority set out across Siberia for transport from Vladivostok. On their way, however, armed conflict erupted between Bolsheviks and Czechoslovak troops. The Czechoslovaks fought their way successfully to the Far East, but then the Allies asked them to remain, first in the hopes of renewing the Eastern Front and then with the prospect of overthrowing the Bolshevik regime. The Allies ultimately decided to cancel their intervention in Soviet affairs, but not before the Legion had regained control of the entire Trans-Siberian Railroad and the lower Volga River valley. As a result of their extra mission to combat Bolshevism, the war experience of Czech and Slovak Legionaries in Russia was prolonged, and it was not until 1920 that their army of nearly 70,000 was able to go home (Bradley 1991, 156; Michl 2009, 285).

Czechs resident in France at the start of the war also volunteered to fight against the Central Powers. Of the roughly 1,600 Czechs living in France, some 300 volunteered in August 1914 to fight in the French army, and by September the French administration had agreed to form a Czech company, along the lines of Polish, Belgian, Spanish, and Italian companies that were also developing within the French army at this time. In late October they were sent to the front (A. Zeman 1926–29, 1:169–173). As the war progressed, Czechs and Slovaks from Britain, Canada, the United States, and neutral European countries joined the “Nazdar” company in France (the word nazdar, initially meaning “for success,” emerged as a nationalist greeting among Czechs and Slovaks in the latter half of the nineteenth century). Czech and Slovak POWs from Serbia and ultimately Romania and Italy also helped swell its ranks (Sychrava 1927, 248–254). In December 1917 the French government agreed to permit the establishment of an independent Czechoslovak army on French soil, under the leadership of a Slavophile French general. When the war ended, this army consisted of about 12,000 men in four regiments (Kalvoda 1985, 425; Michl 2009, 285).

The entrance of Italy into the war created another major front for Austria- Hungary, and soon there were thousands of prisoners of war in Italy. In one prison camp, in January 1917, thirty Czech and Slovak prisoners established the Czechoslovak Volunteer Corps, offering their services to the Italian war effort. By April 1918 their organization had grown to 10,000, but the Italian government hesitated to accept their offer. At the same time, Czechs defecting from the Austrian army turned against the Austrians at the front, helping the Italians achieve significant local victories. František Hlaváček, a first lieutenant in the Habsburg army, brought valuable military documents when he defected and thus gained authority to negotiate with the Italian government about systematic involvement of Czech and Slovak volunteers. Following the disaster of Caporetto in October 1917, where 400,000 Italian troops were lost, the government finally agreed to arm the Volunteer Corps and permit the creation of a Czechoslovak Legion under Italian command (Kalvoda 1985, 425–430). By the end of the war, this Legion consisted of approximately 26,000 men (Lokay 1970, 27; Michl 2009, 285).

While all the Legions originated on the basis of independent local initiative, they all came eventually under the direction of the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris, which Masaryk, Beneš, Štefánik, and the exiled Agrarian Reichsrat deputy Josef Dürich established in 1916. This process was not without considerable interpersonal squabbling, during which Dürich fell out of the picture and Štefánik came into conflict with Hlaváček, but ultimately the leadership of the Paris Council was accepted and Masaryk was acknowledged as the “little father” of the Czechoslovak independence movement (Mamatey 1973, 14). Following the creation of an independent Czechoslovak republic in October 1918, the Czechoslovak Legions became the core of the new state’s army.

Depending on whether they remained to the end of the war at least ostensibly loyal to the Habsburgs, or joined one of the Czechoslovak Legions, Czech and Slovak soldiers experienced the Great War in radically divergent ways. Veterans of the Legions tended to recall an existential transition from absurdity in the Austro-Hungarian army to synergy in their own volunteer corps, while veterans who remained in the Austro-Hungarian army described an intensifying experience of absurdity and frustration, finding release (perhaps) only in the end of the war and return to their now-independent homeland.

Absurdity in the Austro-Hungarian Army

In their memoirs, Czech and Slovak veterans unanimously describe their time in the Austro-Hungarian army as a miserable experience. In Hegelian terms, they did not see themselves reflected in their work, such that their enforced participation in the Habsburg war effort was an affront to their human dignity. The primary reason that most memoirists give is that Austria- Hungary’s war aims conflicted with their own nationalist and pan-Slavist sentiments; powerlessness in the face of official decisions that soldiers considered inept or immoral made matters worse.

Veterans repeatedly testify to having professed nationalist or patriotic convictions well before the outbreak of the war. The national awakening of the nineteenth century had created an awareness of Czech national history which permeated the Czech school system and the grassroots Sokol organization. The nationalist version of Czech history emphasized the independent medieval Czech kingdom, the reform movement of Jan Hus, and loss of independence to Austria after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. Rudolf Medek, who surrendered to the Russians in Galicia and later joined the Legion, recalls that he had written poetry in the third grade about Jan Hus and the Hussite general Jan Žižka. Following the Bosnian crisis of 1908, he had come to the conclusion that Austria-Hungary should be broken up and the Czech kingdom restored (1929b, 1:9, 12). Karel Zmrhal, who also joined the Legion in Russia, was typical of many Czechs who regretted the catastrophe of White Mountain, as a result of which “For almost three hundred years we as a nation have borne the sacrificial candles of our lost freedom” (1919, 53). The Slovak Legionary Ferdinand Čatloš had earned expulsion from his school in Upper Hungary for collaborating on an underground Slovak literary magazine (Čatloš 1933, 17; Gacek 1936, 45). Even before the war many Czechs and some Slovaks had believed that their position in the Dual Monarchy was an unjustly subordinate one; this perception carried through to the Habsburg army.

Closely related to Czech and Slovak nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was pan-Slavism. As a minimum, pan-Slavists advocated cooperation among Slavic peoples; at most, they sought the unification of all Slavs in a great political entity under Russian leadership. When Stanislav Neumann set off in 1914 for Montenegro, he hoped secretly that the Entente would win the war (1928, 13). The idea of fighting fellow Slavs was absurd for him, as certainly for many of his compatriots. “The little Czech soldier, who in schools and patriotic books was inspired by pan-Slavic ideology and heroic tales of Montenegrin chetas, neared and looked upon Mount Lovćen with a peculiar emotion. Wearing an Austrian uniform – all too justly hated [...], feeling clearly that he was in the service of imperialism, everywhere equally putrid, forced to impinge upon the fate of a brave and healthy tribe, he saw in the peak of Lovćen a martyr’s crown, which the Austrian army and its despotic ruler had illicitly placed there” (81). Josef Šefl, on his march to the Eastern Front, also felt profoundly absurd about having to fight fellow Slavs. “We [Czechs] knew that those against whom we were fighting were our brothers, fighting for us and for our independence” (1922, 10). Mikuláš Gacek writes that he and his schoolmates had made plans with Serbian friends before the war that Serbs would come from the south to assist the Slovaks, while “the august Russian Tsar, when he sees how Slovaks are struggling for freedom, will come and help” (1936, 46).

