‘The Emperor and the Peasant’: a new perspective on WWI at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library

“The Emperor and the Peasant,” a lecture by Kenneth Janda

National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library — Wednesday, March 21 at 6 p.m.

Franz Josef (1830-1916), emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. — photo via Wikimedia Commons

As the 100th anniversary of the First World War has unfolded since 2014, the most common images of the “War to End All Wars” have come from the Western Front. Trench warfare. Armies fighting endlessly over the same few squares miles of land. But the fighting on the Eastern Front was very different, with dramatic advances and retreats, and two empires — Austria-Hungary and Russia — slowly collapsing.

A lecture at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML) on Wednesday will examine the history of the Eastern Front from a unique dual perspectives. “The Emperor and the Peasant,” is based on Kenneth Janda’s book of the same name. Janda’s book examined the First World War and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire — which covered much of Central Europe — during the war from the perspectives of two very different men: Franz Josef, who ascended to the throne of the empire at the age of 18 in 1846, and Samuel Mozolak, who was born a peasant under Franz Josef’s rule.

“One of the interesting things about this story is that the peasant is Dr. Janda’s wife’s grandfather,” Teresa Stenstrup, director of programs at NCSML, told Little Village.

It’s a story Janda started researching after retiring from Northwestern University, where he was a professor of political science.

Mozolak immigrated to the United States as young man, where he started a family and became a labor organizer working among his fellow Slovak immigrants. He had returned to his native village, in what is now Slovakia, when the war broke out in July 1914. Mozolak was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He died in combat.

Franz Josef didn’t survive the war either, but his death was very different. The elderly emperor died peacefully in bed, in the imperial palace in Vienna. But by the time Franz Josef died in 1916, it was becoming apparent the empire might not survive the war either.

It didn’t. Austria-Hungary was on losing side, and following the surrender of the empire and its allies, it was divided into to a series of new, independent nations. One of the new nations born from the ruins of the empire was Czechoslovakia.

“This why this fits in so well with our mission,” Stenstrup said.

The lecture is the first of a new series: “History on 8’s,” which examines events in 1918, 1938, 1948 and 1968.

“Years ending in ‘8’ are ones in which really big moments in the Czech and Slovak story have happened,” Stenstrup explained.

1918 saw the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, which had ruled much of Central Europe since the 16th century. In 1938, Nazi Germany ignored international law and the protests of Czechoslovakia, and annexed a section of the country. The willingness of other countries to allow that partial dismemberment is considered an important moment in the appeasement of the Nazis that resulted in the Second World War a year later.

Following that war, the Communist Party seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. And forty years later, in 1968, the people rose against Communist rule during the “Prague Spring.”

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The lecture series will examine all these important events.

Kenneth Janda’s “The Emperor and the Peasant” will be presented at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the NCSML. The lecture is free and open to the public.

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