The Czecho-Slovak Nation

By Louis E. Van Norman, George Peet

[The North American Review, December 1918]

Out of the mists that cover the welter of chaos in Russia there has come a new people, a new war factor with a name unfamiliar to most of us-—The Czecho-Slovaks. Suddenly, with no background of knowledge to guide us, we are confronted by a new nation, represented by a series of moving armies along the vast trans-Siberian railroad, from Moscow to Vladivostok; armies whose exploits read like the story of a second Iliad.

Here, in the capital of the United States, a professor of philosophy and sociology, commander-in-chief of three armies in the old world, represents a people denationalized for a thousand years, so pervasively, so convincingly, that the American President and our State Department have joined with Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan in recognizing their armies as belligerents and their home people as a sovereign ally.

Who are these Czecho-Slovaks? Where is their homeland? What are their national aims and aspirations? Why are they fighting now all along the Trans-Siberian railroad even to the Pacific, against the Russian Bolsheviki?

The Czecho-Slovaks are the westernmost of the Slavs. The Bohemians, who call themselves Czechs, are in what they have called a Slav island surrounded by a Teuton sea. They have owed an unwilling, protesting allegiance to Austria, while Slovakia, Bohemia Unredeemed, just over the border in Hungary, has been oppressed by the Magyars. Together, the Czechs and their compatriots the Slovaks, make one compact people of nine or ten millions, now known as the Czecho-Slovaks.

The Bohemian nation has never acknowledged the rule of the Hapsburgs as legitimate.

The Hapsburg Dual-Monarchy originated as a union of three independent states, nearly four centuries ago—to be exact, in 1526. Then it was that German Austria, Hungary and Bohemia agreed to unite as fully autonomous states. The Hapsburgs, however, at once violated their pledge and began the long campaign to Germanize the Union. When the voluntary kinship was established, Hungary was occupied by the vanguard of the victorious Turkish invasion. In fact, it was reduced to little more than Slovakia. It took the combined struggle of both Austria and Bohemia for nearly two centuries to liberate the Magyars from their Ottoman oppressors.

Bohemia, weakened by the religious persecutions deliberately instigated and carried out by the Hapsburgs, defended her independence bravely. In 1618 she attempted a revolution which ended in her defeat and the Thirty Years War. As punishment the dynasty imposed absolution, confiscated four-fifths of the land and exiled more than 30,000 families of the Protestants and Bohemian brethren. But the Czech people never submitted. Indeed, as late as 1775 the peasants of Moravia nobly defended their national church. Both Bohemians and Hungarians stoutly defended their historical fights against the centralizing and Germanizing efforts of Maria Theresa and Joseph II. Then came the general reaction in Europe after the French Revolution, a reaction led on the continent by Austria. This backward swing of the pendulum went too far under the guidance of the cynical Metternich and the revolution of 1848 came on. The Czechs were the first to break out into revolt against the tyranny of Vienna. Under the brutal Windischgratz, the Austrian troops put down the Czechs, while the court called in Russian aid to suppress the Magyars. Again there came the reaction of the early fifties. Austria suffered two great military reverses: in 1859 at the hands of France and Italy, and in. 1866 by Prussia. To save the dynasty, the Hapsburgs grudgingly made some small concessions and Austria became, in 1867, the Dual-Monarchy—Austria-Hungary.

Through all the negotiations which resulted in this remodeling of the system, the Czechs demanded the same rights as the Magyars. They insisted that the Austrian Emperor should be crowned king of Bohemia at Prague as well as of Hungary at Budapest. Emperor Francis Joseph first tried to crush the Czechs by military force. Finding that he could not break their opposition he was compelled to recognize their historical rights. Finally, he promised that he would be crowned King of Bohemia. This solemn promise he made three times to the Czech people—each time to the Diet in formal sitting, in 1861, 1870 and 1871. Later, in 1879, when the Czech members first entered Parliament, he again pledged his royal word.

Berlin and the Magyars, however, opposed him and the royal word was not kept. Bismarck and the Hungarian leader Andrassy made an agreement and Austria-Hungary became the vanguard of Prussia in the Balkans and later, because of this, against Russia. When Bismarck's star had set, William the Second began his openly avowed Pan-German policy, which was in the main, advocated by the entire Triple Alliance. The German "Drang nach Osten" (push to the East) planted the seeds of the two Balkan wars and the present tremendous conflict.

