The 17th of November: Remembering Jan Opletal, martyr of an occupied nation

Demonstrations in Prague, 1939

On the 28th of October, 1939, Czechoslovak Independence day, Czech students took to the streets to demonstrate against the Nazi occupation. The protest was brutally suppressed - with shots fired at random into the crowd. One student leader, Jan Opletal, was seriously wounded, and later succumbed to his injuries. Thousands turned out for his funeral procession, and protests again turned violent. Hitler ordered a swift and brutal clampdown. On the 17th of November, nine students, seen as the ringleaders, were executed and over a thousand were sent to concentration camps. The anniversary is marked worldwide as International Student's Day and has a further significance for Czechs. It was the 50th anniversary of these events, in November 1989, that sparked the Velvet Revolution, the beginning of the end of communist rule. In today's special programme, we recount the events that led the Allies to sacrifice Czechoslovakia in the vain hope of preventing war, and the martyrdom of Jan Opletal.

President Edvard Benes
"Czechoslovakia is prepared to defend her territory and will not voluntarily give up any part of it. The army is equipped with modern arms, and the firm determination of the people to defend their democratic government compensates for what may be lacking in the numerical strength of the army."

A pre-war radio address by Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes -- in English and meant for foreign consumption -- in which he promises the young democracy will not surrender its border lands to Nazi Germany without a fight.

"The soldiers know that they would be defending a just cause."

Adolf Hitler's remilitarisation of Germany's Rhineland had compelled Benes to fortify Czechoslovakia's borders at a fantastic rate: over half of the federal budget from 1936 to 1938 went towards preparing for the eventually of war with Nazi Germany. Citing fabricated reports of Czechoslovak oppression, Hitler was demanding that Czechoslovakia's German-speaking border regions - the Sudetenland - be annexed to the Third Reich.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which is already settled in principle should be the subject of war."

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's now infamous words, encapsulating Britain's policy of "appeasement" towards Nazi Germany. Days later, on September 30, 1938, Chamberlain, Hitler, Mussolini and the French Prime Minister Daladier signed the Munich Agreement, which ordered Czechoslovakia to give up the Sudetenland. President Benes, who was not invited to the talks, turned over his country's newly-built system of fortifications without a fight. He resigned on October 5 and soon went into exile in fear of his life.

"I am grateful to Mister Chamberlain for all his efforts. I have further assured him, and I repeat now, that when this problem is solved, there will be no territorial problems for Germany in Europe."

Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler, disingenuously thanking Chamberlain for his hard work, assures the world that once the Sudeten question is solved, Germany would have no further territorial claims in Europe. Privately, Hitler complained to his SS bodyguards, "That fellow Chamberlain spoiled my entrance into Prague," for he had wanted to stage a lighting strike on the Czech capital and enter a conquering hero.

Chamberlain returned to Britain with the promise of having won "Peace in Our Time."

Music: "God bless you, Mr Chamberlain, we're all mighty proud of you. You look swell holding your umbrella, all the world loves a wonderful fellow. So carry on, Mr Chamberlain, you know we're all with you, and when we shout 'God bless you Mr Chamberlain', our hats go off to you! Come on, everybody!

'God Bless you, Mr Chamberlain': such was his popularity in October 1938, a song praising the British prime minister's diplomacy entered the charts. But the peace that came at Czechoslovakia's expense was short lived: months before Munich, after the annexation of Austria into the Third Reich, Hitler had told his generals of his "unshakeable will" that Czechoslovakia be "wiped off the map" and ordered plans drawn up for a full-scale invasion.

"We now have arms to such an extent as the world has never seen," boasted Hitler after having taken control of Czechoslovakia's fortifications. "I have spent billions in the last five years and the German people now must know what the purpose of that was."

March 1939
German troops would march through Prague's Wenceslas Square on the 15th of March 1939. After six months of the "Second Republic" - as the rump state of Czechoslovakia, minus its border regions, was known - Bohemia and Moravia were occupied by the Nazis.

"I have entrusted our country to the Fuhrer and been promised his trust," Dr Emil Hacha, the aging president who had replaced Benes, told the nation upon his return from meeting with Hitler in Berlin. Legend has it that Hacha suffered a mild heart attack after being delivered the ultimatum to allow the Wehrmacht to enter Czechoslovakia unchallenged, or see the Luftwaffe reduced Prague to ashes.

Adolf Hitler at Prague Castle
A jubilant Hitler declared "Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist," before leaving Berlin to witness the raising of the Swastika above Prague Castle, and the birth of the new Protectorate.

Historian David Kraft:

"The period which followed after the Munich Agreement was one of the saddest in the history of the Czech nation. There was a sense of great disillusion. The fact that the country was abandoned by her allies led to a feeling of despair. Of course a lot changed on the 15th of March, when the German units occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and when the so-called Protectorate [of Bohemia and Moravia] came into existence. I would say, in a way, it was a positive step in the sense that it clearly showed that no promise of Hitler was valid: all the guarantees given to the Western powers in Munich for Czechoslovakia also ceased to exist."

When the German army marched on Prague, Jan Opletal - a young man who in martyrdom would come to symbolise the tragic fate of the occupied Czechoslovak nation --was in his fourth year of medical school at Charles University. An energetic and popular student from a small town in Moravia, he had been elected vice president of the dormitories.

Jan Opletal
In the early days of the occupation, in some ways life went on as normal. President Hacha stayed in office and at one level a Czech government remained in place. Yet the Protectorate had been incorporated into the German Reich and was directly subordinate to its laws, under the supervision of Reich protector Baron Konstantin von Neurath. The Gestapo assumed police authority.

The outbreak of war would change everything.

