The Little Nations at Versailles - A kis nemzetek Versailles-ban
Stephen Bonsal ezredes - Wilson elnök szárnysegédje, tolmácsa, jegyzőkönyvvezetőjének a naplójából
Suitors and Suppliants: The Little Nations at Versailles
9: Czechs, Slovaks, and Father Hlinka
December 13, 1918
World affairs, and these are what should be engrossing our attention, have taken a distinct turn in a new direction in the last week. In fact it might even be said they have gone into reverse. For days we have stood at the bier of fallen empires or investigated the murder of mighty Tsars; we have witnessed the dethronement of kings and the flight of princesses; but today a new ship of state is launched and has put to sea in the stormy waters of Central Europe. Czechoslovakia emerges from the maelstrom of war and her chief magistrate is in Paris to receive the fraternal accolade of the leaders of world democracy.
When the Bohemian peasant cohorts were smashed by the feudal lords in the seventeenth century at the White Mountain, those who survived swore a mighty oath: "We shall live again! We shall come back!" and here they are, and I should say they are very much alive. Of course in our midst there are many soothsayers and, as is the manner of their craft, many and varied are the prophecies they pronounce. Some say the new republic that swims into our ken out of the smoke of battle will prove a bulwark against the prolific German horde and its drang nach Osten; others find it no more valuable than a pop gun against siege artillery; and many, very many, say that soon, very soon, it will become a satellite to the great Slav Power, in its new incarnation that it is destined to disappear in the whale's jaw as does the unwary minnow.
But Paris, wisely I think, lives in the day, and the Parisians are incorrigibly romantic. The Odyssey of the Czech legionaries, the march across Siberia, has captured their sympathy and won their admiration. Thus when on the morning of December 7 Thomas Masaryk, the recently elected president of the war-born republic of the West Slavs, reached the city on the Seine from the United States, he received a reception which compared not unfavorably with the of the days of pageantry before the war.
[On the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution, the Czechoslovak troops serving with the Russian armies on the Eastern Front declared their intention to remain neutral toward the Reds and, under the leadership of the Slovak scientist, Stefanik, were supposed to be transported peaceably to France via Vladivostok. The dramatic complications arid the heroic march that ensued, as related further on, caused a sensation in the Allied world and boosted the case for a Czechoslovak state. The National Czech Council (Masaryk, president; Durich, vice-president; Bene, general secretary with the Slovaks represented by Stefanik) was recognized as the future Czechoslovak government by Britain and America in September, 1918.]
December 14, 1918
In the interview that followed between the new president and Colonel House, it was increasingly apparent to both of us that Masaryk had aged greatly in the months that had elapsed since we saw him in America, and it was evident that the news he had received and was almost hourly receiving from Prague brought with it little refreshment. The birth of a nation is evidently a searching trial to the founding fathers, as is the delivery of a child to the mother. He told the Colonel that problems were awaiting him in Prague and he would shorten his stay in Paris because he felt he should get to grips with them immediately. He would leave the task in Paris to Bene and to Kramar, the recently chosen president of the Council of Ministers.
"As for myself I find it would be unwise for me to await here the coming of President Wilson, much as I would like to. I feel that Czech problems, and there are many, have to be viewed and met on Czech soil, and I have been away from home so long, so long!"
Turning to me he said, "You, who have been with our people so much both at home and abroad, must know the old Bohemian ballad, the ballad that our wandering people sang throughout the world for three hundred years, 'Where Is My Home? Now we know where it is and we must hasten to it. We shall never forget America or Wilson. America we shall always cherish because for decades, and indeed for generations, she welcomed and succored our wanderers. And Wilson! He is our Salvator. He held aloft the beacon of democracy and his brave soldiers saw to it that its light penetrated into the darkest places. When the Old World seemed lost he came and redressed the balance which could have been restored in no other way, and by no other man."
"The future?" inquired the Colonel.
"There are rough places in the road ahead of us that cannot, should not be denied," admitted Masaryk, "but all will be well if we keep to the covenant of fair-dealing which, as you know, the President is bringing with him. It would also be well if in a sense we could forget the wrongs and sufferings of the past; not entirely, perhaps, for they must serve as reminders of the dangers that yet await us. But we must not let these ancient wrongs rankle in our memory or shape our course."
Masaryk questioned me very closely as to what I had seen in Prague during my visit there in March, 1915. It was truly a mourning city then, and the Magyar soldiers were ruling town and countryside with the ruthlessness of the Huns in the days of old; but I did not stress the picture. What he did not know he would soon learn.
While the Colonel showed great reluctance to discuss the subject, Masaryk was not to be denied, and he went into the question of the President s proposed visit to Paris and the length of his stay there at great length. He had with characteristic frankness evidently imparted his views to the President while still in Washington. Now that the President had reached a decision and was coming to Paris, indeed would be on the water in a very few hours, Masaryk concentrated his objections against a lengthy stay. "I trust the President will not enter the arena or take any direct part in the battles that are unavoidable. I think it would be a very great tactical mistake if he should present himself as a delegate or stay for any length of time in Paris. He must remain aloof, otherwise his prestige will suffer, and that will be greatly needed to pull the Conference out of the mire."
