War and Occupation: A black crow spreads its wings over Prague

Franta Kocourek, photo: archive of Czech Radio

The Czech Radio archives include many recordings from the time of World War II. They come from both sides: propaganda from within occupied Bohemia and Moravia aimed at intimidating the population and bullying them into supporting the Reich, but also recordings from abroad. Both the BBC and the government in exile in London were broadcasting to occupied Europe in Czech, at the same time informing the wider world about the fate of Czechoslovakia in English. Some of the extracts we’ll be hearing have become well known, but our archives also hold many surprises, rare recordings that give us unexpected insights into life during wartime.

Franta Kocourek,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

One of the most moving recordings in the radio archives comes from four days after German troops marched into Prague on 15th March 1939, beginning six years of occupation. We hear the popular Czech broadcaster, Franta Kocourek, who was given the awful task of reporting live on a huge military parade from the top of Wenceslas Square, with an officer of the Wehrmacht by his side. His report, thinly veiled in symbolic language, captures the despair of the nation.

"I would like to talk about one thing that has nothing to do with the military. From somewhere far away, a huge, black crow has flown into Prague. I have seen it spread its wings and sweep down the square over the searchlights and listening devices being paraded here by the German army. It must be surprised at the noise and all that is going on beneath it."

This, and similar broadcasts over the coming months, were to cost Franta Kocourek his life. He was arrested in 1941 and perished in 1942 in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

At the beginning of the occupation there was an illusion of normality, but radio in the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia also featured plenty of Nazi propaganda. At the height of the Blitzkrieg, the Germans sent a team of Czech journalists to Belgium, to report on the successes of the Wehrmacht, as German troops swept towards the channel ports. They sent back vivid descriptions of what they saw:

“Cities like Ghent and the beautiful old town of Bruges remain untouched, but in the villages, where the enemy offered resistance, we saw the ruins of houses, destroyed by artillery or aerial bombardment. The streets were lined by the wrecks of tanks, cars and other military material. They seemed to me like road signs, marking the retreat of the English and the Belgians towards the coast.”

At the end of 1939, the BBC began its broadcasts in Czech, to counter German propaganda.

“Volá Londyn” – London calling – became the familiar call sign of the Czech broadcasts. They were out in the streets reporting as Czech and Slovak troops in exile got ready for fight in France alongside their British comrades:

“We have been saying farewell to the first transport our Czech and Slovak volunteers, leaving Great Britain for France. The soldiers gathered at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Grosvenor Place and, singing Czech and Slovak songs, they are now marching to nearby Belgrave Square.”

Adolf Hitler,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1990-048-29A / CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich, who had been famous in the Prague of the 1920s and 30s for their satirical cabaret, were now in exile in the United States. Their broadcasts from Washington, bitter satires on Nazi Germany, also became part of life in their occupied homeland. But it took courage to listen, as tuning in to foreign stations was punishable by death.

During the occupation, what had been the German-language broadcasts of Czechoslovak Radio were absorbed into the broadcasts of the Reich, the so-called Reichssender, and some of these recordings also survive in the Czech Radio archives. One of them is from June 1941, and it features an interview with a nurse, who was living and working in Prague. She remembers with great nostalgia one particular patient who came into her care during the First World War. This is how the broadcast began:

“Ward-sister Anna is the nurse who in 1918 in the Pasewalk field hospital took care of a lance corporal who had been wounded and blinded by gas. Her patient was Adolf Hitler.”

The announcer utters the Führer’s name in a tone of deepest reverence, and then ward-sister Anna goes on to recall her memories, with an evident sense of pride.

“On October 7 1918 I had to bring a transport with wounded soldiers from France to Pasewalk. One of them was Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler. On the train my thoughts were with him in particular. As often as I could, I sat by his bed, because his words about his comrades always brought comfort. He once said, ‘A new Germany must awaken’… His observation, when we said farewell and he left the field hospital was ‘Even though at the moment I am unable to see, I shall struggle to see within.’”

