70th anniversary special - the Czech resistance during World War II

German troops in Prague in 1939, photo: Public Domain

Hello and welcome to a special programme marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Joining me in the studio today is noted historian and author Professor Jan Rychlík. Rather than simply do the obvious and discuss the end of World War II, I thought it might be interesting to focus on the efforts of the Czech resistance throughout the duration of the war.

Jan Rychlík,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
Professor Rychlík, thank you for joining me. Let’s begin with the mobilisation in 1938. Czechs were ready and willing to fight, and then suddenly the “Munich Dictate” – as it is known here, not the “Munich Agreement” as it was called in the West – basically orders Czechoslovakia to lower its arms and open its borders. So what happened to all that energy that was ready to fight?

“Well, people were very upset and dissatisfied. However, everybody essentially knew that Czechoslovakia could not win in a war against Nazi Germany. Because the Czech army would have to fight while surrounded by enemy states, with a fifth column inside the state [the Sudeten Germans]. And also a strategic defence plan signed between France and Czechoslovakia depended on the active participation of France and possibly the Soviet Union. And when France said they would not fight, then this war was lost from the very beginning. But the moral significance of armed resistance, even if it would have been a massacre, would have been enormous.”

Because there were some in the military who were saying: let’s just fight, even if we lose.

“Yes, definitely. A fight in 1938 would have brought together the Czechs, Slovaks and Ruthenians. There were no differences between these groups during the mobilisation. Half of the Czechoslovak German population deserted or fled to Germany. Of course, the Hungarian and Polish reservists in the country were not very happy, but joined the army nonetheless. But there was enormous enthusiasm among the Czechs, Slovaks and Ruthenians, who welcomed the war and wanted to fight against Germany.”

In the brief period in which the Munich Agreement was functional, and the reduced Czechoslovakia existed – before the establishment of the Protectorate following the Nazi invasion in March 1939 – were the Czechs willing to learn to live with it? I saw a map containing the slogan “Malá, ale našě”, meaning “It’s small, but it’s ours...”. So was there a sense of: we hate it but we’ll learn to live with it?

“Yes, I’m convinced that the Czechs would probably have swallowed the fact that part of the historical Bohemian territories were lost to Germany if they still had a Czechoslovak, or Czech state after the separation of Slovakia. You must understand that the Czech state existed here for more than one-thousand years. And now for the first time it disappeared. Because the Germans didn’t consider the Protectorate to be a Czech state. Not even an occupied state. It was not state at all; it was a form of colonial administration. And this was unacceptable to the Czechs. So in the spring of 1939, the Czechs were probably the only ones who wished for war – and a major war – as soon as possible. Peace was very dangerous, because it would have set in stone the new reality, which I believe was simply unacceptable for every Czech.”

How did the resistance build up? Was there already a resistance during the 1938-39 period?

Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,  photo: XrysD,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Edvard Beneš, the Czech president who went into exile, knew that one way or another, the Czech state will be restored eventually. But, of course, no-one knew at the start how the Second World War would turn out. Another point is that the Czech resistance was different from resistances in other countries such a Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece or France. Firstly, as one Czech historian has pointed out, it was a non-shooting resistance. Because there were no weapons. There had been no armed conflict prior to the capitulation [both after Munich in 1938, and the Nazi invasion of 1939]. This was different to what had occurred in Poland, Yugoslavia or Greece. So people had no weapons; they had to even surrender their hunting rifles. To posses a weapon under the German Protectorate was a criminal offence punishable by death.”

And in March 1939, the Nazis breached the new indefensible borders of Czechoslovakia.

“Slovakia proclaimed independence, under German protection, on March 14. And the next day, March 15, the German army entered what remained of the Bohemian lands and incorporated this into the German Reich as the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. From the point of view of international law, this was now an integral part of Germany. Which meant that if Czechs went abroad, they were technically on the same level as German citizens. Despite the fact that inside Germany, they were not considered to be Reich citizens. The advantage of this was that Czechs did not have to serve in the German army.”

We know that despite the lack of fighting by Czechs, in the early days of the occupation there were boycotts, student demonstrations – the most famous of which led to the death of Prague student Jan Opletal.