House assured Masaryk that he appreciated these views and indeed that he shared them as did many others. He did think, however, that the presence of the President at the opening session was absolutely necessary. "Otherwise," added House, "the opening days may resemble Donnybrook Fair. I have said all I can say to the President on the subject with propriety, but I see no reason why you should not reinforce the arguments you advanced in Washington with the knowledge that you have acquired of the prevailing atmosphere since your arrival in Europe."
"I shall indeed write him," said Masaryk. "It will be some slight recognition of my obligation to him which I can never fully repay. I shall beg the President not to attend in person any of the meetings of the delegates. He must not become a participant in the struggles that are inevitable, he must remain the mediator. He is the only possible mediator."
Being shorthanded (his charming daughter Alice was working like mad on a mountain of correspondence in the adjoining room), Masaryk asked that I be directed to draw up a brief summary of the thoughts that had been exchanged to be placed in his confidential files which were only open to Bene.
The following is a brief summary of what took place in the interview as drawn up by me and initialed by House and Masaryk. It was placed in the confidential files but a copy was also furnished Bene who had now presented his credentials to the President of France and is everywhere recognized as the minister plenipotentiary of the new republic in Paris:
President Masaryk stated, first, that owing to his long absence from the land in which he was about to assume the duties of chief magistrate, he did not think it proper to formulate his ideas as to the proper political course to pursue until he had had the advantage of conversation with Dr. Kramar, the Prime Minister, and his colleagues of the Cabinet. He felt quite confident, however, that the troubles which his people had always had with the Germans would continue; that there was very little difference between the Pan-German Prussians, who sought empire, like the Emperor William, and the Pan-German seeker for new and exclusive markets, like Scheidemann. He said he feared that the Germans were planning serious opposition to the Bohemian form of government in those districts of so-called German-Bohemia, which are in large part inhabited by Germans. He said he was not inclined to let these people go to Germany as they were efficient workmen and necessary to the revival and the further development of industries in which they were employed.
President Masaryk spoke at some length as to his last interview with President Wilson, in which the President of the United States asked him his opinion as to the advisability of his (President Wilson) appearing at the Peace Congress. President Masaryk states that he answered the President in this manner: "I think it would he of great value for you to appear at the Congress to defend the principles which you have promulgated, but I do not think it would he expedient for you to enter into the discussions that will undoubtedly be provoked by the application of these principles to special cases that it may be thought come under their purview."
December 6, 1918
At his request I had another talk today with President Masaryk an hour before he entrained for Prague to assume his post of president. He has been tireless during the short week of his stay here in trying to bring together the discordant elements from Central and Southeastern Europe who here abound, lie told me of a long conference he has had with Take Ionescu, of the Rumanians, and also with Venezelos, the Greek Premier, for whom he expressed unbounded admiration. In his endeavor to bring about an understanding between the South Slavs and the Poles, the roaming Rumanians (the Wallachs) and the Greeks, he got a clear insight into the disturbing territorial disputes that separate them all and particularly the Serbs and the Rumanians. He admitted that he had not been entirely successful but thought that I was unduly pessimistic. Admitting that there were obstacles, very serious obstacles, in the path to concord, he protested that he still cherished high hopes.
"Solutions are still beyond our immediate reach," he admitted, "but I am confident we have cleared the ground for co-operation at the Peace Conference. These bickerings are undeniable, but we laid the cornerstone of the peace edifice at the Rome and the Paris Congresses of the Oppressed Nationalities and we started to raise the superstructure by our organization in America of the Mid-European Democratic Union." Cheerfully he added, "Don't let Colonel House get discouraged. Many of these noisy people are talking for what they call in that part of America that I know best 'home consumption.' Remember Rome was not built in a day, and it is natural that the New Europe, with its constellation of little states, will require patient and intelligent readjustment.
"I assured President Wilson when I first reached Washington from Siberia," President Masaryk went on, "that the prophecy of the great Komenski that the government of the Czech nation would come again, and soon, into the hands of the Czechs has been fulfilled, and indeed a little sooner than we had dared to expect. German-Bohemia, so called? These districts where the Germans are intermixed with our people is our territory, and ours it shall remain. We have recreated our state with assistance from the democratic world and most of all from my second country, America. We hope that these Germans may collaborate with us, but I for one understand the difficult position in which they find themselves. They were so ready to support the Pan-German attacks on the Czechs! They were intoxicated by the ephemeral military victories and failed to realize what was the true balance in the world situation. But because we understand these people who have remained strangers in our midst for so many generations is the strongest reason why we are not disposed to sacrifice our important and very precious Czech population who are their neighbors in what some propagandists call, mistakenly, German-Bohemia. [Sudetenland.] It remains where it belongs, our bulwark against invasion, where the danger is greatest."
