Historian Matěj Spurný: Munich Agreement fits Czech “victim narrative”

Adolf Hitler in München

Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement which granted Nazi Germany large parts of Czechoslovakia, inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans. A prelude to the Second World War, the deal forged by Germany, Italy, France and the UK dealt a final blow to pre-war Czechoslovakia whose decision to accept the agreement rather than defend the country’s integrity against Nazi expansion deeply demoralized the society. Does the Munich trauma still affect Czechs today? And what lessons can be drawn from what happened in Munich 75 years ago? In this edition of Czech History, I discuss these and other issues with Matěj Sputný, a historian of Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Adolf Hitler signing the Munich Agreement, photo: Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Heinrich Hoffmann
“The first reaction is quite well known really many people in September 1938 wanted to fight for Czechoslovakia. Especially in Bohemia among the nationally Czech soldiers and also the broader society, there was a great will to fight for the state. But once Munich happened and the territory was ceded, the atmosphere in Czechoslovakia changed very rapidly. The Czech society felt betrayed, not only by the great powers, the UK and France, and by the Sudeten Germans but also by their own political and democratic elite.

“So I feel that Munich in this sense was a very demoralising historical moment and you see how quickly the atmosphere was changing in the so called second republic after September 1938 which I think we can not call a democratic state anymore”.

That transformation which was very fast – it only took weeks or maybe a month – is fascinating because pre-war Czechoslovakia is usually described as an island of democracy in this part of the world. But suddenly the Czech seems to have abandoned that. And as one opinion piece in a contemporary newspaper put it, ‘We wanted to sing with the angels but now we’ going howling with the wolves’. Doesn’t it mean that the country’s democratic foundations were not that strong after all?

“You are definitely right. This is also my hypothesis. Actually what I told before is just looking at this history from the surface. If we go deeper, we see that there are roots of this radicalisation and of this anti democratic ethos; these roots go back to the early 1930s.

Czechoslovakia changed quite a lot already during the 1930s after the economic crisis. On the one side, there was this very nationalist Czech politics and at the same time an atmosphere of fear, and politics of marginalisation of many population groups which somehow didn’t fit to the so called Czechoslovak nation. This happened already during the 1930s. So you are right, the roots of this radicalisation and of this rapid change after Munich are much deeper”.

In your opinion piece recently published by the website aktualne.cz, you said that Czechoslovakia had already failed by the time Munich came because it failed to win over the support of all its constituents and various national groups. It was predominantly conceived as the national state of Czechs and Slovaks, and therefore the large groups of Germans and other ethnic groups living in the country did not identify themselves with the state. That was obvious to outside observers but why didn’t Czechs see it?

“Yes, this is very strange. There were just very few people among the Czech elites who said or wrote at that time that this was the actual problem. People like the philosopher Emanuel Rádl, literary critic F. X. Šalda and some others but these were exceptions.

I think once you are on the side of the winners or those who are somehow privileged, it is not so easy to see the situation really clearly and to see how bad the position of the others is, and to see the reasons why the others are not so happy. The Czechs had their own perspective: they thought that their state functioned economically- at least in the 1920s it was better than the other states around. The state had quite a good fundament.

But there was nearly a complete absence of a critique of this ethnic or national politics towards the others, and this worsened in the 1930s which is again a classical pattern: once the economy is in crisis and you don’t have so much to give to the people, these are the situations when the society gets more radical. And at that point the state, and this is my opinion, made the fatal mistake that it was unable to make a just policy concerning the different ethnical groups in Czechoslovakia, and it privileged the Czechs in this very difficult situation of the 1930s.

“This meant a very rapid radicalisation of all the other ethnic groups, so this was a great failure of Czechoslovakia already in the years following the economic crisis”.

Would you say that the way the Munich agreement went down in Czech memory and history, as a betrayal by everybody basically, by the elites, France, the UK, by its own German speaking citizens, without looking at the other side, without acknowledging that Czechoslovakia had an issue with the majority and that the arrangement of the state was not just – would you say that this has left any kind of lasting consequences for Czech identity today?

“Munich is a crucial historical moment for the Czech historical narrative and for the reflection about how we Czechs are thinking about themselves and their history. The basic concept says that the Czechs, at least in the 20th century but somehow in the whole history, are the victims of the others. The Czechs always wanted a democratic just society, and all the time someone from outside made it impossible.

“This, of course, is not true, history is always much more complicated, but it is a very strong narrative. But I think Munich made this interpretation much much deeper and, of course, then other historical moments such as 1948 and 1968 came. But once Munich was there, you could really deepen this narrative. And this is also today in the 21st century in the European Union deep in the heads of the majority of the Czech population”.

You described what was going on in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Great Depression, the radicalization of the society and how the state basically failed to protect its minorities. This is not a history question but aren’t we seeing similar developments now with the rising anti-Romany sentiments and the inadequate response by the authorities?

“I see this in a historical context. This pattern that when things get worse economically and socially, people usually blame the others, not ‘us’, the Czechs – that’s something you can see in other countries as well. But it’s even worse here in the Czech Republic also because there is a very bad tradition of getting rid of the others.

“If you look at the Czech 20th century, at the beginning, the Czech lands were very multicultural and multiethnic. Then you see, one step after another, that various groups are marginalized and even physically removed. I’m not saying this was always the Czechs’ faults, especially in the case the Jews, but what happened after the war with the Germans is crucial. The feeling that now we are the only ones in our country was very strong at that time, and it remained so even during communism.

“The Romany people are actually the only ones left, I’d say, the only big group left in today’s Czech Republic. So I think that the hatred for the Romanies and their segregation is at least partly a consequence of modern Czech history.”

The daily Lidové noviny last week ran an interesting debate of historians. One of the conclusions was that it could be in fact seen as a victory because it paved the way for restoring Czechoslovakia’s borders after the war, and for expelling the German population. What do you think of this view?

“The Munich Agreement was important for exile Czech diplomacy during the war and in this sense, it played a significant role in restoring the borders. However, they were not completely restored as Subcarpathian Ruthenia was ceded to the Soviet Union. But that’s not that important.

“I would not be so sure that getting rid of the Germans and all the changes after the war really were a great victory. I can understand it was seen as such at the time but looking at it from today’s perspective, I think this ‘surgical solution’ was not healthy for the future of this country in the decades that followed, and also from the perspective of today’s Europe which needs different skills than these.”

When Czechs talk about the Munich Agreement, the debate inevitably comes to the question whether we should have fought or not. Do you think it’s an important question, or are there other aspects that would deserve our attention today?

“The question whether Czechs should have fought or not might be important because a similar situation could appear in the future, and it’s important to think whether a diplomatic solution which did not cost too many lives is better for the future than the Polish approach.

“But that’s just one aspect. I think the issue we discussed earlier is important: how Munich could have been prevented, how we deal with the others and how we actually understand what this country is – is it a country of just the Czech nation, or one where many different people live, a country with cultural roots formed by many ethnicities and what it means for our attitude to other people in Europe and those who are coming here now – these are maybe more important questions.”