Disorganization that Czechs and Slovaks perceived in the Austro-Hungarian army provided a vehicle for further justifying their irritation. “It often happened that a given order contradicted an order given just a minute previously,” writes Šefl (1922, 15). Cyrill Růžička (n.d.) dilates on an incident when he was ordered by one officer to boil water and by another not to use any fuel. Augustín Drobný laments that his regimental officers once ordered an attack on their own forces, and he complains that “only those at the bottom are the executive organs – everyone else just gives orders” (1933, 69, 121). While such absurdities may be characteristic of all armies to varying degrees, the use of these comments in the memoirs was primarily to provide further evidence of the rottenness of Austria-Hungary, not necessarily to highlight a root cause of dissatisfaction. Drobný, however, does suggest that Austro-Hungarian ineptitude was worse than necessary, contrasting the effectiveness of German weapons with the unreliability of his own army’s and noting that, in the marshes of eastern Galicia, Austro- Hungarian trenches were impossible to maintain, whereas the Germans’ were “perfectly organized” (116, 165).

More grievous to Czech and Slovak soldiers were what they saw as the moral excesses of the Austro-Hungarian command. Šefl and Růžička both protest against the ruthlessness with which the Austro-Hungarians treated prisoners in Galicia and Serbia, respectively. When the Russians attacked Przemyśl, Medek notes that they approached without artillery support or even hand grenades. His commander (who happened to be Czech) ordered them to keep shooting, even though the result was a gratuitous massacre, and Medek writes that he was not the only one to feel ashamed (1929b, 1:115). Several veterans draw attention to the medieval forms of corporal punishment that officers inflicted on their own soldiers when they collapsed due to heat, hunger, sickness, or exhaustion, sometimes to the point of caning them to death (Drobný 1933, 93–100; Fidrich 1933, 30; Potôček 1933, 68). Drobný uses the intervention of Imperial German officers on one occasion to point up the absurdity of Austro-Hungarian practices, for the Germans evidently shouted, “You tyrants! You barbarians! [...] You want to win this war? These men are supposed to follow you?” (100).

In sum, Czech and Slovak memoirists widely perceived their participation in the Austro-Hungarian war effort to have been, in Medek’s words, “vain, stupid, and pointless” (1929b, 1:119). Many soldiers described a feeling of being led like sheep to slaughter, but added that they felt powerless to do anything about it (Medek 1929b, 1:119; Šefl 1922, 10).6 While certainly there were Czechs and Slovaks sincerely loyal to Francis Joseph and Charles who did not question their orders (Bôčik 1933, 12; Kajan 1933, 97; Klátik 1933, 101; Michal 1933, 38), the experience of most was one of relentless absurdity. Some soldiers were compelled to deal with this absurdity until war’s end, while others found a way out.

Synergy in the Czechoslovak Legions

Over 100,000 Czechs and Slovaks managed to escape the absurdity by joining the Czechoslovak Legions. Some surrendered intentionally to the Entente with hopes of joining the struggle against the Central Powers, while others learned of this option only after spending some time in prison camps. Memoirists describe the experience as a breathtaking personal transformation. “It is Christmas [1917],” writes Karel Zmrhal, quoting from his diary, “the Christmas of a Czech volunteer. What a difference...! It is a Christmas with thoughts so peaceful, like never before. I feel that I am fulfilling my responsibility, and I have only one wish, just quickly to return to a free Bohemia and to my loved ones. In old Bohemia I would not feel satisfied even among my dearest” (1919, 62). A metaphysical boundary had been crossed, and neither the world nor the self appeared to be the same. “It was as if we had been completely reborn, become new beings,” recalls Štefan Michal (1933, 37). Jan Tříška writes that when his father joined the Legion in Italy in 1918, “he could hardly believe the sudden, dramatic, and sweeping change in his fate. From a wretched member of a despised, defeated army, he was elevated, almost by magic, to the honorable position of a valued soldier in the army of his own free country, a sovereign state, a respected member of the Allied Powers!” (1998, 117). The reasons for the metaphysical metamorphosis which Czech and Slovak soldiers experienced after joining the Legions can be summed up in Hegel’s old, familiar formula: they now saw themselves reflected in others and reflected in their work, to a significantly greater extent than before. Social relations were markedly better in the Legions than in the Habsburg army. All the Legionaries spoke a common language (Czech and Slovak are mutually intelligible), and all were volunteers fighting for a cause in which they sincerely believed and for which they were willing to risk death. Perhaps for these reasons, there were closer relations between officers and troops in the Legions than in the Austro-Hungarian army. Memoirists quote their commanders and speak of them with reverence. A former officer remembers correcting a new volunteer who addressed him with Habsburg-style deference, impressing on him that “we’re all brothers here” (Michal 1933, 43). Another veteran memorializes his first captain, who “could spend hours walking with any brother” (Gacek 1936, 109). Still another recalls that when General Štefánik visited Russia he shook the hands of all the troops and invited all the Slovaks for an informal chat. Štefánik’s penetrating, confidence-inspiring gaze, he writes, was something he would never forget (Čechovič 1933, 74).

