The Birth of a Nation

Japanese and American troops landed in Siberia to support the Czech Legion.

Chelyabinsk, in bleakest Siberia, isn’t the place where you would expect history to be made. In May 1918, two months after Russia had dropped out of World War I, it was the site of an obscure railway station where Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war—captured earlier by Russian troops on the Eastern Front—were gathering to be shipped back home. Kevin McNamara’s “Dreams of a Great Small Nation” focuses on the POWs who turned Chelyabinsk into a battle site and thereby reignited a moribund fighting force in Russia, with startling results. It could be said that the events at Chelyabinsk played a pivotal role in the future of Russia and Eastern Europe.

Early in the war, the Russians had put together a legion of émigrés and refugees from Austro-Hungary who, at odds with the imperial rulers of their homeland, seemed ready to aid Russia in the war effort. The so-called Czech Legion (its volunteers were mostly Czechs but also included Slovaks) did some impressive fighting on the Eastern Front, and when Czech and Slovak POWs were allowed to enlist, starting in the summer of 1917, its numbers swelled significantly.

Russia’s retreat from the war added a twist to the legion’s fate: The legionnaires were suddenly destined for repatriation—their return was part a treaty agreement—and they vehemently did not want to re-enter the imperial fold, especially since, in early 1918, the Germans and Austrians were fighting well and did not seem on the verge of defeat. Spread across the country’s railway stations for transport home, armed and restive, the legionnaires were a dangerously volatile element in a country that had experienced a revolution less than a year before.

The prisoners at Chelyabinsk, breaking free of their Russian minders, formed up ranks and, after a savage confrontation with their Hungarian rivals, managed to seize control of the railway station and eventually, in a prolonged campaign that gathered numbers and strength along the way, of nearly the entire railway line. The move shook Vladimir Lenin’s new government to its foundations and eventually helped spell the doom of Europe’s oldest surviving empire.

It is an epic story unknown even to many World War I history buffs, who tend to concentrate on the trench warfare of the Western Front. But as Mr. McNamara notes in his foreword, “the war in the east was far more consequential, casting adrift multi-national empires [and] ancient dynasties.” With admirable energy he has assembled the story by piecing together archival records and the memoirs of the gallant men who served in the rejuvenated Czech Legion during the fateful spring and summer of 1918. He traces the legion’s 2,000-mile journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific Coast, where they eventually found safe haven before returning to their homes in the new country they had done so much to create: Czechoslovakia.

One simple fact made all this possible: The war in the East was the only part of the war that Germany actually won. Lenin, after seizing power in Russia in November 1917, decided that the best way to consolidate his gains and end Russia’s disastrous military losses was to surrender to Germany and Austro-Hungary. The peace treaty was signed at Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, to the fury of Russia’s allies, including the U.S.

Among the tens of thousands of prisoners scheduled for repatriation, the Austro-Hungarian phalanx was a particularly quarrelsome group, and little wonder: The Habsburg Empire was an agglomeration of a dozen nationalities and ethnic groups. The POWs included Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Poles and Ruthenes—men resentful of having fought an unpopular war at the behest of a German-speaking emperor, Franz Josef, and of the Hungarian political elite who had collaborated with him.

At Chelyabinsk (as elsewhere), the bad feelings between Czechs and Hungarians ran especially deep: On May 14, 1918, a Hungarian prisoner of war hurled a chunk of metal at one of the Czechs standing on the rail platform, badly wounding him, and the Czechs lashed out. “After a furious series of scuffles, threats, arguments, and one violent assault,” Mr. McNamara writes, the Hungarian assailant “was dead, killed by the legionnaires.”

News of the incident at Chelyabinsk, Mr. McNamara writes, “produced a hysterical, blood-thirsty reaction in Moscow,” where Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin reversed their earlier policy of supporting the legion. They now saw, correctly as it turned out, the beginning of a rebellion—one that was based on resistance to Russia’s repatriation order but that was fueled by a spirit of nationalism. The Russian leaders ordered the unit disarmed and destroyed.

In the event, the Czech Legion turned the tables on their former captors. Within a matter of weeks their ranks had grown with former prisoners and deserters to more than 50,000 men. They seized control of a long stretch of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Samara (along the Volga River north of the Caspian Sea) to Irkutsk (north of Mongolia). The Bolsheviks, still weak in the months after the revolution, were helpless to stop them.

Enter Tomas Masaryk, a former sociology professor and free-lance diplomat in his mid-60s. It was Masaryk—a fierce Czech nationalist although a Slovak by birth—who had bargained with Moscow to allow the Austro-Hungarian prisoners to leave Russia. Now he saw the Czech Legion as a means to proclaim the goal dearest to his heart: the creation of an independent nation that would be free of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the revolt broke out, he used a speaking tour of the United States to lobby the Americans and other Allies to support the nationalist cause.

President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to intervene in support of the legionnaires until America’s allies convinced him that intervening would both shore up the cause of “national self-determination”—one of Wilson’s cherished war aims—and advance the possibility of removing the Bolsheviks and returning Russia to the war. So Japanese troops and then American ones, acting in consort, landed in Siberia. The drive to support the Czech Legion soon morphed into an effort to crush Lenin’s regime.

In the end, the Allied intervention only managed to help trigger a Russian civil war between Lenin’s Reds and Western-backed Whites, a conflict that would drag on for years. With at times incredible courage, the men of the Czech Legion fought on the side of the Whites until the Americans and their allies finally pulled out in April 1920, taking most of the Czech survivors with them. The Bolshevik Revolution emerged from the fighting more strongly entrenched than ever.

The impact on Austro-Hungary was very different. As historian A.J.P. Taylor once noted, the Habsburg Empire had survived the Reformation, the invasion of the Ottoman Turks and Napoleon. But it couldn’t withstand the hurricane of nationalist feeling that was set loose by World War I. The events at Chelyabinsk, along with the revolt that followed, were a part of this larger geopolitical shift.

In October 1918, an independent, democratic Czechoslovakia was declared, with Prague as its capital. The Allies granted official recognition, in part as a gesture of gratitude for the Czech Legion’s help in the fight against Lenin. Masaryk’s dream was a reality; but it also tore the heart out of the Habsburg possessions. By the time the survivors of the Czech Legion arrived in Prague to be greeted as national heroes, the once-mighty empire had collapsed into a congeries of separate states.

As Mr. McNamara points out, Masaryk’s victory proved hollow. Over the next two decades, post-Habsburg Europe would emerge not as a bastion of freedom, as Masaryk had wanted, but as a cluster of competing despotisms in which the only surviving republic, Czechoslovakia, would be swallowed up first by the Nazis and then by the Czech Legion’s old enemy, Russia (now the Soviet Union). Eventually, of course, the country would cease to exist, as Czechs and Slovaks went their separate ways.

Over time, nationalism itself would fall into disfavor with progressive-minded intellectuals, who would point to Nazi Germany as the prime example of nationalism’s evil, atavistic nature. It is instructive to be reminded, by Mr. McNamara’s fascinating narrative, that nationalist feeling can be part of an admirable desire for freedom. The lesson is most pertinent, perhaps, for a Western Europe that after 1945 set out to banish all strong nationalist sentiment as well as all national borders and that now finds itself cowed by Dark Age fanatics who would destroy the dreams of great small nations.

Dreams of a Great Small Nation