Police Rule in Bohemia.
In his speech to the Senate President . . . . No nation should seek to extend its polity over any other nation or people, but every people should be left free to determine its own policy, its own way of development, unhindered, unthreatened, unafraid, the little along with the great and powerful.”said: “No peace can last, or ought to last, which does not recognize and accept the principle that Governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed
The realization of these admirable sentiments presents infinite problems in various section of Europe, but nowhere, perhaps, more than in Austria-Hungary. In his heterogeneous collection of peoples, the old Emperor had to make a choice between two courses in order to hold his thirteen distinct races together in one Empire. He could have tried to make them politically contented through freedom to manage their own affairs while owing allegiance to the Empire as a whole, or he could suppress the individual people to such an extent that he would have unity by force.
He chose the second course. With the Germans dominant in Austria and the Magyars in Hungary, other nations have been scientifically subjugated. As in the case of the procedure of "Preventive Arrest" in Germany, the authorities seek to work smoothly and silently, with the result that only an occasional echo reaches the outside world.
The description of the relations of the various peoples and the “Unity-Machine” employed would fill a large book. Control of public opinion has been the first action of the rulers of the Dual Monarchy. In peace time, not only were the suppressed nations, such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Rumanians, Ruthenians, Poles, Slovenes, Italians, but all the citizens of Austria-Hungary, denied the right of free speech and freedom of the Press. Some of the regulations by which the Government held absolute sway over its subjects are:
(1) No newspaper or other printing business could be established until a heavy deposit was made with the police for the payment of fines, such fines to be arbitrarily imposed by the police—in whom is vested extraordinary power—when anything political was written which did not please them. They are difficult to please, I may add.
(2) A complete copy of each edition must be sent to the police before it was put on sale. “Good” editors whose inspiration was of a nature to enable them to interpret the wishes of the Government, sometimes received a dispensation from this formality.
(3) No club might hold a private meeting. A representative of the police must be present. This rule was often extended even to friendly gatherings in private homes in such places as Bohemia.
(4) No political meeting might be held without a permit, and a representative of the police must be present. Often he sat on the platform. It is amusing for the visitor from a free country to attend a political meeting where the chairman, speaker and policeman file up on the stage to occupy the three chairs reserved for them. The policeman may be heard by those in the front rows continually cautioning the speaker. If he thinks the speaker is talking too freely he either intervenes through the chairman and asks him to be moderate or dismisses the meeting.
These regulations, I again remind the reader, were in force in peace time. It is easy to see how an extension of them effectually checks attempts of the Czechs (Bohemians) and other peoples to legislate themselves into a little freedom.
When I came to England early in the war from Austria-Hungary and Germany I heard many expressions of hope that the discontented races in the Empire of Francis Joseph would rebel, and later expressions of surprise that they did not. Englishmen held the opinion that such races would be decidedly averse from fighting for the Hapsburgs. The opinion was correct, and nobody knew this better than the Hapsburgs themselves.
Like the German Government in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, the Austrian Government has endeavored to mislead public opinion in foreign countries as to the state of mind of the Czechs by false information and to conceal the true military and political situation from the population at home. Austria’s first problem at the outbreak of war—a problem which has been worked out to the last detail—was rapidly to move the soldiers of the subjugated races from their native lands. Since the Bosnians, for example, are of the Serbian race, they were mobilized secretly in the middle of July and sent out of Bosnia. I saw 30,000 moved through Trieste several days before war was declared on Serbia. A German acquaintance, with great shipping interests, enthusiastically indiscreet at sight of them, exclaimed to the little group of which I was one: “A wonderful system—a wonderful system! The Bosnians could not be trusted to fight the Serbs. But we Germans can use them if they prove troublesome to Austria,” he continued excitedly. “We can send them against the French. We will tell them that if they do not shoot the French, we will shoot them.” I thought this a rather curious conversation for July 25th, 1914.
Less than a fortnight later I saw two Bohemian regiments arrive at Brasso, Transylvania, the province farthest removed from their homes, to be garrisoned in a region, the population of which is Rumanian, Hungarian and Saxon. I was told later that the Rumanians who had left the garrisons at Brasso had gone to Bohemia. As I observed these, initial steps in the great smooth-running Austro-Hungarian military machine, I was impressed with the impossibility of revolution. With the soldier element scientifically broken up and scattered all over the country, who could revolt—the women and children?
The Slav soldiers of Austria-Hungary desert to Russia at every opportunity. The fact that she now has upwards of 1,200,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners is sufficient refutation of the sugar-coated propaganda describing how all the peoples who make up Austria-Hungary rushed loyally and enthusiastically to arms to the defence of their Emperor and common country. This is perfectly true of the politically dominant races, the Germans and the Magyars, but the “enthusiasm” I witnessed among the subjugated races consisted chiefly of sad-faced soldiers and weeping women.
