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Belligerents and Participants
The Kingdom of Bohemia had slowly been assimilated into the Hapsburg Empire, but when Austria and Hungry became duel monarchies in 1867, Bohemia did not receive the autonomy it had hoped. This strengthened the independence movement of Bohemian Czechs, and they were soon allied with ethnic Slovaks who had the same aspirations. Czechs comprised the third largest ethnic group in Austria-Hungry; and although few had love for the Empire, they initially remained loyal to the Hapsburg Emperor if only for the lack of choice.
While the state of Czechoslovakia did not yet exist in 1914, the inhabitants of Bohemia had a history of their own that significantly affected postcard production during the Great War.
The first Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia suffered greatly from poor planning and logistics, not to mention poorly trained solders with inadequate weapons. It is not surprising that this offensive was stopped and then thrown back by Serb troops who were veterans of the Balkan Wars. Yet blame for this failure fell on the large amount of Czech solders who took part in this operation. Accused of being unreliable and even traitorous, they would be looked on suspiciously by the Austrians for the duration of the War, and often singled out for discipline. This led to decreasing morale among Czech units and it increased their rate of desertion.
The Great War disturbed the delicate balance of loyalties within Austria-Hungary, and many who had long sought their own independence believed this could be better achieved if they joined the enemy and fought for the empire’s downfall. At the outbreak of the First World War the many Czechs who had immigrated to Russia petitioned the Czar to form their own national unit and in 1914 the first Czech Legion (Cheshskaya Druzhina) was established within the Russian army.
The Parliamentarian Tomas Masaryk had tried to put an end to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in favor of creating a democratic federal state, but when this effort failed he turned his attention to wining independence for Czechs and Slovaks. By the end of 1914 he had gone into exile in Rome where he established an international campaign calling for the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1916 he and other nationalists created the Czechoslovak National Council. After secret peace negotiations with Austrian Emperor Charles I failed in the summer of 1918, the Allies recognized the Council as the seed for a future Czechoslovak State.
After the February 1917 revolution, Masaryk went to Russia to organize a Czech Legion from the swelling numbers of Czech deserters and prisoners of war being held there. The formation of a unit composed only of Czechs would allowed for better cohesiveness than if they were integrated into the Russian army. This would also go a long way in solving the language barrier. Once established the Legion began publishing postcards in their own language for their own men. The vast majority of these cards reproduced landscapes of where Legion troops were deployed, though some of them depict scenes of intense combat.
The first major battle to involve Czech Legion troops came in June 1917, when they took part in Kerensky’s renewed offensive in Galicia. Many Russian troops were now unwilling to go into combat, and so the Czechs were chosen to participate because of their ardor to fight the Austro-Hungarians. Utilizing stormtrooper tactics the Czechs broke through the enemy line at Zborov. While they achieved much success the overall campaign was a failure. Even so the Czechs used this small victory to their advantage, using it as an example of why more prisoners of war were needed to expand the Legion. This battle would be well represented on propaganda cards of Czechoslovakia after the War.
The Austro-Hungarians did not take Czech defections lightly. Many Czech soldiers serving in their army were transferred to the Italian Front where desertions would be more difficult, and they would not be intimidated by having to fight fellow Slavs and countrymen. After the Battle of Zborov those who had joined the Czech Legions and were now fighting for the Russians were not always granted the status of prisoner of war when captured; many of these men were hung as traitors. Such images were not widely employed as a deterrent, which was probably out of fear that the mere acknowledgment of the problem would be demoralizing. Despite this there are real photo postcards depicting the hanging of Czechs to be found. While some of these cards are clearly labeled as such, there are many more of anonymous hangings that leave us to speculate over their content and intent.
After the October 1917 Revolution took Russia out of the War, the Czech Legion serving on that front wanted to continue the fight. In accommodation the Bolsheviks began transporting them by rail across Siberia where they could transfer to ships out of Vladivostok that would then set sail to the still active Western Front. By December 1917 Czech units were formed to fight in France and in April of 1918 in Italy. They also added their weight to the offensive launched against Bulgaria from Salonika in September 1918. The Czech Legion also published postcards of their men engaged on these disparate fronts.
