Lord Runciman’s Mission to Czechoslovakia

Walter Runciman, photo: Public Domain

In the late summer of 1938, the fate of the Czechoslovak Republic was being decided. The Sudeten German-speaking minority wanted to split from the country and join Nazi Germany. Hitler threatened war on Czechoslovakia if their demands were not met. Britain and France were bound by treaties to help the Czechs but wanted desperately to avoid the war. So, they sent a special envoy to the country – Walter Runciman, 1st Viscount of Doxford, in short, Lord Runciman. Vít Pohanka found an episodic but fascinating story connected with Lord Runciman’s historic mission.

Walter Runciman,  photo: Public Domain
The small Chateau of Žďár nad Sázavou is quite lively during the tourist season. Most visitors, from at home and abroad, usually combine sightseeing of the nearby iconic Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk with a visit to the New Generation Museum. It has received several prestigious awards for its unique multimedia exhibition which very vividly portrays and explains the life of the town in past centuries.

But very few, if any, of the visitors know that right here within the walls of the chateau one hot summer weekend of 1938 a group of patriotic Czech noble families tried to save their country as they knew it. They invited and tried to persuade about the need to save Czechoslovakia a man who had the power to do so. He was sent by the British government on a difficult mission which would have repercussions for the whole of Europe – Lord Runciman. Vít Smetana from the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague has thoroughly researched and published extensively about the crisis of 1938. This is how he introduces Lord Runciman.

“He was a liberal politician and served from 1930 to 1937 in the cabinet as the President of the Board of Trade. When Neville Chamberlain formed a new government in 1937 he offered Runciman only a junior post and he declined it. Nevertheless, as a political figure officially independent on the government he seemed a suitable choice for such a mission.”

Zdenko Radslav Kinský,  photo: Public Domain
However, it became obvious shortly after Lord Runciman’s arrival in Czechoslovakia that he came to listen mainly to the Sudeten German demands, to assess whether they were justified. He spent several weekends with the pro-German nobility. Some of the Czech patriotic old families did not like that at all. Prominent among the Czech noble patriots was one Zdenko Radslav Kinský. President Edvard Beneš took steps to arrange a meeting where Lord Runciman could hear the Czech arguments. The grandson of Zdenko Radslav Kinský is Constantin. He is now managing the chateau and estate in Žďár that the family got back in restitution after the fall of communism and its return from exile in Paris, France. Constantin Kinský met his grandfather as a young boy:

“I remember him vividly because he was quite a flamboyant personality. He was playing tennis and jumping over the net at the age of 75, literally one week before he died. He was quite a character.”

“In that late summer of 1938, my grandfather and grandmother were at the heart of history that was happening right here in our house in Žďár. President Beneš asked my grandfather to organize a meeting for Lord Runciman would have an opportunity to hear what the Czech aristocracy had to say. To see that a solution needed to be found to sort out the mess on both sides and not only one side.”

Constantin Kinský,  photo: Vít Pohanka
No matter how hard they tried, the Czech aristocracy obviously did not manage to persuade or even influence Lord Runciman during their meeting at the chateau of Žďár nad Sázavou. The Munich Agreement was signed a few weeks later that sealed the fate of democratic Czechoslovakia. The Kinskýs and other Czech families later suffered not only after Nazi Germany finally occupied the rest of what was left of Czechoslovakia in 1939. When the communists seized power after the war they labeled them falsely as treacherous half-foreigners and confiscated their property again. If they did not leave for exile they were ostracized and even jailed. The communist regime considered aristocratic families like the Kinskýs dangerous exactly because they were patriotic and natural leaders, even though their initiative and attempt to persuade Lord Runciman about the right of Czechoslovakia to exist failed. Vít Smetana from the Institute of Contemporary History adds:

Žďár nad Sázavou chateau,  photo: Vít Pohanka
“It most decisively was not an empty gesture. It was a genuine expression of their patriotic feelings and way of thinking. This needs to be said and emphasized. The Czech nobility was later falsely presented by the Communists as some sort of alien and treacherous part of the society. This was never true.”

Final note: Constantin Kinsky took over the family Chateau and estate in Žďár nad Sázavou after his father´s death some ten years ago. He and his wife split their time between Prague and Žďár. In 2016 they were awarded the highest honor by the Highlands Region for their contribution to the local cultural, social and economic life. Even though they spent their childhood and youth in France, no one considers them foreigners.