The Bohemians have given most trouble. One German officer told me that he didn’t worry over the desertion of Bohemians singly and in small groups. He expected that. But he did take serious exception to the increasingly popular custom of whole battalions with their officers and equipment passing over to the Russian lines intact.
The story of the Bohemian regiment trapped in the Army of Leopold of Bavaria is generally known in Austria. When the staff learned that this regiment planned to cross to the Russians on a certain night, three Bavarian regiments, well equipped with machine-guns, were set to trap it. Contrary to usual procedure, the Bohemians were induced by the men impersonating the Russians to lay down their arms as an evidence of good faith before crossing. The whole regiment was then rounded up and marched to the rear, where a public example was made of it. The officers were shot. Then every tenth man was shot. The Government, in order to circumvent any unfavorable impression which this act might make in Bohemia, caused to be read each day for three days in the schools a decree of the Emperor, condemning the treachery of this regiment, the number of which was ordered forever to be struck from the military rolls of the Empire.
During the terrific fighting at Baranowitchi in the great Russian offensive last summer, at a time when the Russians repeatedly but unsuccessfully stormed that important railway junction, some Prussian units found their right flank unsupported one morning at dawn, because two Bohemian battalions had changed flags during the night. The next Russian attack caused the Prussians to lose 48 per cent of their men.
This was the final straw for the Staff of Leopold’s Army. An Order was issued explaining to the troops that henceforth no more Czechs would have the honor of doing first line duty, since their courage was not of as high a degree as that of the others. I found that the Prussians, despite their depleted state, actually believed this explanation, which filled them with pride in themselves and contempt for the Czechs.
But the German officers in charge of reorganizing the Austro-Hungarian Army were not content to let Bohemians perform safe duties in the rear. Consequently, they diluted them until no regiment contained more than 20 per cent.
The authorities have been no less thorough with the civilian population. From the day of mobilization all political life was suspended. The three parties of the Opposition, the Radicals, the National-Socialists, and the Progressives, were annihilated and their newspapers suppressed. Their leaders, such men as , Rasin, , , , Durich, the men who served as guides to the nation, were imprisoned or exiled. This is surely a violation of the principle that Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, for all these men were true representatives of the people. The fact that the Government was obliged to get rid of the leaders of the nation shows what the real situation in Bohemia is. The Czech deputies who were considered dangerous, numbering forty, were mobilized. They were not all sent to the front; some were allowed temporary exemption; but the Government gave them to understand that the slightest act of hostility towards the Monarchy on their part would result in their being called up immediately and sent to the front.
The fetters of the Press were drawn more tightly. Even the German papers were not allowed into Bohemia. For some months, two or three enterprising editors used to send a representative to Dresden to read the German and English papers there. At present three-quarters of the Czech papers and all the Slovak newspapers have been suppressed. The columns of those which are still allowed to appear in Bohemia and Moravia are congested by mandates of the police and the military authorities, which the editors are compelled to insert. Recently the Government censorship has been particularly active against books, collections of national songs, and post-cards. It has even gone so far as to confiscate scientific works dealing with Slav questions,’s novels, the books of and , and collections of purely scientific Slav study and histories.
The Government, however, have had to proceed to far greater lengths. By May, 1916, the death sentences of civilians pronounced in Austria since the beginning of the war exceeded 4,000. Of these, 965 were Czechs. A large proportion of the condemned were women. The total of soldiers executed amounts to several thousands.
Is it not peculiar that among people which the Viennese propaganda represents as loyal, hostages are taken in Bohemia, and condemned to death, under the threat of execution if a popular movement takes place? The people are told of this and are given to understand that the hostages have hopes for mercy if all is quiet.
Not only have the authorities confiscated the property of all persons convicted of political offenses and of all Czechs who have fled from Austria-Hungary, but a system has been established by which the property of Czech soldiers who are prisoners in Russia is confiscated. The State profits doubly by this measure, for it further suppresses the allowances made to the families of these soldiers. In order to terrorize its adversaries through such measures, the Government instructs the Austrian newspapers to publish long lists of confiscations and other penalties.
After a time, however, the Austrian Government practically abdicated in favor of the Prussians and now undertake to carry out the measures of Germanization dictated by Berlin. The rights in connection with the use of the Czech language in administration, in the Law Courts and on the railways, rights which were won by the desperate efforts of two generations of Czech politicians, have been abrogated. The management of the railways has been placed in the hands of Prussian military officials; the use of the Czech language has been suppressed in the administration, where it had formerly been lawful. The Czechs have been denied access to the Magistrature and to public offices where they had occasionally succeeded in directing the affairs in their own country.
- Reprinted from Mr. Curtin’s book “The Land of Deepening Shadow”, by permission of Geo. H. Doran Co.