As I was leaving, President Masaryk brought up once again the problem which the presence of the large German minority in Bohemia undoubtedly presents. He expects that they will soon invoke the Wilsonian doctrine of self-determination. "Our first answer will be that these ideas were never expressed before the war. Not a voice was raised in favor of union with Germany in the days of Austrian rule. The present agitation is simply the work of Pan-German propaganda." Bene, who had joined us, mentioned that some were advocating a division of the disputed territory. This he argued was far from practicable.
"The Sudeten hills," said Masaryk, "afford to us Czechs the only defensible frontier against our formidable and aggressive neighbor. A division of the territory in dispute is also far from practical. The three million Germans do not present a solid bloc which could be more easily dealt with. They are widely scattered, and in many of the districts which they have hitherto dominated are to be found almost an equal number of Czechs."
Masaryk then pointed out: "These troublemakers in Reichenberg say that they fear that Prague will attempt what they call the Czechization of their fellow Germans. It seems to me that this only would be possible if, as is proposed by some, two millions were ceded to the Reich. One, the remaining million, might be Czechified, if anyone were so foolish as to attempt it, but surely not three million! These Germans are as stiff-necked as the Poles, and we know how many hundred million gold marks the Berlin attempt to Germanize the Poles of Silesia cost and what a complete failure it has been."
A new and I think an important aspect of the situation was brought to light by the following words of Masaryk. "The present agitation is due almost entirely to the fact that under the Vienna government the Germans of Bohemia were favored, perhaps pampered is the more correct word, for obvious political reasons, and rightly they do not expect that this favoritism will be continued by the new government in Prague."
Bene expressed the hope that the German minority after a little calm reflection would be willing to remain outside the Reich, just as the three million Germans in Switzerland are enthusiastic about remaining with the Bund. "From us," he added, "they will have no cause of complaint, once they have divested themselves of their pretenses to race superiority and their claims for special privileges. The only hardship that awaits theni is that they will have to learn to live under a democratic government which guarantees equal rights to all, irrespective of race, religion, or language."
Both Bene and Masaryk lived up to this promise. Only when Henlein and other agents of Hitler came with money and promises did irreconcilable differences develop and the Sudeten Germans lift their voices in complaint.
January 11, 1919
While, as he admitted frankly, differing from him on a number of important questions, and far from approving many of his plans for the future, Bene sent General Stefanik to see me this morning and I took him out to a quiet place for lunch. He is just back from Siberia and has been preceded by a number of romantic stories as to his exploits, some of which are true. Apparently at no time was he a prisoner of war, as were most of the legionaries, but he did command them at a difficult moment when he, with his Czechoslovaks, had to face the Germans on one flank and the Bolsheviks on the other. He is a slight man of about forty, and his pale complexion and sunken burning eyes would seem to indicate that he is not long for this world in which he has played such a notable role.
Bene had told me that in civil life Stefanik was an astronomer, and Stefanik explained to me how he had risen from a shepherd boy in Slovakia to become a famous stargazer in Paris, a story which I fear interested me more than some of his more recent and rather complicated adventures.
"A barefooted boy of twelve, thirty years ago, I left my village and walked to Paris. I wanted to learn all about the stars and the constellations that I watched at night as I guarded my uncle's sheep. I had heard there was a great observatory there, and there I would learn the secrets of the heavens. When I reached the observatory I put on my shoes (I had carried them on my back during the journey), it was my court dress as it were, and I waited on the steps all night though several people tried to shoo me away. In the morning the great M. Flammarion arrived, and through an interpreter I told him that I had determined to follow in his footsteps. He was amused, but seeing that I was half starved he gave me a little money and put me to work sweeping out his office. A few weeks later I had picked up some French, and the first sentence I framed was fired at my benefactor. "M. Flammarion," I said, "in fifteen years I shall be your assistant. He laughed heartily but he helped me a lot. I was a little better than my promise. I worked hard because I loved the work, and in twelve years I was his first assistant, his fellow traveler through the celestial regions.
"But when the war came I too came down to earth, and I have worked for Slovakia and for the peace of the world ever since." And now this remarkable man became diffuse. He was hard to follow and seemed to suffer from a Niagara of ideas and a lack of planning. I suppose the explanation is that he is a man of genius and that I am merely an ordinary fellow with a weakness for practical solutions. Suddenly he asked me if he could speak frankly with me, and I assured him that this was my wish. That in no other way could he help us or his own people.
January 15, 1919
How I wish I could record fully the details of the journey of the Czechoslovak army across Russia and Siberia which General Stefanik gave me this evening. They were interesting and, unlike so many of my memos, would have permanent value. Today I have only the time to jot down a few details of their wonderful adventure. From their own ranks I trust some day a modern Xenophon will appear. Throughout the four terrible years of the war the Czechs have exhibited all the qualities of a great people, but the story of their anabasis during the last eighteen months of the struggle would seem incredible were the facts not so fully authenticated. I have no doubt that Professor Masaryk will have success as the chief magistrate of this remarkable people, but nothing can surpass his achievement in forming this gallant little army and in placing it where it was needed.
