Military buffs fear for the future of the Czech 'Maginot Line'

The prospect of going to war with Germany came as no surprise to the Czechoslovak government of the 1930s. Prague had, in fact, been preparing for war seriously for years: by some estimates, over half of all government spending from 1936 to 1938 was for military purposes. Much of this went towards the construction of an elaborate system of bunkers and other defences in the Sudetenland, the border region shared with Germany. The Czech Army today is cutting costs and plans to sell these fortifications to regional governments and private bidders. As Brian Kenety has been finding out, some Czech military history buffs are up in arms over the move.

Adolf Hitler's remilitarisation of Germany's Rheinland in 1936 compelled the Czechoslovak government to step up the pace of fortifying the country's shared border. Prague feared that the Germans would launch a surprise assault and overrun the country's defences before there was time to mobilise the Czechoslovak army and reserves. If attacked, Prague thought it could hold the border long enough for France to honour her commitment as an ally and come to the aid of Czechoslovakia.

"Czechoslovakia is prepared to defend her territory and will not voluntarily give up any part of it".

A pre-war radio announcement by Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes—in English and meant for foreign consumption—in which he promises the country will not allow territory to be ceded to Nazi Germany without a fight.

Adolf Hitler
But France and Great Britain, looking to appease Hitler and win "peace in our time" signed on to the Munich Agreement, in which they agree, in effect, to hand over Czechoslovakia's border region to Nazi Germany.

After taking the Sudetenland in 1938, Hitler boasted:"We now have arms to an extent that the world has never seen".

The Czech-German border was some five times the length of France's shared border with Germany, and the Czechoslovak defences less formidable than the Maginot Line in France—regardless, they proved to be just as inconsequential in preventing Nazi agression.

Nearly seven decades later, the concrete defences remain entrenched in the Czech countryside, silent witnesses to Czechoslovakia's pre-Munich intention to go down fighting, if need be. It is for this reason the bunkers must be preserved, says Martin Rabon of the Military museum of Kraliky, in northern Bohemia:

"Bunkers are witnesses to the time; that the [Czechoslovak] nation was ready to defend the land, and fortifications are the only tangible evidence of that time. It is recent history, but we must be proud of them. It would be a shame, if we started destroying them as a rule. Our offspring would pay a high price."

What is to become of the 200 fortified artillery batteries and 7,000 concrete bunkers that the Czechoslovak government had built is a question of real concern for some Czech military history enthusiasts like Mr Rabon. Others are eagerly awaiting the chance to own their own bunker.

In any case, the Czech Army has no money for their upkeep and will transfer ownership of these unused fortifications to regional governments, which can then sell them off to the highest bidder. Mr Rabon says that regional governments can do with these fortifications what they please, as most bunkers and other World War II-era compounds don't enjoy the status of protected or historical landmarks.

"Regions have the advantage that such objects are not always classified as cultural, historical or technical monuments, which is without question what they in fact are. Not all were officially named monuments: a region can tear one down if it prevents the building of a highway, for example. From our point of view, it's a catastrophe. This system of fortifications was built as one. It stretches for tens of kilometres and only preserving it--as a whole--makes sense."