Modern history

THE RAPE OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA

I

The Republic of Czechoslovakia was one of Europe’s few remaining democracies in 1938. Bolstered by deep-seated liberal traditions, Czech representatives at the peace negotiations in 1919 had succeeded in obtaining independence from the Habsburg monarchy, to which the states of Bohemia and Moravia had formerly belonged. The new state, unlike its Austrian neighbour to the south, began its life with excellent prospects, including a strong industrial base. Like other successor states to the old Habsburg monarchy, however, Czechoslovakia contained substantial national minorities, the largest of which consisted of some 3 million Germans, mostly clustered around the western, north-western and south-western border areas of the country. Although Czech was the official national language, nearly nine out of ten ethnic Germans were able to continue using their mother tongue when dealing with officialdom, German was used in schools in the relevant districts, and the German minority was represented in the Czech parliament. German parties participated in coalition governments, and German-speakers were able to pursue their own careers, although they needed Czech if they were to enter the civil service. Ethnic Germans, increasingly referred to as Sudeten Germans, after the area in which many of them lived, had full individual rights as citizens, in a country where civil freedoms were more respected than in most other parts of Europe. There was no guarantee of collective rights to the German-speaking minority, but the idea of granting it the status of a second ‘state people’ alongside the Czechs was widely discussed in the later 1920s.113

Two factors destroyed the relatively peaceful coexistence between Czechs and Germans at the beginning of the 1930s. The first was the worldwide economic Depression, which affected the German-speaking population particularly badly. Consumer-oriented light industries such as glass and textiles, heavily concentrated in German-speaking areas, collapsed. By 1933, ethnic Germans constituted two-thirds of the Republic’s unemployed. The state’s overburdened social welfare system consigned many of them to poverty and destitution. At this point, the second factor, the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, came into play, causing growing numbers of desperate Sudeten Germans to look to the Third Reich as the German economy began to recover under the impact of rearmament, while its Czech counterpart still languished in the doldrums. In these circumstances, German-speakers rallied to the Sudeten German Party, which demanded economic improvements based on regional autonomy while protesting its loyalty to the Czechoslovak state and maintaining a discreet distance from the Nazis across the border in Germany. The Party’s leader, the schoolteacher Konrad Henlein, came under increasing pressure from ex-members of banned German-nationalist extremist groups who joined his organization early in 1933. By 1937, Hitler’s foreign policy successes had given them the upper hand. In the 1936 elections the Party gained 63 per cent of the ethnic German vote. Early in 1937 the Czech government, realizing the danger, made a series of important economic concessions, admitting German-speakers to the civil service and issuing government contracts to Sudeten German firms. But it was already too late. Funds were now flowing into the Party’s coffers from Berlin, and with this financial leverage, the German government was able to bring Henlein into line behind a policy of detaching the Sudetenland from the rest of the Czechoslovak state.114

Map 20. Ethnic Groups in Czechoslovakia, 1920-37

By the spring of 1938, its impatience sharply increased by the German annexation of Austria, the Sudeten German Party was becoming violent. Mass intimidation of its opponents in local elections helped to increase its vote to 75 per cent.115 As pressure from Berlin mounted, the Czech government conceded the principle of Sudeten German autonomy and offered additional economic relief. But it was all to no avail.116 Henlein was bent on secession, and Hitler was bent on war. But the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where the vast majority of the population was implacably opposed to Hitler, Nazism and the idea of a German takeover, was a vastly different prospect from the invasion of Austria, where the vast majority of the population was in favour of all or most of these things in one degree or another. Czechoslovakia was a bigger, wealthier and more powerful country than Austria, with a major armaments industry, including the Skoda works, one of Europe’s leading arms manufacturers. Unlike the Austrian army, which was small, poorly prepared for action, and deeply divided in its attitudes towards Germany, the Czech army was a substantial, well-disciplined and well-equipped fighting force, united in its determination to resist a German invasion. German generals had already been nervous before the remilitarization of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria. They were virtually panic-stricken when they learned of Hitler’s intention to destroy Czechoslovakia. Not only were military preparations inadequate and rearmament short of target, but the likelihood of foreign intervention and a general war was far greater than before. Czechoslovakia was formally allied to France, after all; and the invasion could not really be presented as anything other than an act of aggression against a sovereign state upon which Germany - unlike in the case of Austria - had no claim to suzerainty in the eyes of the world.117

