The Ferment in Bohemia

Its Aspiration for Independence Undaunted by Four Hundred Years of Oppression, by Its Geographical Position between Prussia and Austria, or by Its Enforced Participation in the War—A Splendid Struggle for Liberty Still Being Waged by a Brave and Resourceful People

By Richard Wilmer Rowan

[The World's Work, October 1918]

Many years ago when Poland was a Power, Belgium scarcely yet conscious of nationality, and Lorraine an important duchy hailed in any alliance, the Czechs of Bohemia were battling vainly against Austrian vassalage. Bohemia went through some of the most barbarous of the German religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Between 1617 and 1637 the Bohemian population was reduced from 3,000,000 to 780,000 by the ravages of execution and exile. The Czech language was banished from the Bohemian schoolroom in favor of the German by the otherwise liberal Maria Theresa just two years before our American Declaration of Independence. Czech rioting signalized the upheavals in 1848 that drove Metternich and his fellow reactionaries to a timely seclusion. Yet the Ausgleich or Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 found Bohemia still refused the national recognition it demanded. Parliamentary government was launched in the now "Dual" Monarchy, but, enraged that the rights of the Magyars should be conceded and their own ignored, for some years Bohemian deputies resolutely refused to appear at sessions of the Austrian Lower House to which they had been elected, under the new Constitution. And when they finally did consent to attend, they exhibited such an unparliamentarian accuracy in throwing inkstands that their withdrawal would not have discouraged the Austrian representatives.

The Pan-German scheme was at once confronted with this same Bohemian question. Though numerically but a tenth of the "resentful minorities" in Pan-Germany, and hardly a twenty-first of the population of the Central Powers, the Czecho-Slovak people take on a greatly disproportionate strength in any adjustment of the Pan-German imperial strategy. Bohemia lies directly between Prussian Silesia and the Archduchy of Austria. Most of the Czechs live along the direct route from Berlin to Vienna—or from Hamburg to the Persian Gulf if one thinks in the more ambitious terms. Belgium, French Lorraine, Alsace, Italia Irredenta, Poland, Courland, Armenia—all are on the edge of Pan-Germany. Bohemia is its central pivot. The boundaries within which the Czechs have lived so long are more naturally defined and more perfectly defended by systems o£ mountain ranges than almost any other in Europe. To that grim shackle which the Pan-German has padlocked across his Mitteleuropa, we find Bohemia an unmistakable and a willing key.

In a recent interview published by the Social Demokraten of Stockholm, Martinek, known internationally as a leader among Bohemian Socialists, remarked in the course of his discussion of the Bolshevist armistice programme—"In omitting the mention of the Bohemian question, the Russian revolutionary democracy has abandoned its own principles. One could understand this passing over of the Bohemian question on the part of the German autocracy, for in its view the very existence of Austria is, menaced by the logical settlement of the Bohemian question. Without Bohemia there can be no Austria. Bohemia is the real economic backbone of Austria."

Austria's manifold coercion of its Czech minority—the cruelty and brazen injustice terrorizing Bohemia is no longer so entirely because of racial hatred existing between the German and Magyar and the Czecho-Slovak as it is due to German and Magyar governmental fear of the stanch Bohemian republicanism. Of the many thorns in a very tender side, the one that is Czech is barbed. The Austrian, Prussian, and Russian Poles have so long raged against a divided oppression that the Polish unrest is hardly resolved to any single line of attack. Germany's French and Danish fragments, Austria's Italian, Rumanian, and Serbian or Jugo-Slavic—all have had their faces turned toward a mother country from which they have been wrested or which has arisen without them. But Bohemian ambition looks inward. The Czech would not detach himself from Germania; he wants to plant his banner of freedom where he stands. If its base has to rest on the Austrian's foot he admits a mutual handicap, but never alters his ancient determination. The kind of treatment he has been getting from the Austrian makes him rather eager to drive it down hard on that foot, or on any other extremity of the Austrian's, not excepting that last extremity—the Austrian's grave.

The history of Bohemia since the war would be literally an encyclopedia of achievement in systematic—in German systematic—tyranny. So vigorously has the Czech language been suppressed that—as in Alsace-Lorraine—-the submerged populace may not even put inscription on tombstones in the native language of the deceased. The sinister shadow of the police spy spares no Bohemian home. Bohemia has become a veritable No Man's Land, remote from the deadlocked armies, yet guarded constantly against that moment of fearful reckoning the German oppressor knows he cannot avoid.