Against the whole German and Austrian "Weltpolitik" which has been responsible for the present war, the Czechs have always protested with all their might, and demanded their historical, rights. They never ceased pointing out and urging the fact that Bohemia is not a so-called patrimonium, an hereditary land, but a state, as much so as Hungary, a state that might appeal to diplomatic negotiation and mutual agreement.

The southeastern part of the Czech nation, Slovakia, torn from Moravia and Bohemia a century before, was occupied by the Magyars, who kept up a continuous campaign of Magyarization. Up to the eighteenth century this did not succeed. Indeed, the presence in the Magyar tongue of many Slovak terms (in fact, hundreds of them) denoting facts and processes of civilized life, prove that the Magyars themselves were dependent on the, Slovaks in a cultural way—even though they do so often refer to the Slovaks as "not human beings." Later, the Magyars, supported by Vienna and Berlin are denationalizing the Slovaks by force and trying to make Magyars out of them, just as they have been doing with Roumanians, Ruthenians, Serbians.

The Hapsburgs have played fast and loose with the Slovaks in their usual fashion. In the early days of the .uprising of 18"48 they supported the Slovaks against the Magyars and aided in the formation of a Slovak army to march on Budapest. Even as late as 1861 Emperor Francis Joseph promised a Slovak deputation his support against the Magyars. In 1867, however, when the so-called "dualism" was formed with the Magyars, the Hapsburgs began a conspiracy against all non-German and non-Magyar nationalities. The Hapsburgs have now completely sacrificed the Slovaks to Magyar jingoism.

Austria herself has already, upon several occasions, practically acknowledged the justice and real existence of the position taken by the Czech nation and its armies in the present war. Last spring Emperor Charles sent an official delegate to the Czecho-Slovak army in Russia to persuade it—if possible—to return home, promising that, in such an event, all the troops should be granted full amnesty and, furthermore, that complete autonomy would be granted to the nation they represented. At the same time similar advances were made to the Czech leaders in Prague.

Berlin and Vienna invoke international law against the Czechs and their Slovak brethren. But it is the Germans and Austrians who themselves have, from the very first days of the war, trampled under foot almost all the precepts of international law. Great Britain, France, Japan and the United States of America have recognized the Czecho-Slovak people and their armies, thus establishing a new precedent in the law of nations. This recognition puts the Czech question forward squarely before the world as an international question. It is no longer an internal problem of Austria-Hungary, but the simple question of the right of a nation, united and determined and its state and government, to independence and sovereignty. This question will be discussed at the peace conference, at which it now seems certain the Czech representatives will participate, on a common footing with all the other peoples who have shed their blood in the common cause.

The recognition of the Czecho-Slovak National Council, representing the entire Czech nation, by the Entente Allies and the United States means that the western nations fighting the Central Powers no longer regard the preservation of Austro-Hungarian integrity as necessary or desirable. It has been an established fact in European progressive politics for many years that the dismemberment of the Dual Monarchy is actually one of the foremost objects of both war and peace.

If the Entente Allies and the United States recognize the right of their partner, Italy, to Italia Irredenta (the Italian provinces of Austria); if a united Poland is to arise from the ashes of its former self; if Roumania has her right to her nationals in Transylvania, Bukovina and Bessarabia; if the Jugo-Slavs should be united in a sovereign state to include Croatia, Slavonia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and portions of Hungary, Istria, Carniola, and Styria; if the Ruthenians in Galicia, Bukovina and Hungary are to be finally united and independent (and who will deny the rights of all these long oppressed folk), then where is the realm of the Hapsburgs?

Austria-Hungary is a purely artificial state, anti-national and anti-democratic. It is a medieval dynasty oppressing, by the military force of an artificial army, a corrupt aristocracy and a reactionary clerical hierarchy, the nation and peoples entrusted to its care. The Austrian idea is that of absolutism and medieval theocracy, maintaining itself in power by clericalism, falsehood and violence. One of the greatest modern Austrian poets referred to his country as "geistesmorder"—"murderer of the spirit." Despite their crimes and reaction, the Hapsburgs, like the Hohenzollerns, have the audacity to claim that they rule "by the grace of God." But Gladstone once truly said: "Nowhere in the world or in her history has Austria ever done anything good or noble." And the English poet Byron exclaimed, "God is not an Austrian."