As a God-fearing Christian, ward-sister Anna is clearly a little bothered by the idea that Adolf Hitler might be anything less than a good Christian himself. Her tone becomes increasingly grotesque.

“I want to add that it’s not true, what people so often say about our Führer, that he has no faith. He is one of God’s chosen ones. On the belt buckle of each soldier I see the words ‘God with us’. If, back then, someone had said to me that Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler would one day become the Führer of a nation of eighty million, I might well have laughed, but you could tell from his character that this soldier was something special. There has never been anything like it in the history of the world”

She ends by describing a letter she wrote some years later, that reminds us of the hypnotic power that Hitler must have held over so many people at the time.

“In 1935, for the first time, I wrote to my beloved Führer: 'I must get this off my chest. My Führer, I could be your mother. How good it would be if a dear mother’s hand could run lovingly through your hair, because sometimes you seem so alone with all your worries. But no, my Führer, you are not alone. God and your whole nation love you.'”

Reinhard Heydrich,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1969-054-16 / Hoffmann,  Heinrich / CC-BY-SA / Wikimedia Commons 3.0

Any illusion of at least partial independence in the Protectorate came to an end in September 1941, when Hitler appointed Reinhard Heydrich as acting Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia.

Heydrich was one of the darkest figures of the Third Reich and one of the prime instigators of the Holocaust. Almost immediately he arrested the Prime Minister of the Czech puppet government, Alois Eliáš, who had maintained secret contacts with the Czechoslovak government in exile in London. On October 2 1941 the radio announced Eliáš’ execution.

But Heydrich’s reign was to be short lived. Less than eight months later, he was assassinated by Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, who had been parachuted to the Protectorate from London. He died from his wounds eight days after the attack and the Nazis gave him a huge military funeral. The entire event, attended by numerous Nazi dignitaries, was broadcast on the Protectorate radio.

In the wake of the assassination the Nazis took extreme measures to suppress any hint of Czech resistance. They started with huge gatherings on Prague’s Old Town Square, broadcast live on the radio, at which Czechs were expected to demonstrate their loyalty to the Reich.

The first of these was on June 2nd when Heydrich was still dying in hospital, and one of those who spoke was the collaborationist prime minister, Jaroslav Krejčí whose words held a thinly concealed threat:

“Those of you who think it is enough just to express a few words of loyalty to the Reich and then go back to your old indifference are mistaken. The government will set up new bodies to control thoroughly just how well orders are respected. Anyone who fails to the interests of our nation and our obligations to the Reich, will be punished as he deserves.”

To reinforce the message, the Gestapo began arresting and executing Czechs in large numbers, reading out the long lists every day in their radio broadcasts. They trumped up a connection between the assassination and the village of Lidice, a few kilometres west of Prague. This is what was stated on the Reichssender:

“In the course of searching for the murderers of SS Obergruppenführer Heydrich, irrefutable evidence has been found that the inhabitants of the village, Lidice near Kladno, gave support and help to the perpetrators.”

On the night from the 9th to the 10th June, the Nazis destroyed the entire village. A chilling radio announcement gives details.

“After the inhabitants of this village, through their activities and support for the murderers of SS Obergruppenführer Heydrich, broke the law in the most blatant way, the male adults have been shot, the women transferred to a concentration camp and the children taken away for suitable education. The buildings of the village have been razed to the ground and the name of the village has been wiped out.”

Destruction of Lidice | Photo: ČT24

In total more than 340 villagers were killed, including the great majority of the children.

But in propaganda terms the destruction of Lidice was hugely counterproductive for the Nazis. It helped to rally support among the Allies for the cause of defeating Hitler. Here is the Czechoslovak President-in-exile Edvard Beneš talking from London just after the massacre.

“Heydrich is dead. So are hundreds of innocent Czechs, among them women and youth under the age of eighteen. So are all the men who lived in the little village of Lidice. Their mothers, their wives and sisters are in a concentration camp, but in our own records and in the records of humanity, the name of Lidice will loom large. Lidice will live for ever.

