As I listened to Kevin McNamara deliver his presentation based on his book Dreams of a Great Small Nation, which is based on the Czechoslovak Legion’s achievements on the Trans-Siberian railway during Word War I , I also watched the reactions of the audience that included people in a wide age range who were proud of their Czech or Slovak ancestors, and their ancestral countries. I had heard from someone that authentic uniforms of the men of the Czechoslovak Legion are almost impossible for museums to find because so many of the men chose to be buried in their uniforms, so proud they were of their incredible feat. Everyone’s body language seemed to signal pride in identity, as did their comments that I overheard or that they shared with me. At the beginning of his comments, Kevin spoke about how understanding the audience was to allow someone with the last name “McNamara” to share the Czech and Slovak story of the Legion. Everyone laughed. I did, too, and then I mused.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia, performed something akin to a miracle to rally the troops and inspire them to achieve victory for the ultimate goal – a country of their own. He understood identity and that others sought it, too. He also understood that others would have their own identities, and that was fine, as well. He said, “We shall always be a small minority in the world, but, when a small nation accomplishes something with its limited means, what it achieves has an immense and exceptional value, like the widow’s mite. It is a deliberate and discerning love of a nation that appeals to me, not the indiscriminate love that assumes everything to be right because it bears a national label. Love of one’s own nation should not entail non-love of other nations. Institutions by themselves are not enough.”
Open through the rest of 2018, NCSML’s Guts & Glory exhibition highlights the Legion’s achievements, from which a country was born to be loved.