The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 3/The Underground Newspaper

4555460The Czechoslovak Review, volume 3, no. 9 — The Underground Newspaper1919Jan Hajšman

The Underground Newspaper

By Jan Hajšman.

An important part of our revolutionary activity against Austria and for Czechoslovak independence consisted in carrying on an underground information service for our people through word of mouth, written, hectographed and even printed circulars, and later by a sort of a newspaper typed or hectographed in hundreds of copies. Our regular newspapers could not speak the truth, but the journalists did what they could by twisting the official reports, by artful choice of headings, by the arrangement of war bulletins so as to bring out their contradictions, in short they schemed over reports, handed to them from the Vienna official press bureau, in order that a skillful touch here and there might suggest to the readers the real situation. Finally items of importance to Czechoslovaks were squeezed in frequently in such a manner that they escaped the attention of men who censored each issue before publication. There was developed in this field a really remarkable technique of getting the best of the censor.

No one man can be said to have been the author or director of our internal propaganda. It was carried on from various directions, each independent of the other, in all kinds of ways, according to the ability and ingenuity of the actors engaged. To give a full account of this secret activity would mean collection of a great deal of material and must be left to the future. Sometimes a very simple lampoon, a joke passed on from mouth to mouth in the trenches or in the endless lines waiting for bread, did more to strengthen the determination of the Czech people to oppose the Hapsburg tyranny than the cleverest piece of writing in the Prague dailies.

From the very outbreak of the war the Czechs saw the enemy not in the Allies, but in the Germans. Artificial Austrian patriotism forced upon the people only excited sarcasm; jokes were made about reports of victories that nobody believed in; songs and stories making fun of Francis Joseph and William spread from Prague to the utmost corners of Bohemia. Soon reports were current contradicting official bulletins, reports of French and Russian successes, of German and Austrian savagery, and of other matters which those in power wanted to keep away from the people. The more the censor raged, and the tighter were frontier restrictions, the better thrived various rumors and grew the distrust of all official announcements.

These original weapons of propaganda were not forged in some central workshop; the people themselves picked them up wherever they had the opportunity. There were constantly fresh songs, jokes, parodies, stories; God knows, where they all came from. Their crop grew especially after the famous Austrian strategical movements to the rear. Apprentices from a trade continuation school extemporized a “patriotic” demonstration; they marched over the Charles bridge in a dignified procession singing the Austrian hymn to the tune of some comical popular song. On the wall of the Olšany cemetery appeared one morning a call for recruits: “Rise, ye dead, the emperor is calling out the last reserves.” Comical songs about Francis Joseph were especially popular and plentiful. Many were composed on the tragical marches of the mobilized Czechs from home to the front, many in the tortures of the barracks, in the trenches and on lonely watches. No one knew the authors. They passed from mouth to mouth in cities and villages and did more to create and maintain anti-Austrian sentiment than anything else could have done. The streets and the villages received the songs gladly, but with silence; only at home were they repeated with gusto. Official investigations never discovered a thing, for the Czech gendarmes did not care to make arrests. The result was hostile attitude at home to everything Austrian and wholesale surrender of Czech conscripts at the front. All this silent, but determined opposition, this repudiation of all compromise, emanated directly from the people.

Other expressions of what we may call spontaneous anti-Austrian propaganda were copies of articles from neutral and entente newspapers, appeals, proclamations, etc., circulated without any central organization, just haphazard. They were due to a great thirst for news, distrust of official bulletins, love of the sensational—in brief to the psychology of war. They were secretly typewritten in many copies in the editorial rooms of newspapers or in public offices, wherever a patriot got access to hidden information. I have still a few such leaflets—reports of Italian newspapers, Russian official bulletins and the famous manifesto of Czar Nicholas to the Czech nation, whether genuine or faked; at that time we did not worry over that, so pleased were we to get it. Today these bulletins strike us naive, almost childish, but four or five years ago they constituted a serious psychological factor, and they cost many a life. Possession of leaflets, like those I mentioned, was considered in countless cases by Austrian military courts to be sufficient reason for sentences of death or at least life imprisonment.