A Czechoslovak recruitment office was opened in the United States after it entered the War in spring 1917. The artist Vojtech Preissig produced a number of patriotic posters to help support this effort that the Wentworth Institute in Boston turned into postcards. These cards were reissued a number of times, and because of this some have varied overprinting.
The Russian transfer of Czech soldiers to the West was eventually halted under German protest, for they wanted these troops taken prisoner. The Czechs refused to cooperate and revolted in May 1918 but this left them stranded in Siberia. By August the Allies intervened by sending a large contingent of forces, mostly Japanese and Americans, to Eastern Siberia under the pretense of preventing Germany from seizing the large stockpiles of military supplies they hand been shipping there. They were also to aid the Czech Legion, which they linked up with in September. A number of cards were published depicting these events, but most of them come from Japan.
Some saw the presence of so many Allied troops in Siberia as an opportunity to topple the Bolsheviks and bring Russia back into the War. While the Czechs and the Whites united to form a Provisional Siberian Government in Omsk by June, there was little cooperation among the Allies in the back and forth battles that followed with the Bolsheviks. Once the Legion learned that the Great War had ended and that the Czechoslovakian nation had been formed, they quickly lost their taste for fighting in the Russian Civil War. They then betrayed their White partners, by making a deal with the Bolsheviks to continue their long journey home by sea in December 1920.
A number of Czech legion cards carried imagery that was heavily borrowed from other revolutionary traditions. The most obvious is iconography is from the French Revolution, where liberty personified as Marianne or the martyred drummer boy, Joseph Bara, lead troops into battle. This theme grew in intensity by 1919 when the Allies were contemplating the formation of Czechoslovakia. Many Czech cards at this time also began to portray the Statue of Liberty in conjunction with independence themes. This may have been in part inspired by the visit of George Creel from the Committee on Public Information in the United States. Exiled from the Paris Peace Talks, he began making generous promises to the Czechs that none of the Allies was willing to grant.
Czechoslovakia proclaimed its independence from Austria-Hungary on October 28, 1918, but this move would only be internationally recognized in September 1919. While both Austria and Germany would be forced to recognize Czech independence and the new borders drawn up by the Versailles Treaty, they remained unsettled for some time. Czechoslovakia was soon at war with the new Polish state as both competed to seize more territory from German Silesia. With ethnic populations dispersed throughout the region, tensions continued to build and mass migrations followed.
Prague was a very active publishing center while still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and many postcards were produced there. While cracks of decent can sometimes be found in their tone, these publishers generally produced cards supporting the Empire and the Great War when it came. In most ways these cards are indistinguishable from those printed in Austria or Hungary, except that the only printed language on them might be Czech.
One of the more notable firms located in Prague was the printer Andreas Haase. During World War One he produced an outstanding set of artist drawn charity cards aimed at aiding railway workers. While some of these cards have clear military references, their main focus is on the railway workers and their equipment.
The Prague photo studio of Husnik & Hausler was making photographic photo separations for printers at the turn of the 20th century. Soon they began publishing tricolor view-cards under their own name. While a number of their cards carried patriotic Czech subjects, there was only so far they could carry this theme while part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially during the Great War. In the postwar years they revisited military subject matter and published cards depicting the Czech Legion in its struggle with Austria-Hungary for independence.
Emil Artur Longen was a primarily a landscape painter who worked in a very expressive style. His views of the Champagne region of France where Czech soldiers fought were used to illustrate postcards produced by the Czech Legion.
The first private school in Central Europe to promote higher education for women was Minerva in Prague, founded in 1890 by the Bohemian poet Eliska Krasnohorska. By 1912, if not earlier, they were publishing Art reproductions on postcards as a fund raising method. During the First World War many of these works of art contained patriotic or military themes.
Josef Mathauser’s career as a painter largely fell within the 19th century. While he produced traditional portraits and rural scenes in an academic style, much of his work revolved around historical and religious narratives. Some of his patriotic Czech themes showing great historic battles were placed on postcards, but by the Great War he seemed more interest in themes calling for peace. He created images for postcards until his death in 1917.
Many postcards relating to Czechoslovakia’s struggle for independence during World War one would be published in the postwar years to help boost patriotism and national identity. While some of these draw on universal themes of freedom, others are closely tied to local events or personalities that have become more obscure, at least to outsiders, over time.