“This was at the end of October 1939. It means already after the outbreak of the War [in September]. October 28 is a national holiday marking the Czech Independence Day of 1918. And of course, during the German occupation, there were no celebrations – it was banned. Despite this, in Prague and other large cities, spontaneous demonstrations against the Germans erupted. Because the Czech police did not interfere, the German Schutzpolizei, and then the army, intervened and shot two people: one worker, labourer Vojtěch Sedláček, and one medical student Jan Opletal, who later died in hospital. And his funeral, which took place on November 15, turned into another demonstration, and the end result was that two days later, all Czech universities were shut. Nine students were shot without trial. And about 1,200 were taken as hostages to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen [in north-east Germany].

“By the way, the fall of communism fifty years later, started as a memorial to the events of 1939 and then turned into an anti-communist demonstration. That is why we have it today as a double national holiday.”

The initial Nazi plan for the Protectorate was nowhere near as radical as, say, the plan for Russia or Poland. The Czechs were going to be slaves, gradually Germanised, and for the duration of the war, they were to work to help the Reich. Under the first Reichsprotektor, Konstantin von Neurath, it wasn’t a hugely oppressive regime, was it?

Konstantin von Neurath,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  N 1310 Bild-135 / CC-BY-SA
“First of all, there was an official plan, which existed for public consumption and propaganda purposes. And then there was a real plan, which was kept secret. The official programme was based on the Nazi interpretation of Czech history. In the Nazi interpretation, the Holy Roman Empire of the late Middle Ages and early modern ages, was the first German state. Which in reality it was not, of course. And the fact that this Holy Roman Empire was a confederation of independent states – one of them being the Kingdom of Bohemia – served as the basis of the theory that, in fact, the Bohemian lands were always part of Germany, and that they were now returning to their rightful place. In the future, the Czechs would simply be German citizens, speaking a different language, but having all the advantages of the victorious Reich.”

Allowed to speak a different language? Not being Germanised?

“Officially. In fact, the Germans were aware that this was not something which would be attractive for the Czechs. They had no illusions about that. The real plan, which was secret, was worked out by Konstantin von Neurath. He was an old diplomat in the imperial mould, and at one time he was even Minister of Foreign Affairs. But he was a nobleman, who had a relatively light hand in terms of his relations with the Czech administration. He said: part of the people will be gradually Germanised; part of them moved out; and part of them will be exterminated. But, this plan will only be realised after the victorious war. Because right now, we need the Czechs to work. We had very important machine factories, industrial works, munitions factories, like Škoda works in Pilsen. And, of course, Nazi Germany didn’t have German workers available to work there, because they had been sent to the eastern or western fronts.

“But, after the war, Neurath, planned that the Czechs as a nation – not necessarily in the physical sense – would be destroyed. That was in contrast to the Slovaks, or Hungarians, or Bulgarians. Of course, when compared with an openly oppressive regime, such as was established in Reichskommissariat Ukraine (RKU), or in Poland, or even in Greece, it was relatively mild. But I would stress the adjective ‘relatively’. Because there was no doubt that any resistance to the German occupation was immediately punished. And especially after 1941, when Konstantin von Neurath was substituted by Reinhard Heydrich.”

Why was it felt by Hitler that the Czechs needed a firmer hand? Was it the resistance, or were they doing a proverbial slow-walk and not being enthusiastically productive enough?

“It is important to remember that Hitler personally hated the Czechs, because he knew them from his pre-First World War life in Vienna. He realised that the Czechs were skilled, intelligent people. And consequently, he considered them to be dangerous to the German cause. The second point is that in Hitler’s eyes, Konstantin von Neurath proved to be too soft, too mild.”

Meaning what? What was he allowing?

Munich Agreement - Chamberlain,  Daladier,  Hitler,  Mussolini and Ciano | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-R69173/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 1.0
“Meaning that he was not strong enough in terms of dealing with the resistance, especially after the German invasion of the Soviet Union [in June 1941] when the communist resistance started to fight.”

Because before then, the communists viewed the conflict merely as an imperialist war.

“They were passive until then. ‘Imperialist war’ was the official line from the Comintern, but the communists here knew very well that they could not agitate in Czechoslovakia with such nonsense. No one would take that line seriously. So what could they do? They did nothing. Which, from their point of view, in that situation, was probably the only option. There were some communists who opposed the official line [meaning Soviet-Nazi friendship following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939], but they were, of course, immediately expelled from the party.”

