Czechs and Germans in 1930s Czechoslovakia: a complex picture

Sudeten Germans in 1938, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-58507-003 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Czech Radio archives give us a rich and nuanced picture of the months leading up to the Munich Agreement of September 1938 that resulted in Nazi Germany annexing huge areas of Czechoslovakia. So many recordings survive that we can reconstruct the events leading up to Munich almost day by day. They include insights from many different angles, not least the perspective of the German-speakers of Czechoslovakia, those who supported, but also those who opposed Hitler. The archives offer a sober warning of how easily a democratic state can be shattered through rumour, lies and propaganda.

Sudetenland in 1938,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1976-033-20 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

As the radio’s international service, Radio Prague was founded in 1936, in response to the growing propaganda onslaught from Nazi Germany. Tensions in the Sudetenland, the mainly German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia, were rising rapidly, with Hitler making no secret of his territorial ambitions. A British journalist, whose name is given in the radio archives as L. Hill, gave a talk to Radio Prague’s English service in 1937, starting with a few statistics about Czechoslovakia’s German speakers.

“The German speaking citizens of Czechoslovakia number 3,230,000 altogether and are thus 22% of the country’s population. Out of 300 Members of Parliament, they are represented by 72 and by 37 out of 150 in the Senate.”

He went on to describe life in the German speaking and mixed areas of the country and concluded that this was not just a question of a division on ethnic lines.

“I saw German people there with Czech names and Czechoslovaks with German names. Every third person with whom I spoke had some not very distant ancestor of foreign origin, or he or his ancestor, if Czech, came from a German community and, if German, from a Czech one. Apart from the language, I didn’t see much difference between the Czech and the German towns. I saw Czech believers given the communion by a German priest and I saw a Czech politician speaking to German workmen on the necessity of the country’s unity… All this means that not only the Czech minorities of these districts, but also certain of the German inhabitants themselves are against separation.”

As the threat of war loomed, international interest in Czechoslovakia was growing. The young British historian Hugh Seton Watson came here in September 1937. Seton Watson, whose father Robert had been a personal friend of President Masaryk, was pessimistic about the future of Czechoslovakia, seeing many parallels with the difficulties that had beset the old Habsburg Empire.

“She has many difficult problems to face, and among them the same problem of the rights of other nationalities, which the Austrian Empire failed to solve. For within her territories are three-and-a-half million Germans and half a million Hungarians. Since the rise of Hitler to power and since the slump, she has felt increasingly the need to work with her neighbours. Unfortunately, the memory of the injustices they suffered in the past and the sense that they have won their freedom by their own struggle make it difficult for the Czech people to be conciliatory.”

Sudeten Germans in 1938,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-58507-003 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Another British visitor at the time was Edgar Young, a First World War veteran, journalist and left-wing politician. At the end of 1936 he paid a visit to the Sudetenland, by that time dominated politically by the Nazi sympathizing Sudeten German Party, to see the situation for himself.

“Before Christmas I went for a journey through the district on the German border between Karlovy Vary – or Karlsbad – and Liberec – or Reichenberg – which are inhabited by a preponderance of German-speaking people. These districts, which are mainly industrial and which depended for their prosperity upon foreign trade, are suffering severely from the effects of the world economic crisis and of the increasing tendency towards autarchy. The sufferings of these Czechoslovak Germans are due in no small measure to the selfish economic policy of Germany and to the past unpatriotic actions of their own employers, who are mainly Germans of the opposition. Yet they are represented to the victims as being the fault of the Czechoslovak government. There are, nevertheless, even in these heavily ‘propaganda-ed’ districts considerable numbers of democratic Germans, who are loyally collaborating with the government, in which indeed they have their own representatives.

“The only sign which I saw anywhere of an oppressed minority was in a certain town, which shall remain nameless and which is a hotbed of anti-government agitation. There the minority of Czechs and democratic Germans are considerably terrorized by the dominant clique. Victimization for political views is common, and an unemployed man or woman finds it wiser in order to obtain employment to profess at least allegiance to the opposition German party.

“It was very noticeable, I have found, that as one gets away from the German frontier, the tension between Czechs and Germans relaxes. Thus, at Brno, which has a considerable German minority, the relations between the two races can only be described as cordial. There is hope, therefore, that the insistent friendliness of the democratic majority of the population, German no less than Czech, will eventually triumph over that hysteria which is at present causing so much heartburning among the three-and-a-quarter million German-speaking subjects of Czechoslovakia.”

One thing that makes this recording particularly interesting is the insight it gives into the political pressures that Sudeten Germans themselves were under from Nazi sympathising politicians within the Sudetenland. Edgar Young’s hopes for reconciliation proved tragically over-optimistic.

