Sweet Home Prague 

A new documentary recalls Chicago’s role in the founding of Czechoslovakia.

Bruce Bendinger has sold everything from Popeye's Chicken to Gerald Ford. John Iltis sold the movie Hoop Dreams to Fine Line Cinema. Now the two veteran marketing professionals have teamed up on a campaign of their own. "We want to give a country back its history," Bendinger says.

Their new documentary Accidental Army: The Amazing True Story of the Czechoslovak Legion tells the swashbuckling tale of the founding of Czechoslovakia—and Chicago's vital role in it. "This is a city that created a country," Bendinger says. "There would not [have been] a Czechoslovakia if there wasn't a Chicago." The Accidental Army has its theatrical premiere Saturday, June 20, at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The seed for the film was a photo in Bendinger's middle school history textbook. The image of rakish-looking Czechoslovak Legion soldiers fighting their way along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway stuck with him for more than 40 years. Then, ten years ago, while looking for a movie topic to explore with his screenwriter daughter Jessica (Bring It On, First Daughter, Aquamarine), Bendinger's thoughts returned to the legion.

"Here was a story that almost nobody knows," Bendinger says. "You pull a thread and the more you pull, the more interesting it got. Even in the Czech and Slovak republics, it's become a historical blind spot."

The Chicago connection goes back to 1902, when local plumbing magnate Charles Crane recruited Tomáš Masaryk, a philosophy professor and Czech nationalist who'd served in the Austro-Hungarian parliament, to lecture at the University of Chicago. (A memorial to Masaryk and the Czechoslovak Legion now stands on campus, at the east end of the Midway Plaisance.) The Slavs of Central Europe had no state of their own at the time: most Czechs and Slovaks were subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while a sizable minority lived in Russia. Nearly 100,000 Czechs had immigrated to Chicago, giving the city the world's second-highest Czech population after Prague.

After his summer stint at the U. of C., Masaryk returned to Austria-Hungary and resumed his political activities. When the empire invaded Serbia in 1914, initiating World War I, he fled to England, becoming leader of an Allied spy network and the foremost international spokesman for the Czechoslovak independence movement.

On the day the war broke out, thousands of Chicago Slavs gathered in Pilsen Park at 26th and Albany—in Little Village, then called Czech California—to urge the United States to join the Allied effort against Austria-Hungary and the Central Powers. They launched a letter-writing campaign aimed at getting their relatives in Europe to resist conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army, or to desert and fight for the Allies. "The letters [showed] how people were feeling," Bendinger says. "Thousands of [Slavic] Austro-Hungarian soldiers surrendered as quickly as they could." Chicago Czechs and other Slavs "were at the forefront of being on the Allied side in World War I. Their relatives were the ones being killed, or being drafted to fight for the Germans and Austro-Hungarians."

The first Czechoslovak Legion was a force of 10,000 in the Russian army—ostensibly volunteers, though many were pressured to fight under threat of losing their land. Their ranks swelled after Masaryk convinced the Russian government to allow 50,000 Czech and Slovak POWs from the Austro-Hungarian army to defect and fight for Russia. The Czechoslovak Legion is credited with helping to tie up German forces on the Eastern front, giving the Allies a crucial edge on the Western front. Their service, Bendinger says, also gave the Czech independence movement vital "skin in the game."

In May 1918, Masaryk went on a barnstorming tour of the U.S. to raise political and financial backing for Czech independence. In downtown Chicago, outside the Blackstone Hotel, he addressed a crowd of 150,000 supporters, demonstrating the independence movement's political muscle and turning American political discourse in favor of a Czechoslovak nation.

(Standing before a statue of Masaryk in Prague on April 5, President Obama said, "Masaryk spoke to a crowd in Chicago that was estimated to be over 100,000. I don't think I can match Masaryk's record, but I'm honored to follow his footsteps from Chicago to Prague.")

