Historian Mark Cornwall: Treason is a very sexy subject – it’s like murder

UK historian Mark Cornwall is an expert on Czech-German relations and the late Habsburg Empire. His book The Devil’s Wall explores the previously little-known story of Heinz Rutha, an associate of Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein whose sexuality led to criminal charges. Cornwall is currently preparing one book that should be entitled Queer Bohemians and another on treason under Austria-Hungary. We spoke during a recent visit he made to Prague.

What led you to study Czech back in the mid-1980s?

Mark Cornwall | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“It was purely by chance, really, because I was looking for a job in the mid-1980s and there were hardly any jobs around, and then a research post came up in Oxford, at the university, working with the Czech historian in exile Zbyněk Zeman.

“It was a project about the Czech-German problem, Czech-German relations.

“I worked on that with him, but as a condition of getting that post I had to learn Czech.

“So that took me into learning Czech – and I was then led down the Czech route for 30, 40 years.”

You came here when it was still under communism, in ’87. What were your experiences at that time?

“I came here in 1987 to go to the Summer School in Brno, Letní škola, to learn Czech.

“They told me in Brno this was the correct way to speak Czech, with a Brno accent. Don’t go to Prague, they said.”

“It was interesting. I was rather naive. I was just coming here as a student to learn Czech.

“I met some friends in Prague who I’m still in touch with.

“I had a very kind of Brno experience of getting to know Czechoslovakia.

“They told me in Brno this was the correct way to speak Czech, with a Brno accent. Don’t go to Prague, they said.

“I was in Brno for about a month or six weeks, and then I came back in 1989.”

And apparently you met Havel at that time?

“Yes, that was in 1989.

Václav Havel in 1989 | Photo: Miloň Novotný

“I came here in 1989 for six months and I arrived in January and there were demonstrations on Wenceslas Square.”

Was that Palach Week [a series of protests marking the 20th anniversary of Jan Palach’s self-immolation and death]?

“I arrived just as the demonstrations had started and I went to the square and absolutely by chance I met Havel.

“There were a group of people and they said, This is Mr. Havel – and I shook hands with Václav Havel.

“Then he was arrested later that day.

“I shook hands with Václav Havel. Then he was arrested later that day.”

“I know now that they opened a surveillance file on me, they opened a police file on me, and I was basically followed around for the next few months.”

Did you have a code name?

“Yes, my code name was Kurýr, so Courier [laughs].Which tells you everything.”

Exciting – courier!

“It was, yes. They thought that I was bringing information in and out – that’s what they were interested in.”

Today you’re a professor of modern history at the University of Southampton, and one of your big areas of interest is Czech-German relations. If we look, say, at 1918, with the foundation of Czechoslovakia – what was the dynamic at that time between the Czech and German populations?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“I think in 1918 for German speakers, for Germans, it was a real shock that the war was suddenly over and they were suddenly… this is not everyone, but many Germans, let’s say, were very shocked – they were suddenly thrown into this new state of Czechoslovakia.

“So that was a real surprise for them, particularly for Germans who were nationalist – that was a real shock.

“And many of those were not prepared to accept it.

“For Czechs, and again let’s say for most Czechs, this was an incredible opportunity.

“But we know now from the research that some Czechs were not very political, they were just interested in everyday life – and 1918 didn’t mean so much to them.

“I think for historians it’s always a bit dangerous to think that 1918 was a huge change for everyone.

Photo: National Museum in Prague

“And we know that for many people they still had problems with food, they still had problems with their social security lives and things like that.

“But looking back on it, obviously it was a huge turning point, and it left a German minority in Czechoslovakia.

“Before 1918 Germans in Bohemia and Moravia had also been able to interact with Vienna and go to Austria – there was a much bigger space, let’s say, for them to live in.

“Now they were perhaps confined in Czechoslovakia, and that was a problem for the German nationalist community, obviously.”

Did the Czech leaders do enough to assuage what I presume were the fears and concerns of the German minority?

“I think realistically they did what they thought was necessary.

“But they had this new state, it needed to be a centralised state. I think that was absolutely understandable.

Czechoslovakia,  1918 - 1938

“Because there was always the question: Should they have given more autonomy, devolution to the German areas?

“And there were some possibilities of that in the late 1920s and perhaps that was a lost opportunity.

“In 1926 there was a real opportunity – they could have done more, I think.

“But it’s very hypothetical. I mean, who knows what was possible?

“I think for German nationalist leaders, and those are the people I’ve done a lot of research on, they were always very negative.

“But perhaps they might have been persuaded, if they’d been given enough devolution and self-control of their areas.

“But it was obvious, and it was kind of natural, that the Czech leaders were not prepared to do this.

“They were very nervous about the state breaking up and these areas being annexed by Germany.”

In the 1930s Konrad Henlein became the leader of the Sudeten Germans. He initially advocated for some form of independence for Germans within Czechoslovakia, but later he became a supporter of Hitler and then after 1938 he became the Nazi leader in the region. How should we view the figure of Henlein today? I understand that you question the Czech-centric interpretation or depiction of him.

Adolf Hitler and Konrad Henlein | Photo: German Historical Museum

“Yes, my main conclusion was that Henlein was not a Nazi until 1937, ’38.

“The problem is that a lot of the Czech historiography on this suggests that Henlein was a Nazi from the start.

“I don’t think that’s shown at all.

“I think people like Henlein, their main concern was the Germans within Czechoslovakia, the Sudeten Germans.

“They were concerned about that community, that’s what their main focus was, and therefore they were prepared to take risks to try to improve the position of those people.

“When it was found that that was just impossible, according to their view, by about 1937, then, as you say, Henlein just goes over to Hitler, basically, and they decide that the best solution is that Germany should annex the Sudetenland.

