The occupation of 1939: could it have been avoided?

March 1939

Earlier this week we remembered the 72nd anniversary of the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia on March 15 1939. Much has been written about the years that led up to the occupation: the growing tensions with Czechoslovakia’s German speaking minority, Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and then the Munich Agreement of September 1938 that ceded a quarter of Czechoslovakia’s territory to the German Reich. There is a sense of inevitability about the events, but could things have been different and could Czechoslovakia’s President Edvard Beneš have played his cards differently?

Jaroslav Hrbek
Three years ago I recorded an interview with the military historian and former dissident Jaroslav Hrbek and he offered some answers to these questions. Sadly, he died just a few months after we met, and at the time the interview was never broadcast in full. In this week's programme we'll be hearing that interview.

Hrbek’s studies of twentieth century conflicts stretched from the First World War to the Falklands, and won him international acclaim. He also researched widely into the events leading up to World War Two, especially in Czechoslovakia. He came from a distinguished family, and his family history coloured his interests. His father was also a prominent historian and translator from Arabic, and his grandfather had been a general who had fought in the Czechoslovak Legions in Russia in World War One. When we met on a spring day in 2008 at his office in Prague’s Institute of Contemporary History, I was interested to know where he felt the greatest mistakes had been made by Czechoslovakia and other European powers in the face of Nazi aggression. Many historians have argued that, as a multinational state, pre-war Czechoslovakia was doomed from the very start - that it was genetically predestined to fall apart - so I began our conversation by asking Jaroslav Hrbek whether he shared that view.

Adolf Hitler signing the Munich Agreement
“There is an element of truth. Czechoslovakia as a multinational state was not a great success politically, as the German minority from the beginning declined to be a true part of the society of Czechoslovakia. There was, of course, the problem of the Slovaks, who had the feeling that they were being treated just as the younger brothers, there was a Hungarian minority as well, and the Ruthenes in the eastern part of the country. It was even worse in the 30s than in the 20s because of the Great Depression. The German regions were affected more than the Czech regions and the Germans thought it was part of some sort of conspiracy of the Czech government, that they were victims of Czech policy. They were, therefore, inclined to follow the Nazis and Hitler as a person. So the German democratic parties, which were strong in the 20s, were losing their influence over the German minority, and in the 30s the Nazi movement took over. Let’s say that three quarters of the Germans in Czechoslovakia were pro-Hitler.”

How dramatically did things change after 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany?

“Germany became a menace for Czechoslovakia, and it was well-known that Hitler’s aim was to unite all Germans, including Austria, and including the minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Czechoslovakia tried to solve the problem by several means: militarily, as the Czechoslovak army was very strong and the armaments industry was working at full speed in the 30s; politically, by its alliance with France and the Soviet Union as well. The alliance with the Soviet Union in 1938 became more a burden than an asset. From President Beneš’s point of view, there was the danger that Czechoslovakia would become an ally of the Soviet Union in a war in which the Western democracies would join Hitler against the Soviet Union. That was one of the reasons why Beneš, after all, accepted the Munich Agreement.”

Edvard Beneš
Is that fear in any way conceivable?

“Yes. I would say it was. He had the example of Spain, where the Republican government, with the alliance of the Communists, became an ally of the Soviet Union, and the Western democracies – if not participating in this war against this government – did nothing to help the government and allowed Hitler and Mussolini to intervene in Spain on the side of the putschist Franco regime. And this was a great fear for Beneš – not to become an ally of the Soviet Union in a war in which the Soviet Union would be defeated and Czechoslovakia would fall into the German sphere of influence.”

To this day, Sudeten Germans will quite often repeat the argument that consecutive Czechoslovak governments failed to fulfill their promises on granting autonomy to the Germans and the Slovaks. There is a degree of legitimacy to that argument, isn’t there?

“As far as the Slovaks were concerned, that is true. They were promised autonomy. Czechoslovakia was to become a state of several autonomous regions, including Slovakia and Ruthenia, but the Sudeten Germans were never promised such a degree of autonomy. They were promised – and I would say that the promise was even fulfilled – cultural autonomy. They had the right to apply to institutions of the state in German. German was considered an official language in the regions where there was a majority of German population. But they were never promised any sort of political autonomy, as were the Slovaks.”

The Nazi Occupation of Czechoslovakia,  photo: Wikimedia Commons / PD
But there were elements of petty nationalism in Czech attitudes, weren’t there, after so many centuries of German domination in Bohemia and Moravia?