President Beneš set up a government in exile in the United Kingdom. And in the Protectorate, the resistance established the ÚVOD (The Central Leadership of Resistance at Home), which was an umbrella group of various other resistance organisations. So how did they operate? Because the most effective thing they did was not sabotage or blowing things up, but rather it served as an intelligence network, is that correct?

“Exactly. ÚVOD came to into being in February 1940, after the arrests of the members of three previous resistance networks. These three previous non-communist organisations – the first was called Obrana národa (Defence of the Nation), which was a military organisation created by former officers, both active and reserve. This was set up mainly for intelligence purposes, and preparing for a military uprising at the appropriate moment. The second was called Politické ústředí (Political Centre), which was a kind of shadow, clandestine government, comprised of the main pre-war Czech political parties. This was set up to have a political purpose – at the appropriate moment they would assume power in the Protectorate. And the third was a left-wing, mainly Social Democratic and trade unionist organisation, Petiční výbor Věrni zůstaneme (We Remain Faithful). In the beginning, this was simply a group of people signing petitions against the capitulation to Germany, and then they continued as an illegal clandestine group.

“In February 1940, all of these came to operate as ÚVOD. But the main activities for this group remained intelligence gathering. Because the Czechoslovak secret service [military intelligence], the second department of the General Staff, had a very good service before the war, including many high German officers and German Abwehr [Germany’s military intelligence organisation] working for the Czechoslovaks. This included, for example, the famous agent Paul Thümmell [German double agent who spied for Czechoslovakia], codenamed A-54. This provided some very important classified information, including, for example, advance notice of the Nazi invasions of the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway.”

So Czechs were listening-in in cafes; establishing relationships so Nazis might talk; or were there women getting drunk with German officers in bars... How did the network collect intelligence?

Edvard Beneš | Photo: Library of Congress
“Well...[laughs]...because the resistance was mainly comprised of former officers and people who had some military training, so they didn’t need to go to such lengths. It’s not like James Bond. For example, it was enough to simply make notes about the trains going eastwards – to count the cars and observe what was going on. To evaluate the situation. Even today, most intelligence work is coming from open sources, not clandestine ones.

“But, of course, even the things you mentioned occurred. We know that women use ‘female weapons’ – sex mainly – to get clandestine information. That has always existed and will always exist.”

How did the information then make its way back to London? Were there specific resistance members who had hidden radio transmitters and receivers, sending coded messages?

“There were several options. At the beginning of the war, they mostly used a courier service or sent secret messages via neutral countries like Sweden or the Netherlands. From 1940 on, they also had short wave radios, which were used to transmit information to London. However, it is important to point out that during the terror which occurred following the first martial law, which was imposed when Reinhard Heydrich came to Prague on September 27 1941, and especially after he was assassinated by the resistance on May 27, 1942. Due to these two waves of blanket terror, most of these clandestine short-wave radios were discovered and destroyed.”

The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is certainly seen as being the finest hour for the Czech resistance. Two Czechs, trained in Britain, were parachuted into the country...

“I would like to correct you. For propaganda purposes there was one Czech and one Slovak, which was symbolic. Jan Kubiš was a Czech and Jozef Gabčík was a Slovak.”

The story of the two men is well-known. But what about those Czechs who assisted them. As soon as they parachuted into Nazi-occupied Bohemia, they had to make contact with the underground.

“The whole action went under the name Operation Anthropoid. It was worked out in London, especially by the head of the Czech military intelligence, Colonel, later General František Moravec. The original plan was that they would act separately from the domestic resistance network. And only after they had carried out their action would the network help them go into hiding. But they were, of course, informed in advance that there was very little chance that they would survive. They were aware that most likely, they would die.”

They volunteered anyway. They were prepared to do that.

Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1972-039-44,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Yes. But the situation in the Protectorate was so complicated in 1941 that they couldn’t simply carry out their mission without help. For example, it was impossible to move freely. So they needed assistance from the home resistance. Fortunately, when they were parachuted in [just east of Prague], they were able to contact a man who had contacts with the resistance – to an organisation called Obec sokolská v odboji (OSVO).”

Sokol is a kind of sporting organisation.

“Yes, before the war, and then it was banned by the Nazis. But it existed as part of ÚVOD. They helped them and also assisted them in the preparation of the action against Heydrich. This, despite the fact that they never talked about it openly. But, of course, step by step, the people at OSVO figured out that the probable target was going to be Heydrich.”

