March 15, 1939 – The day Czechoslovakia ceased to exist

German troops at Prague Castle, March 15, 1939

Eighty years ago today, on March 15 1939, Hitler gave Czechoslovak President Emil Hácha a stark choice: accept becoming a protectorate or face destruction. After Hácha reluctantly agreed to give up his country’s independence the German army started moving in. It was the beginning of six long years of occupation.

German troops at Prague Castle,  March 15,  1939 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

It was March 1939 when the chief of Czechoslovak Military Intelligence, František Moravec, received a phone call from Colonel Antonín Hron, the country’s military attaché in Berlin. Hron confirmed the message that Moravec had received a few days earlier via one of his agents – Germany will invade Czechoslovakia the next day.

Unlike the Czechoslovak foreign minister, who refused to believe the information, Moravec knew that now was the time to act. He quickly assembled his closest staff along with as many intelligence documents as he could and boarded a plane headed for Britain, where he would continue the fight in exile.

At the same time, the country’s President Emil Hácha was sitting on a train headed for Berlin. The man who had replaced Edvard Beneš as head of state after the Munich agreement was still hoping he could persuade Hitler to leave Czechoslovakia alone.

Emil Hácha,  Adolf Hitler in Berlin,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  B 145 Bild-F051623-0206 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
But the Fuhrer had already laid out a plan and the pieces were falling into place like clockwork. In the immediate days running up to the invasion Hitler had made sure Czechoslovakia’s fall would be swift. His actions ran along the script of a directive he had issued in December 1938.

He met with the Hungarian ambassador on March 12th and proposed that the Hungarians make themselves ready to seize the easternmost Ruthenian part of Czechoslovakia in as short a time as possible. The Hungarians agreed.

Meanwhile, goaded on by the Germans, Slovak leaders were pushing for independence, which led Hácha to declare martial law in the province on March 10th.

After securing Hungarian intervention, Hitler met with Josef Tiso, the leader of the Slovak separatists, on March 13th. The Fuhrer promised Tiso that he would protect Slovakia if it declared independence now and handed him a draft independence declaration. The alternative was to be occupied.

Tiso was initially hesitant but the next day he presented the declaration in the Slovakian Parliament. Faced with being occupied or going along with the deal, Slovak representatives decided to declare independence on March 14th.

Now, in a last desperate bid, Hácha was headed to Berlin, hoping to persuade Hitler to stay back. In fact he was in for a nightmare.

In Hitler’s typical arrogance when dealing with a weaker opponent, Hácha was only told to turn up at the Reich Chancellery at 1:15am.

Adolf Hitler at Prague Castle,  photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2004-1202-505,  Prag,  Burg,  Besuch Adolf Hitler / CC-BY-SA-3.0-de
There he started pleading with Hitler for mercy, something that did not at all make the right impression on the fascist leader.

Hácha was presented with an ultimatum that Czechoslovakia either surrenders itself utterly to Germany or there will be war.

While Hácha at first recovered his wits and refused to sign a prepared document urging his countrymen not to fight the incoming German forces, after Goering pulled out his threat about the Luftwaffe flattening Prague, he collapsed onto the floor and, following resuscitation by Hitler’s personal doctor, he succumbed to pressure and signed.

It was 3:55am in Berlin and Hácha had just signed over his country’s fate into Nazi hands. Soon a call to the population not to resist the invading Wehrmacht was being broadcast on Czech Radio.

While German troops were rolling through Czech cities, the radio waves broadcast President Hácha’s justification of his decision.

“After a long conversation with the Reichschancellor,and after considering the situation, I have decided to place forthwith the fate of the Czech nation and state, with full confidence, into the hands of the Führer of the German nation.”

The German columns under the command of General Blaskowitz moved swiftly and faced virtually no resistance in Bohemia and Moravia.

Neville Chamberlain,  Adolf Hitler,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-H12751 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
In Carpathian Ruthenia resistance to the Hungarian troops was strong, but with the army unable to draw on reserves and material from the now independent Slovakia, Czechoslovak troops had to retreat after a few days.

But it was not just the German army that was entering Czechoslovakia on March 15th. After browbeating President Hácha in the night and ordering the invasion in the morning hours, Hitler himself travelled to Prague, which lies just 350km from Berlin.

Taking a tour through the Old Town, he inspected his troops at Prague Castle, the ancient seat of the kings of Bohemia in the early evening hours. By two in the morning on March 16th he was sipping on a glass of Pilsner Urquell.

Later that day, the amateur architect contemplated the destruction of Petřín Tower, due to it “ruining the overall view”.

Meanwhile Germany’s Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, read out the Fuhrer’s proclamation on Czech Radio.

“The lands of the former Czechoslovakia, occupied by German troops in March 1939, are from now on part of the Greater German Reich and, as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, enter into its protection.”

In Britain and France there was shock.

The next day, while Hitler was reviewing the Moravian capital of Brno on what was soon to be called Adolf Hitler Platz, Neville Chamberlain condemned the German leader’s move, but also sought to defend the decision he had made to strike a deal with him six months earlier.

German troops at Wenceslas Square,  March 1939
“It has been suggested that this occupation of Czecho-Slovakia was the direct consequence of the visit which I paid to Germany last autumn. It is said that, as this was the personal policy of the prime minister, the blame for the fate of Czecho-Slovakia must rest upon his shoulders.

“I may remind you that, when it was first announced that I was going, not a voice was raised in criticism. Everyone applauded that effort. It was only later, when it appeared that the results of the final settlement fell short of the expectations of some who did not fully appreciate the facts-it was only then that the attack began, and even then it was not the visit, it was the terms of settlement that were disapproved.”

Still reluctant to issue an open threat, Chamberlain carefully worded a warning that further action from Germany could lead to war.

But while the British prime minister’s speech was being broadcast in the UK, listeners of Czech Radio had to contend themselves with German marching tunes and the commentary of a Wehrmacht parade which was taking place on Wenceslas Square.

The commentator, a reporter named František Kocourek, took an ironic tune, reminiscent of good soldier Švejk.

Knowing any outright criticism would be banned, Kocourek instead feigned ignorance of military hardware, inserting his true thoughts in passages within the commentary.

“It all seems like a bit of a dream. Just a week ago, who would have thought that we will see such a military parade on Prague’s Wenceslas Square.”

His reference to a black crow circling above Prague became legendary.

František Kocourek,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
„Allow me to mention a non-military fact. Somewhere from afar a black crow flew over Prague. It circled above the National Museum building above the headlights and listening devices of the German army and headed down Wenceslas Square to Můstek. Perhaps the crow was surprised by the noise it had heard and the picture it saw below.”

The new German administration was reluctantly tolerant of the popular commentator, because it wanted to secure him as a collaborator for the regime. However, eventually they lost patience with František Kocourek. He was arrested by the Gestapo and would later die like so many others in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

As German troops continued to parade through Prague on March 17th, Hitler left Czechoslovakia. He would never return, but that would have been a poor consolation for the majority of the Czech population, which now faced six long years of Nazi tyranny.