In recalling his experience with the Legion in Russia, Josef Pitra draws attention to the feeling of unity and brotherhood that prevailed among the troops there. Following usage adopted by all Legionary writers, Pitra writes of his fellows not just as fellows, but as brothers – all sons of a common Motherland. This brotherhood applied regardless of whether a fellow soldier was actually known or not. Near Penza, for example, one of five Czechoslovak trains heading toward Vladivostok was attacked by Bolsheviks. Alerted in advance by their scouts, the troops managed to set up a line of defence, which the Bolsheviks placed under siege. “Let us not lie here forever! wrathfully cried an unknown brother. It’s best to charge at them now – now!” (Pitra 1922, 51, emphasis added). This feeling of brotherhood fostered identification as well as tolerance. When Pitra found another soldier sleeping in his hole, he did not get angry, but just went to dig another one (Pitra 1922, 43). A day of heavy rain, which leaked into a Legionary train, was an opportunity for yet another experience of solidarity. “Places where the rain did not drip were tightly occupied from the ground up. And it wasn’t bad! A joke struck like lighting, a memory sprang forth, a song was whistled into being, and our spirits shone. We were home! Our home was our train, our wagon. We were one family!” (Pitra 1922, 67). Mikuláš Gacek, too, writes explicitly of his fellow Legionaries as members of a common family (Gacek 1936, 46). For Jenda Hofman, serving with the Legion in France, “the solidarity among us was the best” (quoted in Werstadt 1923–35, 1:22).

While the trains may indeed have felt like home, the soldiers never lost sight of the fact that the freedom of their homeland was their goal. Rudolf Medek (1929b) summed up his whole experience of the war as “a pilgrimage to Czechoslovakia” (the title of his two-volume memoir). The sense of a sacred mission found its way into romantic analogies which the soldiers represented in words and art both during the war and after. During the war, Legionaries stylized themselves as the heirs of Jan Žižka and his Hussite army, which in the fifteenth century had maintained the independence of Bohemia and the Utraquist Church against the assaults of all surrounding powers (figure 1). Their regiments were named after Hussite generals, and their flags and gravestones bore the Chalice – an old Hussite symbol – rather than the Cross. On train cars in Russia, Legionaries painted images of Janošík, a Slovak folk hero prophesied to return to earth with his comrades in his people’s hour of greatest need (figure 2). Memoirists included photographs of such images in their books, recalling fondly how they had impressed members of their host armies during the war. A Legionary chronicle, published for veterans after the war, proclaims: “Hardly had the enemy heard the singing of God’s warriors when they threw down their swords, abandoned their banners, and in panic-stricken horror and fear, fled before the Hussites” (Vaněk 1922–29, 4:5). The chronicle speaks of “how strangely the old legends about the Knights of Blaník were fulfilled, as well as the prophesy of Comenius [written after White Mountain], ‘to thee shall return the rule of thine own things, O Czech people,’ ” (Vaněk 1922–29, 4:4).

Among at least some memoirists, this sense of a sacred mission took on messianic proportions. Reference to Jan Hus, who in Czech and Protestant Slovak nationalist historiography had really started the Reformation, informed this sense; Legionary heirs to Hus confirmed it.7 According to Otakar Vaněk, “the great truth of free human conscience, which today is the property of all humankind, is a Czech truth, the Czech national idea, the greatest Czech victory that has ever been – immortal” (1922–29, 4:5). Rudolf Medek, interpreting the entire Legionary experience in Russia, writes of the Czechoslovak nation as “a nation which, though numerically not among the greatest peoples of the world, had proved that in its struggle for law, order, and freedom, it could achieve great things. From that time dates the truly international character of the Czechoslovak national movement” (1929a, 35). In Russia, after the October Revolution, Legionaries saw themselves as liberators, teaching the Russian peoples how to organize and defend themselves. Some, at least, came to see their cause as self-determination for all subject peoples. “Freedom of my nation and those of others,” wrote Karel Zmrhal, “or death!” (1919, 63; see also Gacek 1936, 87).

Legionaries distinguished themselves at the Battle of Zborov on the Eastern Front, of Artois on the Western, and of Doss Alto on the Italian. Russians called the Czechoslovak Družina “the Battalion of Victory or Death” (Medek 1929a, 34). István Deák suggests that “whatever their motivation for joining, [the Legionaries...] fought well, for they were convinced that they would be executed as traitors if captured by the Austro-Hungarians” (Deák 1990, 198). While this may indeed have been one of their motivations, the memoirs suggest that it was incidental. Legionaries do not recall fighting out of fear, but out of love for their nation. It should be remembered that the Legionaries were a special group, who had volunteered for their task in full knowledge of the risks. At least as much as fear of execution, nationalist fervour coupled with the intense social synergy of the Legions should be acknowledged as motivating factors. Jan Tošnar, whose fluency in Italian enabled him to evade recognition as a Czech Legionary after Hungarians captured him in the battle of the Piave, writes that he feared being discovered not because it would mean hanging for treason, but because such a death would not help his nation (1930, 84–85). Karel Zmrhal provides another perspective: “Here we have learned how to think and speak freely, and we desire freely also to act. We know today only one thing: freedom. For freedom we are sprinkling this beautiful white Ukrainian snow once again with blood. For us there is only one road: to a free Bohemia, or death!” (1919, 57–58).

Veterans of the Russian Legion attest to having shared a feeling of invincibility. “No one doubted,” writes Pitra; “faith in our success was universal” (1922, 59). As Gacek puts it, “We were convinced there was nothing on earth at which we would not succeed, if only we really wanted it” (1936, 116). Legionaries repeatedly emphasize their ability to defeat the Bolsheviks with minimal casualties. What could explain it, given that they were so outnumbered? According to Pitra it was the “good Spirit of our nation, which directed our actions and did not permit that we might be the first to lift a hand to fight with the disillusioned and misled Russian nation” (1922, 14). If the good Spirit of their nation was for them, who could be against?

In Russia, Czechoslovak soldiers found an excellent “Other” against which to define themselves. Zmrhal speculates that one of the reasons why the Tsarist regime had agreed to the Družina’s formation was that Czechs were more cultured (1919, 54). When the Revolution began in 1917, the Czechoslovak army “did not succumb to the Russian revolutionary chaos and disorganization. It became an island in the storm, an island of discipline and order in the wild confusion which shook the old Russian Empire to its very foundations” (Medek 1929a, 7). Indeed, Czechoslovak troops “defended the ‘Russian Revolution’ against the reactionary and imperialistic armies of William II in the great Battle of Zborov” (Medek 1929a, 13). Gacek quotes with reverence a speech Masaryk gave in Russia in the summer of 1917, in which the Czechoslovak leader evaluated the ongoing Russian revolution. “We can see how anarchy has established itself where there should have been democracy; let us take this as a cautionary tale in planning our own course of action” (1936, 105). After the Bolshevik Revolution, when the Legion was compelled to set off across Siberia, Legionaries insisted that it had not been they who started the fighting, but the promise-breaking Soviet government (Medek 1929a, 8). Rudolf Pitra emphasizes that Czechs showed far greater respect for life than the Bolsheviks, whose barbarisms he declares too gruesome to describe, and that everywhere the peoples of Russia and Siberia hailed them as liberators from Bolshevik tyranny. Eventually, of course, they had to leave liberated townspeople to their own devices, but “not before teaching them what a people’s democratic army really is” (Pitra 1922, 27; see also Medek 1929a, 18).

