Appealing to Britain to remember her friends in Europe

Czechoslovak Radio building in Prague in 1930s, photo: archive of Czech Radio

In the first part of this series two weeks ago, we went back to 1932 with a recording of memories of Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, the American wife of Czechoslovakia’s first president. A year later the political landscape of Europe and changed completely. Hitler had come to power in Germany, and suddenly Czechoslovakia’s position in Europe seemed perilous. It was in this atmosphere that Radio Prague was launched as the international service of Czechoslovak Radio in 1936. The aim was to counter German propaganda and remind the western democracies that they had a firm ally in Central Europe.

Here is the well-known British economist and journalist Graham Hutton. At the time of this recording, in 1937, he was Assistant Editor of The Economist.

I am talking to you tonight from Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia. This country, from which I speak now, runs from Saxony in the north down as far as Romania. It has been called by an English historian the backbone of Europe. And it is a backbone, for it is mountainous, it is a watershed – many of the European rivers run on either side of it – and it is in an important commercial, economic and strategical position in our continent.

Czechoslovak Radio building in Prague in 1930s, photo: archive of Czech Radio
The voice of Graham Hutton is one of several surviving recordings of British journalists, students and politicians who visited Czechoslovakia between 1936 and 1938 and who gave talks for Radio Prague’s English language service. By this time Hitler was threatening Czechoslovakia’s territorial integrity and public opinion in Western Europe was confused. Could Hitler be right in claiming that Czechoslovakia was nothing but an aberration that had emerged from the injustice of Versailles? Not surprisingly, the answer given in all these talks is no, and they go on to offer insights into the fears and hopes around Czechoslovak-British relations at the time.

Anglo-American University students, Paulina Wydrzynska and Svetlana Kirichenko, took a closer look at two of these recordings. Paulina listened to Graham Hutton and Svetlana to a recording that is archived just as R. Evans.

SK: “I wasn’t able to find any information about Evans, but from the recording I realized that he was a member of an English party and that these people came to Czechoslovakia by invitation to investigate on the spot, as he puts it…”

Just about ten days ago there came into Czechoslovakia a party of young Englishmen and women – there were about twenty of us – rather an odd assortment of people really: conservatives, socialists, undergraduates, students of all sorts and shapes. We came here to investigate on the spot the conditions of life in this small republic.

PW: “Graham Hutton was an economist, but also a journalist and he wrote a lot of pieces about Czechoslovakia, so to hear him talk on this recording was really interesting:”

My work and my interest have brought me many times to Czechoslovakia and it may interest you to have some of my impressions of this last visit. The first thing which strikes an Englishman today, when he comes to this country, is the similarities with his own. For example, there is a people here who are energetic, who are occupied with industries of extremely modern and up-to-date technique, with agriculture and at the same time with commercial concerns, engaged with all kinds of European commerce.

Photo: archive of Czech Radio
PW: “What he really focused on was the people who were living there and the nation in general in a cultural context and a historical context rather than political. So I think that was pretty interesting because it is just before the war but he doesn’t focus on that too much. He wants to present Czech people from normal life, the way he saw it.”

SK: “The speaker on the other recording, R. Evans, said something similar. He compared, for example, education in Czechoslovakia and in England:”

We’ve also had a very fine opportunity to investigate the education system in this country and here again we feel this spirit of democracy. All children must go to elementary school and if any person is capable of benefitting from university education, then that university education can be obtained by him. Anybody listening in England will be surprised to know that you can live in a college in Prague from somewhere about a pound a month for rent and you and you can get your meals in these student colleges and colonies for somewhere about one-and-six a day. That, I believe, is a part of the working of democracy, but you’ve got democracy working as well inside these student colonies. For instance, they were built by the students themselves, they are administered by the students themselves.”

The stress on what Czechoslovakia and Britain have in common, which we see with both speakers, is no coincidence. This was a time when isolationism in Britain was strong. We should remember that only a year later, the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain turned his back completely on Czechoslovakia, dismissing it as a “faraway country”. Graham Hutton puts Czechoslovakia’s democracy into a historical context.