To be sure, the generals had few objections in principle to a takeover of Czechoslovakia, which obtruded geographically into the newly created Greater Germany in a strategically dangerous manner. Hatred and contempt for Slavs and democrats fused in their minds with a broader belief in the eventual creation of a German empire in East-Central Europe. Moreover, the acquisition of the Czech arms industry, skilled labour and plentiful raw materials would alleviate the Third Reich’s increasingly dire supply situation in these fields. All of this added to the general strategic importance of Czechoslovakia in the eyes of Hermann Goring, whose prestige had been notably boosted by the annexation of Austria. Yet Goring and the generals were unconvinced that the moment was right for a move against the Czechs. It seemed to be a reckless and foolhardy act, running a real risk of a general war for which Germany in their view was quite unprepared. It would, they thought, be far more prudent to wait, pile on the pressure and secure piecemeal concessions. Their doubts grew as it began to become clear that Britain would not stand aside this time. As Goebbels unleashed a massive propaganda campaign full of horror stories about the supposed mistreatment of the Sudeten Germans by the Czechs, a sense of crisis started to grip the senior army commanders.118

On 5 May, the Chief of the Army General Staff, Ludwig Beck, informed Hitler that Germany was in no position to win a war should, as he thought likely, Britain intervene to protect the Czechs. Later in the month he repeated his warnings with greater insistence, and on 16 July he issued a memorandum to senior generals warning of dire consequences should the invasion go ahead. He even canvassed the idea of getting the top generals to resign en masse in protest against Hitler’s plans. The other generals, however, were still demoralized by the Blomberg-Fritsch scandal. They were locked in a tradition of belief that the duty of soldiers was to obey orders and not involve themselves in politics. They feared that breaking their personal oath of loyalty to Hitler would be an act of dishonour. They were all too aware of Hitler’s increased prestige and power after the annexation of Austria. And they did not in any case disagree with Hitler’s aim of attacking Czechoslovakia, only with its timing. So although they shared many of Beck’s concerns, they refused to back him this time. Nevertheless, Hitler still felt it necessary to appeal for the officers’ support at meetings on 13 June and 10 August 1938. He was backed by the head of the army, General Brauchitsch, after subjecting him to a lengthy tirade when he submitted to him Beck’s memorandum of 16 July 1938. Meanwhile, some of the ground had been cut from under Beck’s feet by war games ordered by his own General Staff in June, which showed that Czechoslovakia could be conquered within eleven days, allowing the rapid transfer of troops to the West to mount a defence against any possible Franco-British military action. Objections that the defensive West Wall was not yet ready met with another tirade from Hitler. The British and French would not intervene, he said. And Fritz Todt, whom he had put in over the army’s head in May to push on the building the West Wall, would have the fortifications ready by the onset of winter anyway.119

