Gordon Skilling - hope and betrayal in September 1938

Portrait of H.G.Skilling, by Maria Gabankova

It's sixty-four years ago this week - at the end of September 1938 - that the fate of Czechoslovakia was sealed in Munich. Britain and France succumbed to pressure from Nazi Germany and agreed to allow Hitler to seize the Czech borderlands. This in effect was the death-knell for Czechoslovakia, and the last democratic state in Central Europe was sacrificed for the illusion of "peace in our time". Most Czechs and Slovaks had been willing to put up a fight, but when their allies abandoned them, President Edvard Benes agreed to cede the borderlands without a shot being fired. At the time Gordon Skilling was a young Canadian student, working in Prague on his doctorate and contributing to the broadcasts of Radiojournal, the predecessor of Radio Prague. He witnessed the dramatic September events. Gordon Skilling later went on to become one of North America's most prominent scholars of Central Europe. Not long before his death last year, he visited Radio Prague, and remembered the hopes and sorrows of that dramatic moment in 20th century history.

"I'd decided to do research on Czech history for my doctorate at the University of London. 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 of the time leading up to Munich. 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. I witnessed the mobilization of September 1938 and that was a very splendid display of readiness to resist and courage and belief, really, that the crisis, they thought, was over, and they would have a chance to fight if necessary. So it was a great let-down. The troops went off to the borders and the planes were ready, but unfortunately President Benes decided to capitulate and give way to the British and French demands. We at the time thought that resistance was possible and desirable, and in fact some of the Czechoslovak generals felt the same way, and some of the political leaders. We also thought, perhaps, that the readiness to resist would deter Nazi Germany from attack. That was probably a vain hope, but we shared the hopes and aspirations and the fears of the Czechs and the Slovaks. But I do remember a mass meeting in what is now Jan Palach namesti [square], a huge meeting of protest against Germany and Munich and which leaders of the main pro-resistance parties, from the communists to the extreme nationalists, spoke. And that was an electric occasion because tens of thousands of Czech workers streamed in through the streets to the square. So there was a readiness to resist, but it was undermined by Benes's willingness to give way to British and French pressures."