So they just knew that two Czechoslovaks had parachuted in. But they didn’t know what they were doing, so there was no risk of leaks.

“Step by step. It was also this group who helped them find the contacts to the relevant people who told them about the everyday programme of Reinhard Heydrich. Because he was travelling everyday by car from Panenské Břežany, which is a castle north of Prague, to Prague Castle, where he had his headquarters. Of course it was not so easy to find the appropriate place where they could shoot him.”

So once the assassination was carried out [in Prague’s Libeň] the two men went into hiding. And they ended up in the Cyril and Methodius Cathedral.

“Yes, this was an Orthodox church. And they were hidden there with the assistance of an Orthodox priest, who was part of the resistance. Of course, Father Vladimír Petřek later denied being in the resistance during his trial [he was executed by firing squad in September 1942]. But he had good reason – no defendant in such a scenario is obliged to tell the truth. There was also clandestine assistance from an Orthodox bishop, Bishop Gorazd – Matěj Pavlík was his given name [also executed in 1942].

“The assassins were only discovered because one of the parachutists from another group – because there were several groups operating in the country – simply gave himself in. He voluntarily went to the Gestapo and disclosed part of the network he knew [Karel Čurda of the ‘Out Distance’ group – rewarded by the Gestapo, later executed for treason in 1947]. And very quickly the Gestapo figured out the people who were aiding Heydrich’s killers and surrounded the church in Prague. The church was not only concealing Gabčík and Kubiš, but also five other men parachuted in to carry out resistance activities. They fought to the bitter end, and when they had no other choice, they committed suicide – all of them.”

Is it fair to say that after 1942 the domestic Czech resistance was essentially smashed as a result of the post-Heydrich assassination reprisals?

Reinhard Heydrich,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1969-054-16 / Hoffmann,  Heinrich / CC-BY-SA
“Yes. We can say it was smashed due to the very broad terror. Because martial law was proclaimed, and everyone who was accused of helping or aiding those not registered in the Protectorate, people who were involved in illegal activities, or even those who openly supported the assassination of Heydrich – saying that it was a good thing and that he got what he deserved – were summarily tried, usually in absentia, and were then shot. 1,357 people were shot within the space of about one month. 5,000 people who were held as hostages in various concentration camps were also shot without trial as a reprisal. One special train filled with Jews was sent as a reprisal to an extermination camp. So this smashed the network of the resistance. Part of this network was restored in 1943-44 under a new military leadership – the so-called Rada tří (R3, Council of Three). But it was already of limited significance. I wouldn’t say that it was without significance, but certainly we cannot compare it to what was going on 1940-41.”

What were some of the other major resistance acts other than the assassination of Heydrich? Were there any acts of sabotage or anything like that?

“Yes. But of course it is very difficult to evaluate this, because after the war, as often happens, every theft or misunderstanding was claimed to be an act of sabotage against the Nazis. It is like today – everybody who was prosecuted during the communist regime says that they were persecuted, when very often they were common criminals who would be arrested anyway, because no state can tolerate that kind of criminality. But at the end of the war, I think that the most important resistance activities were found in a partisan movement, which started in the Beskydy mountains on the borders of Slovakia.

“The Czech Republic has mountains, but we must keep in mind that these mountains are in the Sudetenland. There were no mountains in the Protectorate. And no woods where partisans could hide-out. But there are mountains at the Slovak border. On August 29, 1944 the Slovak National Uprising began. Initially, around 2,000 people from the Protectorate crossed over into Slovakia [to aid the uprising] despite the fact that anyone caught was tried and shot. And then one Slovakian brigade crossed from the border into the Czech Beskydy mountains. This was the guerrilla 1st Czechoslovak Partisan Brigade of Jan Žižka. And then another brigade, the 1st Czechoslovak Partisan Brigade of General Milan Rastislav Štefánik [both trained and deployed from Ukrainian territory through the Czechoslovak government in exile].

“And they started to fight and organise acts of sabotage in eastern Moravia and in the Ostrava district, which is highly industrial, full of mines and so on. This was certainly militarily significant. This was the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, which for the Germans was a bad time. Because they were retreating and needed roads and railways, which were now being partly destroyed, especially in March and April of 1945.”

Czechs never stopped hating the Nazi occupation. It was clear that they would never accept it spiritually. The more the Germans oppressed or punished the Czechs the more they were despised by them. So a clear majority were just waiting for the occupation to end...

