Heroes or cowards? Czechs in World War II

There are two widely held stereotypes of Czechs during the war: while some see a plucky little nation that heroically struggled to survive under the Nazi jackboot, others have argued that Czechs buckled and failed to resist the force of Hitler's Germany. But inevitably history is a great deal more complicated than the stereotypes, and in the course of today's programme, we'll be trying to unravel some of these complexities.

Konrad Henlein
Tensions had been rising throughout the 1930s, with growing separatist tendencies among Czechoslovakia's German-speaking minority, who rallied around a man who took his inspiration from Hitler, Konrad Henlein. It was these pressures that led to the tragic events of 1938, when Britain and France gave Hitler the green light to annex Czechoslovakia's German-speaking border regions, a huge tract of the country.

Czechoslovakia and "Peace in our time".

Czechoslovakia 1938. The physical education teacher, Konrad Henlein, becomes the leader of the Sudeten German Party - a party formed by the large ethnic German minority that lived in the border regions. Promising the 3 million Germans - some 23 percent of the entire Czechoslovak population - autonomy, Henlein soon became the mouthpiece of Nazi Germany in Czechoslovakia. Germany had already swallowed Austria in the 'Anschluss' and Adolf Hitler saw the Sudetenland as a gateway to a more ambitious plan - the occupation of Central Europe.

Hubert Ripka - journalist, historian, and political advisor to the Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes described the political situation to short-wave listeners on August 30, 1938:

President Edvard Benes
"Despite all this, we continue to believe that it is possible to avert a general catastrophe, which would affect almost the whole world. Only recently, President Dr. Benes again expressed his belief in the possibility of preserving peace, when he told the American newspaper woman, Le Clerk, the following: 'I am fully convinced that peace in Europe can be preserved. I consider it my duty to try everything, which would contribute towards peace. Personally, I will do everything possible. I continue in the hope that there will be no war. I am convinced that it will always be possible to prevent it."

On September 13, violence and destruction broke out in the Sudetenland. German rebels besieged train stations, took control of local police stations, post offices, and Jewish shops and buildings. The wave of deep unrest left dozens dead. The Czechoslovak government reacted by declaring martial law in eight districts in the country's border area. But Hitler declared he would no longer tolerate the discrimination of ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia, claiming it was difficult to see how a general European war could be avoided.

Czechoslovakia was a major arms manufacturer and had a very modern army of twenty-five divisions. If Hitler carried out his threat and German forces crossed the border, the Czechs would fight, and they thought they had the guaranteed support of the French and the Russians.

Gordon Skilling was doing research on Czech history in Prague at the time, and also working here at the radio:

"We, at the time, thought that the resistance was possible and desirable and in fact some of the Czechoslovak generals and some of the political leaders felt the same way. We also hoped, perhaps, that the readiness to resist would deter Nazi Germany from attack. I do remember a great mass meeting, a huge meeting of protest against Germany and Munich, at which leaders of the main pro-resistance parties from the Communists to the nationalists spoke. It was an electric occasion because tens of thousands of Czech workers streamed in through the streets to the square, so there was this readiness to resist. The troops went off to the borders and the planes were ready but unfortunately President Benes decided to capitulate and to give way to the British and French demands."

Munich Agreement | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-R69173/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 1.0
Just two decades after the end of WWI, neither Britain nor France - still recovering from the war and marked by the world economic crisis of the inter-war period - wanted another war. On September 29, 1938, representatives of the four great powers - Great Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, met at Munich to come to an agreement. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, became the major spokesman for the West. Recognising Hitler's claims for the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia as genuine, he believed that a war could be avoided if Hitler were "appeased" by promising him the Sudetenland. The Munich Agreement was signed and the Czechoslovak government was neither invited nor consulted.

The Czech border regions were ceded with Germany. Poland took the opportunity to annex the Tesin region in the north, which had a Polish minority of 75,000 and Hungary annexed the southern part of Slovakia and Ruthenia, with a Hungarian minority of 750,000. Overnight, Czechoslovakia lost about a third of its territory, population, and most importantly, its military advantage - its defensive frontier of both mountains and fortifications had been given away and without it the Czech army was worthless.

Should the Czechs have fought?