At 11 pm on a cold and snowy Christmas Eve in 1937 Czechoslovak Radio attempted a fascinating experiment. A radio bridge was set up to bind three continents – reaching India in the east, and across the Atlantic to the United States in the west. The Czech writer, Karel Čapek and the inventor of the arc-lamp, the 90-year old František Křižík, exchanged messages of goodwill for the coming year with Albert Einstein in Princeton and with the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal. The experiment was to show the binding power of radio, and the solidarity between people of goodwill at a time when the world was under a growing threat from dictatorship. The sound preserved in the Czech Radio archive gives us a wonderful insight into this early attempt at an international radio bridge, complete with static and moments of panic as the shortwave signal is lost. In the end Einstein’s contribution – in German – was completely lost in the static, but he also sent it by telegram and it was read by a radio announcer.

Karel Čapek  (left),  František Křižík  (sitting),  photo: archive of Czech Radio

“We know that at in difficult circumstances Czechoslovakia is protecting and defending political freedoms and human rights, without which it is impossible for our spirit to flourish.”

He went on to send to Prague “the hopes and heartfelt wishes of all friends of truth, humanity and freedom.”

But the year that follow was to be a tragic one for Czechoslovakia. The period leading up to the Munich Agreement in September 1938 is very well documented in the Czech Radio archives. The archives also reveal that this was one of the first international diplomatic crises to be played out on the airwaves. Through radio, the Munich crisis became an international propaganda battle, with greater immediacy than ever seen before.

Germany’s state radio systematically stirred up discontent in the Sudetenland, with stories of Czech atrocities that were at best exaggerated and frequently completely fabricated.

“The anti-German witch hunt,” a Deutschlandsender reporter says, “continues in defiance of all international protests. In numerous places, despite what the Prague press and the Czech Radio say, there have been clashes, abuses and thousands of arrests.”

In a cat-and-mouse game, Czechoslovak Radio – including its international broadcasts in English - would try to counteract these reports coming from Germany. Here is an example from the summer of 1938.

"Once again tonight we must perform the distasteful task of refuting further invented reports broadcast by the German wireless stations. It is not true that the rectors and deans of the German universities in Prague were forced at the point of a gun to sign a declaration of loyalty to the state. This absurd allegation was denied by the rectors and deans themselves in a statement made today, denying that any pressure whatever was used against them."

The voice on that particular recording is Gordon Skilling, who, after his return to his native Canada went on to become a prominent historian of central and eastern Europe. When I interviewed him no less than 62 years later in the year 2000, he looked back to that time.

"I'd decided to do research on Czech history for my doctorate. I came here to do my research and then I was fortunate to be employed by Radiojournal, broadcasting in English to North America. And this happened to coincide with the crisis at the time leading up to Munich. I prepared an English bulletin based on Czech news bulletins and the newspapers, and broadcast pretty regularly.”

Not surprisingly, compared with Nazi Germany, Czechoslovakia was not adept at the art of modern propaganda, as the British visitor to the Sudetenland, Edgar Young, observed in 1937.

“It is unfortunate that Czechoslovakia is known to most foreigners largely, if not entirely, through the propaganda of her enemies. The Czechoslovaks are only now beginning to realize the dangerous effects of the new technique of propaganda, which consists in telling lies and half-truths with such conviction and consistency that even the victims begin to wonder what is really the truth. They have yet to devise an effective counter to it, and in the meanwhile it would be a good thing if more foreigners were to visit the republic, to see for themselves how things really are, and to tell their countrymen the plain truth.”

By the late summer of 1938, Hitler’s Germany was demanding nothing less than the immediate annexation of the entire Sudetenland – all parts of Bohemia and Moravia with a German speaking majority. The Sudeten German Party had made big gains among German speakers in local elections earlier that year, and the Nazi rhetoric of their leaders was unambiguous.

On 19 September 1938 one prominent Sudeten German politician, Wilhelm Sebekowsky, addressed a huge political rally in Dresden, a few days after the Sudeten German Party had been banned in Czechoslovakia for leading an attempted coup in the Sudetenland:

Wenzel Jaksch,  photo: Czech Television

“Victory will be ours,” he told an excited crowd, in a speech broadcast live by German radio, “because the vision of Adolf Hitler must triumph.”

Two weeks later, victory was indeed theirs as Britain and France allowed Nazi Germany to march into the Sudetenland.

Yet there were also Sudeten Germans who remained vehemently opposed to Hitler. The leader of the Sudeten German Social Democrats, Wenzel Jaksch, gave a moving talk on Radio Prague’s English shortwave broadcasts 16th September 1938, just days before the fateful Munich conference.

