An Experiment in Vivisection: Czechoslovakia’s Second Republic 1938-1939

Adolf Hitler in Sudetenland in 1938, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H13192 / CC-BY-SA

As a result of the Munich Agreement of September 1938, Czechoslovakia ended up losing 30% of its territory, a third of its population and the greater part of its industry and raw materials. Few people had much faith in the country’s long-term survival as a democracy amid dictatorships. It was, as Jan Masaryk put it, an “experiment in vivisection”. The radio archives give a vivid picture of the consequences of that experiment, which was to last less than six months and end in occupation and eventually war.

Munich Agreement | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-R69173/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 1.0

On the night from the 29th to the 30th September 1938 Britain, France, Germany and Italy signed the Munich Agreement, giving Hitler the green light to annex all the border areas of Czechoslovakia with a majority German-speaking population. Czechoslovakia itself had not even been consulted. The impact on what was left of the country was devastating.

The next day, on 1 October, members of the Czechoslovak government, including the Prime Minister Jan Syrový, went on air, to appeal for calm and explain why they felt that the country could not have resisted Germany with Soviet Russia as its only ally. Even today, it is hard to listen to those recordings. They remind us how the morale of a country can be devastated overnight without a shot being fired.

One minister, Hugo Vavrečka, whose grandson Václav Havel was to become president half a century later, warned that if Czechoslovakia had chosen to resist – with Soviet support – there was even a chance that Britain and France would have switched sides, to bolster Hitler against the Soviet Union. In retrospect this seems extraordinary, but it was disturbingly consistent with the logic of the moment.

The saddest recording from that day is of the Justice Minister, Ivan Derér. He was a tough politician, a Slovak Social Democrat and friend of the late President Masaryk, but he broke down in sobs live on air, as he spoke of the impossible choice Czechoslovakia had faced.

It is hard to imagine how deeply demoralising the impact on listeners must have been.

Most foreign correspondents left Prague immediately after Munich, believing the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s assurances of “peace for our time”. But a few stayed, to tell the story from the point of view of the country that had been sacrificed for that peace. One of them was the British journalist, Jonathan Griffin. Here he is speaking on Czechoslovak radio’s international broadcasts three days later, on 4 October 1938. He is damning of the agreement that has just been signed:

“It is a treaty that will go down to history as the worst treaty of modern times. The method of its conclusion was a bare-faced and complete violation of normally universally understood justice, for the victim of this partition, Czechoslovakia, though it had made every conceivable concession, in order to do away with the ostensible cause of the dispute with Germany, was not even heard in its own defence. Economically too, the terms are outrageous, for they deprive Czechoslovakia of its chief raw materials and cut its main internal communications. Strategically, as well as economically, the treaty amounts to making Czechoslovakia’s independence probably nominal only.

Adolf Hitler in Sudetenland in 1938,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-H13192 / CC-BY-SA

“In fact, nobody has even tried to defend the agreement of Munich, except on one ground only – that it averted a war. Many people think that it did not even do that – that if, instead, the menaces of war had been met with firmness and the support of justice, there would have been no war.”

German troops marched into the Czechoslovak borderlands immediately, and Hitler lost no time in following in their wake, to address his new citizens. On this recording he is in the south Moravian town of Znojmo – Znaim in German – addressing an ecstatic crowd:

“I do not need to remind you that I made my decision about your future long ago. Today I can tell you quite openly. At 8 o’clock in the morning of the 2 October we would have marched across the border, come what may.

This is followed by a huge cheer and cries of “We thank our Führer.“

On 5 October, the Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš resigned. He made a sombre announcement on the radio. Here is an extract.

“You know what happened – that four world powers got together, they decided on the sacrifices they demanded of us in the interest of world peace, and we were made to accept them. I do not wish today to analyse these things or to criticise them. Do not expect any recriminations from me towards any party. One day history itself will pass its judgment, and that judgment will be a just one.”

This is how Jonathan Griffin responded to Beneš’s resignation.

“This afternoon President Beneš resigned. He did not resign from his own wish. He did not resign at the wish of the Czechoslovak people. He resigned because of certain advice given by the new counsellors forced upon Czechoslovakia by the so-called peace of Munich. This means that Czechoslovak independence is only a name. It means that all those conscience-comforting visions, conjured up lately in The Times and the House of Commons, of a Czechoslovakia stronger though smaller, happier because homogeneous, were utter nonsense, if they were not something worse.