Reinforcing solidarity among Legionaries in France, and the feeling that they were fighting with a purpose, was the need to prove themselves to their French hosts. “Everywhere we meet with unfamiliarity and misunderstanding,” wrote Jenda Hofman in his diary. “Let us not forget that we are not free, that despite the rights we enjoy here, in England, and in Russia, very few have absolute faith in us. Let us show them who we are, that we are not ciphers” (quoted in Werstadt 1923–35, 1:22). In Russia, after American, Canadian, French, and Italian troops got involved in the Civil War, Legionaries reported feelings of superiority with respect to their Allied partners. “The peculiar psychological conditions in Russia and Siberia,” writes Medek, “began to tell on foreign armies unused to the stifling and chaotic atmosphere of a war that was, after all, a civil war. The Czechoslovaks alone did not succumb to this disorganization, and seeing the hopelessness of further enterprise in Russia [after the Allies had given up], they, too, set off for home” (1929a, 31).

The soldiers in the three Czechoslovak Legions fought different battles and experienced different living conditions, which naturally produced significantly different memories. Nonetheless, the mode used to structure memory remained overwhelmingly romantic across the three groups. Their experience in the Austro-Hungarian army had been one of contradiction and absurdity, while fighting with the Legions for the independence of their homeland was a liberating experience in itself. The Legionary experience, however, was not the most common one for Czech and Slovak soldiers in World War I. Most remained to the end in the Austro-Hungarian army, or awaited the end in hospitals and prison camps.8 Now it is time to consider how they remembered the war.

Alternative Memories

Veterans who had not served in the Legions published far fewer memoirs in the interwar period than did Legionary veterans. The reasons for this are open to speculation. Perhaps most Czechs were happy about their independence and saw the Legionaries as directly responsible; for this majority the Legionary story would be more interesting than their own absurd experience. Most Slovaks, if Slovak Legionaries are to be believed, were as indifferent to independence as they had been to the war, and so might have felt no particular need to document their experience (Jokel 1933, 36; Kajan 1933, 96; Potôček 1933, 81). The intense synergy of the Legionary experience, by contrast, may have given Legionary veterans more motivation and social support to write. In any case, it is clear that a standard narrative of World War I emerged early in the interwar period, and it was the narrative of the Legionaries. Memoirists of the Austro-Hungarian army experience had to respond to the “liberation legend” either explicitly or implicitly; they can be classified on the basis of whether they reinforced or subverted it.

Josef Šefl’s book is an apology, seeking to explain and justify his own nonparticipation in the Legions. He writes that he missed the chance to be captured by the Russians when he fought them in Galicia, because at that time (1914) he still expected the war to end soon, with Russia occupying Bohemia. Instead of allowing himself to be captured, he used his authority as a non-commissioned officer to order his men to retreat (1922, 26–27, 42). Stuck in the Austro-Hungarian army, he writes that he joined other Czechs in conducting a “passive” revolution, even while the Legions abroad were carrying on the “active” revolution (58). Evidently he was not passive enough, for he ended up being arrested for treason in November 1914 and spending six months in prison, before being sent back to the front for lack of men. His crimes: 1) saying that officers had fled a battle, 2) saying that soldiers were hungry, 3) saying that a revolution would break out in Bohemia, 4) saying that Francis Joseph should have had himself crowned King of the Czech lands, and 5) saying that his parents wrote to him what was going on at home (68). Šefl emphasizes the absurdity of his situation, and that of all Czechs in the Habsburg army.

The explicit purpose of Augustín Drobný’s memoir is “to describe the suffering of Slovak and Slavonic troops fighting under foreign flags, for foreign interests” (1933, 5). A student in Germany when the war began, he was called home to Pressburg when Francis Joseph ordered general mobilization, and sent to the Eastern Front in 1915. Initially he did not question his duty, though he was by no means enthusiastic, but as the months went by he became disgusted with the brutality and hypocrisy of Austro-Hungarian officers as well as the “lords” at home who required innocent young men to kill one another while they sat in safety and profited from the want of common citizens. As Drobný came in contact with Russian POWs and soldiers dying on the battlefield – people “just like us” – he developed pan- Slavic sympathies, and as he engaged in battle after horrible battle – which he describes in grisly detail – he became a self-avowed pacifist. “The bitterness of our present life is poisoning us,” he writes. “We are indifferent to everything. We don’t know why we are fighting. The brutality of war has stripped us of our humanity and turned us into animals” (215). An escape attempt failed, though he was not caught; he learned of the Czechoslovak Legions only in April 1916, just before he was seriously wounded and sent home for the remainder of the war (140, 240). Though he states that a goal of his book is to prevent future wars, he is equally insistent that peace can be maintained only if the rising generation is always ready to defend the Slovak nation and the democratic Czechoslovak state, which were freed from a militaristic monarch and nationally chauvinistic aristocrats only by the sacrifices of the previous generation and particularly the Czechoslovak Legions (5). “The truth,” he insists, echoing Masaryk, “must prevail!” (240, 248).

Whereas Šefl and Drobný present narratives of the war very much in harmony with the “liberation legend,” Stanislav Neumann does not. He opens each chapter of his memoir with a discussion of death by disease – which in the Balkans, he writes, was ironically more common than death at the front (1928, 5). He writes of Austrian officers as “parasites,” protesting that even when all the soldiers were hungry, they had plenty of food. Only one officer – a fellow Czech, who “liked to talk and joke with us” – escapes Neumann’s indignation (8). Inclined toward socialism before 1914, wartime injustices like this evidently pushed Neumann further to the left, and afterwards he joined the Communist Party. While at the beginning he had placed his hopes in the Allies and especially France, he writes that he was ultimately “disillusioned” by the western powers, who seemed more interested in themselves than in humanistic ideals. For Neumann, the war was “dirty,” and the order that emerged afterwards not much cleaner (85).