The story begins with the signing of the infamous Brest-Litovsk treaty when the Czechoslovaks, about fifty thousand strong, were in Ukrainia near Kiev. To escape the Bolsheviki, the bewildered Ukrainians threw themselves into the arms of the Germans. This the Czechs, although equally bewildered, the world they sought to reshape having apparently been smashed to atoms, could nor bring themselves to do. And it was at this crucial moment that with unusual cunning the Emperor Karl tempted them. Riding as he thought on the crest of the wave, he offered them "amnesty for past offenses and autonomy for the future." "They knew the Hapsburgs," commented Stefanik, "and spurned his offer."
"The roads to the west and to their homeland were held by the enemy in overpowering numbers," continued Stefanik, "so the little isolated force turned toward the east. Having failed to seduce them with promises they had not the most remote intention to keep, the Austro-Germans sought to destroy them. When the little army had reached Bachmac, about one hundred miles from their original position, they were set upon by a large German force. Our people drove them off, however, and now the Germans abandoned open warfare for methods of insidious intrigue and the situation became greatly involved. Our boys had no desire to take part in the Russian civil war. They wanted to get home and to take up their proper position on the Western Front. In Russia all was confusion; there in the west the war objective was clear. There they would be fighting for home and country, not for ideologies which many did not understand. A compromise was hit upon. Our boys agreed to disarm, partially, so that they would no longer be the least danger to Bolshevik supremacy, and in return these people agreed to smooth out the transport difficulties to aid our people to reach Vladivostok. Fortunately our boys did not disarm completely. The trains that were furnished proceeded at a snail's pace and the little convoys were often attacked by German agents and by Magyar prisoners who apparently were released and given arms for this very purpose. Our men were exhorted to join in the 'battle against world imperialism,' and when they turned a deaf car, they were set upon. They fought their way through, but many weeks elapsed, and many died, before at last they were able to join up with the Allied forces in western Siberia."
No wonder that little Stefanik and the two lieutenants who are with him look like shadows, but they are the shadows of something glorious.
January 12, 1919
General Stefanik, the strange little stargazer with the pale face, the emaciated frame, and the burning eyes, lunched with me again today and he gave me vivid details of the march of the Czechoslovak legions from the plains of the Ukraine to the shores of the Pacific in which he played a notable part. The Czechs, generally spoken of as liberated prisoners of war although actually many of them were patriotic deserters from the Austrian regiments, were being armed to serve against the Germans when the Russian Empire fell and the succeeding government changed its policy of assistance to the Allies to one of peace at any price. This placed the Czechs in a difficult position, and soon the inevitable incident occurred which led to hostilities.
They were quartered in a prison camp near Tchelyabinsk, and near by were many German prisoners. In an affray a Czech soldier was wounded, and his comrades killed the aggressor. The German and Magyar prisoners joined in the resulting riot and many were killed on both sides. The local Bolsheviki sided with the Germans, but the Czechs were successful in securing arms and soon they had wrested possession of the town from the Soviet. There was no possible help to be expected from the outside, but unaided the legion advanced to Peoza and captured that important town. Meeting with but little real opposition, they proceeded down the Volga and, after capturing Samara and Kazan, they crossed the Urals.
From now on the attitude of the Soviets is difficult to define, much less to describe; after some desultory fighting an order came from the Moscow Soviet, signed by a certain Stalin,(1) ordering the local authorities to give the Legion free passage to Vladivostok; but several days later came a telegram (which the Czechs intercepted) from the same untrustworthy source, ordering that the refugees should be stopped, disarmed, and transported to a concentration camp near Archangel.
There followed now inconclusive skirmishes and desultory negotiations which are equally difficult to follow. At one point Stefanik admits a brigade of Czechs agreed to give up their arms on the ground that these weapons were Russian property distributed at a time when Russia was still an ally of the Western Powers. At this critical moment America and Japan came to an agreement (August 3, 1918) "to render the Czechoslovaks (in Siberia) such assistance and help as might be possible to combat the former Austrian-German war prisoners who were attacking them."
"That was the original purpose of the American Siberian expedition about which so much misinformation is in circulation," Stefanik insisted. "As a counterstroke the Soviets asked the German high command to send arms to their former soldiers, now prisoners; but doubtless, with the best will in the world, this they were unable to do, and so the great mass of our legionaries continued their long trek across Siberia."
Stefanik frankly admits that some, although not many, of the Czechs fell away from the flag. "It was a most difficult and a very complicated situation," he explained. "Here they were starving and hopeless, thousands of miles away from home and succor. They had always hated imperialism, and here the men who had overcome the Tsars were tempting them with their attractive ideologies. Some but not many succumbed amid were swallowed up by the Soviets. But the main body resisted the temptations and now they are on the Pacific coast awaiting the coming of the transports which will bring them home to where they are as greatly needed as they were on the Western Front in 1918. [Following the Armistice there was a letdown and the transports were slow in assembling. The first contingent of the Czechs did not sail until December, 1919, and their repatriation was not concluded until well on into 1920.] And they are not idle; in that benighted land of eastern Siberia they are bringing in the light of a new day. They are organizing workingmen's clubs, peasant's banks, and a postal system. They are doing much good; those poor Russian serfs are profiting by their presence."
