Occupation, Esperanto and Mushrooms: 70 years of Radio Prague through the archives

If we delve into the Czech Radio archives, we find recordings in English going right back to Radio Prague's beginnings 70 years ago. Some of the extracts we are going to feature in this programme have not been aired for well over half a century. They capture some of the most interesting and dramatic moments in our history.

Early days

"Hello, hello, Prague, Czechoslovakia calling. Good evening ladies and gentlemen."

That's Radio Prague back in 1937, just a few months after our broadcasts started, although strictly speaking in those days the name Radio Prague had not yet been adopted. We were just known as "Short Wave". With Nazi Germany breathing down Czechoslovakia's neck, the broadcasts played an important propaganda role, but it was not just about politics. The Post and Telegraph Minister, Alois Tucny, said that the new broadcasts would "open our culture to the world and show how much our country could offer for the blossoming and general education of humanity." Grand words indeed!

"The Prague National Theatre gave the first performance of a play by Karel Capek a fortnight ago. Although he has distinguished himself in almost all types of dramatic work, this outstanding Czechoslovak author is perhaps best known in England for his Utopian drama, 'RUR', in which, it should be remembered, he created the mechanical man, the 'robot'. His play enjoyed triumph after triumph throughout the world."

That was one of our prewar announcers, Oswald Bamborough, who worked in our international broadcasts from 1936-1939. One of the most intriguing broadcasting moments in those early days was an experiment, carried out on Christmas Eve 1937. A live radio bridge was created across the Atlantic to America, sending a message of goodwill to Albert Einstein and the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, the lines were pretty crackly, and to be quite honest, Professor Einstein's reply was all but incomprehensible. But it was a little moment of radio history.

Announcer: "Dr Frantisek Krizik is sending a message of goodwill to Professor Albert Einstein. This message will be rendered into English by Professor Matousek of the Charles University of Prague: "

Prof. Matousek: "Professor Einstein, we are so far from each other and yet so near. It is science that has shortened all distances. During the 90 years of my life, I have been a witness of some of the greatest advances in modern science. I saw it beginning, and I still remember those early days. It entitles me to believe in further progress and in a happy future for humanity."

"Once again tonight we must perform the distasteful task of refuting further invented reports broadcast by the German wireless stations. It is not true that the directors and deans of the German universities in Prague were forced at the point of a gun to sign a declaration of loyalty to the state."

And here is the English politician and journalist Edgar Young, in one of our broadcasts from February 1937.

"It is unfortunate that Czechoslovakia is known to most foreigners largely, if not entirely, through the propaganda of her enemies. The Czechoslovaks are an excessively modest people. They are only now beginning to realise the dangerous effects of the new technique of propaganda, which consists in telling lies and half-truths with such conviction and consistency that even the victims begin to wonder what is the truth. They have yet to devise an effective counter to it, and in the meanwhile it would be a good thing if more foreigners were to visit the republic to see for themselves how things are and to tell their countrymen the plain truth."

Nazis in Czechoslovakia in 1938,  photo: Wikimedia Commons / PD
Tragically his warnings went unheeded. When the major world powers signed the Munich Agreement at the end of September 1938, huge tracts of Czechoslovakia were ceded to her neighbours. This is Radio Prague in November 1938:

"Czechoslovakia, diminished in size by her frontier territory, ceded to Germany, Hungary and Poland, has now her definite boundaries. She has lost almost five million inhabitants and ten million remain to her. She has lost about thirty percent of her territory and has an area today of approximately 100,000 square kilometres."

The British journalist John Griffin was the BBC Prague correspondent at the time, and here he is in a Radio Prague broadcast also in November 1938.

"Prague is a sad place now, but not a dangerous place, not even an uncomfortable one. Food here is plentiful and good as usual. Prices are so far pretty normal. There is not, so far, a shortage of coal and the electric light has not been cut off. Above all, there is not a sign of Jew-bating or any other chauvinistic outbursts. What I have found in wandering about and talking to all sorts of people is this: everyone is determined to try to rebuild some sort of tolerable Czechoslovakia, even though the change of frontiers has dealt a frightful blow to trade, and many people expect as much as a million unemployed during the winter."

It was only a few weeks after this broadcast, that the Nazis marched into what was left of Czechoslovakia. Prague became an occupied city and our English internatioanl broadcasts fell silent; staff were sacked, and some, like the well-known prewar announcer Zdenka Wallo, perished in the Nazi death camps.

But that's not the whole story of Radio Prague during the Nazi occupation. Our archive does include English recordings from the time. As the Prague Uprising raged in the dying days of the war in May 1945, Czech patriots appealed - in English - on the airwaves for help from the allied armies:

"Praha calling the army of the United States. Send quickly your tanks."

And an escaped Scottish prisoner of war, William Greig, launched a passionate appeal:

"Prague is in great danger. The Germans are attacking with tanks and planes. We are calling urgently for our allies to help. Send immediately tanks and aircraft. Help us defend Prague. At present we are broadcasting from the broadcasting station and outside there is a battle raging."

Radio Prague after WWII

After the war - in the years when Radio Prague was transformed into a station broadcasting Stalinist propaganda - archives of our broadcasts in English go strangely silent. Perhaps the reasons were of state secrecy, perhaps the archives were later destroyed - by those who didn't want people to be reminded of their role in those events. Whatever the reasons, only fragments survive, although one unique Radio Prague recording from the mid-1950s is the prologue to Dvorak's opera Rusalka in Esperanto.

