A new exhibition looking at the First World War and its impact on the people of Prague has just been launched in the Czech capital. The exhibition is timely, coming ahead of celebrations next year of the centenary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, but suggests that opposition to the war and Austria-Hungary was far from universal throughout the period.
Hindsight is, as they say, a great general but also, probably, a great, if flawed, historian. It’s easy, and perhaps tempting, to see historic events as being a lot more predestined than they actually were with a nice clean line from cause to effect.
The First World War, or Great War, as it later became known, clearly comes under that category. And the creation of Czechoslovakia and collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 look like almost inevitable results of the four year conflagration that embraced much of Europe. But the war that resulted in the collapse of four empires – the Ottoman, Russian Imperial, and German as well as Austro-Hungarian – and even caused the French Republic to be shaken to its foundations – did not always appear so risky or lack support.
That’s one fact that is underlined in the new exhibition "The Great War in the Life of Prague Citizens" which was launched last week at The City of Prague Museum. When war, at the beginning just intended to be against Serbia, was declared in July 1914, Prague was a very different place to what is now. The population was around half of what it is now and there were substantial German and Jewish populations in Prague. And that, as the author of the exhibition, Bohuslav Rejzl, explained meant that there were widely different reactions to the start of the war. In that context, he said it’s difficult to sum up what was the overall reaction in Prague to the start of war.
"It’s hard to say because, as you know, the population of Prague was divided into Czechs and Germans [speakers]. It’s interesting that the German part of the population welcomed the war with celebrations by the statues of [Field Marshal Joseph] Radetsky, for example, on Malá Strana. But the sentiment of Czech inhabitants depended on the events at the front because the first part of the war was against Serbia."
In an age before the advent of mass opinion polls, those were to come a few decades later, it’s clearly difficult to pin down what popular opinion was and how it evolved. During wartime as well, there was stepped up censorship and a ban on demonstrations against the empire and the war.
But other public activities and charitable events and actions linked to the war were more than welcome and fairly numerous to judge from the many posters promoting them in Prague.
"The First World War was in general a period of solidary and the opportunity for a lot of committees, for example the Red Cross helping committees for wounded soldiers, widows, and refugees."
Posters in Prague also called on the population to support the many rounds of war bond issued by the empire as it ever more urgently sought financial support from its citizens as the traditional source of financing from financial markets dried up at the start of the war.
Some of the first manifestations of help were for refugees from the far eastern borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as Galicia and Bukovina, who fled before the advancing armies of the Russian Tsar. Prague, a long way from the front, was obviously regarded as a fairly safe haven. Photographs in the exhibition show the families of these refugees, many clearly from the countryside, camped out in the streets of Prague. Soup kitchens and shelter were organised and, as the Germans and Austro-Hungarians eventually won back some of the territory initially lost, some of the early refugees could be returned. As time went on the early sympathy for them began to evaporate. Bohuslav Rejzl:
"If you compare the image of refugees at the beginning of the war and during the second half of the war there are big differences. For example, there is the progress from the image of victims at the beginning of the war. Most of the refugees from Galicia at the beginning of the war were Jewish. There was some antisemitism connected with the creation of that image. In the second half there was a tendency to create a negative image."
Later in the war and in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1917, a new wave of refugees began to make their way towards Prague. These were often so called White Russians who feared the Bolshevik regime and the civil war that started to rage in the country. Here, support and solidarity was mostly shown by the Czech population of the capital. Prominent Czech backer of Russia, Pan Slavist and later leading Czechoslovak politician, Karel Kramář, was one of the most active organiser of help for these refugees.
Bohuslav Rejzl says the erosion of support for the war in Prague was closely connected with the breakdown in supplies as the Allied blockade of the Central powers really began to bite and the lack of manpower in the fields and farms began to take its toll.
"Sentiment depended on supplies and the lack of some basic foods. I think the breakdown of national sentiment was at the end of 1917 and at the beginning of 1918."
Towards the end of the war famine threatened in many Austro-Hungarian cities. Famine was already present in Russia and Serbia. Rejzl adds though that Prague probably was not worse off than most other big cities in the empire. Prague was probably not better or worse off than elsewhere:
"It depended on the actual situation and economic condition of Austria-Hungary as well. At the end of 1916 there was a problem of the lack of meat, lack of dairy products such as milk. I think there was a problem with the supply of agricultural products in Prague. When you compare it with the conditions in the small villages and the big towns in general in Austria-Hungary you can find many differences. It was not the worst if you, for example, compare the situation in Vienna or in Brno, I think it was very similar."
Some figures from the Czech Statistical Office probably sum up best the impact of the war on the Czech lands as around 910,000 lives lost, or around 8.8 percent of the potential population. Those figures stem from around 300,000 directly killed on the battlefields, 610,000 births that did not take place because of the disruption, 550,000 babies that died at birth or soon afterwards as a consequence of the shortages, and 60,000 more deaths in the rest of the civilian population than would otherwise have been the case.
Actually the birth rate dropped by around half of its pre-war level by the end of it. The number of new born babies who failed to reach their first birthday climbed to around one in five and the number of births out of wedlock started to climb from 1915 onwards. The whole population of the Czech lands dropped from just over 9.9 million at the start of the war in 1914 to 9.6 million in 1918.