PW: “He believes that even if they are in a difficult situation they can get through it because of past experiences that they have already had:”

This country is a democracy like my own. Like my own, it looks out upon a world, upon a continent, which is in, perhaps, a difficult position. This continent seems divided today, as it was four hundred years ago. Four hundred years ago the country now called Czechoslovakia played an extremely important role in the religious disputes of Europe, in the political wars and in the cultural developments of our Western civilization. Today it may be called upon to play almost the same role. Those things we do not know. But it is interesting to an Englishman and to one who believes in democracy to see with what energy and with what goodwill the government of this country is facing the problems that in my country and in France and in many other democracies are occupying the minds of democratic statesmen.

And here is R. Evans on a more personal note…

Czechoslovakia is a democratic state. Every moment that we’ve been here we have felt that it is a country of the people. Of course, in its political institutions, in its government, democratic forms are quite obvious – proportional representation, free elections and the like. But there is something much greater even than the political life. We have met several of the leaders both of public and of civic life and we have felt when we have met them that they are essentially men of the people. There’s no such thing as a ruling class in Czechoslovakia.

There is a sense of urgency in both these recordings, a sense that huge dangers are looming. The year was 1937 and history was to prove these fears to be well-founded.

SK: “At the end of the recording he asked the people of Britain to defend democracy in Czechoslovakia and to help its people to maintain peace.”

Now what of the future of Czechoslovakia? I say it is essentially an organic democracy. Yet in Europe at the present time there is a considerable amount of shouting about democracy and in certain places there is an attempt being made to confuse democracy with Bolshevism. All I want to say to my English hearers is this: If you are told that Czechoslovakia is an outpost of communism, don’t believe it. It’s absolute nonsense. But undoubtedly there is a feeling of insecurity in Czechoslovakia today. All that the people want is to do is to consolidate the gains of the past 19 years and to go on developing in the way in which they have developed in the past. For that they must have peace. That is the keynote of all their ambitions. Now, how is that peace to be achieved? It can only be achieved through the League of Nations. If there are any threats to Czechoslovakia today, they could be stopped dead if Great Britain took the lead at Geneva and said definitely that she would not tolerate an act of unprovoked aggression against this small and gallant republic. I’m asking the people of Britain to work for the defence of democracy in Czechoslovakia. Believe me, we who have seen it know that it is something real. We have come to admire it. We have actually come to love this state. I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to help us, the youth of Britain, in fighting for the cause of peace and for the cause of democracy.

Munich Agreement, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA
There is a deep irony, given that these are both recordings from 1937 and we know what happened in Czechoslovakia one year later.

SK: “Yes. It was interesting because he asked the people of Britain to help and then we know that there was the Munich Agreement, in which Britain took part, and it didn’t help to maintain peace in Czechoslovakia at all.”

PW: “It seems to me that what Hutton is saying is that Czechoslovakia has many troubles, but other nations, like Britain, are also thinking about it. The way he puts it is that Czechoslovakia is the country that has to deal with these problems, but other countries are just watching and maybe not really doing that much:”

There is every possibility of overcoming the problems facing democracy, and that, I think, will interest both my British and my American and French listeners. I have been walking about this city this morning just looking at things. A people, however small, that can walk about in its cities and see in stone and in pictures and in the written word its history stretching back a thousand years, has the strength of tradition behind it. Of course, I do not think that the strength of tradition is enough. It may be a weakness. I believe that the democracies of this world have in some measure to alter their attitudes towards the world of the 20th century. That is the problem facing my country, the problem facing France and the problem facing Czechoslovakia. But in conclusion, I can say as one who has often visited Prague, who has often travelled throughout Czechoslovakia, I have no doubt that this small but gifted people will find the abilities to face and overcome the problems which are at present vexing every nation.

Seventy-nine years, a World War and a Cold War later, it is almost uncanny how many of the things that Hutton and Evans talk about remain relevant in today’s Europe. And perhaps that is part of the power of these archive recordings – that they tell us as much about the present as the past.