One of the charges against the Czech legionaries which is listened to in our present atmosphere, so receptive to muckraking, makes Stefanik very angry. It is the charge that indirectly they were responsible for the murder of the Tsar amid his luckless family in Ekaterinburg on July 16, 1918. "As a matter of fact, our people did not reach that
place until nine days after the murders were committed," said Stefanik. "And they had not the slightest intention of liberating the Tsar or in any way taking part in Russian politics. They were simply straining every energy to reach their distant homes." I have no doubt that Stefanik is quite correct in this statement. His people wished to remain aloof from the internal struggle, but I am afraid the local Soviet which, with or without orders from Moscow, committed the foul deed were not convinced of this.
September 19, 1919
The day after our return to Paris from London and the Conference on mandates, Jean, the bright-eyed veteran who ran one of the elevators in the Crillon, famous for his nimble wooden leg and his breast covered with the decorations he had won in the gallant defense of Verdun told me that several Slovaks had arrived in Paris and were to see the Colonel. I advised him of the coming of this belated delegation, but House decided that at this late day he should not intervene in the matter.
"I will, however, ask Frank Polk, who now presides over the delegation, to see them. As you know, I have many misgivings as to the justice of the settlement that has been reached in this thorny Czechoslovak problem. However, there is comfort in the thought that at least we have, under the provisions of the Covenant, called into being international machinery which in the end should effect a just settlement. You can tell them if you see the Slovaks that this is my hope."
On time evening following their first call, Jean appeared at my room, acting in an unusually secretive manner.
"The Slovaks are here again," he whispered. "I have them on the back stairs. Shall I bring them up?"
"No, put them in touch with Mr. Polk s office."
"But they have a letter to you personally from General Stefanik. I knew the General was your friend; otherwise I would not have admitted them."
This was indeed mystifying. I knew all the world knew that Stefanik had met with a tragic death on a flying field near Bratislava three months before. My curiosity was now fully aroused and I asked Jean to show them in. One was a Catholic priest evidently, although he had discarded his clerical garb. The other was a small farmer with a very engaging face. They produced the letter, I recognized that it was authentic and I saw that it had been written only a few days before the Slovak soldier-leader embarked on his last flight. It read:
"Do what you can for my friends. I hope to join them in Paris soon. If possible, secure for them a hearing by time President or by Colonel House. I can vouch for the absolute truth of the statements they are authorized to make."
Both of the Slovaks spoke a strange Magyar-German to which every now and then the priest would attach a Latin tag, but they made their purpose perfectly plain.
"Many obstacles have been placed in our way," they explained. All permits to travel were denied us. It has taken us three months to reach Paris with our protest, and as our presence here is illegal, we have taken refuge in a monastery where the good fathers do not have to make reports to the police or announce the arrival of guests. Our General has been foully dealt with [at the time I did not understand the full significance of these words] but with us we have brought our leader, Father Hlinka. He is ill, worn out by the hardships and the uncertainties of our clandestine journey, but he hopes you can come to him. He would like to explain the hopes and the fears of our people."
"Come at this hour tomorrow night," I replied, "and then I will go with you or tell you why I cannot do so."
In the morning I explained to the Colonel what had happened and he gave his permission for me to go. "If," he said, "you have no doubt about the Stefanik letter."
I had none and was eager for an adventure which smacked of E. Phillips Oppenheim. Late on the following evening we left the hotel by the baggage entrance, coming out on the rue Boissy d'Anglais. We walked along in the pelting rain for several minutes before my mysterious escort would allow me to hail a cab. Then, to my amazement, they said,"Drive to the Luxembourg." For a split second I hesitated, but after all the letter they had brought was authentic and I was clearly in the hands of Stefanik's friends. Once at the Gardens, which were closed for the night, they dismissed the cab and we wandered about for ten minutes or so in narrow, unfamiliar streets. Twice we turned sharply and reversed our course. Only when convinced that we were not being followed did my escort lead me into what seemed to be a blind alley at the end of which we came to a halt before an iron-bound gate which, after three carefully measured knocks, was opened to us. The guardian seemed to be a priest, but as he remained in the shadows, only throwing the feeble light of his flickering lamp upon us, I could not be certain. We went on now through a gloomy garden to another gate which was open and unguarded and along a narrow corridor for about twenty yards. At the end was an alcove cell, damp and dark, where by the light of a tallow dip I saw a man fully clothed lying on a narrow iron bed reading, in low tones, his breviary. The disguised priest, my escort, said:
"This is Father Hlinka, the leader of the Slovak Peasant Party," and with that he and his companions withdrew into the darkness of the corridor.
I assured Father Hlinka that I would listen to what he had to say and report it carefully to Colonel House; but, I said: "You have come late, and for the moment I fear nothing can be done. You see, on the tenth the Treaty of St. Germain was signed. There can be no further change in the structure of the Succession States of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire until the meeting of the Council of the League some months hence."