Edvard Beneš,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

“You have been told these things by those who wanted to approve, or at least allow, the partition of Czechoslovakia and you have been told not only that the Germans of Czechoslovakia wanted to be in the Third Reich, but also that the Czechoslovak people would still, within their new frontiers, be able to live in real independence, that is to say, to live, if they wanted, as a democracy among dictatorships. You see already what a hollow promise that was. This resignation of Dr Beneš is the first proof that the independence of Czechoslovakia within the new frontiers imposed at Munich, the independence, that is to say, which Great Britain explicitly guaranteed at Munich, is already violated.

“This resignation of President Beneš, which will seem to you at first sight so much less alarming than hundreds of the events so far of this year, is the worst of them all. It means that ideals for which millions of Englishmen, Frenchmen and Americans died in the last Great War have been effectively betrayed. And it means the beginning of a new era of tyranny – at least for all Europe and for all countries near Europe – the beginning of the end of your liberty.”

In the weeks that followed, the fine details of the new borders were settled, with Poland and Hungary, who at Munich had sided with Germany, also taking chunks of Czechoslovak territory.

The international broadcasts of Czechoslovak Radio informed of the developments:

“Czechoslovakia, diminished in size by her frontier territory, ceded to Germany, Hungary and Poland has now her definite boundaries. She has lost almost five million inhabitants and ten million remain to her. She has lost about thirty percent of her territory and has an area today of approximately a hundred thousand square kilometers.”

The following talk, again by Jonathan Griffin, and from 18 October 1938, gives a bleak picture of the atmosphere in the broken Czechoslovakia:

“Prague is a sad place now, but not a dangerous place, not even an uncomfortable one. Food here is plentiful and good as usual, prices are so far pretty normal, there is not so far a shortage of coal, and the electric light has not been cut off. What I have found in wandering about and talking to all sorts of people is this. Everyone is determined to try to rebuild some sort of a tolerable Czechoslovakia, even though the change to frontiers has dealt frightful blows to trade, and many people expect as much as a million unemployed during the winter.

German troops in Prague in 1939,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

“Why do I tell you these particular facts? The reason is that I have just met an English friend, who has just got a letter from his mother in England, saying that she is very worried about him, because she gathers that communications between Prague and the outside world are almost impossible, and because rumours are current that Prague has little food, little coal, no light and a great deal of disorders and excesses. What is more, I am told that the American papers are full of reports that in Prague and everywhere in Czechoslovakia, there are hideous scenes of Jew-baiting – so much so that many people in America talk of a boycott of Czech goods. To anyone on the spot, these reports and rumours seem just amazing, they are so completely untrue.”

Jonathan Griffin foresaw a domino effect, resulting from Czechoslovakia’s abandonment by her allies.

“There is a real danger that Czechoslovakia, partly because economically and strategically we have reduced its independence to a name, partly also out of hatred and contempt for its so-called ‘democratic’ betrayers, will turn to Germany and let itself be used against the West. There is a real danger also that country after country will go the same way until there is in the whole of Europe neither the force nor the faith that could resist and halt the expansion of the regime of Dachau. This is a danger, but it is not a certainty. Here in Czechoslovakia there are two conflicting tendencies. Each is strong and either may win. On the one hand, there is the hatred of the betrayers, the loss of faith, not only in collective security, but in the whole philosophy of democracy, taught by Masaryk and Beneš, also a certain fear and resentment of the German and Jewish refugees, and so on.

“That is one tendency, and one hears it in many mouths. But on the other hand, the masses of the Czech people are sane, courageous and fundamentally democratic. These democratic ideals are felt and understood deeply by the majority of the people and by all classes. Will they be untrue to them, just because France and Britain have been untrue to them? I do not believe so, but, obviously, they need encouragement. They need both a sign that they are not the only people faithful to democracy and some real chance of winning genuine independence again. It is for you to give it to them, for your sake as well as theirs.”

The “you” Jonathan Griffin is referring to is his fellow countrymen in Britain. It was to be another eleven months before Britain was to answer that appeal – in September 1939.

Jan Masaryk,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

Czechoslovakia’s ambassador in London was Jan Masaryk, the son of the country's founder President, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Immediately after Munich, Jan Masaryk resigned, making his reasons only too clear:

“Solemn agreements are being disregarded without even an effort and a true explanation or justification. The League of Nations is laughed at with brazen cynicism. While armaments pile up higher than your tallest skyscrapers, unhappy Europe is asking when, how and who’s the next?”

