Martin Nekola: Czech Chicago and other untold stories of Czechs abroad

Chicago in 1940, photo: Public Domain

Czechs abroad have always been an integral part of the nation’s identity, but in the years of communism this bond was broken. The cultural and political life of Czech emigrés and exiles, especially in the West, came to be seen as a threat. Nearly three decades after the fall of communism, something of this suspicion still remains, and in the Czech Republic it is surprising how little we know about the Czech diaspora and their contribution both to their host countries and to the idea of what it means to be Czech. The historian and political scientist Martin Nekola has been working to put this right. He met David Vaughan.

Martin Nekola,  photo: David Vaughan
Before the Second World War, there was a great deal of cross fertilisation between the Czech diaspora around the world and their home country. Links with the United States were particularly strong. Chicago’s mayor Anton Cermak – or Čermák – famously visited Prague in 1932 and in our archives we still have a recording of him greeting Czechoslovak Radio listeners in his American Czech. Cermak is probably the most famous Chicago Czech, but he is just the tip of the iceberg. Martin Nekola has written a book that aims to map the role of Czechs in the city, so I began our conversation by asking him to tell us more.

“After Prague, Brno and Vienna it was the fourth largest Czech city in the world. The census talked about 130,000 Czechs in the 1930s living in Chicago and over 70,000 living in suburbs like Cicero and Berwyn. So yes, the Chicago area has a really strong Czech history.”

Chicago also had a mayor of Czech origin.

“Yes. It was mayor Anton Cermak, who was born in Kladno, and he moved as a young boy with his parents to North America. He used to work in the coalmines and then he started to be interested in politics and in 1931 he became mayor.”

So, it’s a classic story of a self-made man…

“Exactly. And he was very popular, not just among Czechs but also among the Polish, Jewish, German and Irish communities living in the city, because he was really taking care of their needs and of their problems, unlike the former mayor, the Republican ‘Big Bill’ Thompson, who was famous for his corruption affairs and for laundering the city’s money.”

It must have been a very difficult time to be mayor of Chicago. There are all the myths of the Mafia, the gangs and the shootings…

“It was the time of prohibition, and mayor Cermak was a strong opponent, because he logically presumed that it would cause a lot of other troubles – for example, the increase in the power of the Mafia, Al Capone and the other gangsters.”

And he ended up paying a high price.

“He was assassinated in Florida in 1933. History says that it was an assassination attempt on the newly-elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but some people say it was also an assassination attempt on Cermak.”

Anton Cermak,  photo: Public Domain
What do you think?

“I don’t know. I guess both ways are possible.”

Anton Cermak is the tip of the iceberg. What about other Czechs in Chicago, both at that time and after the Second World War?

“Well, there were many politicians, artists, scientists, engineers, businessmen. You could write a thousand-page encyclopedia about Czechs in Chicago. The book I wrote about Czech Chicago is just a short version of it, with just a hundred pages, to present the most important information, the most important affairs, organisations and people, because it is such an incredible history, starting around the 1850s and lasting until now. But I guess it’s just the first step, because last year I was in Cleveland, in a few weeks I’m going to visit Saint Louis and Milwaukee and Madison. I’m going to New York twice a year, and each of these cities has its own Czech history. You can find the records and materials on many Czech organisations and newspapers. I guess it’s still a half-forgotten part of our Czech history.”

When you are in Chicago do you still feel this hint of Czechness?

“There is still the school of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, still teaching the Czech language and Czech culture, we have a Czech consulate there, there is a Czech trade office and once a year there is a picnic in Brookfield, where all the Czech associations still active in the Chicago area meet and present Czech culture to the Americans. You can hear Czech songs there. It’s part of the Czech presence abroad.”

Mayor Cermak visited Czechoslovakia in 1932. Did Czechs in Chicago continue to exercise influence back home, or were the two sides completely cut off by the Cold War?

“When Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk came to Chicago in 1918 it was a huge event, and then during the First Czechoslovak Republic there were strong connections. There were cultural exchanges, student exchanges, etc., etc. It’s also forgotten that Edvard Beneš, as a private person, visited Chicago in spring 1939.”

To put this in a historical context, this was six months after Beneš had resigned as Czechoslovak president following Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. We’re talking about the time when Germany occupied what was left of the Czech Lands in March 1939.

Chicago in 1940,  photo: Public Domain
“Exactly. And in Chicago Beneš started his anti-Nazi resistance, because the first money he collected was from the Chicago Czechs. They asked him, “Please, Mr President, be in charge of the anti-Nazi resistance.” So, all of this happened in Chicago in spring 1939. But history is cruel. Do you think someone expressed gratitude to Chicago Czechs after the war in 1945? I don’t think so. After that time the connection wasn’t so strong. The opinions of Chicago Czechs on the events of February 1948 and the communist coup were a bit different, because part of the community thought it was the rightful ending of the struggle of poor people and of workers for justice, and part thought it was just a crime. The politicians who tried to establish the structures of the anti-communist exile after 1948 weren’t in the same position as Masaryk during the First World War or Beneš during the Second World War because they just didn’t get the same strong support from Chicago Czechs and the other compatriots abroad.”

