Re-Remembering the Czechoslovak Legion

Standard Narratives of the Czechoslovak Legion and Challenges to National Mythology

Alex Frey

            From the trenches of the Western Front, to the frontiers of Italy, to the heartland of Russia and the vast expanses of Siberia, the Czech soldiers fought and died on behalf of the Allies of the First World War. The story of the Czechoslovak Legion is an epic tale, albeit a very convoluted one owing not only to the geographic and political scope of the unit’s escapades –not only did Czechs fight on three different fronts; in 1918 the Legion helped to precipitate the Russian Civil War – but also due to the way in which the exploits of Czechs during World War I were remembered and forgotten. The standard narrative of the Czechoslovak Legion is one of national resistance to the dying Habsburg monarchy and the triumph of nationalism over old imperial loyalties. Consequently, the Legion became a central component of interwar Czechoslovakia’s national foundation myth. Its exploits against the Bolsheviks helped to keeps its memory alive in the writings of exiled Czechs during the Cold War, who insisted that Czechoslovak independence resulted from nationalist political and military maneuvers rather than a jolt of inspiration in the general populace caused by the October Revolution. While this historiographical wrangling produced numerous studies of Czech independence and the Legion in particular, they obscure the diversity of experiences of Czechs and Slovaks during the Great War and ignore the motivations by which soldiers determined their loyalties. Recent scholarship helps to shed light on the evolution of memorialization of the Czechoslovak Legion and helps to problematize the dominant nationalist narrative of the Czech experience of World War I.

Josef Kalvoda’s The Genesis of Czechoslovakia stands out as a through treatment of the Czech experience of World War I from a strongly nationalist perspective. Writing in 1985, he singles out the then-dominant Communist historiography of Czechoslovak independence, which holds that the October Revolution helped to inspire the nationalist revolution against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Thomas Masaryk, "President-Liberator" of Czechoslovakia

Thomas Masaryk, “President-Liberator” of Czechoslovakia

He challenges this official, politicized history along with its romantic offshoot which saw independence as resulting from a movement in Bohemian society that was itself the result of the “national reawakening” of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rather, Kalvoda’s argument echoes the interwar Czechoslovak understanding of independence, in which elite political figures and their military counterparts played a key role in the dismantling of the Habsburg monarchy from the outside through negotiation and violence.[1] The diplomacy of Thomas Masaryk and Edvard Benes is central to Kalvoda’s understanding of Czechoslovakia’s road to statehood. Recognition of an independent Czechoslovakia by the Allies, especially the western powers, was the major objective of the leaders of the independence movement. A military contribution to the Allies’ war effort was the means by which this objective was to be achieved. The Legion’s victory over the Austro-Hungarians at the Battle of Zborov helped to attract more recruits, giving the Czechoslovak leadership a stronger hand in their negotiations with the great powers.[2] Recognition was predicated on the Czechs’ contribution to the war, at first against the Central Powers and later against the Bolsheviks.[3] Kalvoda’s narrative is very much a political one, in which independence was the result of “a series of historical accidents that were exploited by the leaders of the independence movement at home and abroad.”[4] Elites are given most of the credit for statehood, with the soldiers of the Legion portrayed as more or less willing instruments of their self-declared leadership.

James Bradley gives a more focused account of the Legion in his The Czechoslovak Legion in Russia, 1914-1920. He traces the history of the Czechoslovak Legion from its formation by ethnic Czechs living in Russia. For Bradley, this was the result of both practical and ideological concerns. Czechs were viewed with suspicion at the outbreak of the war, due to their ethnic cohorts’ ostensible allegiance to the Habsburg state. In order to avoid imprisonment and repression, members of this community volunteered to fight alongside the Russian Army. In doing so, Bradley asserts that some were inspired by the ideology of Pan-Slavism, a worldview that played to the sensibilities of the tsarist regime. Appeals to the supposed ethnic affinity between Russians and the Slavs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire are portrayed by Bradley as helping to strengthen the Russians whilst weakening the Habsburgs. This was especially true in the aftermath of Russian victories against Austria on the Eastern Front that saw the capture of many ethnic Czech prisoners, many of whom joined the Legion in order to escape imprisonment.[5] Bradley’s narrative details the Czechoslovak Legion’s subsequent expansion from an ethnic auxiliary force of the imperial Russian military to the nucleus of a truly national army. Combat against the Central Powers on the Eastern Front is portrayed as having solidified the Czech resistance to imperial rule.

