Brent Mueggenberg. The Czecho-Slovak Struggle for Independence, 1914-1920. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2014. 322 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9625-9.
Reviewed by Alexander Maxwell (Victorian University of Wellington)
Published on HABSBURG (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Jonathan Kwan
The Czechoslovak Legion in Context, 1914-1920
Brent Mueggenberg’s The Czecho-Slovak Struggle for Independence, published by McFarland in 2014, uncontroversially argues that “the Czecho-Slovak liberation movement ... owed its success not to the pen or the sword but rather to the pen and the sword” (p. 14): in other words, to both exile propagandists and the military efforts of the Czechoslovak legion. Yet where most scholarly literature on Czechoslovakia’s establishment emphasizes political machinations of T. G. Masaryk and Edvard Benes in the context of wartime diplomacy, Mueggenberg’s highly readable book dwells on Czechoslovak military experiences.
Mueggenberg always situates battlefield events within an appropriate political context. He provides good coverage of Masaryk and the Czech leadership in exile, as well as wartime politics within the monarchy. Nevertheless, Muggenberg seems inspired primarily by the drama of military adventure. He vividly recounts the actions of the Czechoslovak legion in the Russian Civil War, giving a solid account of Siberian politics as a background to his main drama. He also describes the relatively forgotten exploits of the Druzina during the Second World War, as well as Czechoslovak soldiers on the Italian front. The book is not a formal military history, providing only sporadic details about things such as unit strength or casualty figures. Nevertheless, as a popular narrative of the Czechoslovak Legion’s experiences in the Russian Civil War, the book is a great success. While the narrative leaps back and forth between Prague, Vienna, London, Paris, Washington, the Italian front, and various points along the trans-Siberian railroad, the story remains engaging and easy to follow. Mueggenberg has largely succeeded with what he describes as his “sometimes complicated approach” (p. 4).
The book is written with broad sympathy toward the Czechoslovak cause, which the book’s final sentence characterizes as “an inspiring saga in the history of humankind” (p. 277). Evidently, Mueggenberg subscribes to what historian Mary Heimann has called “the Whig view of Czechoslovak history.” That said, the book is free of crude chauvinism. Mueggenberg pays some attention to the Czechoslovak cause’s enemies and victims, including Bohemian German leaders; politician and Catholic priest Andrej Hlinka; and, most memorably, a Hungarian prisoner of war nearly executed in Siberia for his ethnicity. Mueggenberg mentions popular myths to debunk them, and takes an appropriately skeptical approach to conspiracy theories.
The book is not without faults. Like most historians of Czechoslovakia, Mueggenberg shows a firmer grasp of Czech history in its Austrian context than of Slovak history in its Hungarian context. While he can appreciate the German side of the Czech-German conflict, he shows little sympathy for Hungarians, and in particular takes too harsh a view of Mihaly Karolyi, Hungary’s leader in 1918-19. The book also neglects the complexity of national loyalties in the tumultuous months when the Habsburg Empire collapsed. It dismisses Hungarian loyalism in eastern Slovakia as “misguided nationalism” (p. 232) and, more important, refuses to take the idea of unitary Czechoslovakism seriously. The narrative also neglects Jews and Roma, presumably because community leaders did not seek to found states.
Scholars holding this book for the first time may be surprised to learn on the back cover that Mueggenberg “works as a microbiologist.” Scanning the endnotes raises further suspicions of amateurism: apart from works by Masaryk and Benes, Mueggenberg has worked entirely from secondary sources, and cites no works in any language other than English. Mueggenberg offers nothing in the way of original archival discoveries. The maps are hard to find (there is no map index) and appear homemade. The prose is lively enough for classroom use, but the text rarely alludes to historiographic debates or questions of interpretation: Mueggenberg only mentions controversies about points of fact. Yet while I note such issues as a professional historian, I nevertheless enjoyed the book as a private citizen. The list “Terms, Abbreviations and Acronyms” (which treats as obscure jargon such terms as “Austro-Slavism,” “Cheka,” and “State Duma”) suggests that the book is aimed for a popular audience relatively unfamiliar with East European history. Some readers of HABSBURG may need reminding that popular history has its place in the world. I would not assign this book to my graduate students, but I did recommend it to my brother, who has an amateur interest in history. Mueggenberg has a good tale to tell, and tells it well.
. Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 324.
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Alexander Maxwell. Review of Mueggenberg, Brent, The Czecho-Slovak Struggle for Independence, 1914-1920.
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