Following the four decades of very difficult relations between Czechoslovakia and Chicago, what happened after 1989? Did everything just open up again or were the barriers too big to make it possible to return to the spirit that you talk about between the wars?

“Actually, in the 1970s there was a travel agency, run by one Czech living in Chicago, offering trips to Czechoslovakia. A lot of Czechs in the area paid for a trip to Central Europe and Czechoslovakia. So there were relations of some kind during the communist regime. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, President Havel visited Chicago in the early 1990s and the cultural exchange was re-established.”

Was there also an element of mistrust?

“Yes, and I guess that Czechs had – and still have – a weird relationship to the Czechs living abroad, because they consider them as someone who was lying in bed for forty years and getting US dollars, while the rest of the population was suffering here under the communist regime. So we still need to work on this.”

Photo:  NLN - Nakladatelství Lidové noviny
To move on to another subject, which I know is very close to your heart, you have been doing a lot of research into a Czech journalists and politician who most of our listeners probably won’t have heard of. His name was Rudolf Kopecký and he died in 1981 in London. He was very influential during the First Republic, up to the time of the Munich Agreement and then consequently in exile. Tell us a little about your research.

“Rudolf Kopecký wrote his memoirs, consisting of 2,350 pages, depicting the history of the First Czechoslovak Republic, the First World War, and then the years of World War Two and the anti-Nazi resistance, and then the Czechoslovak anti-communist exile. What is incredible is that the material was lying in the archives in London and Chicago for decades and it has never been published. Kopecký was working as a journalist for many newspapers and magazines in the First Republic, and he belonged to the National Democratic Party of Karel Kramář, which was always opposed to the political mainstream and to the politics of Edvard Beneš. So the memoirs are very interesting, because he’s writing about backstage negotiations between political parties and what happened during elections in Czechoslovakia. And then in 1939 he left, first to Poland, then to France and then to Great Britain, where he joined the Czechoslovak Army. He didn’t come back after 1945 because he was against the pro-Soviet orientation of Czechoslovak politics. He remained in Great Britain and he was behind the foundation of many exile organisations and periodicals. But this history is almost forgotten.”

The image of the pre-war First Czechoslovak Republic is very much built on the tandem of President Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, who for many years was foreign minister and then himself became president. We tend to ignore or the other political currents that were in Czechoslovak society at the time. What was so important about someone like Rudolf Kopecký in that context?

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in Chicago in 1917
“Kopecký didn’t like Beneš, we have to say it openly, and he didn’t like his foreign policy. He thought that Beneš was very successful during the First World War and then in the Paris Peace Conference…”

… in negotiating the very fact that Czechoslovakia came into existence…

“…exactly, but then Kopecký didn’t consider the system of agreements with Great Britain and France very useful and very practical. Instead of this, Kopecký wanted Czechoslovakia to be focused also on relations with Poland and with Austria, and to build some strong alliance in Central Europe to face the German and the Soviet threat. But this didn’t happen, and we know what happened in 1938, with the Munich Conference and the threats of both allies, France and Great Britain.”

So you are saying that history proved him right.

“I think so.”

During the Second World War, Rudolf Kopecký found himself in London. The prime mover in London was the president-in-exile Edvard Beneš. In the course of the war, out of the fear that Czechoslovakia might not be reinstated after the war within its pre-1938 borders, Beneš made all sorts of overtures to the Soviet Union. This was where the two fundamentally parted company.

“Yes. Kopecký had an offer after the war to come back to Czechoslovakia and become editor-in-chief of a newspaper, but he refused, exactly because of this. As far back as 1943 when the Czechoslovak-Soviet treaty was signed, he warned that it was not a good move and would cause a lot of trouble in the near future. And again he was right. He joined the anti-Beneš opposition in London, along with General Lev Prchala and others who also felt that a pro-Soviet orientation was not a good idea, but their position and role in exile wasn’t as strong as they predicted because the British authorities didn’t recognise them as the official exile.”

Edvard Beneš | Photo: Library of Congress
You talk about Rudolf Kopecký’s almost uncanny gift for predicting what was going to go wrong in the 1930s and 1940s. Are many of the things that he wrote in the course of his life still relevant?

“We can see that he was talking about propaganda, about the hidden interests of political parties and politicians, and about untruth in the press and in broadcasting. So it’s still relevant today.”

Rudolf Kopecký is virtually forgotten, but you are in the process of editing and putting together his memoirs. You hope to publish the book next year, but you still have a way to go.

“You can imagine that to process even part of the 2,000 pages of text is not very easy. I’m adding the footnotes and explanations, because some people and events have to be reminded to the broader public. But I guess that by the end of the year we might be finishing the text and then hopefully next spring the book could be printed and published. If listeners are interested in supporting the project in any way, I'll be very glad to hear from them.”