Josef Váchal, who served on the Italian front, makes the ugliness of war his central theme. An artist by profession and Buddhist by confession, Váchal claimed not to be concerned with who might win the war. For him, war was simply a means for restoring ecological balance between humans and other animals when natural catastrophes failed to do so. “All those whose limbs and innards will soon be torn apart in the trenches,” he writes, “have in any case trespassed against their brother animals and nature in general” (1996, 144). Nonetheless, the gruesomeness of death in the trenches weighed heavily upon him, becoming the subject of several woodcuts and poems. He thought he had escaped these horrors when a serious injury sent him to a field hospital, but ironically, when he had sufficiently recovered, he found himself assigned to the manufacture of grave markers. In sum, Váchal considered the war to have been a pointless evil, which could have been avoided if men had been content with the simple joys of family and craft. Even the postwar independence of his country Váchal regarded as of little consequence; all he desired was to be with his family and to pursue his art (218–221).

While relatively few memoirs present a non-Legionary perspective of the Great War, interwar novels partially fill the lacuna. Many, of course, like Rudolf Medek’s pentalogy, merely retell the liberation legend in fictional form, but others speak with a sense of disillusionment characteristic of what Fussell considers great war literature in Britain. Jan Weiss’ Cottage of Death, Karel Konrád’s Dismissed, and Vladislav Vančura’s apocalyptic Tilled Fields are all gloomy documents “of the psychology of post-War mal de Siècle” (Hostovský 1943, 83). By far the most popular and famous of these novels was Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1921–23). Hašek, who had fought with the Legion in Russia until he joined the Soviet Communist Party, created a hero who, many Czechs believed, personified their wartime predicament of having to fight for an empire they hoped would lose. Švejk is an enigmatic character, simultaneously clever and stupid, who engenders absurd situations by ostensibly serving the Austrian cause with enthusiasm.

By taking regulations more seriously than army officers themselves, Švejk actually undermines the Austrian war effort. Naturally, Hašek’s novel attracted the condemnation of Legionary veterans and other adherents of the emerging standard narrative, not only because of what they saw as his wartime treason, but because they believed Švejk set a bad example.9 Czech heroes, they argued, should be brave and chivalric, like the Legionaries who died fighting for Czechoslovak independence; Švejk was an insult to their memory (Medek 1929b, 1:123).

Death and the Morality of Memory

In The Great War and the British People, Jay Winter suggests that British veterans wrote their memoirs for three reasons: to memorialize their fallen comrades, to expose the ugliness of war, and to address their feeling of guilt for having survived (1985, 289–304). In the Czechoslovak case, the first of these reasons appears frequently, the second occasionally, and the third not at all. Instead, we find two more reasons: to preserve veterans’ own sense of identity, and to contribute to the building of a new society.

All Legionary memoirists speak respectfully of their fallen “brothers,” and it is clear that a major purpose for writing was to memorialize them. Václav Ivičič, in his history of his Russian Legionary regiment, provides photographs of all known resting places of comrades who fell in Siberia, as well as maps of their cemeteries (1924, 212–43) (figure 3). Rudolf Pitra writes that the fallen still “live with us in spirit... in our memories” (1922, 57). Veterans do not speak of the dead with sadness, however, but with a certain confident joy. In Siberia, remembers Pitra, “we spoke of them lightly and without concern – in a way that no one who knew the difficulty of our situation could understand.” After burying four brothers, Pitra recalls, Legionaries even invoked humor: “Where there are four Czechoslovaks, there it is good – like home!” (1922, 61). This phenomenon may be partly attributable to the intense bonding that took place among Legionary brethren, in conjunction with the deep sense of mission they felt. The death of Legionary soldiers was widely considered to be an efficacious sacrifice for the freedom of their homeland (Gacek 1936, 145, 161; Sajda 1933, 7; Zuman 1922, 12–13). An exhaustive chronicle designed to be an heirloom for Legionary veterans, which includes a nameplate at the front for owners to record the details of their own participation, closes with an image of a fallen soldier, his last gaze looking through parted clouds to the shining spires of liberated Prague – a direct pictorial connection between the sacrifice of fallen Legionaries and their country’s independence (figure 4). The chronicle indicates that “our brothers lie with smiles on their lips” (Vaněk 1922–29, 4:841).

If the monuments built to Legionaries after the war are any indication, the belief in a direct causal relationship between the Legions and Czechoslovak independence was widespread. Šefl and Drobný say as much in their non-Legionary memoirs. This was a memorialization of the dead which emphasized not death, but life. As one author proclaimed, fallen Legionaries “did not live in vain” (Dančenko-Němirovič 1922). In the memoirs of Neumann and Váchal, however, death does not assume a heroic mask. Insofar as Neumann discusses death, it is casually or ironically, as if to emphasize the pointlessness of it all. Váchal, too, insists that the terrible deaths he witnessed in the Italian trenches served no purpose besides an ecological one. Neither author memorializes individual soldiers; they merely protest the social forces that caused such a great and absurd loss of life.

Of the memoirs we have discussed, only Drobný’s and Váchal’s make the ugliness of war a central and insistent theme. The other authors acknowledge the ugliness, but either push it to the background – more or less as a matter of course – or seek to understand its social origins. Perhaps because the war in the Balkans was such a mobile war, in which the Serbs suffered far more than the Austro-Hungarians, Neumann and Růžička do not find the violence there worthy of any special comment. For the Legionaries, the horror of the war did not seem to be as noteworthy as the spirit of solidarity and purposefulness which prevailed among them. “It was a horrible and beautiful time,” writes Jaroslav Werstadt, who proceeds to focus on the beauty (1923–35, 1:5). Even in their visual representations of battles, Legionaries tended to create beautiful images of good triumphing over evil (figure 5). Drobný insists on describing the horror of fighting on the Eastern Front, but still sees good beyond the evil in the Legions he never joined, as well as in honest common soldiers who occasionally found enough humanity within themselves to resist or mitigate the inhuman orders of their superiors. In Váchal’s memoir and his woodcuts, on the other hand, there is only violence, with no good to be seen (figure 6).