"I feared as much," said the Father, with a sigh. "And that accounts for the extraordinary steps which the Czechs have taken to delay our arrival here. Ten years ago Slovakia was but a two-days journey from Paris. Today in the New Europe, which the Czechs control, it has taken us three months to reach the City of Light, and only to find then that the light has been extinguished. I have come to protest against the falsehoods of Bene and Kramar, and they have, not without reason, hampered me on my journey in every way. Even so, they would not have triumphed had they not silenced the voice of General Stefanik. To him, our great leader, all the assembled envoys would have listened because he worked not only for his own people, but for the Allies in the Siberian campaign and on the Italian front. Well, they silenced him in a most dastardly manner."
"What do you mean by this?" I inquired.
"You have been told - the whole world has been told - that General Stefanik came to his tragic end in an airplane accident. There is not a word of truth in that story. The plane that brought him from Italy made a successful landing, but as he stepped out he was shot down by Czech soldiers placed there for this diabolical purpose by Bene . Many know the details of this crime and by whom it was plotted, but in the present state of affairs, what can they do? The truth is also known to the general's brother; but he is a prisoner in his village, and should he dare to say a word he would be brought before a firing squad."
[I did not believe this story at the time, or for that matter later, when several of Stefanik's adherents, having escaped over the mountains into Russia, told it to the world; but Hlinka believed it, as did many of his partisans, and it was this belief that made all the efforts toward a reconciliation with the Czechs hopeless.]
January, 1933. I have recorded in my diary the terrible charge which Father Hlinka brought against Bene as to the manner in which General Stefanik met his death. I had neither the opportunity nor the authority to investigate his indictment, but I would not feel justified in suppressing it. The fact that he believed in it explains much that followed. I greatly admired Bene's behavior at the Conference, and it was certainly extremely fortunate for the Czech people to have such a resourceful leader.]
"One of the difficulties that will confront you when the time comes to reopen the question will be the documents you have filed with the Conference," I suggested as delicately as I could. "Voicing the wishes of your national committee, both you and Stefanik are on record as asking for union with Prague for many and cogent reasons - the ever-increasing disorders, the encroachments of the Bolsheviki. . ."
Poor Hlinka groaned. "I know, know. We did that very thing. May God forgive us. The Czechs spoke us fair. They said that in union there was strength, that many, very many Slovaks had fought with them on many fronts. We had been brothers in war, and now that peace was at hand, a troubled peace to be sure, why not stand together? 'It is only a temporary measure at best - or at worst, they explained. 'It should be regarded as a trial marriage, and then should the union prove irksome, we could each go our several ways without let or hindrance. But in three months, indeed, after only three weeks, the veil was lifted. In this short time we have suffered more from the high-handed Czechs than we did from the Magyars in a thousand years. Now we know extra Hungariam non est vita (outside of Hungary there is no life for us). Remember these words, time will prove their truth. Bene is an ambitious knave. He even wants to absorb Polish Teschen." [And as a matter of fact, rightly or wrongly, he did.]
"But your union with the Magyars - that sins against the principle of ethnic solidarity which is in such high favor now," I suggested.
"I know, I know," interrupted Hlinka. "It runs counter to the popular current. We cannot mix with the Magyars and we do not want to, but economically, and above all religiously, we can get along with them better, much better, than we can with the irreligious free-thinking Czechs who, as we now know, have no respect for God or man. We have lived alongside the Magyars for a thousand years and the traditional tie is strengthened by the lay of our respective lands. All the Slovak rivers flow toward the Hungarian plain, and all our roads lead toward Budapest, their great city, while from Prague we are separated by the barrier of the Carpathians. But the physical obstacles are not as insurmountable as are the religious barriers, which shall, I trust, always keep us Catholics apart from those who were Hussites and now are infidels."
Although I tried to turn his thoughts away from the unfortunate move he and some of his adherents had made in the hour of victory, I was not successful, and he returned to it time and again.
"Yes, I did sign the declaration which went to the Powers a few days after the Armistice. I did say, may God and my unhappy people forgive me, that we Slovaks were a part of the Czechoslovak race and that we wished to live with them with equal rights in an independent state. Why did I do it? I cannot explain - not even to myself - but I will tell you some of the reasons that swayed me then unfortunately. In the Pittsburgh declaration of our independence which the American Slovaks sent on to us, I read that Masaryk had guaranteed the independence of Slovakia and had further agreed that we should be represented at the Peace Conference by our own delegation. Even then I had my doubts as to the wisdom of the step I was taking, but what else was I to do? When the people in Prague saw that I was hesitating and the reason why, they reassured me by saying, 'This is merely an emergency move, and you can make it with mental reservations. When Europe settles down you can make your own final decision.
"And of course I saw the plight of Hungary. Having accepted the role of cat's-paw for the Germans, she was powerless, while the Czechs were in a strong position. Some said to me: 'We must spread our sails to the prevailing winds,' and I agreed. God has punished me, but I shall continue to plead before God and man for my people who are innocent and without stain. For long and fateful years we fought for our religion and our freedom shoulder to shoulder against the Magyars. Our relations with them were nor what they should have been, but during all those years we did not suffer one tenth of the wrongs that we have had to bear at the hands of the Czech soldiers and the Prague politicians in the last few months."