Feeling totally isolated, Beck resigned as Chief of the Army General Staff on 18 August 1938, to be succeeded by General Franz Halder, his deputy. The choice was an obvious one, but Halder was in fact not at all what he seemed to be from the Nazi leadership’s point of view. Born in 1884, he was an artillery officer who came from a Franconian military family with strongly conservative leanings. Far from being a reliable tool of Nazi aggression, he shared many of Beck’s reservations about the risky nature of Hitler’s policy. In these, he was joined by a number of other conservative officers and diplomats, notably Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of military intelligence, and Erwin von Witzleben, a senior infantry general and commander of the Berlin military district. So deep was their disapproval of Hitler’s reckless drive to war that they began to make plans to overthrow him. They joined forces with a group of younger officers who had already been plotting Hitler’s downfall, notably Hans Oster, a Brigadier-General in Canaris’s intelligence department. And they extended the conspiracy to include civilians who, they knew, would be needed to staff a post-Nazi government, including conservative figures who had developed more or less serious reservations about the direction in which the regime was heading, such as Schacht and Goerdeler, Foreign Ministry officials such as State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker and his juniors Adam von Trott zu Solz and Hans-Bernd von Haeften, and senior civil servants, including Hans Bernd Gisevius, a former assistant secretary in the Interior Ministry, and Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg from the Reich Price Commissioner’s office. The conspirators put out feelers to other alarmed conservatives and started detailed planning for the coup, sketching out troop deployments and debating whether Hitler should be assassinated or merely put into custody. A number of them, notably Goerdeler, travelled to other countries, especially Britain, to issue private warnings to senior politicians, government ministers, civil servants and anyone else who would listen about Hitler’s bellicose intentions. They were met with polite expressions of interest, but were unable to secure any concrete pledges of support, though it is difficult to see exactly what these might have involved in concrete terms at this stage.120

The fundamental weakness of the conspiracy was that its members, by and large, did not disapprove of Hitler’s basic aim of dismembering Czechoslovakia; they only deplored what they considered his irresponsible haste in doing so while the German economy and the armed forces were still unprepared for the general European war to which they feared it would lead. Thus if Hitler succeeded in his aim without provoking a general war, the rug would be pulled from under their feet. 121 Moreover, the men involved in the conspiracy had no support in the Nazi Party or in the vast apparatus of organizations through which it ruled Germany. Both the officer corps and the Foreign Office, the two centres of the plot, had been repeatedly discredited in the previous months, particularly over Austria. The War Ministry, Goring told the officers in the middle of the crisis, housed ‘the spirit of faint-heartedness. This spirit’, he added, ‘must go!’122 If Halder and his fellow conspirators had succeeded in arresting Hitler, the army’s image, branded reactionary by Goebbels, would have had little popular appeal even supposing the other generals had rallied to their cause. Success was unlikely, therefore. But in any case it was soon put out of the question by developments on the diplomatic front.123

II

By early September, events were coming to a head. Unlike the annexation of Austria, the takeover of Czechoslovakia required a lengthy build-up in view of the far greater military and international obstacles that stood in Hitler’s way. It took him several months to overcome the objections of the generals and to develop the military planning, in which he involved himself personally since he did not trust the generals to do it to his satisfaction. Throughout the summer, Goebbels’s ceaseless stream of anti-Czech propaganda made it abundantly clear to the international community that an invasion was being prepared in Berlin. Day after day, banner headlines in the newspapers blared forth stories about alleged Czech atrocities, the shooting of innocent Sudeten Germans, ‘women and children mowed down by Czech armoured cars’, the terrorization of the population by the Czech police, threatened gas attacks on Sudeten German villages, and the machinations of the ‘world arsonists’ centre Prague’, the Trojan horse of Bolshevism in Central Europe.124The Czechs did in fact have an alliance with the Soviet Union, but it meant very little in practice, as they were soon to find out. Far more important was the fact that the integrity of Czechoslovakia was guaranteed by treaty with France. If France came to the Czechs’ aid, then Britain would be bound to intervene too, as it had over Belgium under comparable circumstances in 1914. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was aware that Britain, though now hurriedly rearming, was in no condition to wage a general European war. He felt that the strain on British public finances would be unsustainable. Moreover, a general war, he thought, would bring upon British cities aerial bombardments that would make Guernica look like a tea-party. Not only was there no defence against them, it was believed, but they would probably, like the Italian bombardment of the Ethiopians, involve the use of poison gas on the defenceless people below. At the height of the crisis, indeed, the British government issued gas-masks to the civilian population and ordered the evacuation of London. In any case, Britain’s global strategy dictated that the Empire, by far the largest in the world, came first, and Europe, in which the United Kingdom had little direct interest, a distant second. ‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is’, Chamberlain told his listeners during a BBC Radio broadcast towards the end of September 1938, ‘that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.’125

