The complex legacy of the president many would prefer to forget

Emil Hacha

A handful of people gathered on Monday at Prague's Vinohrady Cemetery to mark the 60th anniversary of the death of Czechoslovakia's third President, Emil Hacha. It was an event that wasn't marked with pomp and ceremony: Emil Hacha remained in office throughout the German wartime occupation, and he is remembered by many as a symbol of wartime collaboration. David Vaughan reports.

Emil Hacha
"I have entrusted our country to the Fuehrer." These are the words of Emil Hacha on the 14th March 1939, as he succumbed to the bullying of Nazi Germany and allowed the Czech lands to be occupied without a shot being fired. With the Swastika flying above Prague Castle, Hacha remained in office, and he has gone down in history as a man who broke under pressure and betrayed his nation.

But the organizers of Monday's small commemoration say that the reality is more complicated. They insist that they are not trying to rewrite history, but want to put the difficult decisions faced by Hacha into context. Many historians agree with them. They point out that Hacha was anything but a cynical opportunist. After Hitler annexed the Czech borderlands in 1938, he became president only reluctantly, when President Edvard Benes resigned, He was already an old man and an academic rather than a politician.

In the early days of the war, both Hacha and the prime minister in the puppet Czech government, Alois Elias, were in contact with the resistance, and enjoyed the support of Benes himself, who had set up a government in exile in London. Historian Jaroslav Hrbek:

Photo: CTK
"Elias and to a lesser extent also President Hacha tried, not exactly to sabotage the German cause, but to put the Czech nation first and the German efforts second. President Benes - in Paris and later in London - was in support of Hacha and Elias and supported their policy, but during 1940 there was a disagreement between them and Benes wanted them to abdicate, to say we don't want to have anything more to do with German policy, as a gesture of the Czech nation's stand against Germany, but both of them refused."

Although contacts with London were broken off, Hacha and Elias, with their obvious Czech patriotism, remained a thorn in the side of the Germans, and when the hard line Reinhard Heydrich became Hitler's man in occupied Bohemia and Moravia, Elias was removed, arrested and then executed, and the increasingly frail Hacha became completely marginalized. In the Czech Radio archive a radio broadcast survives from just before the end of the war, where you can hear that Hacha is scarcely even able to string a sentence together or speak comprehensibly.

"He was a senile, ill old man and I would say that he did not stay in power - he just stayed in office. There is a difference. He was a powerless puppet of the Germans and could not influence almost anything. From that point he was, I would say, a tragic figure, and it was, I would say, his mistake not to have abdicated during 1940 or 1941."

Emil Hacha died in the hospital in Prague's Pankrac prison on the 27th June 1945 just six weeks after the end of the war.