Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A few words on Ludvík Svoboda

My apologies for being a bit late with this piece. I will be blunt: I was debating with myself whether to host this reflection on THAO or here on S&C for a long time. This piece deals with the political and military history of Czechoslovakia and touches on religious themes which are close to me, which on first blush would make it seem like a natural fit with THAO. But the story of General Svoboda’s most famous feat in the Great War, the escape of the Czechoslovak Legions from Siberia via the Tea Road, proved far too tempting to pass up to my left-Eurasianist heart. And so, I beg my readers’ forgiveness in advance for the occasionally-devotional tone in this piece. I am, after all, describing someone here who was deeply respected by at least one Orthodox saint, and whose spirit of self-sacrificial service comes quite close to the sort of devotion and personal valour I tend to value.

The twenty-fifth of November is the birthday of the great Soviet and Czechoslovak general, statesman and President of Czechoslovakia Ludvík Svoboda. Svoboda was from the very beginning a supporter of Czechoslovak independence, an anti-fascist freedom fighter, a liberator of his own country from the Nazis. After the restoration of Czechoslovak statehood in the wake of the Second World War he joined the Communist Party and became a statesman in communist Czechoslovakia. However, he belonged firmly in the camp of the more conservative decentralists supporting Dubček, and gained a great deal of respect from his countrymen for resisting the imposed tyranny of Soviet rule on his country. But throughout his career, his service was characterised by a remarkable degree of disinterested selflessness and integrity that manifested itself as a fervent, heartfelt patriotism.

Ludvík Svoboda was born on the twenty-fifth of November, 1896 in the village of Hroznatín, the son of the poor farmers Jan and Františka. The land they lived on was marginal, and they barely eked out a living from it. Ludvík’s father died when he was only one year old, and he was raised by his mother and a stepfather. He was sent to an agrarian school in Velké Meziříčí when he was fifteen years old, but was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1915 and sent to fight against the Russians in the Eastern Front during the Great War.

He was captured in action at Ternopol in September of that same year. He quickly joined the Czechoslovak Legion to fight against the Austrian oppressors, and demonstrated his heroism at the Battles of Zborov and Bachmač. Svoboda was one of the key personalities who organised and executed the legendary Great Siberian Adventure which saw the Czech and Slovak volunteers under the Tsar fight their way across Siberia to freedom in Vladivostok, in the Far East.

After the war was over, Svoboda went back home to tend to his family farm for a couple of years under the newly-independent government. However, in 1922 he again joined the military as a staff officer in the Czechoslovak Army. During this time, although politically he seems to have been fairly disinclined, his sympathies were fairly close to the Communists. By the time Czechoslovakia was betrayed and invaded by the Nazis in 1938, Svoboda was in command of an entire battalion. After having fought for his people’s freedom from Austria-Hungary, he was not about to submit easily to Nazi domination. He organised the underground resistance movement Obrána naroda in 1939 and committed to a guerrilla war against the Nazis until he could bring off a mass escape to Poland and organising a liberation force in Kraków.

Being captured again, this time by the Soviets, Svoboda got them to spare his life by telling his captors to make a phone call to Moscow and confirm who he was. He was very quickly placed in charge of the First Czechoslovak Army Corps, and fought with remarkable distinction and bravery. His unit demonstrated its resilience and determination at Sokolovo, where they joined the fighting against the Germans. And later, the forces under Ludvík Svoboda reentered Czechoslovak territory at the storming of Dukla Pass, one of the most famous tank battles in Czechoslovak history which is still commemorated in the Rusin town of Svidník in Slovakia. His service earned him the admiration of Marshal Ivan Konev, and as a commander he earned the devotion and admiration of many in his corps, including a certain conscripted Orthodox monk: Saint Iov Kundria. Saint Iov kept Ludvík Svoboda’s portrait in his icon corner together with that of Saint Luke of Simferopol.

For his bravery, honour and dedication Ludvík Svoboda was welcomed by most Czechs and Slovaks as a war hero, and had already earned the trust also of Edvard Beneš (the leader of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile) as well as the pro-Soviet functionaries such as Klement Gottwald. In the wake of the liberation of Czechoslovakia he was appointed as defence minister by Beneš. Svoboda did nothing to stop – and indeed tacitly supported – the workers’ general strikes and demonstrations that took place in the leadup to the Communist transition in 1948, though he did not formally join the Communist Party until after this. Even so, as an independent-minded Czechoslovak patriot rather than an apparatchik, Ludvík Svoboda was distrusted by the Stalinists, who had him purged from the army in 1950 and thrown into prison in 1951, where they unsuccessfully pressured him to commit suicide to save his own image. However, after Stalin’s death Svoboda was released from prison and was sent unceremoniously back to his old farm. It was only after Khrushchev inquired after his ‘old friend’ Svoboda during a state visit that he was (rather hurriedly) reinstated into the Czechoslovak Armed Forces.

Svoboda continued a rather unobtrusive military and bureaucratic career – though he continued to be distrusted by the Communist hardliners. It was not long after this, though, that the Prague Spring happened under the leadership of Alexander Dubček. Svoboda was neither a supporter nor an opponent of Dubček during this heady period of reforms, but he sprang into action again – with an astonishing vigour and at substantial personal risk – in the wake of the Warsaw Pact intervention which resulted in the overthrow of Dubček’s experiment and the imprisonment of Dubček himself. Dubček’s life was spared by the Soviet leadership under Brezhnev, practically entirely on account of the fact that Ludvík Svoboda went in person to Moscow and, using every bit of his military hero’s cachet and a significant store of sheer cussed bullheadedness besides, shouted down the Soviet leadership with demands for Dubček’s release. Long story short: he got it. Never underestimate an old Czech veteran brandishing a service revolver.

The remainder of Ludvík Svoboda’s public life was a series of quiet, if protracted, power struggles against Dubček’s replacement in office, a Slovak nationalist turned Soviet-style apparatchik named Gustáv Husák. Svoboda’s health began to fail him, however. After a series of respiratory complaints, he left the public eye and public life in 1975, and reposed on the twenty-first of September, 1979.

Svoboda’s legacy continues to be debated within the Czech Republic and Slovakia itself. Was he a patriot or a Soviet collaborator, or both? In all honesty, personally, given the lengths to which he went to defend Dubček from Brezhnev when it brought him no benefit, I would have to incline toward the former view. It is true, of course, that I am viewing the man through the lens of how he was understood by people who knew him well personally – not least, Saint Iov Kundria, whose judgement of personality I am inclined to trust. But on balance, I think he really was a man of integrity who really did care about the Czech and Slovak people. His coöperation with the Soviets during the Second World War in particular must be seen through a lens of pragmatic and realistic concern for their overall well-being. In fact, General Svoboda may very well have said it best himself:

All I have ever done must be measured by my intention to serve best my people and my country.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this I learned a lot of stuff I didn't know about. Ludvik would've been my great great uncle maybe? One of his sisters was my great grandma and she left for America once Nazis invaded during WW2. Cool that he lived such a "exciting" life probably was horrific for many years but now those are such historical moments it's cool.