Czechoslovakia was clearly further away than India, South Africa or Australia in the mental map of the British people as well as in the imagination of their Prime Minister. Chamberlain knew above all that he would find little or no public support for a war against Germany over the Sudeten question, even though by this time voices were being raised in the British political world demanding that Hitler’s march of European conquest had to be stopped.126 It still seemed unclear to Chamberlain that Hitler was bent on European conquest rather than merely determined to right the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles and protect beleaguered ethnic German minorities. If he could be appeased on the Sudeten question then maybe he would be satisfied and a general war could be avoided. Chamberlain determined to intervene decisively to prevent a war by forcing the Czechs to give way. When Hitler gave a speech at the Nuremberg Party Rally on 12 September 1938 threatening war if the Sudeten Germans were not granted self-determination, Chamberlain demanded a meeting. As Henlein’s thugs, acting on orders from Hitler, staged a wave of violent incidents designed to provoke Czech police repression, thus providing the excuse for German intervention, Chamberlain boarded an airplane for the first time in his life - in a sharp contrast to Hitler’s embrace of this most modern means of travel years before - and flew to Munich. During a lengthy one-to-one meeting, witnessed only by an interpreter, Chamberlain agreed to a revision of Czech boundaries to accommodate the Sudeten Germans’ wishes. But this did not seem to satisfy the German Leader. Chamberlain reacted to Hitler’s bluster by asking him why he had agreed to meet him if he would admit no alternative to war. Faced with such an ultimatum, Hitler reluctantly agreed to another meeting.127

On 22 September 1938, after consulting the British cabinet about his concessions, Chamberlain flew once more to Germany and met Hitler in the Hotel Dreesen, in Bad Godesberg, on the river Rhine. The French, he assured Hitler, had agreed to his terms. So there would be no problem in reaching a settlement. To his astonishment, however, Hitler presented him with a fresh set of demands. The recent violence in Czechoslovakia meant, he said, that he would have to occupy the Sudetenland almost at once. Moreover, Poland and Hungary, both led by military, authoritarian nationalist governments that had scented blood in the atmosphere surrounding the negotiations, had also put in claims on Czech territory bordering their own, and these too, said Hitler, had to be met. The fronts now began to harden. The Czech government, recognizing the realities of the situation, had accepted the Anglo-French terms. But at the same time, a military government came to power in Prague under the impact of the crisis, and it was clear that no more concessions would be made. The British cabinet rejected the Bad Godesberg proposals, worried that the British public would see them as a humiliation for the government. Chamberlain sent a high-level mission to Berlin to make it clear to Hitler that Britain would not tolerate unilateral action. Hitler, furious, invited Sir Horace Wilson, the delegation’s leader, to a speech he was to give at the Sports Palace on the evening of 26 September. It culminated in a violent tirade against the Czechs. William L. Shirer, who was at the rally, noted that Hitler was ‘shouting and shrieking in the worst state of excitement I’ve ever seen him in . . . with a fanatical fire in his eyes’. Working himself up into a frenzy, he declared, to the tumultuous applause of 20,000 Nazi supporters, that the Czech genocide of the German minority could not be tolerated. He himself would march into the country at the head of his troops. October 1 would be the date.128