"No one knows what is going to happen within the next 24 or 48 hours. I don't think that either Chamberlain or Hitler really know at this minute. One thing is definitely sure: if the war starts, it will be Hitler who is the guilty party."

On the eve of the September 1, 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, a furious Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk speaks out on the BBC against further futile attempts at appeasing Hitler.

"I do not wish to deny that the unbelievable policy of the Western democracies has helped Hitler to this fortunate or tragic position; history will prove that most effectively and conclusively. But I do not think that I am too optimistic when I say that these democracies have definitely learned their lesson. It is the terrible tragedy of my little country that it had to be crucified to redeem the sins of others..."

Six weeks into the Second World War came what would have been the 21st anniversary of the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence had the country not "ceased to exist." Jan Opletal and his fellow medical students began drafting leaflets calling on Czechs to defy the Nazi Protectorate and turn out for a mass demonstration on the 28th of October. Czech patriots were to turn out in their Sunday best, as if for a funeral, with the forbidden red, white and blue "tricolours" pinned to their lapels.

The evening before the demonstration, flowers began to appear on graves, monuments and other sites of historic significance to the Czechoslovak nation. Protectorate authorities warned Czechs not to take part in any demonstrations, promising that unlawful assembly could "only lead to suffering."

Demonstrations in Prague,  1939
Despite the official warnings, many hundreds turned out in the Prague city centre for peaceful demonstrations. As the day grew on, their numbers grew and they became increasingly bold, singing the national anthem - in both Czech and Slovak -shouting anti-German slogans, and demanding the return of Benes and a free Republic once more. Groups of Czechs, many of them students, vandalised German storefronts, while a sympathetic Czech police force did little to intervene.

German civilian police were called in - with orders to fire into the crowds. Fifteen Czechs were wounded that day. Vaclav Sedlacek, a 22-year-old baker, was killed, and Jan Opletal mortally wounded.

"He was a very fine young man, very smart - a student par excellence. You know... bullets don't choose their victims."

Josef Jira knew Opletal personally and was chosen to carry a wreath to his grave.

"We were all in a huddle and then mounted police officers pushed the crowd away from Wenceslas Square. There were German civilian police who had guns equipped with silencers. Jan was close to the National Museum and drifted with the crowd. At first, he didn't realise that he'd been shot -- he just felt a kind of stinging sensation. In fact, he'd been shot seven times. In the dormitory, we kept the shirt he'd been wearing. It was full of bullet holes and caked with blood. Jan's fellow medical students went to see him in hospital. We were sure that he'd pull through. But at eleven o'clock, they came back with the news that he was dead."

The funeral of Jan Opletal
The baker Vaclav Sedlacek was buried November 4th in Prague's Branik cemetery under the strict Nazi supervision. Jan Opletal died a week later. Historians believe the Protectorate may have allowed his funeral march to proceed on the 15th of November so as to provide a pretext for the crackdown on the universities that was to follow.

Czech authorities had arranged for Opletal's body to be quietly taken by train back to the Moravian village of his birth and the dean of the medical faculty appealed to students not to demonstrate. Some four thousand turned out for a procession that began at Albertov and continued on to Narodni Trida and later to Wenceslas Square - the same path that, fifty years later, would be retraced by the student leaders of the Velvet Revolution which brought an end to Communist rule.

Thousands turned out for Opletal's funeral procession
The silent vigil and funeral procession turned violent. Legend has it that the chauffeured car of the much-hated SS group leader Karl Herman Frank was overturned in the melee; others said the Gestapo drove into crowds of peaceful demonstrators to provoke a reaction.

Josef Jira again:

"Very early on the 17th of November, at three-thirty in the morning, they stormed into our dormitory and detained us. Then, along with students from four or five other dormitories, we were sent to a concentration camp. They divided us into two groups - those under twenty years old and the older students, like me. We didn't know then what became of the younger group; only much later did we learn that they'd been released and sent back home."

Heydrich and Hacha stand before the Bohemian Crown
In the early hours of November 17th, the Gestapo began rounding up students. Nine were executed. Some 1,200 others, including Josef Jira, were sent to labour and concentration camps. The day before, Reichsprotektor Konstantin von Neurath had flown to Berlin to confer with Hitler about what course of action to take. Hitler authorised the execution without trial of protest leaders, and made it a policy to fire into even small gatherings.

If there were any further demonstrations, Hitler promised to "flatten" Prague.

On November the 18th, protectorate president Emil Hacha called on his fellow citizens not to engage in "senseless" and irresponsible resistance to the occupying German powers, lest Czechoslovakia meet with the same destruction as Poland. The autumn 1939 protests were to be the last major Czech demonstrations against the Protectorate government.

Resistance to the Nazis would go underground.

"The crackdown that the Germans initiated in the Protectorate --the closing of universities, the arrest of students and murder of some-- showed that the Czechs were unwilling members of the greater Reich. The Nazi's reaction to the autumn 1939 demonstrations was, in itself, what Benes and the 'Action abroad'-- what would become the Government in Exile-- where after, for they showed that the population of Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia had not willingly been occupied; that there was an active resistance."

Dr Martin D Brown is author of "Dealing with Democrats" a new history of the British Foreign Office's relations with the Czechoslovak émigrés in the United Kingdom during the Second World War.

"The irony is that although these demonstrations were supported and, quite possibly, in part instigated by the Action abroad they did not, perhaps, have the direct impact that Benes had hoped for - certainly not when compared to the [May 1942] assassination of [Protectorate Governor Reinhard] Heydrich, which led to directly to the British denunciation of the Munich Agreement - one of Benes' most cherished objectives whilst in exile."