London calling: Researcher Erica Harrison on fascinating history of Czechoslovak exile government’s wartime BBC broadcasts

Erica Harrison, photo: Ian Willoughby

During WWII, the London-based Czechoslovak government in exile had only one method of communicating regularly with its people at home: over the airwaves of the BBC. To discuss the content of these programmes, ministers’ broadcasting skills, coded messages to the resistance and much more, I recently caught up with academic Erica Harrison, who has conducted ground-breaking research into the subject. My first question: How much broadcasting did the exile government actually do?

Erica Harrison,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It gradually expanded throughout the war. They had an ongoing dialogue with the BBC, petitioning for more and more broadcasting time.

“That was always related to the military side of the conflict. So especially towards the end, when the front is approaching the occupied Czechoslovak territories, they get more.

“But it’s a sort of gradual building blocks throughout the war.

“It starts with a 15-minute slot a day and by the end of the war they have four or five different broadcasting slots throughout the day, from an early morning news slot to a late commentary programme at 11:30.”

What was the content? Was it news about the progress of the war or more rallying the nation?

“Well, the news broadcasting was mostly run by the BBC Czech service.

“The government programme featured a lot of political speeches and talks, and political commentary: putting military events in context, topical commentaries, especially in response to something that had been in the Protectorate press.

“Or if the Slovak president had said something related to London, they would always have a response.

“At the beginning of the war, the programming was quite diverse. There were comedy programmes, drama, music. Then later on it gets more repetitive – it’s mostly just political speeches.”

This may sound like a strange question, but did they have any kind of feedback?

“Very sporadic feedback. Obviously lines of communication were fairly difficult.

“The BBC had an arrangement with the British authorities whereby they interviewed incoming refugees and compiled intelligence reports based on that. So the occasional Czech and Slovak appears in there.

“A lot of their feedback seems to be reflective of what they could gain from Protectorate and Slovak newspapers.

“So, for example, if there were lots of vitriolic articles against Jan Masaryk, they would interpret from that the Protectorate authorities knew Jan Masaryk’s programmes to be popular. So everybody was interpreting from everyone else.”

Also listening was extremely dangerous.

Jan Masaryk,  photo: United States Library of Congress,  Free Domain
“Certainly, yes. It often appears in the list of crimes that people were imprisoned for even killed for, though it was rarely a primary crime – it was sort of used as an indication of general anti-Protectorate behaviour.

“The threats made it against it were certainly very significant and the German authorities made it increasingly difficult to tune in, by forcing people to bring in their radios and have shortwave functions deactivated and things like that.

“People had to be quite creative in repairing radios and finding safe ways to listen.

“A lot of it would be reported second-hand – this kind of 'šuškanda' idea that one person would listen and then they would share with their friends.

“So people would maybe hear what was being said in London, but not necessarily first-hand.”

Did they often use it as a way to send coded messages to the resistance in the Czech lands?

“Certainly they did do that. I wouldn’t say it was particularly extensive. It fluctuates a great deal. There are some early on and then later as Allied forces were approaching.

“They’re quite interesting to read because they’re obviously chosen to give nothing away. So they say things like, Milan has found his hat, or something. You can only imagine what it was supposed to signify.”

Did all the ministers broadcast or was it only a select few?

“Most members of the government broadcast at some point or other. It wasn’t necessarily related to seniority.

“Ján Lichner, for example, was not necessarily a particularly prominent minister, but he was quite a frequent broadcaster.

“[Jan] Masaryk obviously was singled out for special attention.”

Was he considered the best of them?

“Certainly he was treated as an individual. He started broadcasting before the government had their own official slot agreed with the BBC.

“He continued to broadcast separately from that programme until 1943.

“In 1940, 1941, when he was broadcasting every week, he was classed separately and not included in their airtime.

“He had a celebrity status, certainly with the BBC and I think also within Czechoslovak broadcasting circles. He was always a class apart.”

Photo: Alvar Lidell,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Did he have a distinctive style as a broadcaster?

“Very much so, yes. He broadcast in English, especially in America, and also in Czech. Sometimes he would speak Slovak as well.

“He was very charismatic, very humorous. He takes a really familial tone with listeners. He calls them his brothers, he talks about hugging them: ‘When will we bump into each other on the streets of Prague again?’

“He talks about them as if he has a personal relationship with every listener. Which isn’t something that any other broadcaster assumes.”