“And we must all stand together in order to prepare, after victory has been achieved, a peace in Europe over which we could already today solemnly declare that all that we are passing through now, today, in this war, will never happen again.”

A huge demonstration, held in London in March 1943 was broadcast on shortwave by the BBC. It had a message of solidarity.

“London calls Prague! Londýn zdraví Prahu! We are now going to give a pledge, which will be broadcast from this hall to the Czechoslovak people and to the rest of Europe, over the heads of the enemy. This is the pledge [at this point all join in]: ‘Together we shall fight in a world at war. Let us build together a world of peace.’ Londýn zdraví Prahu!”

A few years ago, someone at the Czech Foreign Ministry stumbled upon a trunk, which contained a large number of old gramophone records. It was clear from the labels that many of them were made in Britain during the war. It turned out that they were a combination of broadcasts made by the BBC and the Czechoslovak government in exile, as part of the propaganda war effort in support of Czechoslovakia. One broadcast is devoted to the Czechoslovak airmen serving in the Royal Air Force. It begins with a song:

“That is a song, sung in a foreign land, a song written in Czechoslovakia before the war and played now in England. The men who are singing to you are men who have escaped from their own country and are now serving in Britain in the great Allied air offensive against Germany, men of the First Czech Fighter Squadron [presumably he is referring to the 310 Squadron]. The pilots’ room is a hut on the edge of the airfield. Before the door there are flowerbeds, where they have created in flowers and earth and gravel a map of Czechoslovakia, symbol of a united loyalty. Come inside. Some are playing chess on a camp bed. Under the table, nose on paws, eye cocked on his master, Dragon the Alsatian keeps watch. Music and chess, occupations of the waiting hours…”

Demonstrations on October 28,  1939,  photo: Czech Television

Another recording found in the same box is from 17th November 1944. It marks the fifth International Students’ Day, which was established to remember the date when the Nazis closed institutions of higher education in occupied Bohemia and Moravia. The closures, accompanied by mass arrests, followed demonstrations by Czech students and teachers. One student, Jan Opletal, had been shot and had died a few days later. Here is a short extract:

“He had been wounded in the mass demonstrations on October 28, machine-gunned like thousands of others. These students stood bare-headed and silent at his graveside as the earth spattered down on his coffin… His spirit was still alive. He went away to make more plans, to organise more sabotage, and the Germans knew that… After his funeral they were frightened. They said to each other – we must crush this living spirit. How can it be done? They chose the only way they knew. It was a few hours before dawn – on November 17.”

The programme takes the form of a radio play. It is extremely well written, and is probably the same broadcast as one mentioned in the BBC’s Radio Times a year earlier, written by the poet Louis MacNeice

In the second half of the war, the nominal president of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Emil Hácha, was already a broken man, having failed to preserve even a fragment of Czech autonomy. On 15 March 1944, Hácha delivered a speech on Prague radio, to mark the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the occupation. It was only meant to be a brief message, but by then he was already sick and weak, scarcely able to play even the grotesque ceremonial role he had been left by the Nazis. The radio reporters who went up to the castle to record the speech had a great deal more difficulty than they expected. The entire recording is preserved, including several failed attempts by the ailing Hácha to speak coherently. On several occasions his voice breaks down completely. At one point the reporter, Josef Cincibus, cautiously interrupts the president.

“That was fine,” he says diplomatically, “but perhaps, Mr President, it would be a good idea to read it again – a bit louder and as if you really felt what you were saying.”

Cincibus goes on to demonstrate, by reading a couple of sentences. This bizarre scene is repeated on several occasions, until, on the eleventh attempt, the final version is recorded. The speech goes as follows:

Emil Hácha,  Adolf Hitler,  photo: Free Domain

“Dear fellow citizens. Five years is not a long time in the life of a nation, but enough to destroy it for several generations. We have seen this in the example of some other small nations. Sometimes there is only a moment between the path of life and the path of death. It was at one such moment that we decided that our future life lay within the Greater German Reich. Since that time we have faced many obstacles, but we have managed to remain intact. I have noticed that as a nation we could even be said to be rising in terms of our inner strength. This is the most important proof that we followed the right path. I ask you all to continue, under all circumstances, to be faithful to this country’s leaders, to the Reich, whose victory will bring you and your children a happy future. May God’s goodwill never leave us.”

