Dreams of a Small Great Nation, by Kevin J. McNamara ISBN 9781610394840
Four out of five stars
As the twentieth century began, the very concept of monarchies and their control of multi-ethnic empires was a long tradition but under great stress. Possibly the most complex of the three great European land empires of the early part of the twentieth century was the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. It was also the physical location of the primary event that sparked World War I.
While a great deal had been done to try to keep the ethnic minorities from feeling persecuted, the reality in Austria-Hungary was that the Germans dominated in the lands of Austria and the Hungarians in Hungarian territory. Therefore, there was some significant strain between the minorities such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Croats and Slovenes and the rulers. This is of course mentioned as an essential historical context.
Yet, when the First World War broke out, the ethnic minorities in Austria-Hungary generally fought well. At the start of the war the officer corps generally could speak the languages of the troops under them, but most of those officers were killed in the first year of the war. On the eastern front of the war after the first year, significant numbers of Czech and Slovak troops were captured and made POWs by the Russians, some of these troops were in effect deserters, having decided that they no longer wanted to fight and die for their empire.
These troops were fearful of reprisals by POWs of German and Hungarian heritage also in Russia and so the Czech and Slovaks banded together. As the Czarist state collapsed, they rapidly became a cohesive fighting force that was dedicated to the establishment of a nation that was to be called Czecho-Slovakia. However, at this point, they became a military and political football.
With the signing of the peace treaty between the emerging new Russian government and Germany, there was no eastern front for what was now the Czecho-Slovak legion. A plan emerged in the Allied camp to transport the roughly 50,000 men out of the chaotic situation of Russia after the revolution to fight the Germans on the western front. Yet, no one could figure out how to do that.
The one key historical point that emerges in this book is how ineptly the circumstances of the Czecho-Slovak legion was handled. At one time, they were the most powerful coherent military force in Russia, so they were feared by the Bolshevik leaders, yet transporting them out of the country was an enormous task in the chaotic situation. Furthermore, when armies of millions of men were fighting on the western front, an additional 50,000 would not have made a difference.
Truly neutral in the emerging Russian Civil War, the Czech-Slovak legion was often forced to do battle with the Bolshevik forces as well as several groups that were essentially freelancing. Yet, at the time they for all practical purposes controlled the Trans-Siberia railway, which meant that they controlled all of Siberia.
The exploits of the Czecho-Slovak Legion in Russia captured the imagination and attention of the people of the west, even though the Allied leaders truly did not know what to do with them. A relatively token American force of 7,000 troops was sent to Vladivostok to aid in evacuating the Czecho-Slovak Legion, but the Allied leadership found it necessary to seek help from Japan, an act that infuriated the Russian leadership.
While this book is accurate in describing the historical background of the genesis of the Czecho-Slovak legion, the subtitle is completely inaccurate. The legion did not “Destroy an Empire,” “Found a Republic” or “Remake the map of Europe.” It was the complete defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary that did that and the legion fired almost no shots in that particular battle. While the exploits of the legion are the raw materials of legends, the fact is that Czecho-Slovakia was created and existed well before the men of the legion once again set foot in it.