How was [Edvard] Beneš as a broadcaster?

“There’s some criticism of his tone of voice, which was sort of halting and nervous. There are some contemporary sources that say, How could this inspire a great deal of confidence?

“But the government certainly receives requests throughout the war, saying it’s important that Beneš broadcasts frequently.

“Some people mention in their memoirs that because he wasn’t extremely charismatic he had something of the doctor or the father figure about him that was sort of reassuring in its mundanity almost [laughs].”

Was there a unity to the content of what they were broadcasting? Or did they all do their own thing?

“Certainly by the middle of the war it’s very unified and coherent. There are certain topics that are reserved for certain speakers. For example, largely Slovak speakers would be asked to speak on specific Slovak topics.

“People had areas of expertise, obviously, so Jan Šrámek will often talk about religious topics, being a minister.

“But generally there’s no direct contradiction. It was managed from the beginning, because everything had to be vetted by the BBC in advance. Too much contradiction would have been clamped down on.”

How did the Czechoslovak ministers refer to Russia in their broadcasts?

“This is something which undergoes a big change, obviously, throughout the war.

“So at the very beginning when the Soviet Union has not yet joined the war, there’s actually some very interesting discussions of the Soviet Union, calls for honest and open discussion and that we should acknowledge the flaws and the good points.

“Obviously from the Soviet entry into war in the summer of 1941 there’s a pretty abrupt change.

Edvard Beneš,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“They do acknowledge that [the flaws of the USSR] but they say, Now is not the time for that, there are greater issues at stake and we are allies in this.

“From there it gets progressively more pro-Soviet. The Czechoslovaks were particularly outspoken against the Polish claims against the Soviet Union, regarding Katyn.

“From 1943 onwards when contact between the Poles and the Soviet Union is severed, the Czechoslovaks are very outspoken in their support for the Soviet Union.

“That impacts very heavily on their relations with Poland and that’s reflected in the broadcasts in the way Poland is discussed.

“There had been potential plans for a confederation between Poland and Czechoslovakia and all of that gets immediately swept aside, once Poland questions the Soviet Union.”

How much input did the BBC have? Did they oversee everything, or keep just one eye on the Czech broadcasts?

“They reserved the right to oversee everything. And all programmes had to be submitted in Czech and in an English translation that was certified and both were checked.

“There was someone called a switch censor active at all times in the studio who had the power to cut the broadcasts. But they never did.

“Some contemporary accounts of the switch censors suggest that perhaps their level of Czech wasn’t particularly impressive.

“A lot of them were second generation Russian émigrés and had basically been assigned all Slavic languages.

“There was political suspicion of the Poles, for example, so they were every alert during Polish broadcasts.

“But the Czechoslovaks were so compliant, with Britain and with the BBC, that gradually the level of control that they were exposed to drops off.

“The lack of importance that Czechoslovakia had in general British political opinion is reflected in the amount of freedom they gained in their broadcasts.

“It’s something I’ve always thought was quite interesting: You might think not being seen as a big player might be politically damaging, but actually in terms of broadcasting it turns to their advantage, really.”

It’s a really fascinating subject – how did you hit on it?

“It was a collaborative project between the University of Bristol and Czech Radio that was set up by Tomáš Černý in Prague in collaboration with my supervisor in Bristol, Dr. Rajendra Chitnis.

“I came to the project after it had already received all its funding.

“It attracted me not only because I think the material itself is very interesting but also because it had a practical side to it – cataloguing this collection of previously unstudied wartime broadcasts that are now held at Czech Radio and are available for people to listen to.”

How did you find listening to this stuff? I presume a lot of it had been heard by nobody since it was broadcast, before you heard it?

“No, potentially not. Some of it is very affecting.

“A stirring political speech when you read it has a certain effect on you.

“But when you can hear it, especially with a more emotional broadcaster like Jan Masaryk, or even Beneš – when you can hear the tone of their voice, it is a very different experience.

“That’s something I really enjoyed during my research – looking at these not just as scripts, but as aural texts, something that people heard that always had that extra layer that you can’t necessarily communicate in a written text.

“They’re a mixed bag, the recordings. Some of them are really hearty British propaganda material, and some of them are really charming little comedy songs.

“There’s a really huge range and I think they’ll be useful to lots of other projects. So I was really glad to be able to make a contribution to making that collection more available.”