The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/From the Journal of the Reichsrat
From the Journal of the Reichsrat.
It is an old witticism in America that the zero in interesting reading is represented by the Congressional Record. Not so in Austria. There the parliament is allowed to meet so seldom, and when it does meet, so much explosive material has been accumulated that a fascinating pyrotechnic exhibition is on the program almost every day during the rare sessions of the representatives of the peoples subject to the Hapsburgs. And when in addition to that one remembers that even in ordinary times the only chance for a serious criticism of the government to see the light of day is to make it in parliament and that since 1914 the censor has been all-powerful in Austria, one is sure to come across interesting reading in the record of the Vienna House of Representatives.
We shall translate here for the benefit of American readers a number of speeches and ministerial interpellations, as they were given to the newspapers by the “praesidium”, or speaker’s office of the parliament. They were not censored by the government censor, but Dr. Gustav A. Gross, the German president of the Reichsrat, undertook to strike out the most objectionable passages of the radical speeches before according them parliamentary immunity. It is, therefore, well to bear in mind that what is given below, has been touched up by a man in sympathy with the methods and aims of the Austrian regime.
June 15 Bohemian deputy Stříbrný spoke about the treatment of political suspects in internment camps. “Dělnické Listy” (Workingman’s Gazette) states that the most serious charges contained in the speech were suppressed during the revision of the speech by Dr. Gross’ censors. Mr. Stříbrný said:
"The suspension of civil rights had for its result political classification of citizens and the branding of many as suspected and unreliable. Unsigned denunciations were sufficient to cause arrest and the arrested never knew who was the accuser and what was the charge. . . Among the interned citizens were women children nad old men, who were carried away in fetters. (Hear, hear, from Czech deputies.) Prisoners were tortured as a matter of course. Their food was quite insufficient; they were tied together in groups and thrown into dirty freight cars. One transport of forty-three Austrian citizens was killed on the high road by a detachment of Hungarian Landwehr. (Cries of anger from the Czechs.)
“Most of the early suspects were interned in a camp at Talerhof near Gratz in Styria. The first shipment was taken over by soldiers from Gratz whose captain spoke in an indecent manner about the victims. Some of them upon leaving the cars were beaten and kicked, until blood streamed from their bodies. The first three days all had to camp in the open. Absolutely no preparations had been made to receive them. A small piece of land was assigned to them, four posts were stuck into the ground to designate the limits of the camp, and no one was permited to stray beyond them. Women, men, children, all slept to gether. The fourth day everyone was ordered to move to the hangars, but again had to sleep on bare ground. Even at that sleeping space was at a premium. Prisoners could not change their clothing, and none of them had money. The guards delighted in giving the most refined people the dirtiest tasks. Women and clergymen were flogged to make them work more zealously. When the number of interned kept on growing, there was no room for them in the hangars, and many had to sleep out side, while the temperature hovered around zero. The death rate among the younger girls and among the old people, due to this treatment and to insanitary conditions, was awful. At the end of November 1914, upon the urgent representations of a staff medical officer construction of barracks was undertaken. When the prisoners were moved into the barracks, their clothing was disinfected; the interned, many of them women and young girls, had to undress in front of all and wait for an hour or more, before receiving their clothing back again. In December, 1914, the number of interned reached five thousand. It was natural that in the absence of strict sanitary measures epidemic diseases, principally the spotted typhus, got many victims. Not till February, 1915, were the sick separated from the well. In Talerhof the number of those who died of epidemic was 1,200, while the total number of suspect citizens buried at the local cemetery exceeds 2,000. All these statements can be substantiated by the testimony of seventy witnesses”, said Deputy Stříbrný.
Most of these victims, subjects of the Austrian emperor, whose only crime was to become suspect of disloyalty, were from Galicia; the next highest number came from Bohemia and Moravia. During Mr. Stříbrný’s speech Bohemian, Polish, Yugoslav and Little Russian deputies gave vent to their anger and shouted stormy protests against the government.