Esperanto, in fact, was introduced as far back as 1946 and seems to have survived in our broadcasts for many years. Once we get to the sixties, and the time of the political thaw, there are a few more English recordings surviving in the archives. In March 1963 Martin Luther King spoke to Karel Kyncl, Czechoslovak Radio's correspondent in the United States.

"We still haven't got to one of the basic problems in our society and that is that the negro is still at the bottom of the economic ladder. He is still in a situation where he earns fifty percent less than the average white family. Now, as long as there is economic insecurity, there will be many social problems developing, and it seems to me that this is one of the great changes that must take place if we are to have genuine progress."

1968 and "normalisation"

The Soviet invasion in October 1968
We have often spoken on Radio Prague about our station's role in the events of 1968, when the reforms of the Prague Spring were crushed by the Soviet led invasion, beginning on the night from August 20th to August 21st. The radio building was one of the first to be occupied, and staff played a cat-and-mouse game with the Russians, to keep our broadcasts on the air, including improvised broadcasts from a villa in the Prague suburb of Nusle:

"This is Radio Prague, Czechoslovakia, broadcasting continuously and bringing you the latest news bulletins and reports as we receive them of the situation here in occupied Czechoslovakia."

As the Soviets gradually consolidated their control over the country, many Radio Prague staff had to leave, but the invaders played a clever game. In the months after the invasion they did not launch huge political purges, and there was an illusion that things might get back to normal. Yet step by step they tightened the screw, and by the time the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion came round in 1969, this is what Radio Prague was broadcasting, in language that became depressingly familiar in the years to come - praising riot police, as they clamped down on any protests:

"What is the result of all this? On the one hand the sum is discouraging: five people dead, a number of wounded, material damage in the streets and on public installations. On the other hand, the result is a failure for the forces that are openly hostile to socialism. The bulk of the population - the workers in the first place - could not be persuaded to stage a massive strike or some other national demonstration."

Olga: "Mr Richard, when I tried to get to you a little while ago I nearly got knocked over. How do you keep from getting knocked over by fans?"

Cliff: "Well, I'm afraid I just have to try to be a bit faster than they are."

Olga: "Is it hard work?"

Cliff: "No, not really. In fact they're very understanding here. In England they pester you all the time for autographs, and unfortunately - I can see some of the fans looking through the window now - I would like to sign their autographs, but I just don't have the time at the moment."

And at the same event, Olga spoke to the legendary Josephine Baker.

Olga: "What is the secret of keeping as young as you have?"

Josephine Baker: "Well I don't know. Many people have said it's because of having so many children and young people around me that has made me maybe more energetic - not young, because life goes on, so do the years - but maybe I am a little bit less sluggish by having to run after my children."

In the 70s and 80s Radio Prague continued in the services of the communist regime. It played its part in the Cold War, placing an ever growing stress on the battle for hearts and minds in developing countries, particularly in Africa:

"This is the African service of Radio Prague, Czechoslovakia, broadcasting in Swahili."

Radio Prague since 1989

People in front of the radio building in 1989
Unlike in 1968, Radio Prague played a more or less passive role in the events of the Velvet Revolution that brought down the communist regime, and unfortunately none of our English broadcasts from the time seem to have survived. In fact, for three months in early 1990, Radio Prague went off the air altogether. It was not long after that time, that I joined the station. At that time - for a couple of years - we were called Radio Czechoslovakia International. Although there isn't much in the official archives, I did manage to dig out a few bits and pieces from recordings that I made of our programmes in the early 1990s.

Luckily these years have been a good deal less traumatic than many in the history of Radio Prague, but there has been drama. In the early 90s Czechs were shocked, as they saw Yugoslavia dissolve into civil war. Here is the former Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, speaking to Radio Prague just as the war in Bosnia was breaking out.

Jiri Dienstbier
"The fight between Serbs and Croats was on a definable line and there we could send the United Nations forces to set these clear territories. But the moment Croatia was recognised, I told them that if you recognise Croatia you will blow up Bosnia and Herzegovina and it will be without end, because there is no line. There are lines in every village in thousands of valleys, and then you will have either Lebanon - a big, a huge Lebanon - or you will have to decide for the Vietnam solution."

Prophetic words there, from Jiri Dienstbier. Thankfully the split of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of 1993 saw none of the violence that so tragically accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia, but it did have some unexpected and even slightly surreal consequences. Here is an extract from a report that I made not long after the split on the Czech-Slovak border.

"I'm now driving towards the village of Sidonie from the Czech side. It's right on the border. In order to get into the village itself, you actually have to cross the border, at the customs post, which I'm just approaching now, and then go back into the Czech Republic."

These days, archiving all our programmes is far easier than in the past. For the last six years everything we have broadcast has been kept on CD, and you can also find just about all our programmes, going back several years, on our website. So in 70 years' time, hopefully the task of finding material to celebrate our 140th birthday will take a little less detective work than the many hours I spent last week in the Czech Radio archives.

I'll leave you with one of my favourite reports from recent years, Rob Cameron's visit to the woods in 2003, with a man who finds music in mushrooms:

"I'm going to leave Vaclav in peace now for a few minutes and let him compose something from this particular mushroom...

Vaclav is bending down over the mushroom, and he has in his hand a piece of paper which has the musical scale on it...

He's concentrating on the mushroom, it's obviously telling him something. Vaclav is actually swaying gently in the breeze, as if to music, as if to the music that the mushroom is singing... Well, the composition is now finished. Vaclav has finished writing a piece of music, inspired by the song of this mushroom. Perhaps Vaclav could you sing to me what you have just composed?

Vaclav sings:..."