Two months before Masaryk spoke in Chicago, the Bolsheviks had signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, giving Russia an early exit from World War I. Bowing to pressure from the Germans, Red Army commander Leon Trotsky ordered the disarming and arrest of the Czechoslovak Legion, which prompted the legionnaires to mount an insurrection. Living in boxcars on the Trans-Siberian Railway, fighting their way across the "Wild, Wild East," the Czechoslovak Legion became a bulwark against communist expansion into Siberia.

Lacking sufficient support from the West and disgusted at the brutality of anti-Bolshevik White Army forces, the legion cut a deal with the Bolsheviks after two years, under which they handed over White Army leader Aleksandr Kolchak and eight railcars of gold that had once belonged to Czar Nicholas II. Masaryk had meanwhile secured official recognition for the Republic of Czechoslovakia at the Versailles Treaty talks, which ended World War I. "The Czech Legion gave Masaryk the leverage to get a seat at the table," Bendinger says.

Masaryk was appointed provisional leader and won Czechoslovakia's first presidential election, in 1920, serving until 1935. The legionnaires returned to their new country and became the core of Czechoslovakia's army.

The question of what happened to some of the czar's gold remains a major controversy in the story of the Czechoslovak Legion and the founding of Czechoslovakia. While it's widely believed to have helped finance the fledgling nation, "a lot of people maintain they didn't take a penny," Bendinger says. "It's a question of whether your grandfather is a hero or a thief."

Germany swallowed most of the republic after the Munich Agreement of 1938. Recognized as a threat by the occupying forces despite their advancing age, many legionnaires were persecuted, arrested, and killed by the Nazis—and later by the Soviets, who systematically tried to erase the legion's legacy. "If you were a legionnaire, you were on the Nazi hit list," says Bendinger. "To the Soviets, these guys were the running dogs of capitalism. They took away their pensions, and they died in poverty and disgrace."

Though it didn't pan out as the subject for a collaboration with his daughter, Bendinger got interested enough in the Czechoslovak Legion to spent five years researching it as a hobby. Then, online, he met Czech Military Museum historian Tomáš Jakl, who turned him on to the artifact that would form the core of Accidental Army: Rudolf Medek's 1928 photo history of the legion, To a Victorious Freedom.

Visiting Jakl in Prague five years ago, Bendinger got a look at a rare copy of Medek's book and found a wealth of images that hadn't been widely seen in decades. He scanned the photos and created a slideshow using the "Ken Burns effect" pan-and-zoom function in iPhoto. In the ensuing months, Bendinger says, he showed it to anybody who'd "put up with it": "You run into guys who want to show you their baseball card collection or the trains in their basement. For me it's my Czech photos."

Out to dinner with longtime friend Iltis and their wives, Bendinger brought up the slideshow. Not only was Iltis—whose Czech father Fritz fought for Austria-Hungary in World War I—willing to watch, he was ready to help turn it into a full-fledged documentary. Along with Bendinger's wife, Lorelei Davis-Bendinger, they started the nonprofit Czech Legion Project to produce the film.

With $15,000 in support from the Anheuser-Busch Foundation, the military heritage-focused Tawani Foundation, and private donors, as well as $10,000 in volunteer labor from commercial colleagues, Iltis and the Bendingers made several more trips to Europe, interviewed historians and survivors, and whittled the intricate, sweeping history down to a 47-minute film that Bendinger himself narrates.

The Czech Consulate sponsored a screening of Accidental Army at the Chicago History Museum in October, and it's been shown to a handful of private audiences in the States. Iltis and the Bendingers are raising the estimated $50,000 to subtitle the film in Czech, after which they'll pursue a Slovak version.

Iltis admits it's been harder than he expected to distribute the film, probably due to its tough-to-program run time (though Bendinger points out it's just right for an hour broadcast with commercial breaks). But Accidental Army is really meant "for the young men and women in the Czech Republic to know the history of their country," Bendinger says. "How often do you get a chance to do something like that?"   v

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for more on movies, visit our blog On Film.

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