It is exactly one hundred years since the Czecho-Slovak Legionnaires first came to attention at the battle of Zborov in today’s western Ukraine. Exiled professor Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk recruited the legionnaires from among Czech and Slovak POWs in Russia and a few thousand more who fought for Allied Russia in World War One. “Although he had no military experience, Masaryk created an army that won independence for the Czecho-Slovaks. This and other achievements rank him as a great man,” says Kevin J. McNamara, author of the first major book about the Czecho-Slovak Legion in English in about 80 years, who talks about the Siberian anabasis of the Czech and Slovak legionnaires, and about Masaryk, in this Lidovky interview.
The Battle of Zborov in July 1917 was a foretaste of the astonishing things the legionnaires would later manage to accomplish after Russia left the war, forcing them to defend themselves by fighting their way at least 5,000 miles from the Ural Mountains to Vladivostok by the end of 1918. In the summer of 1918, they even took over the entire Trans-Siberian Railway for a while. “I think the power of this story is that it is about an undistinguished array of shop-keepers, dentists, farmers, factory hands, and bank clerks who were plucked from obscurity and plunged into World War One, fought on the Eastern Front, and then fought their way across Siberia under terrible conditions,” says McNamara, author of the book, Dreams of a Great Small Nation.
Lidovky: What is the level of awareness of World War One in the United States?
I think the average American knows we fought in that war, but many people probably confuse the First with the Second World War. Most Americans are not well versed in history.
Lidovky: Are American college and secondary students taught about such subjects?
Yes, but history curricula in both secondary schools and higher education emphasize the “western” part of Western Civilization, so that the focus is almost entirely on World War One’s Western Front. The Eastern Front, where the story of my book takes place, is almost entirely absent. The arc of world history in most American history survey courses starts with the ancient world, moving from Jerusalem, to Athens, to Rome, then has something to say about the Middle Ages, and then focuses on France and Great Britain and the founding of the United States, moving from Rome, to London, to Philadelphia. Eastern Europe and Russia tend to get short shrift; even Germany does not make an appearance until Hitler surfaces. Very little is said of the Holy Roman Empire or Austria-Hungary, or the very high state of German culture. Even American specialists in history with doctoral degrees confessed to me that they did not really know the full story of the Czecho-Slovak Legion. In works on the Russian Civil War, the role of the Czecho-Slovak Legion is mentioned largely in passing, summarized in a few paragraphs.