"Czechs and Germans cannot annihilate each other. Each nationality has its failings and its virtues. Somehow or other a formula for an honest and peaceful cooperation of the nationalities has eventually to be found, not only in our country, but in the whole of Europe. Let us join all forces to avoid that our home borderland will become a cause of conflict or a battlefield. Let us create a higher standard of cooperation of the two nationalities who dwell upon a soil assigned to them by destiny and which are called to be the bridge linking the German and Slav peoples.”

Radio Prague also broadcast an address by the anti-Nazi German priest, Emmanuel Joseph Reichenberger, who had spent decades working with the poor in and around the city of Liberec. On 17 September, he appealed in vain to Sudeten Germans not to let themselves be seduced by the fanatical rhetoric of their leaders.

“We are standing on the edge of a precipice. An unbounded campaign of hate has claimed its first victims. I speak as a German who truly loves his people and home and wishes to protect them from destruction. We must not bear the burden of the hatred and curses of the rest of the world. I speak as a human being and a Christian, who sees God’s image in every human soul, who believes in worthier ways of settling human and inter-state differences than war and annihilation. Sudeten German men and women: think of your responsibility towards your family before God, your home and our people. Pray, work, sacrifice for peace. God wishes it.”

Four days later Czechoslovak Radio listeners were to witness one of the most dramatic moments in the radio’s history. The government announced that it was willing to succumb to German pressure and would give up large areas of the country’s borderlands to Nazi Germany. By this time it was clear that Britain and France would not be willing to fight for Czechoslovakia’s territorial integrity, and that to defy Germany would mean invasion. The announcement sent a shockwave through Czech society, and immediately thousands took to the streets in protest.

Our archives include a description of the atmosphere in Prague by the British journalist, Jonathan Griffin, who was later to become the wartime head of European intelligence at the BBC.

“Everyone who took part, turned out into the streets in order to show somehow, as best they could, one thing: that they would rather fight and die for their republic, even if the cause were completely hopeless. That was the sole aim of this rising of the Czechoslovak people.”

Adolf Hitler signs Munich Agreement,  photo: Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Heinrich Hoffmann

The crowd knew where they were heading.

“A crowd burst into the Prague broadcasting station, breaking a little glass in the process, but once inside, did it loot and smash, as a revolutionary mob would have done? No. All it asked was to be allowed to speak through the microphone to the peoples of the world, to explain to them that it would rather die than yield, and to ask for a government composed of its beloved soldiers.”

As the veteran Czech broadcaster, Miloslav Disman later remembered, the crowd had heard the bad news of the government’s decision through the airwaves, and therefore they felt that “it was through the airwaves that the decision could be reversed.”

Dozens broke into the radio building here on Vinohradská Street, and eventually the programme editor, who himself could understand only too well the anger of the crowd, allowed a small group to approach the microphone.

A man – to this day we don’t know who he was - appealed for Czechoslovakia to be allowed to fight, and for a military government to be set up. He was clearly not used to the microphone and his words drifted sometimes incoherently from subject to subject, but the message was more than clear:

“We appeal to all Czechs, Slovaks and Germans living in our Czechoslovak Republic, to await the next decision of the people, who are demanding on all fronts that the territory which we have built up and lived on for centuries – fathers, mothers and sons - and for which our boys, our fathers and families have shed their blood, is not given up without a fight.”

In the coming days war really did seem close. Hitler suddenly stepped up his demands, a mobilization was declared in Czechoslovakia, and World War I hero General Jan Syrový, became Prime Minister. Did this amount to a military coup? Joan Griffin, whose husband John we have just heard reporting on the dramatic events at the radio, thought otherwise, and her comments, from 23 September 1938, are also preserved in the archives.

“In most countries, a government with a general at its head would mean a military dictatorship. Here it means a democracy ready to defend itself. To start with, the setting up of the new government is an answer to the clearly expressed will of the people, for the thousands who demonstrated two days ago in Prague and in other towns wanted to show only two things. They would rather die than yield, even if they were deserted and surrounded, and they wanted a government with one of their dear generals at its head. But not only was the setting up of the new government an expression of the will of the people. One can be perfectly sure that it will never degenerate into a military dictatorship. The tradition of Masaryk, who believed that the army should be the instrument of the republic and not a political organisation pervades this army. It is not just a phrase in the constitution, it is an unquestioned conviction.”

Joan and Jonathan Griffin were far from being alone as foreign journalists covering the Sudeten crisis, as Gordon Skilling later recalled:

“At that time there descended onto Prague hordes of international journalists. It was, I think, almost the first occasion of this kind of international broadcasting, and many very famous journalists came.”

Some of these journalists’ reports survive in the radio archive, and they offer some lively accounts of the atmosphere in Prague.