Jan Masaryk remained in London, and towards the end of 1938 he gave a number of talks to the American radio networks:

“My people, as you know, were ready to die for an ideal. Whether it was a wise readiness, I again must leave to history, but it was a glorious one. They were calm, determined and not frightened. But European statesmen decreed otherwise. Our sacrifice was not needed or wanted, they said. We were subjected to what someone called the other day an experiment in vivisection.”

Masaryk continued with a plea to listeners to understand his country’s plight:

“You will see things happening in my little country diametrically opposed to everything my father stood for and I humbly but proudly stand for today. And I beg of you to understand it. My people were terribly hurt. They were suddenly told, with very little ceremony, that they must shut up and give up. Otherwise – it was a terrible otherwise… This is another job for the historians. I am not really complaining. I am just trying to explain in simple words what went on in the heart of the simple Czech and Slovak, man and woman, who trusted their allies and their friends and quite suddenly found themselves alone, bereft and destitute in a blizzard of harshness.”

With the rump Czechoslovakia left at the mercy of Nazi Germany, people who happened to be Jewish felt increasingly uneasy. One of those helping people to get out of the country while borders were still open, was the Englishman Nicholas Winton. In the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II, he saved 669 Jewish children, by getting them by train from Prague to Britain. I interviewed him in 2007, when he was a spritely 98-year-old:

NW: “Some of the people who had arrived in Prague at that time were already two times refugees. They’d fled from Germany to the Sudetenland as sanctuary. Then they’d fled again for sanctuary from the Sudetenland to Prague, and those who did not have friends or relatives were just put in Nissen huts. So things were pretty grim at that time.”

DV: And the work you were doing was to try to get these people out of Czechoslovakia. Was it clear to you and the people you spoke to in Czechoslovakia that the ‘peace for our time’ after Munich was not going to last?

Nicholas Winton,  photo: David Vaughan

NW: “It was only clear insofar as that is what all my left-wing colleagues felt. When you map what Hitler did in marching through Europe up to the time of the Sudetenland, and knowing what the position was at that time, you couldn’t really feel that it was going to stop. Why should he stop there when everything was working in his favour. It was fairly clear to us. And, of course, there were five committees in Czechoslovakia looking after these displaced people. Now, all of them had lists of children, where the parents had signed that they were willing to let the children go to Britain. Now, all those people would not have wanted to let their children go unless they thought that something terrible was going to happen.”

DV: Yes, this was before Hitler had occupied Prague in March 1939. Technically speaking, what remained of Czechoslovakia was still a free and democratic country.

NW: “Yes, it was before Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia.”

By the beginning of 1939 it was clear that Czechoslovakia was not going to survive even as a torso of its former self. Germany was feeding secessionist sentiment in Slovakia and Hitler was itching to march into Prague.

On the 14th March 1939, Slovakia unilaterally declared independence. Beneš’s successor as Czechoslovak President, Emil Hácha, was summoned to Berlin. Details of his meeting with Hitler are sketchy, but it is clear that he was put under immense psychological pressure to accept a German occupation of what remained of Bohemia and Moravia.

His radio announcement on his return to Prague, is one of the saddest in Czech history.

“After a long conversation with the Reichschancellor, and after considering the situation, I have decided to place forthwith the fate of the Czech nation and state, with full confidence, into the hands of the Führer of the German nation.”

That same day, German troops marched into Prague.

Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain was unrepentant, as we hear in an after-dinner speech he gave two days later on 17 March 1939.

“I have no need to defend my visits to Germany last autumn. For, ladies and gentlemen, what was the alternative? Nothing that we could have done, nothing that France could have done, or Russia could have done, could possibly have saved Czechoslovakia from invasion and destruction. And even if we had subsequently gone to war to punish Germany for her action, and if, after the frightful losses which would have been inflicted on all the partakers in that war, we had been victorious in the end, never could we have reconstructed Czechoslovakia as she was, framed by the Treaty of Versailles.”

[If you found the quotes from Jonathan Griffin in this programme interesting, I would strongly recommend the book “Lost Liberty”, published by Chatto and Windus 1939, which he and his wife Joan (whom we heard in last week’s edition of this programme) wrote immediately after Munich. Jonathan Griffin was also an excellent poet, and I would recommend “In Earthlight”, a selection of his poems published by The Menard Press in 1995.]