“Of course, there were a lot of national feelings among the Czechs as well as the Germans, and, of course, the fact that the Germans used to be the ruling nationality, that German used to be the official language, played its part, and I would say negatively, in the relations of Czechs and Germans in the 1920s and in the crisis during the 1930s.”

And how actively did Nazi Germany try to destabilize Czechoslovakia in the second half of the 1930s?

“At first they tried to establish a feeling of normal relations, but behind the scenes, some Nazi agencies were always active, which were working hard to win supporters, and then, of course, they started to claim that the Germans had a right to become a part of Great Germany. Then came the open revolt against the Czechoslovak authority.”

Were the Sudeten Germans themselves less antagonistic than Nazi Germany? Was there a strong degree of manipulation on the part of Nazi Germany?

“I think that at the beginning of the 1920s some parts of the Sudeten German minority were more radical than the Nazis towards Czechoslovakia, but in the ‘30s the Nazis took over the lead and became the most radical element in policy. There were, of course, a lot of different groups of Sudeten German politicians, some more and some less antagonistic towards Czechoslovakia, and there were some groups which were loyal to Czechoslovakia. In most of the Czechoslovak coalition governments there were German ministers, so they did participate in the establishment, but they were losing their influence more and more and the radical elements took over finally around 1935 or ’36.”

Signing of the Munich Agreement. Left to right: Neville Chamberlain,  Édouard Daladier,  Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-R69173/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 1.0
And do you think that from then on there was very little that Czechoslovakia could have done?

“From the point when the Nazis took over the leading role in Sudeten German politics there was, I would say, nothing the Czechoslovak government could do.”

Wasn’t there also a problem that Czechoslovakia failed to do more to try to awaken a sense of loyalty or identity with the state among the German minority? I’m thinking in terms of the media, the radio, things like that.

“That was a mistake on the part of Czechoslovakia. They underestimated the influence of media in modern society and they just saw that their policy is clear and there is nothing more to do about that. So there was no active propaganda or even active propagating of the views of the Czech government, of Czech policy, towards the Germans. And that was, I would say, a grave mistake.”

To move onto the events of September 1938 itself and the run-up to Munich – looking back it almost seems as though the sequence of events was inevitable. Do you think it was?

“Well, it’s hard to say if it was inevitable. From the Czechoslovak point of view there was just one choice for Czechoslovakia: to fight or not to fight. In the other countries all the military were afraid of war. The British Chief of Staff was afraid of war, the French Chief of Staff was shocked by the prospect of war, the Italian generals were shocked by the prospect of war...”

But at the time it seems that public opinion in Czechoslovakia – or at least among Czechs – was very strongly in favour of fighting, of defending the country. Would that be a fair assessment?

Adolf Hitler in Prague
“I would say that is true. There was almost unity in the call for weapons, the call to arms. Among the Slovaks it was not so widespread, but I would say that the majority of the Slovaks were for fighting, because the Slovaks were afraid of a Hungarian invasion from the south. Of course, the politicians were aware that the costs would be enormous. They were afraid that there would be several hundred thousand dead and that the Czech cities and towns would be bombed by German aircraft, that there would be a great loss of civilian population as well. And so, after all, they decided that Czechoslovakia is not going to fight in a situation where there was no prospect of immediate help from the Western powers.”

Do you think, under those circumstances, that it was the right decision?

“Well, I do not think so. I think that you have to fight for freedom and that even in that situation Czechoslovakia ought to have fought. Morally, the decision not to fight was to have a negative impact in the future.”

You mean that to this day we’re living with the legacy of that loss of self-confidence that came from not fighting.

“Yes. I would say today we still feel the consequences of that. In the decisive hours of our history, we refused to fight for our freedom twice.”

You’re talking as well about the Soviet-led invasion in 1968…

“Yes, I would say it was a similar problem, but in 1938 it was much more so because the army was mobilized, the people were armed, there was a spirit to fight, while in 1968, of course, it was a sudden invasion during the night. There was no mobilization, no alert and so on. It was much harder to fight in ’68, but on both occasions I think that there ought to have been armed resistance to the invasion.”

What, in your view, are the lessons of Munich?

March 1939 in Prague
“The lessons of Munich are, I think, obvious. They are that it is better to fight the aggressor when he starts the aggression than to fight him later, that you must always fight for freedom, even if the situation seems hopeless and that to give room to aggressors means inevitably disaster in future.”

Do you see any parallels in today’s geo-political situation?

“Well, I don’t think so exactly, because nowadays there is not a dictator like Hitler in a country which, by its influence, by its power, would be comparable with Germany.”