The German Kaiser not long ago very truly remarked that this war is being waged to decide between American and German ideals. Yes, that is true. And by that measurement, Austria-Hungary is condemned to dismemberment as the logical consequence of American political principles. If human liberty, government of the people, by the people, and for the people, if the equality of nations, great and small is the democratic basis of modern society, then, indeed, is Austria-Hungary condemned to break up.

If Russia is now to be helped, this can best be done by breaking into pieces the artificial empire of the Hapsburgs. Between the Teutons, and the Russians there will then arise free Poland, Bohemia and Slovakia, United Roumania and Jugoslavia, Italia redeemed. The Germans and Magyars will then be completely, surrounded by these now independent Slav and Latin nations. Russia will never more be a next door neighbor to Prussia. She will be protected from the baneful influence of Berlin, and the Russian people and the rejuvenated nationalities of the great Russian federation will be able to develop freely.

The friends of Austria-Hungary attempt to persuade the world—and themselves—that small nations cannot exist, that they must combine in a federation. Austria, these people declare, is such a federation. Austria was a federation so long as her component states (Austria, Hungary, Bohemia) were independent. A federation presupposes the freedom of its component states. But how can Austria, a state which had its origin in violence and which maintains its power solely through force, be a real federation? The theory that small states and nations cannot exist is contradicted by fact and history. In Europe today there are twenty-seven states, the great majority of which are small. Long ago the Pan-Germans openly declared that Austria is the chief instrument of the German grandiose policy of "Drang nach osten," "push to the east." Bismarck inaugurated this policy after Prussia had defeated Austria, in 1866, and it has been the German policy down to the present day. Austria is Germany's bridge to the Balkans, and thence on to Turkey, the East and Africa. Therefore, Germany has always so vigorously defended Austria. Austria was defeated by Russia, by Italy, even by little Serbia. Germany saved her and is saving her still. Austria is the strength, but also the weakness of Germany. The Prussian war lords will be quite willing to give up Belgium, all occupied French territory, even Alsace-Lorraine, if only Austria's "integrity" is preserved. Austria is Germany's vanguard to the East and against Russia.

The defenders of Austria claim that a dismemberment of the Hapsburg empire would strengthen Germany by adding to the latter the German provinces of the former. It is not likely that the Hapsburgs themselves would submit to Prussian dictation. Furthermore, it is a simple problem in proportion. Now Prussia has all of the Dual Monarchy's fifty-one millions at her disposal. If the latter were dismembered, Berlin could command only the seven pillion German-speaking Austrians, since the German minorities in Hungary and Bohemia would not go over to Berlin. There has been evident in recent years in some quarters—even in this country—a certain Austrophilism, a sort of fondness or apology for the crazy patchwork quilt of the Hapsburg empire. The clericalism of the Vatican, which cannot forget that Austria-Hungary is the last great Catholic state; the international financiers, who fear for the Austrian public debt; the German Austrian Socialists and some of the Liberals in several countries, who seem to believe that, though the Hapsburg empire cannot remain as it is, it might, perhaps, be reformed into a federation, because (they contend) small states cannot survive—these are the only friends of Austria-Hungary and the only apologists for its continued existence.

But the Hapsburgs do not seem to understand that political liberty has never harmed true religion. Moreover, the devout Catholic Jugo-Slavs and Poles are against Austria.

As to the public debt of the Dual Monarchy, it is on the programmes of all the peoples who are struggling to break away that they will each take over its share of such debt—as it existed up to the outbreak of the present war. War debts incurred since 1914 must—and in all justice—be paid by the Hapsburgs. As to the contention of the German Socialists and more pacific Liberals in other countries that the rickety realm of Emperor Karl should be mended rather than ended, these are, after all, chiefly Germans, and Berlin has already thundered that she will not permit the federalization of Austria. That would endanger the dominance of the German-speaking minority which now rules. There is no use, purpose or hope for Austria.

