Tracking the Czechoslovak legionnaires in Prague

Given the war record of the legions and postwar influence of many individual legionnaires (see part one of this article), it is no surprise that the new Czechoslovak state soon began to cherish their legacy.

Czechoslovak legionnaires in Italy, photo: PD

Czechoslovak legionnaires in Italy, photo: PD

The legions were one of the most memorable historic events in the Czechoslovak Republic – at least to Czech inhabitants who often referred to it as part of their identity during the mid-war period. Many streets were renamed to commemorate persons or events connected with the legions (naming a street after a person requires the person in question to be dead – which means that the first wave included legionnaires who were killed). Many memorials were founded, including what is today the National Memorial on Vítkov hill.

During the occupation, the Nazis tried to uproot as many memorials of the legions as they could. Streets were renamed once again, statues and memorials were torn down. After the Communist coup of 1948, legions became taboo and were referred to as enemies once again because of their involvement in the Russian Civil War (1918-20). The legions were glorified for 20 years and then pushed into oblivion for another 50 years – until 1989. After the Velvet Revolution, the role of legions was again reassessed. Because of the rather turbulent Czech history, it is not surprising that streets, squares and other places changed names five times during the 20th century: 1918, independence; 1939, Nazi occupation; 1945, liberation; 1948, Communists seized power; 1989, Velvet Revolution.

This was particularly the case when streets were named after people. After 1989, names of the legions and legionnaires found their way back on the Prague city plan. Nowadays, we can walk along – to name a few – the streets Eliášova, Březovská (the youngest legionnaire who died at age of 17), Čapkova (in Michle – this one is not named after author Karel Čapek or his brother, author and painter Josef Čapek but a legionnaire who was killed in action in Italy), visit squares Generála Kutlvašra (legionnaire who led the Prague Uprising against the Nazis in May 1945).

Memorial below the Emmaus monastery, photo:  Pavel Janecek

Memorial below the Emmaus monastery, photo: Pavel Janecek

Other places bear the names of famous battles the legions fought – Bachmačské náměstí (battle between the legions and bolsheviks in 1918) or streets Terronská (Terron in France saw a major fight of the Czechoslovak legions against the German Army at the end of the war), or Zborovská (iconic battle of the Czechoslovak legions against Central Powers at the Eastern front in 1917 during the aborted Kornilov offensive). The legions or legionnaires themselves have their streets (streets Park československých legionářů and Legionářů). Another place bearing the name of the legions is a bridge connecting Národní třída on the right bank of the Vltava and Újezd on the left bank (Most Legií, i.e. “the Bridge of the Legions”).

The museums also now have exhibitions dedicated to the legions, for example Army Museum Žižkov or the National Memorial on the Vítkov. Also some of the destroyed memorials were restored and restoration of others is being planned. One of them, a 16-meter high column with statues depicting Czechoslovak legionnaires from all the fronts they were fighting on and inscription “Prague to her victorious sons” stands below the Emmaus monastery near Palackého náměstí (close to the metro station of the same name).

Prague is represented on the monument as well by a female figure accompanying the legionnaires. The original monument was destroyed by the Nazis. A copy was made in the 1990s and was revealed symbolically on 28 October 1998 (80th anniversary of the independence). One of the most interesting things about this monument is that it depicts in accurate detail  the equipment used by the soldiers. When the National Memorial on Vítkov, which includes the Tomb of Unknown Soldier was being repaired, the President visited this monument with his guests for the wreath-laying ceremony.

Army Museum Žižkov, photo: Pavel Janecek

Army Museum Žižkov, photo: Pavel Janecek

More monuments are to be restored as well. At Roztylské náměstí, a new memorial of the battle at Zborov is to be erected on the place of a previous one destroyed by the Nazis. Public donations were raised to fund the project. Among others, Czechs or their ancestors living abroad contributed to the collection.

Colonel Švec, an officer who committed suicide during the Siberian campaign after his soldiers refused to carry out his orders (a play was written about Col. Švec after the war), had a statue at Pohořelec. Again, it was the Nazis who removed the statue. Preparations are being made to erect a new statue of the Colonel in the same location.

As you can see, there are many places or objects which still bear the memory of the Czechoslovak legions, their protagonists, and their fight during World War I or the Russian Civil War. Before World War II such memorials and symbols were omnipresent. This era is a large part of modern Czech identity and that’s why I wanted to acquaint you in brief with this part of our history.

Author: Pavel Janecek

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