Emil Hacha
At the time of Munich the Czechoslovak Army had been fully mobilized, and at the end of September 1938, President Benes could have decided to resist the German annexation of the Sudetenland. With Czechoslovakia left alone by its allies, such resistance would have led to massive bloodshed, but should Benes have decided to go to war anyway - knowing the huge number of Czech and Slovak lives it would have cost? The Czech historian Jaroslav Hrbek thinks so:

"I'm of the opinion that it was a mistake not to fight, even without the western allies. Of course I'm supported by such authorities as Winston Churchill, who said that public opinion in Britain would force the government to change its views towards Germany, and supported by the last vote of the French government before Munich, when there was a majority of just one vote for those who wanted to seek an agreement. The other half wanted to go to war. Among those who wanted to go to war was the premiere Daladier himself. So I'd say it was a mistake, and from the moral point of view it would be the right thing to fight even without our allies."

After Munich President Edvard Benes resigned and went into exile in Britain. The elderly Emil Hacha reluctantly became president of the ragged remains of Czechoslovakia. The final nail in the coffin came on 14th March 1939, when Slovakia broke away and formed itself into a puppet fascist state. Emil Hacha was summoned to Berlin. Legend has it that Hitler reminded him of the beauties of Prague, and told him what a shame it would be if the Luftwaffe had to flatten the ancient Czech capital. Hitler demanded that the Czech lands be incorporated into the Nazi Reich as a "Protectorate" - one of the most grimly inaccurate euphemisms in political history. Hacha - it's said - had a minor heart attack. A broken man, he capitulated.

Adolf Hitler at Prague Castle
The very next day on 15th March 1939, German troops occupied Prague.

"I have entrusted our country to the Fuhrer and have been promised his trust,"Hacha said on Czech Radio. The Swastika flew from Prague Castle and not a shot had been fired.

All this is in sharp contrast with another enduring image from the time: that of the Polish cavalry less than six months later, heroically and vainly trying to resist German tanks. And it begs the question: could and should Czechs have shown the same kind of resistance? Jaroslav Hrbek:

"The comparison with the Poles is a bit misleading. We should compare with other nations that the Poles, who are exceptional in their bravery, their courage and their opposition towards the oppressors of all kinds in the history. The Czechs should compare themselves with other nations, such as the Danes or the Dutch, with the small nations, which were occupied by the German army, which were not pleased with the occupation but which had to survive the occupation. And that was the basic problem for the majority of the Czech people, just to survive the occupation, just to live through the war. I would say that to survive the war, the occupation, without damage to one's moral integrity - that was a heroic dead in itself. It was something that not all managed to do and it was something that one can be proud of: to keep ones moral integrity."

The "Protectorate" of Bohemia and Moravia

Bohemian and Moravian Protectorate
In the early days of the occupation, in some ways life went on as normal. The Protectorate was a strange political set-up. At one level the Czech government remained in place. Even President Hacha was able to stay in office. And the Protectorate had a degree of real autonomy. But on the other hand the country had been incorporated directly into the German Reich, and was directly subordinate to German laws. When Czech students protested against the occupation in November 1939, the protests were put down with guns - the student leaders were executed, dozens were sent to German concentration camps and all Czech universities were closed for the duration of the war.

In this strange, schizophrenic situation Jaroslav Hrbek says that the role of President Hacha and Prime Minister Alois Elias was a deeply ambivalent one.

"Elias and to a lesser extent also President Hacha tried not to sabotage, I would say, but to put the Czech nation first and the German efforts second. They tried to lead the Czech nation through the dangerous period, and to save as much of the autonomy, the integrity of the nation as they could."

The Proctectorate government was undeniably collaborationist, but at the same time, up until mid-1940 Prime Minister Elias was also in direct contact with the Czechoslovak Government in exile in London and actively helped to conceal the activities of the underground resistance from the Germans.

Economically life in the Protectorate went on pretty much as normal, and Czechs - unless they had the misfortune not to conform to the Nazi's insane laws of racial purity - were largely protected from the impact of the war.

And strangely enough there was a boom in the Czech film industry, as it was brought under direct German control. Czech film makers were allowed to continue making films for the domestic market - and several divas of Czech film made their careers at the time. One, Lida Baarova, was even said to have been Goebbel's mistress.