Survivor guilt is a common part of grieving, either out of desire to undo the past or dread of the future. It is characteristic of a state of mind wherein bereavement cannot be placed in a meaningful historical scheme. While such guilt may have been common in Britain, it does not seem to have characterized the collective Czechoslovak memory of the war, whether Legionary or not. Legionaries insisted that their brothers fell for a cause – the independence of their homeland – and with this cause achieved, their deaths did seemed not without meaning. Moreover, they maintained that any one of them would have accepted the same fate. Drobný and Váchal, who echoed Western assertions that World War I was a needless slaughter, did not profess any guilt either. Guilty for them were the powerful – the monarchs and aristocrats (Drobný) or the politicians and capitalists (Váchal) who had caused the war. The ordinary people, with whom they identified, were in principle innocent – save those who sought their own prosperity within the existing power structures.

A central reason for writing both memoirs and histories of Legionary regiments was the need to reinforce identities that soldiers had assumed during the war, and to preserve the synergy they had shared. As Ferdinand Čatloš wrote, “nowadays these meetings [of Legionary veterans] are being organized in order to preserve a spirit, to strengthen national groupings and to build a tradition of military solidarity, friendship, and community, to keep faith to oneself and to one’s comrades – faith, which in those most horrible times full of tests, joined us and united us, for it was often sanctified with blood” (1933, 17). Rudolf Pitra wrote that just before finally leaving Russia, “we strolled among familiar places, looking one last time on a countryside that will never disappear from our memories. We were glad to leave, even though we felt that a piece of ourselves would remain here, a captivating episode of our lives” (1922, 72). Many veterans recalled the Legions as the most glorious period of their lives, a time when they had discovered hitherto unsuspected strengths, when they had transcended their former selves. Writing and reading about their experiences provided a way to revisit and potentially even recapture that spirit.

Perhaps the most prominent reason why Czech and Slovak veterans wrote their memoirs was didactic. Proponents of the standard Legionary narrative wanted to provide inspiring examples of the new political morality they hoped would characterize the new republic. “Even if we don’t like to remember the painful days, months, and years of the world war,” writes Josef Šefl, “we dare not, in this post-war chaos and turmoil, forget the recent past. It is good to look to bygone years, to draw lessons from them, so that we might truly value the Freedom for which our brothers suffered and died on all the battlefields of the world” (1922, 7). The fact that so many Legionaries had died to bring their country independence made it a moral imperative for survivors to tell their story. The struggle for freedom had not ended with the establishment of Czechoslovakia; the Legionaries now had to make sure their people were trained for freedom (Čechovič 1933, 42). Taking a pessimistic view of things, Rudolf Medek asked: “Is it worth it to these rascals, that for the freedom of their land and for a better future for their children the Czech Družina bled in Russia and assembled a great army, which should come to the Czech lands and Slovakia and proffer the banner of liberty to the hands of immature, weak, cowardly, and even refusing people? Won’t we hear some speak of the full coffers of Egypt, or how under Austria it was better?” (1929b, 1:119–20). Such questions are very similar to those featured in the French film J’Accuse – which Winter discusses at length in Sites of Memory – wherein the dead rise up to visit a French town and see whether the living are worthy of their sacrifice. The moral implication in both cases is that readers and viewers should mend their ways, lest the sacrifice lose its meaning.

Masaryk and the Legionaries with him stood for active involvement in political life – even at the risk of personal loss. Adherents to this political philosophy found the passivity which so many Czechs and Slovaks had demonstrated in the war to be problematic. As Karel Zmrhal proclaimed, “Woe to those who slept while others created” (1919, 74). Socialist writers like Neumann and Hašek, and writers with socialist inclinations like Váchal, challenged the standard war narrative upon which all this didacticism was based. With very few exceptions, divergences in the Czech memory of World War I crystallized into a schism between the dominant “liberation legend” and a subversive socialist interpretation. That, at least, is how contemporaries saw it. One of the few revisionist Legionary memoirists protested against this polarization. “The ideology of the class struggle and the political reaction to it,” he wrote, “have stifled any realistic history of our revolution, which would be based on historical fact and actual developments. Politics has triumphed over science and real history” (Zuman 1922, 10).10

The socialist counter-interpretation was not as pronounced in Slovakia, where the main cleavage in the public memory of the war seems to have been between the Legionary minority and a silent majority. Slovak Legionary memoirists, however, did occasionally draw attention to misunderstandings with their Czech brethren during the war – misunderstandings that at the time they had tried to overlook, but which in retrospect appeared as intimations of future tragedy. Mikuláš Gacek recalls being delegated by his regiment with one other Slovak to travel to distant Borispol, where Masaryk in July 1917 was to address the main Legionary host. “He spoke entrancingly,” writes Gacek. “We trembled. Our hearts were fully open... And with every transition to a new thought our spirits quivered with the happy expectation: now, here it comes – the next words will be for us, for Slovaks.” Alas, Masaryk spoke extensively about Czech history and the mission of the Czech nation, but never once mentioned the Czechs’ partners in the Czechoslovak Legions (1936, 102–06). In January 1919, when a new, mostly Slovak regiment was created in Irkutsk, the Slovak officers petitioned their Czech colonel to make Slovak the unit’s language of command, suggesting that Slovak POWs would be more likely to join the Russian Legion if their language were the language of administration in at least one regiment, and since theirs was already mostly Slovak, it was the logical choice. The Czech commander refused, however, on the grounds that Czech was a richer, more established language and that all Slovaks understood it. When the Slovak officers complained at higher levels, they were accused of separatism (Gacek 1936, 198–280). Incidents like this did not lessen Slovak Legionaries’ commitment to the Czechoslovak cause, either during the war or after, but they did warn that, “as a result of misunderstanding from the Czech side, Slovaks might really become separatists” (Gacek 1936, 205; see also Vnuk 1933, 200).

Throughout Europe, the memory of the Great War held the key to two fundamental social questions of the interwar period: Who are we, and where are we headed? Veterans wrote in order to answer these questions for themselves and for their people. The five motivations we have discussed were really different ways of posing the questions. Memorialization of the fallen was an essential component of these meditations because of the critical question of sacrifice. If soldiers’ deaths were clearly related to a positive result, then survivors had a moral responsibility to honor their ideals. If there was no correlation – if, in other words, the sacrifice was inefficacious – then the beliefs and institutions that had required this sacrifice needed to be reconsidered.