"The Czechs regard Slovakia as a colony, and they treat us as though we were African savages. Abroad they shout that we belong to the same race, and yet at every opportunity they treat us as helots. Within the borders of what they are pleased to call Czechoslovakia, they only treat us as hewers of wood and drawers of water for their High Mightiness of Prague."
(The fact that the people of Prague speak of the newborn state as Czechoslovakia and not as Czecho-Slovakia, is a grievance which also rankles.)
Three days later, still under escort, I was back at the mysterious monastery bringing to Father Hlinka a copy of the Covenant in Slovak, with the article indicated through which, upon the assembling of the League, he would be entitled to ask for a review of the decision and, indeed, of the treaty. The Father was now sitting up amid, to explain his physical condition and his delay in reaching Paris, he told me many details of the hardships he had experienced on his three-months journey. It was a checkered land-Odyssey, but unlike the second Korean Mission headed by my old friend of Seoul days, General Pak, which never got beyond Lake Baikal, the Slovaks, though battered, and limping, and above all, late, had now arrived.
"We had the best of reasons for knowing," explained the Father, "that the new people in Prague would not assist us with passports; in fact, we were confident they would throw every possible obstacle in our way; so we sneaked out of our villages by night, and wandering across country, often on foot, through Teschen, we came to Warsaw. Here we were well received by Marshal Pilsudski. He had many troubles of his own. His people were, as you know, in a desperate plight, and so he was only able to give us words of encouragement. Even the French traveling passports which he asked of the French Embassy were refused. His parting words, however, sustained us in many a trying hour of our journey. 'You are entitled to your independence as much as we are, he said. 'I shall instruct our delegation in Paris to assist you all they can.' "
"We also received kind words from another great man, Achille Ratti, the Papal Nuncio in Poland.(2) He gave us his Apostolic blessing. He, too, deplored that Christendom had placed the devout Slovak congregations under the tyrannical rule of the enemies of the true Church. But he begged us to give up our journey, at least for the moment. He asserted that conditions were too unfavorable; that for the present they could nor be overcome. He urged us to stay with him, to watch and pray, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. This we regarded as a counsel of despair, and so we pushed on, without credentials and with little or no money. Often our poverty-stricken countrymen, exiles in strange lands, saved us from starvation and by their contributions enabled us to travel many stages of the journey at least in fourth-class cars; but progress was slow and often, very often, we had to stop and retrace our steps because of the political conditions by which we were confronted. Germany we knew was unsettled. We were warned there was not one chance in a hundred of getting through there. The longest way around gave better promise, and so we wandered on through Yugoslavia to Italy and at last to Switzerland. Once there we did not have to sleep out under the stars or go supperless to bed, as had become our habit. A committee of good people from our unfortunate country took us in charge, arranged for our stay with our brothers in Christ, and brought us to Paris in that relative comfort - which we had not enjoyed for so long..."
Five days later I called again on Father Hlinka, for no reason in the world but that I wanted to have one more, and what I feared would be a last, look at what they would call in Maryland his "honest affidavit face." And now I needed no guide and could reach the monastery unescorted. It was the Paris home of the Pères du Saint-Esprit, with whom evidently the Catholic Slovaks had close affiliations. The gatekeeper wanted to send me away in short order. "The Slovaks are gone," he said. But I insisted on seeing the Abbot, and from him, between his lamentations and self-reproaches, I learned what had happened.
"A week after our dear brothers arrived," he explained, "we had to make room under our roof for those who came to take part in the annual assembly of our Order. We secured rooms for our Slovak visitors in a little hotel a few steps down the street. There we hoped they would remain as our valued guests until once again there would be available space for them under our roof. They were loath to leave, and now too late we recognize how right they were. Apparently their presence was immediately announced to the police by the keeper of the hotel and they were called upon to show their papers at the prefecture. These were not in order; in fact they had none, and so, twenty-four hours later, in spite of our protest, they were escorted to the station and placed on an eastbound train.
"It was a great triumph for Bene and his infidels," lamented the Abbot, "and we shall never forgive ourselves for unwittingly assisting them. Father Hlinka was sure that Bene brought about his expulsion and so am I. But how could a country, how could France, that at least until recently was the eldest daughter of the true Church, lend itself to such a dastardly act?"
I chose to think that neither the government, except in a perfunctory, routine way, or for that matter Bene, had anything to do with the expulsion. Perhaps Hlinka and his friends were simply victims of the newspaper crusade against unregistered aliens and others that the Paris press had preached, with the warm approval of the delegates to the Peace Conference, as a result of the murderous attacks upon Clemenceau, Venizelos, and other delegates. Reproached for their criminal laxity, the police with many indiscriminate rafles now made a clean sweep of the lodging houses of Paris. I trust this is the explanation of the unhappy and most untimely expulsion of the Slovak Mission, but I must admit that the good Abbot would not accept it and as long as I stayed with him kept repeating, "Bene and Tardieu, Tardieu and Bene, they are the villains."