Until this activity became organized and employed as a factor in our national fight, it served the feed the hatred against Austria together with demand for news about the Czechoslovak campaign for independence abroad. A special mention at this point should be made of Annunzio’s article “Thousands” which appeared in Corriere della Sera and foretold Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies. We typed this article in the editorial rooms of the Čas in hundreds of copies; I may mention that in payment for a copy of D'Annunzio’s article I received from Otto, the book publisher, a copy of Jirásek’s great novel Temno.

Shortly after the opening of 1916 I was asked to ascertain the sentiments of the various classes of the people all over Bohemia and to recommend, by what means we could maintain and intensify the anti-Austrian feeling. In the spring of that year I traveled through Bohemia from west to east and north to south, and the conclusion forced itself upon me that we must employ the spontaneous propaganda which was so wide-spread, and by a systematic, organized transmission of bulletins keep the nation firm in its opposition to Austria. So we decided to spread our bulletins by the means of a regularly published periodical.

We had plenty of material. We were getting Swiss and Dutch newspapers which contained official Allied war reports, a more or less impartial description of political and economic situation, editorials on the general military position, occasionally an item about the activity of our own people abroad. All that was a rare treat to us, for newspapers of Vienna and Germany did not publish anything of this sort and Czech papers were not permitted to do so. Our own people thirsted for such news, and it was up to us to spread it. Material means were furnished by Dr. Přemysl Šámal who gave my plans in this line all possible financial and moral encouragement. In Prague my chief assistant was old Fialka—a pensioner seventy years of age, who acted as colporter and delivered the newspaper and other bulletins to a known circle of reliable people. In the country I found friends who volunteered to spread the paper and its contents.

The paper, very primitive, just multigraphed, received the name of Hlasatel (Herald), after the Hlasatel that a hundred years ago called to the Czech nation to awake from its long sleep. Most of the contents were derived from Holland papers and now and then we managed to get hold of an issue of the Československá Samostatnost, the Paris organ of the independence movement; again we published in the Hlasatel an appeal to persevere, or perhaps stuff that the censor cut out of the regular newspapers, or text of treason charges against our leaders which the Prague papers could not publish. There was plenty of material, more than I could handle. I was the editor, printer, at first even the colporter. From money contributed I bought a hectograph, paper and typewriter. I made the stencil myself and struck off the copies myself. Very often I changed the location of my “printing plant” so as to minimize the chances of discovery by the police. For a while I ran the newspaper in a suburban cottage of Professor Rosa beyond Smíchov, then in the editorial rooms of the Čas, later in the flat of ‘Uncle’ Fialka in Dejvice, finally in the atelier of architect Pische above the Čas. Copies destined for Prague I turned over to Fialka who delivered them to Prague “subscribers”. Packages for country towns were mailed every Thursday, made up as books coming from the publishing firm of F. Borový and addressed to book sellers throughout Bohemia. Inside was the address of the confidential friend who agreed to see after local circulation. After a while a certain book seller opened the package, and when he saw what dynamite it contained, he wrote all scared to leave him but of it. Then we sent the packages of Hlasatel as any other mail. If the police had got hold of it, the man named on the cover would have simply said that he knew nothing of it. But although we worked this scheme from spring of 1916 to October, 1918, the police never got onto it. Dr. Šámal himself sent the Hlasatel to all Czech professors by enclosing a copy in the Journal of Czech Professors, of course with the co-operation of the “Unie” publishers.

The Hlasatel made the most of Horký’s pamphlet, written for our people in America, entitled “Teď anebo nikdy” (Now or Never). Jaroslav Kvapil borrowed it from the press bureau of the Ministry of War from editor Pallausch, a good Czech, who secretly let us have foreign periodicals. Kvapil brought it to Prague and I copied and struck it off in one night. The pamphlet was published in America at the end of 1915; I got out the first 70 copies in April, 1916, and a month later Horký’s desire was fulfilled; his booklet was distributed everywhere, at the front and in the furthest mountain village. No one of all the multitudes that read it notified the police, and not till two years later did the police in Pilsen get the first copy of it by arresting two citizens who read it aloud, as they walked on the street. The pamphlet did have a great effect; not because of its contents which we all condemned. For it was out of question to start crazy revolutions, even while the Russians were in the Carpathians, to say nothing of the situation, when they were retreating. If we had followed Horký’s advice, the nation would have been slaughtered; why, the Hapsburgs and the Germans were eager to have a Czech uprising. But nevertheless the pamphlet stirred up the people. One of my friends brought it home and read it to wife and children at night with windows hermetically closed. They sat till morning, so aroused were they over it. Even Kalina’s well-known poem which captured Prague in one night was not as popular as Horký’s pamphlet.

