Legionnaires’ Fiscal Disease

One of the most fantastic military adventure stories in history, but which few people have ever heard of, is that of the Czechoslovak Legions. Czechs and Slovaks have generally heard about them, as you would imagine, but as an article in Lidové noviny makes clear, that fact doesn’t necessarily command any Czech government money (nor Slovak, probably) any more.

Students of European history know that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was involved in World War I on the German side (the “Triple Alliance”) from the very beginning – logically, since that Empire was dominated administratively by German-speakers. However, a large part of its soldiery was made up of Slavs, with no particular affinity for things German. (Which Hungarians, however, did have – but that’s another story!) Finding themselves on the Russian front, ordered to fight and kill fellow Slavs on the other side of the trenches, many of these soldiers soon found that they would rather just desert at the first opportunity – and indeed, then form into units on the other side that would fight for the Russians.

Strictly speaking, the label “Czechoslovak Legions” also applies to units on the Western Front in France, and elsewhere, made up of Czechs and Slovaks willing to fight for the Allied (i.e. Britain, France, USA) cause in exchange for getting the right to ask for their own country after the fighting stopped. But that label is mostly interpreted as referring to the “legion” with the most spectacular escapades, namely those units fighting for the Russians – since in 1917, that Russian government for which they were fighting ceased to exist. The legions then chose to fight against the Communist regime that replaced it late that year, meaning they were heavily involved in the cause of the so-called “Whites” in the Russian Civil War. The “Whites” lost, of course, but the Czechoslovak Legion held itself together the whole time, and actually managed to make its way all the way across Asia to Vladivostok – traveling mainly by rail, it must be admitted, although it’s also maintained that they were also transporting the Czar’s gold-treasure with them (and that gets heavy!) – and thence thousands of miles more by ship to a long-delayed homecoming to what in fact had in the meantime become an independent Czechoslovakia.

It was an epic adventure, and there’s little doubt that these soldiers’ efforts did contribute substantially towards the inclination of Western political leaders at the Paris Peace Conference to give them their brand-new state. On the other hand, they did fight the Communists, meaning that when their country was under Communist rule from 1948 until 1989 any recognition of their feats, or honor shown to surviving veterans, was taboo. That was all OK again after the Velvet Revolution, though, and today there’s a commemorative statue to the Legionnaires standing in Palacky Square located in downtown Prague on the east bank of the Vltava river.

So much for that. But now the Czech Defense Ministry has a new project called Legie 100 (“Legion 100”), intended to honor the Legions further as the 100th anniversary of their exploits approaches. It wants a proper museum, or else a commemorative train; it wants further monies for the maintenance of legionnaires’ graves, it even wants to make a film.

Sorry, Cant’ Afford It

In short, it wants Kč 600 million (€150 million) – but, as is the case most everywhere in the West these days, that sort of money is not just lying around. Quite the opposite, in fact: contemporary Czech politics is currently preoccupied not with the Legion, but with the struggle to finance ordinary government operations (plus a fresh attempt to put public pensions on a more-solid basis). In particular, the Czech government is now blazing new fiscal ground by proposing the abolition of the “reduced rate” value-added tax rate of 10% so that everything that is taxed at all when bought and sold is subject to the “high” rate of 20% – food, books, baby’s booties, you name it.

Even if you don’t follow Czech politics at all, that sort of proposal should be enough to convince you that the Gzech government feels itself in dire need of more tax revenues – meaning, on the other side, it’s not going to be very receptive to any new spending proposals. The Legionnaires – or rather, those who wish to honor their memory, since there are very few actual Legionnaires still alive – might just be out of luck. No less than the Czech Foreign Minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, has felt the need to put in his two-crowns’ worth: “The Legionnaires definitely had their significance, [but] that amount I regard as extravagant. We have problems that probably weigh on us more.”*

If the story of the Czechoslovak Legionnaires appeals to you, it’s likely you’ll have to be satisfied with setting a Google Alert for the private fujd-raising appeal for Legie 100 that will surely come soon. Also, the next time you visit Prague, do pay a visit to Palacky Square – it’s near a major tram-line intersection!

* If you’re now thinking “What business does the Foreign Minister have in making pronouncements about a domestic budget question?” then our two great minds do think alike. But there’s another angle: Schwarzenberg is actually Prince Schwarzenberg, with a personal family history that goes way back to the German-speaking nobility of the Austrian Empire. It’s even likely that, secretly, he dismisses the Legionnaires as having been no better than traitors to the Austrian cause!

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