Munich Agreement - Benito Mussolini,  Adolf Hitler,  Edouard Daladier | Photo: Heinrich Hoffmann,  Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1971-041-31,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“This is John T. Whittaker of the Chicago Daily News at the microphone. At 10:15 last night the radio sounded out. Complete mobilization was ordered. Our struggle is just, said the radio, for our motherland and freedom. Long live Czechoslovakia! As these words sounded, the thousands in the street uttered a single deep-throated cheer. It was the roar of a people who says: Better to die on your feet than to live like slaves on your knees. Trams were piled into, taxi cabs and private cars commandeered. Thousands rushed frantically to clasp their wives perhaps for the last time, collect a knife, fork and spoon, two days of food and an extra pair of shoes. From the railway stations, named after Masaryk, the President of Czechoslovakia and Wilson, the President of the United States of America, these soldiers are to be fanned out in dozens of directions to stand under arms in their appointed places.”

“This is Eleanor Packard, the United Press correspondent in Czechoslovakia. I arrived here this evening and thought that I had suddenly fallen into a pot of ink. Prague, who main street, the Václavské náměstí rivals Broadway in its electric signs at night, couldn’t be distinguished from the rest of the city which was all in darkness. The street looked like a charcoal line drawn through a pool of tar. With the aid of a creeping taxi with blue headlights, I finally found the Hotel Ambassador, where the newspaper fraternity foregather and, over beer and whisky, try to get news out of each other. Sitting around in the lobby, which was lighted by blue lamps, everybody was talking about the note, which the British Minister [i.e. Ambassador], Mr B. C. Newton, delivered to the Czechoslovak government today, which is supposed to contain Germany’s final demands. Most of the newspapermen, however, were optimistic that somehow or other a pacific solution is to be found. The Czech people themselves seem definitely determined to hold out for the minimum concession of territory. It is this determination that has impressed me most in the changed aspect of the city.”

We quite often hear it said that in the run-up to World War Two, no-one quite realized the scale of the threat that Nazi Germany posed in Europe. When Hitler set his eyes on Czechoslovakia, there were plenty of politicians in Western Europe who really seemed to believe his promise that the Czech borderlands, the so-called Sudetenland, were his “last territorial claim”. But Czech Radio’s archives show only too clearly that here in Prague there were plenty of people who were quite aware of the worldwide menace that Hitler posed. As Britain and France pursued their policy of appeasement towards Germany, these were voices that, tragically, remained unheard.

Here, for example, is the Prague left-wing journalist Kurt Konrad, who on the 17th September 1938, a few days before the Munich Agreement was signed, hit the nail on the head in describing Hitler’s real ambitions for the Czechoslovak Republic.

“According to his conviction, Hitler wants the whole of Czechoslovakia, not only the Sudetenland, and no concessions in the Sudeten German question could satisfy the ever-increasing appetite of the Third Reich, as long as these concessions were to preserve the sovereignty and unity of the republic. He means to weaken and crush the republic, and turn it into a vassal state of Germany. According to his opinions, the airplanes constructed in the highly efficient Czechoslovakian factories, should appear in the service of the Third Reich above London bearing deadly freight.”

Kurt Konrad was spot on. Within two years bombs were falling on London, and Hitler really did use Czech armaments – and in particular tanks - in his invasion of Western Europe, weapons that he had gained without a shot being fired. Kurt Konrad paid a high price for the clear-sightedness. He was arrested just months after Nazi troops fulfilled another of his predictions and stormed into Prague in March 1939, and he was to perish in a Gestapo prison in Dresden in 1941.

Another prominent Czech who had no illusions about Hitler, was the historian Jan Slavík, who spoke on Radio Prague on 29 September 1938, pointing out the hypocrisy of Hitler’s claims to be defending the civil rights of Czechoslovakia’s German minority.

Neville Chamberlain,  photo: Public Domain

“The opinions are being voiced today that Germany is fighting for the right of self-determination for the German people. They have to be answered as follows. He has no right to expound these high principles who is treading on them by the theory of the supremacy of his race, by his theories of master and slave nations. Our conscience is clear. Our democratic state has been and is ready to give equal rights to all its nationalities, but on the other side, those who want to make use of the right to self-determination against us have no moral right to do so, until they proclaim before the whole world the principle that they recognize the equality of all nations as well as their right to live. Until they disclaim the programme of violent conquest of the territories of other European nations as it is outlined in Adolf Hitler’s book ‘My Struggle’, their excited shouting about the rights of their nation remains a mere sound.”

By a bitter irony, Professor Slavík’s warning was broadcast on the very same day that Hitler and Mussolini, and the British and French Prime Ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, met in Munich to grant Hitler nearly a third of Czechoslovakia’s territory. Sadly Mr Chamberlain was not one of those who listened to Radio Prague’s English broadcasts. He returned to London with a promise of peace for our time.

“We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.”

Eleven months later, the world was at war.