The writings of Benes and Masaryk help are demonstrative of the dominant political, military, and diplomatic assessments of the Czechoslovak experience of the Great War. In his War Memoirs, Edvard Benes gives a detailed account of his diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Czechoslovak National Council (CNSC). He argues that the establishment of Czech armies in France, Italy, and Russia were important components of his “national diplomacy” that aimed to achieve recognition by the victorious Entente powers.[6] Thomas Masaryk had developed a similar outlook by the time he was interviewed by a member of an American delegation to Russia in June, 1917. He held that Russia was on the verge of collapse and that a “Slavic” strategy of Czech liberation would be useless, if not counterproductive. Rather, he stressed the need for cooperation with the western powers and welcomed the United States’ idealistic motives for entering the war. Arming “Bohemian” prisoners in Russia was a key component of this strategy that had been hampered by the recalcitrance of the imperial Russian government. The February Revolution provided an opening for the Czechs in this regard, with Masaryk declaring his intent on raising an army for service on the Western and Eastern Fronts.[7] The publication and dissemination of these accounts has helped to perpetuate the elite-driven political narrative of Czechoslovak independence. Furthermore, their focus on contributing to the Allied cause and forming a nation-state led to the intentional forgetting of Czechs who fought for the Austro-Hungarians or who chose not to join the Legion. The standard narrative of the Czech experience and memory of World War I was created in order to serve a distinct set of political needs in the interwar period. An examination by which the war was remembered in this period and afterwards is helpful in uncovering the diversity of experiences of the war and the construction of memories in its aftermath.

The Czechoslovak Legion became a fixture for memorials during the interwar era. These came in the form of official and civil monuments in addition to extensive literary treatment that helped to crystallize their image in the public eye. Nancy Wingfield’s examination of the commemoration of the Battle of Zborov traces the evolution, then dissolution, of the First Czechoslovak Republic’s “heroic military cult.”[8] July 2, the day of the battle, became the “Day of the Army” and was aimed at inculcating a set of national values in all Czechs and Slovaks. Founding figures such as Benes, Masaryk, and Stefanik were joined by the country’s military heroes to embody the “messianic discourse” of the nation’s founding, in which the Czech’s overcame their subjugation at the hands of the Habsburgs.[9] This production of national memory was notably exclusive of ethnic minorities and those whose wartime experiences did not reflect the national zeal that was attributed to the Legion. In addition to official acts of remembrance, Zborov provided fertile artistic ground for a number of cultural productions that reinforced the nationalist mythology of the Czech Legion. Films and novels served not only to entertain the populace but also to create loyal citizens through the teaching of the nation’s past.[10] Though the battle occupied a central role in the interwar era, commemoration of it and the Legion more generally was phased out in the aftermath of the Second World War. As communists gained power they engaged in a gradual rewriting of the historical narrative to make the Zborov into an example of the great Slavic struggle against Pan-Germanism, of which World War II was the most recent and most significant instance. The battle was further recast as an instance of Czech-Russian cooperation, which reflected the geopolitical realities faced by postwar Czechoslovakia. Following the February 1948 coup, the communist-dominated government phased out the story of the Legion from national pedagogy, since for them it represented a counter-revolutionary struggle against the inexorable advance of communism. Zborov and the Legion have continued to be neglected under the post-1989 regime, since the Czechoslovak nationalism that was intertwined with the history of these things is not useable in the modern context.[11]

Monument to the Legion's victory at Zborov

Monument to the Legion’s victory at Zborov


Many inhabitants of interwar Czechoslovakia were deliberately excluded from the official and popular memories created or modified by the government and the media. Martin Zückert addresses the disparity in remembrance in Czechoslovakia given that many more of the country’s inhabitants had actually fought for the Habsburgs than for the Allies. State institutions played a key role in the process of connecting memory with the social context of the interwar period. Austria-Hungary was “rejected as alien or hostile,” a dying monarchy whose soldiers had died needlessly. This is contrasted with the Czechoslovak Legion, which was construed as “a central point of reference for the new official tradition.”[12] This dichotomy was created in order to discredit alternative narratives of the war that focused on the experiences of Austro-Hungarian veterans. The assumed need to counter divergent memories was bolstered by the presence of ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia and their mobilization through veterans’ organizations. Contested memories of the war help to outline the social tensions of the new Czechoslovak state, especially between different ethnicities and political interests. Czechs were expected to adhere to a general consensus in which their people had rejected the Habsburg monarchy in favor of a republic, while Sudeten Germans united around a myth (similar to Germany’s “stab in the back”) that blamed disloyal Slavs as having precipitated the collapse of the Empire.[13]