Jan Kubiš,  Jozef Gabčík
“Well, it is always like that. Always the majority of the population is passive. When Reinhard Heydrich came to Prague he made a secret speech to fellow Nazi dignitaries here. And he said that we must be tough and strong against the Czechs, but there must be certain limits. The terror cannot grow to such levels as to make the Czechs revolt. Because that would not be in their interests.

“In the Ukraine, Reichskommissar Erich Koch ignored such a strategy. Because he was not only a fanatical Nazi, but he was also a primitive with no intelligence. And because he pressed the Ukrainians, who at the beginning mostly supported the Germans [as liberating them from Stalinist oppression], and because he robbed them of all property so they ended up starving, and they were really hunting Ukrainians like slaves to be sent to Germany – then the people had no other choice but to flee to the nearest forest and join a partisan group. Either a communist partisan group, or an Ukrainian insurgent army, or something along those lines. Because they had to defend themselves and their families.

“So here in the Protectorate it never reached those kinds of levels. Which simply meant that most of the population remained passive. But that doesn’t mean that they were happy. Everybody believed – even the ones who were afraid of communism and the Soviet army – everybody preferred to have the Soviets here, at least temporarily, rather than the Nazis.”

Let’s shift to May 1945. Hitler is already dead. World War II is almost over across Europe. Except in the Protectorate. This becomes the last location where we see active fighting. We also have the Prague Uprising, and Czechs having the opportunity to openly vent against their Nazi occupiers. But, as is often the case in Czech history, it ends up tinged with tragedy because many people wanted the Americans to come in, and instead is it is the Red Army, which entered Prague.

“First of all, it was not only the Prague Uprising. Because it started back on May 1 in Přerov in eastern Moravia. This then sparked off other uprisings moving westward – Olomouc, Nymburk, Lysá nad Labem, and on Saturday May 5, 1945 it started in Prague. There were, of course, military reasons, and political reasons. The military reason was that in the German plan, the Protectorate was to be the last fortress. The army of General Ferdinand Schörner was located here with more than one million men still available. And after the death of Hitler, they simply wanted to defend this space against the advancing Soviet army. And, if possible, to move westward and to surrender to the advancing American army.

“To do this, they had to pass through Prague, because it is a communications centre. All main railways and roads connected through Prague. And that is why they wanted at any price to have it under their control. Of course there was also a political significance, because here we had a centre of resistance known as the Česká národní rada or Czech National Council [established in February 1945], which was a coalition of communists, socialists, trade unionists, and leftist Social Democrats. And these wanted to show at the end that the Czechs were fighting, and to provide some political support to the already established Czechoslovak government [now relocated from London] in Košice, eastern Slovakia.

Liberation of Prague by Red Army | Photo: Karel Hájek,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“And this also had a very fatal, I would say, consequence for many of the resistance fighters because when the German surrender was signed in Reims on May 7, then the German commander in Prague, General Rudolf Toussaint, went to the chairman of the Czech National Council, Professor Albert Pražák, and said: look, we know that the war is lost, all we want is to be able to go west. And Pražák met with the Council and said that a capitulation could be accepted, a local armistice could be signed, and they could be permitted to go. And even the communist representative in the Council, Josef Smrkovský approved this – he was later jailed in the 1950s and became a leading figure in the Prague Spring. The Russians considered him not reliable because of his approval of the German westward evacuation. They saw it as treason, because they wanted to be the ones liberating Prague.”

So the Czechs could have done it by themselves. Or were doing it by themselves?

“They were doing it by themselves, at the cost of allowing the Germans to leave. The Soviet army entered Prague on May 9. But I must say that I don’t like the people who today spit on the graves of those Soviet soldiers. We may not like communists; we may not like Putin – I certainly don’t like him – but the Russians, and not only Russians, as there were others within the Soviet army who died in the struggle, not only for our freedom, but the freedom of Europe, they deserve to be honoured. But the fact is that on the 9th, when they entered Prague, the Germans were not here because they left the previous day. They went west. And the American army was already in Plzeň.”

And was not going to go any further.

“Well, it was a political agreement. And also a decision made by General Eisenhower. We know that General George S. Patton, the commander of the Third United States Army, wanted to go further, but was told that he must stop at the demarcation line. And military orders are military orders...”

And the rest, as they say, is history...Professor Jan Rychlík thank you very much for joining us.

“It was my pleasure.”