Tardieu, at least, I think was guiltless and had not the remotest idea that the Mission had been in Paris, for when some days later House broached the subject of their dissatisfaction with the St. Germain settlement, he thought it was based entirely on protests that had reached us from the American Slovaks, residents for the most part of western Pennsylvania.
Colonel House was impressed by Father Hlinka's story and deeply touched by some of the details of his hazardous and necessitous journey which I gave him. "I had thought," he said, "that all roads led to Paris and that the Conference was easy, perhaps too easy, of access - but at least in this instance I'm mistaken."
When the Colonel recovered his health, the Slovaks had been expelled, but he brought the memorandum which I drew up for them to the notice of our delegation and also called the matter to the attention of Tardieu when he came to the Crillon on one of his frequent calls. Tardieu admitted that he had heard of the schism between the Czechs and the Slovaks, which was increasingly apparent, but had consoled himself with the thought it was due merely to a misunderstanding which could and should be cleared up.
"At times," suggested the Colonel, "I fear you are not going about the foundation of a strong Czechoslovak state in the best way," and Tardieu promised to study the matter very carefully, indeed "prayerfully." he admitted that lie had been startled and impressed by the plea of the Slovaks.
"Of course we knew," he went on, "that a plebiscite would disclose a number of minorites inn the new state. There are the Germans and Hungarians, and those strange Carpatho-Russians, all very difficult to understand, much less to assimilate. But what could we do other than we have done? It would be absurd to turn this section of Europe into a hodge-podge of governments, a crazy quilt of little nations. On the other hand, the government in Prague is a liberal one. It was and is our staunch ally and we have every reason to believe that in an autocratic world it will prove a bulwark of democracy. It seems to me that we have the right, even the duty, to make that government as strong as we can."
[1938. On their arrival in Vienna, the expelled delegates separated, Hlinka going to his native village of Ruzomberek to work with his people, while one member of the delegation was sent to Budapest to keep in touch with the Magyars. Hlinka decided to enter parliament and there, in what he was told would be an open forum, fight for the liberties of his people. Some weeks before the election, however, Czech soldiers broke into his house at midnight and, before his adoring peasants had any idea of what was happening, carried him off to a distant prison. This high-handed act provoked an insurrection that was only suppressed after much bloodshed. Hlinka remained in prison for many months and was treated with such cruelty that he never recovered his health.
He fought on, however, and in 1938 came his hour of triumph. Some American Slovaks brought to Europe the long-concealed original draft of the Pittsburgh Pact between the Slovaks and the Czechs, reached in 1918. It demonstrated the fact that, although he had taken some part in drawing it up, Masaryk was honestly mistaken as to its terms and that Hlinka was fully justified in maintaining that complete autonomy had been promised his people and further that they were assured that on a basis of equality they would sit with the Czechs at the Peace Conference. Andred Hlinka died a few days later. With his last words he again demanded the plebiscite too long denied. Even had it been granted it would now have proved too late. The discord between these two branches of the Western Slav family, which would have taken years of fair and friendly dealings to remove, made the conquest of their common country by the Germans in 1939 a matter of but a few days.
I retain pleasant memories of my intercourse with the Slovak priest. At times I think of him as the most sympathetic of the many agents of the scattered and disinherited ethnic fragments with whom I was brought in touch. He had dark luminous eyes of rare beauty; they were indeed the windows of a soul that was transparently sincere. His speech was straightforward and convincing, but here was the rub. It was not words alone that could set his people, free, and apparently his bitter memories made it impossible for him to listen to, much less accept, the compromises and the adjustments the situation demanded and which might have saved it to the ultimate advantage of all.
July, 1943. Thanks to the way in which Hlinka's teachings swayed them, although he, their apostle, was now dead, the Slovaks escaped the inhuman, barbarous treatment by which the Austrians, the Czechs, and, above all others, the unbending Poles, have been crucified. But they cannot be congratulated on their "escape." Some, blinded by their unbrotherly strife with Prague over Teschen, believed that Hitler would live up to his promises and that their dear country would be comfortable, well fed, and happy - even as a satellite state.
But today the Slovaks know the truth; even the puppet president, Tiso, admits that their situation is hopeless, that they have lost faith in themselves and their leaders. All their food and movable property have been looted, and those who survive are treated as serfs. The divisions they were forced to send to the Eastern Front have been annihilated except for a few fortunate units which, honoring their ancient Pan-Slavic creed, deserted to the Russians whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Today it can be said that 90 per cent of these unfortunate people are praying, and as far as it is in their power, are working, to reestablish their country as a free part of an independent Czechoslovak state. Poor Father Hlinka has really deserved a better fate than the crown of thorns that is his today. He and his teachings have helped destroy the people he loved so well and so tragically misled.]
1. This is the first official reference to this remarkable figure that I have come across. S. B.
2. Later Pope Pius XI.