But the semblance of normality was short-lived.

Reinhard Heydrich - the end of the illusion of autonomy

Reinhard Heydrich,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1969-054-16 / Hoffmann,  Heinrich / CC-BY-SA / Wikimedia Commons 3.0
It is autumn 1941, we are in the outer courtyard of Prague Castle, the seat of Czech rulers since medieval times. Reinhard Heydrich is being installed as the Deputy Reichsprotektor - the man in charge of the occupied Czech lands. A military band strikes up the SS anthem, the Horst Wessel song. Reinhard Heydrich was the architect and coordinator of the "Final Solution" that led to the murder of millions of Jews; he was also head of the security services throughout the Reich. He had long suspected Prime Minister Elias of contacts with the resistance and immediately had him arrested.

On 2nd October 1941 Protectorate radio report on Elias's execution - for betraying the German Reich. To this day Elias is a paradoxical figure of Czech history - the collaborator who in the end gave his life for his country.

Heydrich, as architect of the "Final Solution" had his own special plans for the Czechs: his grotesque pseudo-scientific studies concluded that 45% of Czechs could be successfully Germanized, 40% were inferior "mongrels", and 15% were racially intolerable. In a speech in October 1941 he stated: "Bohemia and Moravia must become German, Czechs have no business to be here."

The assassination of Heydrich

Heydrich's car after the assassination | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1972-039-44,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
But Heydrich's rein was to be shortlived. His assassination was one of the most daring missions of World War II. Titled "Anthropoid", the mission saw two Czechoslovak soldiers - Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, trained in Britain - parachute into the Protectorate. The aim was to bolster Czech resistance to Nazi rule. Against almost impossible odds Kubis and Gabcik fatally wounded the Reichsprotektor on 27th May 1942, as his car drove through Prague. The assassination had drastic consequences. The Nazis' desire for revenge would catch up with both Kubis and Gabcik along with countless others. Thousands of men, women, and children were killed in the weeks that followed.

A radio broadcast on the 5th of June, 1942, announces the departure of Reinhard Heydrich's coffin from Prague's Bulovka hospital - even as his assailants remained at large, anonymous and hidden, from the fury of the SS. Days after the attack the assassins Gabcik and Kubis were consumed by fear their operation had failed - that Heydrich would survive in hospital. They had no way of knowing that a spleen injury and infection would eventually lead to Heydrich's death. Military historian Jiri Rajlich explains how their attempt had balanced on a knife's edge:

"Originally it was planned that Gabcik would be the one to kill Heydrich with what was known as a sten gun. But, indeed, the gun jammed at the fatal moment as Gabcik was getting ready to shoot Heydrich point blank. Kubis, waiting nearby, then lobbed a small bomb at Heydrich's car. The Nazi ruler was injured but would only die in hospital after one week."

The chaos following the attack saw the Czech assassins quickly go to ground, along with other parachutists in the country on their own sabotage missions. While there was fear retributions would be great, in the end Nazi atrocities exceeded even the worst expectations. In unbridled fury, unable to find the assassins, the village of Lidice was destroyed: the men shot, the women and children sent to concentration camps. But, the butchery didn't end there:

"It's true: no one foresaw just how extensive reprisals would be: in all 5, 000 people were killed."

Professor Erazim Kohak, whose father was in the resistance, was just a boy when Heydrich died: he says he never forgot the mood that enveloped Prague.

"Fear... fear in the air... shock and awe: even children, as I was, were affected by it. The Czechs were simply stunned."

Every day Prague's German radio announced the names of people executed in retribution - most of them chosen without reason. There were also lesser-known consequences, Hana Greenfield, a Holocaust survivor, remembers:

"It has never been made public that also 1,000 Jews were killed in direct reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich."

As Czechs faced retribution at home, Heydrich's killing was hailed as a major triumph abroad, not least in London by Czech president-in-exile Edvard Benes. "Anthropoid" had largely been his master-plan in conjunction with British covert operations (the SOE founded by Churchill to "set Europe alight").