Later in the summer of 1917 we re-organized the Hlasatel. We found a reliable and careful girl to type my manuscripts and make copies on the hectograph; she did this work in the Praga advertising agency. In that way we got more copies and they were more readable. Miss Joškova did this work without charge, after her office hours, with the assistance of another employee of the advertising agency. I devoted the time thus gained to more careful editing of the Hlasatel. After “Uncle” Fialka left Prague for Lemberg, the circulating end of it was looked after by Mr. Holan, a court official.

Who received the Hlasatel? In Prague people of all classes; high state officials, professors, school teachers, workingmen. An issue appeared one day, and the next day some piece of news was known to everybody that no official dementi could shake. I was careful to select reliable news, handled them with common sense, added a sober explanation, and as a result nobody in the whole world could destroy the confidence of my readers into the truth of everything that appeared in the Hlasatel. The greatest number of readers we had in Holan’s place of employment—the imperial, royal provincial criminal court on Charles Place, where almost all the Czech judges and officials read it, from the highest to the clerks and janitors. In revenue offices, post offices, railroads we had our confidential men who circulated the Hlasatel. Many offered subscription money, and Fialka collected from poor fellows who just managed to live on the small salary of an official two or three crowns a month for the support of Czech treasonable activities. Dr. Šámal was the treasurer, and our readers volunteered contributions of their own accord. So many were eager to make some sacrifice for the cause. Today it semes to have been long ago, but it is the most pleasing recollection of my life. There I found the true altruism of the Czech nature.

In the country we had about 70 regular subscribers, so selected that the Hlasatel reached every corner of the country. These men were pledged to pass on the copy or its contents to the general public, and they, succeeded most wonderfully in doing it; most of the copies circulating in the country were re-copied. If anybody asked me for Hlasatel and if the man was half-way trustworthy, I let him have it. Why worry over detection? Besides I relied on my host of friends.

Ordinarily I was not guilty of coloring the news; our people did not have to get their mental food with salad dressing. But once I was guilty of exaggerating. It was before the convocation of the Vienna parliament. Among the Czech deputies there were men who could not inspire confidence, men inclined to compromise, afraid of the outcome. Suppose they let the government get some sort of a statement from them which would bring disagreement into our ranks and make more difficult the task of our leaders in Entente countries? So I inserted in the Hlasatel—which was circulated among the deputies a report from Geneva that it is known there what the Austrian parliament amounts to, and that the names of Czech deputies who can be bought or intimidated by the Austrian government are well known there. Journal de Geneve did bring about that time some thing of this sort, but my report was more definite. And it was successful. No break occurred in the ranks of the Czech elected representatives.

In the summer of 1918 I was surprised to hear that our Hlasatel had no longer a monopoly of subterranean journalism. Friends brought me copies of another Hlasatel, with very sensational reports about the terrible defeats of Germany, the march of the Allies into German territory, etc. These items were claimed to be translations of Dutch reports, but they were falsified. In spite of that they spread like an avalanche and were believed by the public. I never found out who was behind this enterprise, but I was told that even the police president of Prague got this paper regularly.

Our prisoners in the Vienna jails also had their own periodical, and Klofáč told me after his release that they heard of the Hlasatel, though they did not know who wrote it.

Thus our modern Hlasatel served a good purpose, like Nejedlý’s Hlasatel a century ago, like the underground publications of subjugated Belgium and revolutionary Russia, like the secret meetings of Czech Protestants in the days of our downfall. Hlasatel was one of the sources of Czech oposition to Austria. We did what we could, and we did it in a way which has been used in similar cases many times before—oppression fed opposition, until in due time opposition culminated in universal and successful revolution.