The Czechs and their brother Slovaks have actually been fighting on the side of the western Allies since the war began. Almost the day after the Germans entered Belgium, the entire Czecho-Slovak nation arrayed itself against Austria and Germany and on the side of the Entente. This movement was spontaneous and general. The Government at Vienna responded by cancelling all the liberties of the Czechs. Parliament having been dissolved, all political parties were put under police supervision, newspapers were muzzled or suppressed, political meetings were forbidden. In short, for the Slavs and Latins of Austria, the war began by a terror at home. Vienna, of course, knew that only the Germans and Magyars were for war.

Czecho-Slovak soldiers began at once a literally open opposition to war and to the Government at Vienna. They refused to fight, surrendered to the Russians en masse and soon formed Czecho-Slovak legions in the Allied armies. These Czecho-Slovak soldiers thus began a new and peculiar sort of revolution, which the world at first did not understand. Now, it is all becoming clear and appreciated. This revolution is the result of a movement among the Czech people, popular and spontaneous. There are, of course, a number of Czech political parties as among any other politically mature peoples. But this very political maturity among the Czechs is indicated by the absolutely unanimous attitude on the war and the rights of the people.

Nothing the Hapsburgs might do could move the Czechs. The most revolting forms of terrorism, such as literally decimating their regiments, hanging and shooting of civilians, even of women and children; the confiscation of property, throwing into jail thousands of innocent people; all was of no avail. Then the Hapsburg Emperor tried a new course. He promised federalization, autonomy, and his own coronation as King of Bohemia. Nothing moved the Czechs. They utterly refused to put any trust in the word of a Hapsburg.

Just at this moment—as the course of history is here being traced—with the unanimous approval of the Czechs in all the homelands, the Czecho-Slovak National Council was formed. This body organized the Czech and Slovak colonies in the Allied and neutral countries. It organized the army and then, calmly and with a full realization of what such action implied, it declared (on November 14, 1915) that the Hapsburgs had been deposed from the throne of Bohemia. Having been elected by the free will of the nation and having violated the mutual agreement, they are now—so runs the Czech declaration—deposed. Guilty, as the Hapsburgs are, of this war, the Czechs insist that such a dynasty and its rule are obstacles to the sound development of Europe.

With armies fighting on three fronts (in France, in Italy, n Russia), the, Czecho-Slovak nation is working out its logical, historical destiny. Austrians may call these men traitors. But their revolution will surely be justified by their democratic effort for the restitution of their independence. "Before Austria existed," said Palacky, "Bohemia was. When Austria has passed away, Bohemia still shall be."

There is, not only in Europe, but in world politics as a real political significance in the rise of the Czecho-Slovak state. In the first place, such a state will be one effective barrier against German ambition. The Czechs are really the westernmost anti- German wedge of the Slavs. For more than a thousand years they have fought against the Germans. This has toughened them and taught them how to defend themselves. Mommsen called upon his countrymen to break the hard skulls of the Czechs.

The Czecho-Slovak state will not even be among the smallest of Europe. It will be formed of the so-called "crown lands" of Bohemia, Moravia and Siberia, and of Slovakia (in the northern part of Hungary). This makes a territory four times as large as Belgium, with a population of between twelve and thirteen millions—this depending on how the new map makers of Europe dispose of the national minorities. Of the Czechs and Slovaks themselves there are ten millions. This would make the new state the eighth in Europe in size, with nineteen smaller than it.

The affairs of the Czecho-Slovak people in their foreign relations — that is, their struggles during the present war for independence—are managed and directed by the Czechoslovak National Council, headquarters in Paris, but with branch offices in London, Petrograd, Rome, Washington and New York. The Council is, in fact, the provisional government of the future Czecho-Slovak state. Its functions, however, deal not with domestic affairs but with the army, and relations with foreign nations.

Its deliberations and decisions, up to the present, have been very largely, if not almost wholly, inspired and executed by the mind and will of one man, the President, Dr. Thomas G. Masaryk, author, scholar, scientist/philosopher, statesman, and founder of the Progressive Party in Bohemia. Prof. Masaryk established in Paris the Czecho-Slovak Revolutionary Committee, and later organized in Russia, from among prisoners of war, an army of his countrymen fifty thousand strong. This is the nucleus of the now famous Czecho-Slovak fighting force that has seemed to rise out of the mists of the great war, and, even now, as this is written, has been the solid foundation upon which a new Eastern front against Germany has been reestablished.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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