“But we know that that was not a solution for Henlein anyway.

“And afterwards, in the second world war, we know from good research on this that Henlein was not satisfied with the position in the Sudetengau either.

“That was not a good solution. They basically felt they were oppressed under Nazi Germany.

“The Sudeten Germans basically felt they were oppressed under Nazi Germany.”

“So the Sudeten German story is a really tragic story.

“I certainly know from my research that Henlein could not be trusted at all.

“He certainly lied on plenty of occasions. But my conclusion was that he lied everywhere.

“He didn’t just lie to the Czechs – he lied to the British and he probably lied to Hitler as well [laughs].

“The problem with doing research on him is that he’s such a stereotype in Czech history: This is just a man who’s negative, a Nazi.

“I’ve tried to kind of see him in different ways and tried to understand why he had this mentality.

“And I think that’s a better way to look at this.”

I’d like to ask you about your book The Devil’s Wall. It’s about Heinz Rutha. Who was he? And what does his story tell us about that period in Czechoslovakia?

Photo: Academia publishing

“I got into this book because Rutha was a repressed homosexual – so I found that very interesting.

“He also came from North Bohemia, and was very interested in the local community in North Bohemia, around Liberec basically.

“Also after 1935 he really became Henlein’s foreign minister, so-called foreign minister.

“I decided to study his life because there was enough material there.

“I found all this material about the scandal involving Rutha in 1937.”

That was when he was accused [as a youth movement leader] of corrupting adolescents?

“Yes, it’s more than that really – it’s basically being accused of homosexuality.

“And I think ‘corrupting adolescents’… Yes, OK, I think they were kind of late teenagers.

“Most of the people weren’t really underage, but certainly it was against the law in terms of that time.

Heinz Rutha | Photo: Archive of Mark Cornwall

“So yes, he’s arrested in 1937 and put in prison in Česká Lípa – and he commits suicide.

“It’s interesting because he died before the Munich Agreement in 1938, so I thought it was a really interesting life, to look at this life without thinking about the Munich Agreement.

“You asked me what we learn from his life. We learn about the life of a German nationalist growing up in a local community in North Bohemia.

“He was born in 1897, so it’s very interesting – the transition of somebody from the Habsburg Empire into independent Czechoslovakia.

“We learn about the life of a repressed homosexual, which is very interesting, because there is not that much written about that kind of subject.”

Another of your areas of expertise is Czech LGBTQ history. It’s a big question, but what is specific to the history of sexual minorities in the Czech lands?

“I don’t think there’s anything very specific.

“I’m working on a book of essays. It’s going to be called something like Queer Bohemians, or something like that.

“Because if I call it Queer Czechs I can’t include any Germans in it.

“But I think what’s interesting is the experience of the LGBT minority in this region.

“There was a whole culture, a subculture, for gays and lesbians in Prague.”

“It’s a really interesting case study… Yes, you’re right, sometimes there is obviously something specific, because there was a whole culture in Prague.

“We know there was a whole culture, a subculture, for gays and lesbians in Prague.

“Brno had a bit as well.

“But what’s interesting is that some of these people certainly looked outside the country; they were interested in Berlin and Paris – those were places they went.

“What is interesting is really rediscovering this history. There’s been something written in the last 10 years; the historian Jan Seidl has done some really great work on this.

“But there’s still a lot to be written on this.

“I’ve focused quite a bit on lesbians in the region, because there are some wonderful novels.

“So I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on that.

“Again it’s very forgotten history.”

You’re very busy it seems: You’re also working on a book about treason in the former Habsburg Empire, including here in the Czech lands. What are some of the cases you’ve been looking into?

“Treason is a very sexy subject. It’s like murder, you know.

“So when you say you’re working on treason people are very excited.

“I just came across this subject. I just thought, There’s not much written about, historians don’t write about the subject.

“They write about some case studies in the past, but there is nothing really written about the Habsburg Empire.

“More Czechs were arrested for treason than, say, Hungarians or Poles.”

“I saw actually in the bookshop yesterday there are some popular histories about Czech traitors.

“But when Czech historians talk about Czech traitors, they’re really talking about people who betrayed the Czechs.

“Whereas my study is really about Czechs who were seen as traitors by the Habsburg Empire.

“The most interesting examples are, I think, anarchists in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Czech anarchists were quite strong and there quite a few major trials of Czech anarchists.

“The authorities were certainly very nervous, because Czech anarchism then meant using bombs and dynamite and murdering people, so anything like that was interesting.

“And then there are some interesting cases in the first world war, where politicians like Karel Kramář were arrested; he was put on trial for six month and sentenced to death.

“So I use it as a way to try to understand the Habsburg Empire in a new way and think about whether the Czechs, for example, were seen as a major security problem.

“It is interesting, because more Czechs were arrested for treason than, say, Hungarians or Poles.”

Any speculation as to why that might be?

“I just think they gradually got a reputation for not being reliable and forbeing a problem, for demonstrating.

“Whereas on the whole in the Polish region of the Habsburg Empire Poles were just generally more satisfied, I would say.

“Certainly I would say that the Czech lands was a more democratic part of the empire, if we could say that.

“It’s an area where civil society is developing, faster. And the authorities were very nervous about that.”

This year you received the Czech Academy of Sciences’ František Palacký Medal for historical research. What did it mean to you to get that award?

“That meant a huge amount to me, and it was a real surprise.

“I suppose I have been studying this region for 40 years almost, which feels like a long time.

“But no, I was really, really proud to get it, and not many British citizens have got it – I think only a couple.

“So I was incredibly proud, and terribly grateful to the Czech Academy for recognising my work.