This article has argued that those Czech and Slovak soldiers who recalled the war in positive terms did so because they had been involved in the genesis of a new, transcendent sense of community. Whereas the experience of World War I may have been an experience of disillusionment for British, French, and German soldiers on the Western Front, it was an experience of profound “illusionment” for those Czech and Slovak soldiers who left the Austro-Hungarian army and joined the Czechoslovak Legions. Whereas British, French, and German soldiers may have enlisted enthusiastically and optimistically, only to find their hopes ironically and absurdly shattered, Czechs and Slovaks tended to find their participation in the Austro- Hungarian war effort absurd from the beginning. For those who remained in the Emperor-King’s army, the sense of absurdity proved enduring and even comparable to that experienced in the west; for others – a small but important minority – incorporation into the Czechoslovak Legions endowed the war with profound, even sacred meaning.

It still remains to consider Czechoslovak memory of the Great War according to Frye’s modes, and to compare Czechoslovak and western cases in their light. Insofar as they deal with life in the Austro-Hungarian army, Czech and Slovak memoirs fall unambiguously into Frye’s ironic category. These documents emphasize absurdity, their humor is black, and they depict the plight of powerless souls with minimal freedom of action. Legionary memoirs, on the other hand, use a mode best described as romantic. Their writers compare the Legionaries to medieval knights, their language is elevated, their humor noble. The scope of action they describe is grander than that of ordinary men in ordinary times. Pitra writes that, after reading Jack London’s Adventures, captured from the Penza soviet, he had been moved by these tales of how people in exceptional circumstances develop exceptional abilities and energy; Pitra identified with these characters and poured his enthusiasm into his writing (1922, 77).

Both the Legionaries and the standard Western narrative’s British, French, and German soldiers agreed that “he who wasn’t in the fight belongs to another world” (Pitra 1922, 59), yet they do not seem to have belonged to each others’ worlds, either. One might be tempted to attribute the difference to the novelty and peculiarity of trench warfare, which was indisputably most gruesome on the Western Front and figures so prominently in the disillusionment which British, French, and German soldiers described. If the Western Front were the only factor, however, then we would expect Czechs and Slovaks fighting there alongside the French to have experienced a similar sense of dark irony. This is not the case. On the contrary, Czechoslovak veterans of the Western Front recalled the same experience of synergy described by their comrades to the east. Legionaries in France did notice the demoralized mood of French troops, but found it puzzling rather than resonant with their own perceptions of the war. Jenda Hofman described his surprise at French morale in his journal, published posthumously in 1924: “Could it be that they have forgotten why we are fighting? It would be an unforgivable sin on all our parts, if these years of labor and all those victims should be for nothing” (quoted in Werstadt 1923–35, 1:24).

A further hypothesis might be that the Legionary narrative is characteristically a “winner’s narrative.” The British and French also won the war, however, and the insular British even experienced less domestic hardship than Czechs and Slovaks in the blockaded Habsburg Monarchy. Only two conclusions are possible: either the standard narrative of irony and disillusionment was not as pervasive in Britain and France as historians and literary critics have believed, and veterans there also articulated elements of a romantic “winner’s narrative,” or the type of warfare at the various fronts is not the only factor behind the divergent standard narratives of interwar Czechoslovakia and western Europe.

Since the modal difference between irony and romance is mimetic – a difference in the scope for an individual’s independent action with respect to others in a real or imagined social relationship – these relationships are the place to seek a resolution to our dilemma. In explaining why a soldier’s experience was ironic or romantic, it may be that the structure of his metaphysical relations with fellow soldiers, with officers, and with his nation was at least as important as the physical conditions of warfare. While physical circumstances can, of course, constrain agency, there would seem to be an important correlation, on one hand, between egalitarian or quasi-familial relations within an army and the experience of freedom in its ranks, and on the other between a more regimented structure and an experience of powerlessness. It is significant, for example, that Legionaries remained volunteers even after they joined; unlike British, French, and German soldiers, who frequently enlisted voluntarily only to be bound thereafter to inescapable military discipline, Czechoslovak Legionaries were as free to leave as they had been to join, and some did (Gacek 1936, 128; Styka 1933, 86). This freedom heightened the sense of responsibility among the majority who remained – a responsibility inseparable from an awareness of agency. Czech and Slovak veterans frequently recall that, because of the nature of social relations in the Legions, the experience of serving in them was itself liberating (Čatloš 1933, 23; Gacek 1936, 45). The revolution in which Legionary veterans universally claimed to be participating began, as they recall it, not in the future, with the achievement of Czechoslovak independence, but in the present, with the creation of a new society in their own ranks. It was, to be sure, a nationalist revolution (Legionaries themselves describe it in these terms, e.g. Čatloš 1933, 23), but it was not yet an imperialist nationalism. Whereas regular soldiers in the Great Powers’ armies could question whether the patriotism for which they were asked to kill and be killed was really a form of oppression, volunteers in the Czechoslovak Legions were convinced that they were fighting for their own national liberty. While nationalism provided the framework in which a specifically Czechoslovak revolution could be organized, moreover, with respect to feelings of empowerment it was far more important that this revolution was democratic. Indeed, it was precisely after December 1918, when the new Czechoslovak state introduced a more regimented structure (including former Austrian officers) into the Legions-turned-Army, that veterans recall their enthusiasm waning – despite the continuation of the war in Russia and the need to secure the new state’s borders at home (Gacek 1936, 190–253; Tošnar 1930, 241–42).

A cursory examination of Polish memoirs would seem to confirm these tentative conclusions. The Polish case is comparable to the Czechoslovak because of the Legions that fought for the restoration of Polish statehood under Piłsudski, but it is also more complex, not just because the Legions became divided between the 2nd Brigade, which swore “brotherhood in arms” with Germany, and the 1st and 3rd Brigades, which refused, but also because Polish troops fought in the regular German, Austrian, and Russian armies on both sides of the Eastern Front (not to mention the Southern and the Italian). Nonetheless, the patterns by which Polish veterans narrated their memories in the interwar period closely match those of their Czechoslovak counterparts. Veterans of the three regular armies consistently describe their experience in ironic, even dystopian terms, frequently recalling a sense of powerlessness and indifference as to whether they won or lost (Henning- Michaelis 1928–29; Iwicki 1978; Rapf 2011). Veterans of the 1st and 3rd Brigades, by contrast (especially the 1st, led by Piłsudski himself), relate stories of heroism in romantic pursuit of a glorious future and emphasize their sense of fraternity and equality in the Legions. They describe even the period after the Oath Crisis, when they were interned as POWs or drafted into the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, in romantic terms, for sacrifice was necessary to achieve the “resurrection” of Poland (Składkowski 1932–33, 1:196; see also Herzog 1994; Porwit 1986). Veterans of the 2nd Brigade – whose officers came from the Habsburg army and used German rather than Polish as the language of command – do not seem to fit either pattern. For example, the major theme of Stanisław Rostworowski’s (2001) memoir is duty, initially harmonious between Habsburg and homeland, then painfully conflicted, but ultimately resolved through the interplay of individual probity and external circumstance. This memoir falls between the high mimetic of romance and the non-mimetic of irony in the realm that Frye calls the “low mimetic,” where the protagonists’ power of action is constrained by social forces, but not slavishly so.