By that time, the tide of war was already turning. Less than three months after Hácha’s speech, on 6 June 1944 Czech and Slovak airmen in Britain’s Royal Air Force took part in D Day, and a few weeks later the First Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade was deployed, its mission to besiege the German-held French port of Dunkerque. It was to the Czechoslovak brigade that the German garrison was eventually to surrender, in May 1945. In January 1945 Czech reporters from London came to visit the Czechoslovak troops outside Dunkerque, where they had been joined by over 800 Red Army men. The Soviet commander opened proceedings with a greeting in Russian, speaking of the friendship between the Soviet and Czechoslovak peoples.

His men were Soviet soldiers who had escaped from German prison and labour camps in Holland and Belgium, and had managed to survive in hiding or in the underground resistance until they were liberated. Now they were getting ready to go home, and the Czechoslovak troops in France wanted to thank them for the Red Army’s victories on the Eastern Front. The celebrations were loud and enthusiastic, with a good deal of singing – all still preserved on the recording.

Nearly 2,000 miles to the east, the Nazi empire was also shrinking fast. In Slovakia, the town of Banská Bystrica became the focus of the Slovak National Uprising that broke out at the end of August 1944, when Slovaks rebelled against the Nazis.

Radio played a role in rallying Slovaks to join the rebellion - with speakers appealing to citizens and army reservists. Several recordings are preserved in our archives.

At the same time the Red Army, including over 16,000 Czechoslovak troops was approaching from the north and east. Soviet radio, through the voice of its legendary broadcaster, Yuri Levitan, informed of the Red Army’s advances as troops entered Czechoslovak territory.

But the Red Army offensive was to meet far tougher German resistance than had been expected. In the two-month campaign, that came to be known as the Dukla-Prešov Operation, 21 000 Soviet troops lost their lives, along with nearly 2 000 Czechoslovak soldiers.

Bombing of Prague in 1945,  photo: archive of JuDr. Jaroslav Lašťovka,  CC BY-SA 3.0

The scene is Prague. It is just before midday on St Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1945. An air-raid siren begins to wail. In previous weeks, Czechs have got used to the sirens, as Allied bombers have launched raid after raid on German cities, but so far the German-occupied Czech capital has been spared. This time it is different. Not long after the sirens stop a fleet of American Flying Fortresses appears in the skies. 152 tons of bombs are dropped on the densely populated centre of the city. The result is 701 people killed and over a thousand injured.

The bombing was probably a mistake, as a huge raid on nearby Dresden was under way at the same time, but it gave the German occupiers a perfect opportunity to turn the raid into a propaganda coup.

The next day Protectorate radio reported from the scene. “Yesterday, we fully understood the meaning of the word terror,” the reporter declared, and went on to describe a city café where dozens of unidentified bodies were lying, burnt or dug out from the ruins. Some buildings were still ablaze.

A few days later, the dead were buried, and the mass funeral was a big propaganda opportunity. The reporter described how the city’s Nazi officials stood with their right arms raised in a Hitler salute as the dead were buried in simple wooden coffins.

While the bombing of Prague was a mistake, air raids on some of the heavily industrial towns and cities of the Protectorate most definitely were not. The radio archives include a recording from Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city, announcing first in German and then in Czech that it is suspending broadcasts, as “enemy” aircraft are approaching.

In a series of air raids in 1944 and 1945 Brno suffered considerable damage, in residential, as well as industrial areas. Twelve hundred people lost their lives and over twelve thousand buildings were damaged.

But the air raids also marked the beginning of the end of the German occupation, culminating in the Prague Uprising from 5-8 May 1945.