More than one thousand civilians were executed for political offenses in Bohemia during the first eighteen months of the war. Nearly one half of this number were women, including many young girls. These facts were officially admitted in the Austrian Reichsrat. But they brought forth only cries of derision from the Czech deputies who heard the admission—cries denouncing such a statement as ministerial effort to mitigate the actual reign of terror existing throughout the Czecho-Slovak provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. "A whole people have been driven to wage civil war, unarmed," cried a deputy, "The gallows and the dungeon are the battlefields in Bohemia."

In dealing with the Czecho-Slovak populace the imperial secret police have perfected a wholesale method unsurpassed in the annals of tyranny.

A girl of Brunn, aged twenty, who had served as a nurse since the opening months of the war, received from one of her patients in the hospital—a wounded Croatian gunner—a copy of the Russian revolutionary proclamation to the dominated Austrian nationalities. She inclosed it in a letter to her uncle, for which highly treasonable act she was arrested and sentenced to death. The uncle had copied the proclamation into his note-book, and later he read it to a friend, for which he, too, was sentenced to death. This friend to whom he had confided it, had been permitted to make himself a copy after promising to distribute it no further. But breaking this promise, he proceeded to make three copies. For passing them on he was convicted of high treason and executed, like the others.

His copies reached three friends, one a school director of Brunn and ardent Bohemian Nationalist. When arrested and searched, his copy was found and brought him a death sentence. The two other friends were given prison sentences of four and seven years respectively. The industry of the police persisted until the young nurse's copy and its copies had netted thirty-nine convictions out of forty-two accused. These convictions included six death sentences uncommuted, one commuted, and a further total of ninety-one years of imprisonment.

From Austrian parliamentary debates it is apparent, however, that the commutation of death sentences in the case of Bohemian political offenders carries slight promise of life, On several recent occasions, Czech deputies have horrified even calloused Austrian colleagues with details of the Bohemian persecutions.

"It was against our will that war was declared," the National Socialist Skriberny prefaced his most startling exposures. That Czech "will" the Austrian rulers determined to conquer. He proceeded to tell how thousands of Bohemia's intellectuals have been interned because "suspicious" or "doubtful." The harshest life-imprisonment scarcely equals the degradation of their "political detention" in such internment camps as that of Talerhof in Styria, To it women and girls and aged men are sent off in chains; crowded into filthy cattle trucks, or, transported, forced to march for days. One such batch of forty-eight found trudging along to their fate, was deliberately and without provocation massacred by a Magyar militia detachment.

At Talerhof the least infraction of the "internment" rules brings down on offenders of either sex public floggings usually refined to the equivalent of medieval torture. During the early days of last October, the entire camp—regardless of age, health, or sex—was herded into the open with no pretense at any sort of sleeping accommodation. Such circumstances have caused a variety of unceasing epidemics. The food there is, of course, the worst in a land where the best is now barely sustaining. Except in the instance of new arrivals there is never the least effort at sanitation. Brutal guards often compel sick and well alike to wade to their knees through filth on their way to the latrines. While as for the sanitary attention shown to newcomers, all are made to strip for a thorough disinfection, and in any sort of weather old men, women and girls are left standing naked while their already tattered and scanty clothing is methodically fumigated.

Karl, upon succeeding the venerable Emperor Franz Josef, found most of the Czech deputies in prison, convicted of treason, and either already serving long sentences or awaiting execution. As a beginning act of amnesty he pardoned them. Yet when they appeared to resume their legislative places, the President of the Chamber denied them the right to former seats and privileges, which the Imperial pardon had automatically restored.

"Not enough have been strung up!" cried the German-Bohemian deputy, Heine, during a riotous argument with Czech deputies from his province. It was during this same debate that a Czech Socialist described the attitude of military Austria toward the Czechs, and incidentally, toward the whole parliamentary scheme at Vienna. He had been serving at the front and could only attend the session by the special permission of superiors. When applying for the papers required, he was told—"You Czechs are no good, any of you. Deputies ought to be burned anyway—yes, burned—all of them, and then perhaps we might win peace."