Robert B. Pynsent’s article, “The Literary Representation of the Czechoslovak ‘Legions’ in Russia” analyzes the how novelizations of the Legion’s experiences reflect the process of memorialization in interwar Czechoslovakia. Novels were a means by which veterans of the Legion, such as Rudolf Medek, could express their interpretations of their role in the war as well as their frustrations towards the new political order in their homeland. Authors’ attempts depicting the Legions realistically, or at least candidly, in many ways contravened the official “pictures of moral idealism” that made it “a foundation stone” in the creation of Czechoslovakia. Disparaging commentary about Czech women and questionable usage of the language made Medek’s writing a target for critics of all ideological affiliations. [14]  This reveals the divide between veterans and political society after the war, since those in power sought to appropriate the experiences of returned soldiers to further their own agenda. Pynsent’s discussion also delves into contemporary Czech perceptions of Russians and Jews, much of which is marred by racism and anti-Semitism. While deplorable themes, the attitudes expressed in the Legionary novels reflect the prejudices that were fueled by the forces of Czech nationalism and how the Legion’s memory was distorted by these views.[15] Other aspects of Czechoslovakism are demonstrated by the Legionary literature, including the sense of historical revenge against the Habsburgs (for example, Zborov is depicted as a reversal of White Mountain), demonstrating the power of popular culture in shaping memories of World War I.

Czechs who fought for the Austro-Hungarians were excluded from the official narrative of the Czechoslovak state as well as from the German Austrian recollections of the war. Habsburg apologists laid the blame for the Empire’s defeat at the feet of disloyal minorities, with the Czechs in the military accused of unreliable conduct in the war. Richard Lein argues that this historiography was largely a construct of pan-German nationalists and that anti-Czech attitudes inside of the Habsburg state contributed to responses that came to be construed as disloyalty. He argues that support for the war was near-universal at its outbreak, even among the inhabitants of the Bohemian Lands. Military defeats at the hands of Russia dampened the army’s morale, while the heavy-handed reaction of Austrian officers to fears of pan-Slavic propaganda helped to alienate many Czechs in the army. The propensity of the army’s high command to blame battlefield defeats on internal subversion by national minorities created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which those minorities began to retract their support for the monarchy.[16] Indeed, Austro-Hungarian wartime policies may have actually helped the exiled Czechoslovak leaders to convince their countrymen and the Allies of the need for independence. Austrian Germans therefore wrote disparagingly of their former subjects in their wartime histories, a process that was complemented by their near-total exclusion from official Czech accounts. This latter phenomenon occurred because the presence of nearly a million Czechs in the Habsburg army ran counter not only to postwar mythology but also to the diplomatic efforts of exiles during the war.[17]

Czech soldiers with regimental flag

Czech soldiers with regimental flag

The deliberate creation of national histories inevitably occludes the experiences of ordinary individuals, especially those whose experiences do not neatly fit into the rigid official account. Alon Rachamimov’s innovative studies of prisoners of war on the Eastern Front provide a glimpse into some of these buried histories and illustrate the struggles faced by Czech POWs in Russia. In his article, Rachamimov attempts to dispel the notion that imprisonment made Czech POWs turn en masse against the Habsburgs, whether out of a sense of nationalism or from the influence of Bolshevik propaganda. He argues that on the whole, Czech and South Slavic prisoners did not constitute a distinct political movement against the Austro-Hungarians. Indeed, only about 50,000-60,000 out of roughly 300,000 Czech and Slovak prisoners joined the Legion during the course of the war.[18] From these statistics, Rachamimov attempts to reconstruct the world of the prisoners who remained. He does this primarily by using correspondence from POW camps along with Red Cross. What he finds is a situation in which political loyalties and ideological motivations were secondary to the practical considerations of everyday life. Material deprivations led to criticism of Habsburg policies by prisoners, though they did not extrapolate their displeasures into a condemnation of a particular political or social order.[19] According to this interpretation, ethnic Czech prisoners in Russia remained mostly loyal to Austria-Hungary despite their trying circumstances and the failure of their country to provide adequate aid to them. This study provides an interesting foil to both the official Czechoslovak and Habsburg apologist narratives of the First World War, since most Austro-Hungarian Slavs were not fundamentally opposed to the Empire and therefore did not actively undermine its war effort.