Interpellation of deputies Prokoš, Jaroš, and Charvát, addressed to the minister of defense, dealt with a similar subject, the sufferings of three hundred Czech teachers from Moravia. It is as follows: "In the summer of 1915 secret instructions were issued by the military command in Vienna by which Czech school teachers from Moravia were designated as unreliable from the political viewpoint. Those who had been classified by the army drafting board as unfit for service under arms and should have been permitted to carry on their teaching work were interned. They were sent first to Krapfenwald near Vienna, and later, when their number increased, were interned at Hameau near Neuwaldeg. In rough barracks, used shortly before for Russian prisoners, three hundred educated men lived a life of convicts, although they were neither condemned, nor even accused by either civil or military authorities. Their only crime was that they were Bohemian schoolteachers. Soldiers of the 59th regiment, fully armed, watched them behind barbed wire fences; no one was allowed to approach the barracks, all access to the world was cut off, and the interned men had to perform the hardest kind of manual work. Some crushed rocks, others hauled the rock in wheelbarrows, others mended roads, others felled and cut firewood and timber for themselves and for soldiers, others peeled potatoes or carried water from a spring at the bottom of a steep hill. Letters and packages were strictly censored and visits by relatives were not allowed. Even when the school authorities asked for the prisoners’ services, they were not released, and when their relatives died, they could not attend the funeral. One man who was about to be married, when he was imprisoned, received permission to go to Vienna for a few hours one afternoon; under guard of a soldier he marched to the altar like a criminal. In the evening he came back, threw himself on his wooden couch and cried.
“After four months at Hameau, one-half of the prisoners were sent to Presburg, the rest to Komarno. Here in Hungary they found different commanders and their life was more bearable. But the health of many was seriously affected; some died, some are still in hospitals. Who will compensate them for their mental sufferings, who will return them peace of mind, who will make up to them for the tortured nights?
“Some of these three hundred were later taken upon recommendation of military commanders out of the suspect class and were permitted to qualify for officers in the army, but the majority are still undergoing unmerited punishment.
“Most of these teachers will some day return to the practice of their profession. Can these men be expected to train children to love Austria? Therefore, in the name of these afflicted schoolteachers and in the name of humanity we demand full satisfaction.”
More light on the barbarous conditions prevailing in Austria during the war was thrown by the interpellation of deputies Binovec, Filipinský and Stejskal in regard to the torture of political prisoners. These deputies say:
“We face today the pitiable fact that in all the military prisons awful undernourishment is the rule. In all of them prisoners, both condemned and under investigation, die in great numbers of one of the most terrible sicknesses, hunger typhoid, in other words of empty stomach. In proof of that we point to the garrison prison of Vienna in which more than fifty death sentences have been pronounced for political crimes. To be imprisoned for two years, while the government is supposed to be looking for proof of guilt, is not unusual. All decrees regulating the treatment of political prisoners are suspended; everything depends on the absolute discretion of some noncommissioned officer, and men of the highest professional and social standing are quartered with known thieves, burglars and murderers. Then for months at a time they won’t get paper or pencil—something that makes these educated men desperate.
“But the most terrible feature of this regime is the constant hunger prevailing in the prison. Lately the condition has been aggravated shockingly. Those without means to order food from restaurants, and those who are not allowed to send for food outside the prison, though able to pay for it, are virtually condemned to that most horrible of all deaths, death by slow starvation. This desperate state of affairs is aggravated by the fact that the commander of the Vienna garrison will not permit families of men under investigation to send them even the plainest of food. When a package is received at the prison for some poor inmate whose family fears that he may be hungry, it is returned, but only after long delay, so that by the time it gets back to the sender the food is spoiled. This refinement of cruelty goes so far that even medicines cannot be sent to the prisoners.
“If there is not enough food to supply persons detained in military prisons, then the government should do one of the two things: either shorten the detention of such men in every possible manner, or permit their families to send them food. In no case should it be possible that men imprisoned by the government should die of hunger.
“In conclusion the undersigned ask: 1. Are these horrible conditions known to the minister? 2. What will the minister do to have the whole situation investigated in the most impartial and strict manner and to have such regimen introduced in all these institutions as will comply with the law and with the most elementary demands of humanity?”