Martial contempt is—so far as the Czecho-Slovak population is concerned —based on their plentiful desertion from the armies of Austria-Hungary. To the drillmaster a rebel is a rebel and a deserter a despicable thing, no matter what patriotic or racial motives may justify the repugnant lapse from his militarist code. A distinctly Czecho-Slovak or Bohemian army had been formed under the Russian flag long before the March revolution. Recruited mainly by desertion it numbered more than 100,000 men in June of 1917.

Invariably the Czechs have deserted not for safety but to contribute to an Allied victory. Czech prisoners who could not be enrolled under the same status as deserters voluntarily seeking enlistment, have begged for some chance to help the cause they recognized as their own—to be sent to mines or into munition factories or other plants whose productivity was helping to combat Pan-Germanism. In France and in America the Bohemian desire to help in the great war effort has become as sincerely marked as in Russia. Thousands of Czechs are in vital American war industries. Of the 13,233 Austrian subjects accepted in our first rational draft, approximately 30 per cent, are of Bohemian birth. The French Foreign Legion for forty months has depended on eager Czech platoons, until now a separate and volunteer Czecho-Slovak army is preparing like the many other fresh Allied corps that have gathered behind the Western front.

When Russian revolutionary fervor caused a sudden ebbing of military power, the plight of the many Czecho-Slovak battalions in the front lines led to an inevitable self-destruction. These troops of Bohemia on the Stokhod last summer found themselves left unsupported to face the readvancing Germans when a hopeful Russian offensive abruptly faltered and then utterly collapsed in a panic of disobedience. Their choice lay plainly between capture and execution as "traitors' or death under the German barrage that hurried the undisciplined Russians. Triumphant Teutonic reports never told of their resistance, yet unconsciously gave them tribute by claiming no Bohemian prisoners.

The Czechs have not begun only since 1914 to struggle against the conquering Germanic influences that hem them in. Of the one hundred and seventy-six millions engulfed in Pan-Germany to-day, at least eighty-five millions resent it. Of this resentful minority the Czechs number one tenth; and if no more persecuted than their fellow serfs of Belgium, Poland, Armenia, or Alsace-Lorraine, their persecution is certainly a national burden of greater maturity and concentration. The Austrian oppression of the Bohemians is historical to a degree nearing habit, and this is mainly because it is geographical to a degree affecting political survival.

The first food riots-—though of very mild variety—reduced the city of Prague virtually to a state of siege; a condition that has never since abated. Tenants and householders whose homes or places of business immediately adjoin the intersections of important thoroughfares are evicted with uncompromising dispatch and no offer of compensation. Machine guns are then placed to command the streets in all directions. Frequently articles of furniture like mattresses and sofas are commandeered from the goods of the haplessly ejected occupants, to be used as barricades at lower windows or on balconies.

Such activity has, of course, added much to a police reputation already notorious in its brutality, and even more favored German portions of the population have fallen victim to this ruthless programme of internal defense. Relative to this, there is the case of the conviction as a spy of an Austrian girl of Prague, whose only beginning fault was her belonging to that poorer section always under suspicion for Socialist inclination—and her happening to live in a corner dwelling. When the police took over the house her family partly rented, they were arbitrarily forced to move out. Missing some valued little possession several days after the moving, this eldest daughter—barely eighteen—went back to look for it. Her errand seemed so natural, her destination so ordinary, it never occurred to her that a permit might be needed. Nor was one asked when she arrived at the vacated home.

But the entry of a police inspector and her sudden discovery while searching for the lost treasure resulted in prompt arrest. In Prague arrest and conviction have become more closely synonymous than anywhere else since the close of the Dark Ages. Caught under obscurely "questionable" circumstances, this young girl was convicted of spying upon the Austrian Imperial police. Her sentence was death. On appeal it was miraculously reduced to five years of imprisonment. Hers is a typical instance of the official "nerves" now redoubling the horror in Bohemia.

The Pan-German directs all the spies and police, conducts every prison and internment camp. As usual all the means and weapons of preparedness are almost exclusively his. Yet the spirit of nationalism and of freedom that has so hardily survived in Bohemia does not falter now, as it did not falter in the years before any Allied armies took the field. For centuries the cause of the Czechs—which is now a part of our Allied cause—has withstood all that expert persecution so strangely esteemed to be captivating by the German imperialist. The Czech believes in his national destiny in Europe. He believes that this war is the certain means by which he shall escape that persecution and commence the independent working out of that destiny. With his battalions of police and his frantic courts-martial the Pan-German shows that he, too, believes it.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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