The idea of killing a prominent Nazi official or a highly placed collaborator was central to Benes' plans by 1941 - the exiled president had been desperate to show the Allies that Czechoslovaks had not given up. And he had good reason: for many in the countries still fighting Germany Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist after Munich in 1938. Some historians say that Benes was obsessed that even if the Allies won the war, Czechoslovakia would never regain its former borders and remain forever a rump state. Professor Erazim Kohak again:

"It seems to me, the longer I look back, the more it's clear it was the crucial turning point, the one place where we managed to cancel the Munich Agreement. It was after the assassination of Heydrich that the Allies recognised Czechoslovakia as a fighting ally, and not simply a victim whose pieces would have to be picked up after the war."

Historian Jiri Rajlich agrees the assassination was key to changing Brits' and other allies' minds:

Jiri Rajlich
"Remember, no other resistance movement in occupied Europe proved capable of assassinating such a high standing Nazi official. In all respects, the killing of Heydrich - the head of the security forces, one of the most important men in Nazi Germany - was an extremely significant event. It didn't go unnoticed abroad."

If that was a turning point politically it was also a controversial one with the vicious reprisals that inevitably followed. Gabcik and Kubis, along with members of other paratrooper units with missions of their own, were themselves sold out by one of their comrades, and rooted out by the SS. Together the men staged a doomed stand-off at a Prague church, saving their last bullets for themselves.

Was the killing of Reinhard Heydrich, to put it bluntly, "worth" the terrible price? The massacre of Lidice, the killing of hundreds in the resistance movement, the arbitrary executions... Jiri Rajlich:

"What was at stake here was a higher principle - the same one that led Czech soldiers to join armies abroad or to fight in the underground at home. By my account some 10, 000 Czechs were killed. They could have stayed home and done nothing at all. By definition they didn't have to fight."

Erazim Kohak agrees:

"If there is a Czech nation today then we owe it to the people who fought and made sacrifices then."

Czechs who fought alongside the Allies

The RAF pilots
The Heydrich assassination was the most conspicuous act of Czech resistance, but compared with some countries of occupied Europe active resistance in the Czech lands was very limited.

But while the number of Czechs in the resistance at home was small, the numbers fighting the Germans from armies abroad was far bigger, on both the eastern and western fronts. Jaroslav Hrbek:

"The fact that Czechs were fighting in the Battle of Britain and later in North Africa was of great importance to the Czech government in London in their discussion and their attempts to secure the independence of the Czechoslovak government and its place among the allied nations. The same was true on the Eastern Front, vis-à-vis the Soviet government and Stalin personally. After the first battle of the Czechoslovak battalion, then in the very important Kharkov, it was very well received by the Soviet authorities, even at just the strength of one battalion, were helping the Red Army to win the war."

The Prague Uprising

Czech Radio building during the Prague Uprising
The last major conflict in Europe at the end of World War Two was the Prague Uprising, which began right here in the Czech Radio building. At the time Hitler was already dead, the hammer and sickle was flying over Berlin, but the German army of occupation was still holding out in Prague. General Patton's Third Army could have liberated Prague from the west, but Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed at Yalta that it would be the Soviets who would take the Czech capital. On the 5th May, the people of Prague took up arms to liberate themselves.

Over two thousand Czechs lost their lives in the street fighting that ensued, but they really did manage to liberate not just Prague, but a considerable part of Central Bohemia. With Germany's war machine already shattered, it would have probably made little difference to the war and saved many lives, if the people of Prague had just sat and waited. Jaroslav Hrbek thinks the sacrifice was worthwhile.

"It was just the thing the morale of the nation needed, just to show to themselves that they were able to resist, that they were able to fight actively against the Germans. In that sense I would say that those two thousand dead in Prague made the sacrifice for the right cause and helped to restore the morality and the self-assurance of the nation."

It's thought that over a hundred a fifty thousand Czechs, half of them Jewish, lost their lives in the course of the war. It is hard to speculate what if? - whether the Czechs should have fought after Munich, whether the resistance could have done more and whether non-Jewish Czechs should have done more to help their Jewish neighbours? The war left a complex legacy, but it is easy to understand why many Czechs feel a deep sense of pride as they celebrate the anniversary of the end of the war this weekend.