The Polish evidence can help us make sense of a further difference between British and Czechoslovak memory: survivor guilt as a motivation for writing in the former case and its absence in the latter. Whereas most Polish veterans align with their Czech and Slovak counterparts on this matter, those who were officers in the 2nd Brigade and the regular armies do occasionally acknowledge survivor guilt (Orobkiewicz 1919; Rostworowski 2001). Agency, of course, is a prerequisite of guilt. It would appear that most Polish veterans of the three regular armies, like Czech and Slovak veterans of the Habsburg forces, do not evince feelings of guilt because they regarded their position as powerless from the moment they were called up to the time when death, injury, capture, or the end of the war set them free. Veterans of the Czechoslovak Legions and Piłsudski’s 1st and 3rd Brigades do not describe feelings of guilt because they felt they were fulfilling the “sacred” destiny of their nation (Čatloš 1933, 17, 21), acting in complete harmony with its “good Spirit” (Pitra 1922, 14), mutually reinforcing with their peers an extraordinary sense of agency that approached the divine (Gacek 1936, 187–88). Winter’s (1985) British soldiers and some Polish officers were capable of experiencing survival guilt precisely because they possessed – at least at the outset – an “ordinary” sense of human agency. Even if British soldiers may not have felt free in the trenches, they had grown up in a relatively free society, accustomed to personal responsibility. It is, as Fussell suggests, “their residence on the knife-edge” between low mimetic and ironic that gives British war narratives – like the memoirs of some Polish officers – their distinctive character.

Further transnational comparison would be necessary to test and refine this hypothesis. Consideration of Serbian memoirs, for example, might confirm that egalitarian, familial relations – like those Victor Komski (1934) recalls in the Serbian army, where even King Peter donned an infantryman’s uniform and shared the sufferings of his host in its retreat across Albania – are correlated with subsequent romantic interpretations of the war. In order fully to understand the diversity of ways in which Europeans remembered World War I, and the reasons behind this diversity, a genuinely pan-European study is necessary. This diversity, it bears emphasizing, had important consequences. The Nazis’ ability to launch the Second World War depended very much on the diverse ways in which Germans remembered the First. The diverse European responses to the Nazi threat corresponded extremely closely with the ways in which particular European societies remembered the Great War. It is no coincidence that the British and French, who tended to remember the war ironically, chose the path of appeasement, while Poles and Serbs, among whom a romantic memory of the war prevailed, chose resistance in the face of certain defeat. In Czechoslovakia, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, veterans of the Legions were among the foremost advocates of armed resistance to Hitler – even after the western democracies had refused to support Czechoslovakia at Munich. The behavior of France and Britain confused Czechoslovak public opinion, however, such that Slovaks and especially Czechs began increasingly to suspect that the socialist interpretation of World War I – which emphasized the bourgeoisie’s selfish disregard for humanity – was after all the correct one. The course of European history even after the Second World War would depend, to a significant extent, on how Europeans remembered the First.


James Krapfl. Teaches European history at McGill University in Montreal, specializing in modern Central Europe and the comparative cultural history of European revolutions. He is the author of Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia, 1989–1992 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013). Dr. Krapfl completed his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007 and has commenced a new project on the popular experience of the late 1960s in Central Europe.


The author thanks David Dalibóg and Nikola Sirovica for assistance with the research behind this article, as well as Margaret Anderson, Richard Grainer, Nancy Partner, and the late Gerald Feldman for comments on earlier drafts.

1 Samuel Hynes’ A War Imagined: The Great War and English Culture (1991) is another prominent, albeit theoretically less profound, example of the “modernist” interpretation.

2 The word for homeland in Czech and Slovak, vlast/ť, is feminine.

3 For examples of Communist-era interpretations of World War I, see Jindřich Veselý’s Stalinist Češi a Slováci v revolučním Rusku, 1917–1920 (1954), and Karel Pichlík’s more balanced but still ideologically committed works, Červenobílá a rudá: Vojáci ve válce a revoluci 1914–1918 (1967), and Zahraniční odboj 1914–1918 bez legend (1968).

4 For details of these and other Czech (and Slovak) legends, see Alois Jirásek’s canonical Old Czech Legends (1992).

5 A partial exception, Domov za války (Žipek 1929) provides some information on the everyday life of ordinary people behind the lines, but most space is devoted to the activities of political conspirators.

6 British soldiers in Serbia reported seeing railway cars chalked with the words “Export of Bohemian Meat to Serbia” (May 1966, 1:353).

7 Though Protestants were a minority among Slovaks, they were significantly more likely to join the Legions than their Catholic co-nationals.

8 According to Jan Křen, roughly one million Czechs and Slovaks served in the Austro-Hungarian army during the war; of these, about 300,000 ended up in prison camps. The ratio of Legionary to non-Legionary veterans was approximately 1:9 (Křen 1989, 386).

9 It was only Masaryk’s general amnesty that allowed Hašek to return safely to Bohemia (Pytlík 1983, 59–63).

10 Zuman protested as well against what he saw as a by-product of this polarization: the tendency of Czech adherents of the “liberation legend” to see Russia only in negative terms. (Slovak Legionary veterans generally retained their affection for Russia, if not for Bolshevism.) Zuman had lived in Russia for 23 years before the war started and had been one of the first volunteers in the Czech Družina. While he was antagonistic to Bolshevism, he remained faithful to the old idea of pan-Slavic union. He was therefore dismayed that, with independence, Czechs had seemed to abandon pan-Slavism. Před dvaceti lety (Šapilovský 1934) is another work in this vein.

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