On the surface, the Czechoslovak Legion can appear as the embodiment of the will of the Czech nation. Its forceful assertion of the nation’s independence and its epic trek through revolutionary Russia cemented its place in the founding mythology of Czechoslovakia. Upon closer examination, this account of the Legion falls apart when one considers the diversity of experiences actually had by Czechs in the Great War and the intentional construction of national memory that took place in interwar Czechoslovakia. Far from ruin a riveting story, this interpretation of the history and historiography of the Czechoslovak Legion reveals the conflicting impulses that ordinary individuals faced during the First World War. Exploring their histories, as well as the history of how the Legion was represented in civil society, can enrich one’s understanding of how World War I was experienced and how people looked back onto theirs and others’ experiences.

[1] Josef Kalvoda, The Genesis of Czechoslovakia (New York: Boulder, Columbia University Press, 1986), 1-9.

[2] Ibid., 175-176.

[3] Ibid., 377-416.

[4] Ibid. 488.

[5] John F.N. Bradley, The Czechoslovak Legion in Russia, 1914-1920 (New York: Boulder, Columbia University Press, 1991), 1-30.

[6] Edvard Benes, My War Memoirs, trans. Paul Selver (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1971), 269-299.

[7] John W. Long and C. Howard Hopkins, “T.G. Masaryk and the Strategy of Czechoslovak Independence: An interview in Russia on 27 June 1917,” The Slavonic and East European Review 56(1978): 88-96.

[8] Nancy M. Wingfield, “The Battle of Zborov and the Politics of Commemoration in Czechoslovakia,” East European Politics and Societies 17 (2003): 654.

[9] Wingfield, “The Battle of Zborov and the Politics of Commemoration in Czechoslovakia,” 656.

[10] Ibid., 665-668.

[11] Ibid., 674-681.

[12] Martin Zückert, “Memory of War and National State Integration: Czech and German Veterans in Czechoslovakia After 1918,” Central Europe 4 (2006): 112.

[13] Ibid., 119-121.

[14] Robert B. Pynsent, “Literary Representation of the Czech ‘Legions’ in Russia,” in Czechoslovakia in a Nationalist and Fascist Europe 1918-1948, ed. Mark Cornwall and R.J.W Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 65.

[15] Ibid., 80-88.

[16] Richard Lein, “The Military Conduct of the Austro-Hungarian Czechs in the First World War,” The Historian 76 (518-532).

[17] Ibid., 545-549.

[18] Rachamimov, Alon, “Imperial Loyalties and Private Concerns: Nation, Class, and State in the correspondence of Austro-Hungarian POWs in Russia, 1916-1918,” Austrian History Yearbook 31 (2000): 87-91.

[19] Rachamimov, “Imperial Loyalties and Private Concerns,” 97-105.



Benes, Eduard. My War Memoirs. Translated by Paul Selver. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwod Press, 1971.

Bradley, J.F.N. The Czechoslovak Legion in Russia, 1914-1920. New York: Boulder, Distributed by Columbia University Press, 1991.

Cornwall, Mark and R.J.W. Evans, eds. Czechoslovakia in a Nationalist and Fascist Europe 1918-1948. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Kalvoda, Josef. The Genesis of Czechoslovakia. New York: Boulder, Distributed by Columbia University Press, 1986.

Lein, Richard. “The Military Conduct of the Austro-Hungarian Czechs in the First World War.” The Historian 76 (2014): 518-549.

Long, John W. and C. Howard Hopkins. “T.G. Masaryk and the Strategy of Czechoslovak Independence: An Interview in Russia on 27 June 1917.” The Slavonic and East European Review 56 (1978), 88-96.

Rachamimov, Alon. “Imperial Loyalties and Private Concerns: Nation, Class, and State in the Correspondence of Austro-Hungarian POWs in Russia, 1916-1918.” Austrian History Yearbook 31 (2000): 87-105.

Wingfield, Nancy M. “The Battle of Zborov and the Politics of Commemoration in      Czechoslovakia.” East European Politics and Societies 17 (2003), 654-681.

Zückert, Martin. “Memory of War and National State Integration: Czech and German Veterans in Czechoslovakia After 1918.” Central Europe 4 (2006), 111-121.