While the British and the Czechs prepared for war, it was in the end Hitler who backed down. Surprisingly, perhaps, the decisive influence here was that of Hermann Goring, who had been so hawkish over Austria. Like the generals, he was appalled that a general war was being risked over an issue where the key concessions to Germany had been made already. So, behind Hitler’s back, he brokered a conference with the British, the French and, crucially, the Italians, who asked Hitler to postpone the invasion until the conference had met. Persuaded by Göring’s strong reservations about a war, and seeing in Mussolini’s request a way out of the situation without being humiliated, Hitler agreed. The conference met in Munich on 29 September 1938, without the Czechs, who had not been invited. Goring had drafted an agreement in advance, and had it put into formal terms by Weizsäcker in the Foreign Ministry. Ribbentrop was all for war (‘he has a blind hatred of England,’ noted Goebbels in his diary).129 So he was not informed about the draft document, which was given to the Italian ambassador, who presented it to Hitler on 28 September as the work of Mussolini. After thirteen hours of negotiations on the fine print, the Munich Agreement was signed by the four powers on 29 September 1938. The following day, Chamberlain presented Hitler with a declaration that Britain and Germany would never go to war again. Hitler signed it without demur. On his return to England, Chamberlain waved it at cheering crowds from the first-floor window of 10, Downing Street. ‘I believe it is peace for our time,’ he told them. He genuinely seems to have believed that he had achieved a settlement that was satisfactory to all, including the Czechs, who, he declared, had been saved for a happier future. Hitler, he had told his sister after first meeting the German leader, was a man whose word could be trusted. All his experiences during the to-and-fro of negotiation do not seem to have disillusioned him.130

The sense of relief was as palpable in Germany as it was in Britain. Since May, there had been widespread popular anxiety in Germany about the possibility of war, made more acute by the Czech government’s military mobilization in the same month. On previous occasions, the panic had been short-lived. But this time, the crisis dragged on for months. Even the SS Security Service admitted that there was a ‘war psychosis’ among the population that had lasted until the Munich Agreement had been signed. ‘With reference to the superiority of the opponent, a defeatism emerged, that escalated into the strongest criticism of the “adventurous policy of the Reich”.’ Many people thought that the incorporation of the crisis-ridden Sudetenland into Germany would impose a severe economic burden on the Reich. At the tensest moments of the crisis, people were withdrawing their savings from the banks in panic; inhabitants of the areas bordering Czechoslovakia were making preparations to flee westward. Many Germans, regrettably from the Security Service point of view, preferred to get their information from foreign radio stations, and this further increased their pessimism. The Security Service blamed intellectuals above all for this trend.131

But it was not merely intellectuals who were worried. Hitherto, Hitler had won the plaudits of the great mass of Germans by securing foreign policy triumphs without bloodshed. Now that it looked as if blood really would be spilled, things seemed very different. The general anxiety, Social Democratic agents noted in May 1938, stood in sharp contrast to the enthusiasm of August 1914. To be sure, most people thought the demands of the Sudeten Germans justified. But they wanted them to be realized without war.132Nobody, it was reported in July, thought that Germany could win a war against Britain and France. Some embittered ex-Social Democrats even hoped it would happen because defeat was the best way to get rid of the Nazis. But amongst many workers, there was also a widespread fatalism. Young people were frequently swept away by the vision of a great Germany, bestriding a vanquished Continent. Many older people were confused and felt they lacked detailed information. 133 As preparations for war intensified, popular anxiety grew.134 The ‘war psychosis’ in the population, reported Goebbels in his diary on 31 August, was growing.135 In the Ruhr, Social Democratic observers reported shortly before the Munich Agreement,

There reigns a gigantic restlessness. People are afraid that it will come to war, and that Germany will go under in it. Nowhere is any enthusiasm for war to be found. People know that a war against the greater part of Europe and against America must end in defeat for Germany . . . If it comes to a war, this war will be as unpopular in Germany as possible.136

Even the young, for all their enthusiasm for a Greater Germany, were now anxious about the situation.137

It was not just the working classes or the interview partners of Social Democratic agents who were worried. ‘War, war, war’, wrote Luise Solmitz in her diary on 13 September 1938, ‘ - wherever one goes, one hears nothing else.’ For a while her fear of a general war outweighed her customary patriotism. Suddenly 1914 meant something other than a spirit of national union: ‘1914 is eerily reviving. Every Sudeten German killed is a Franz Ferdinand.’138 Nevertheless, her patriotic Jewish husband Friedrich Solmitz still volunteered for military service in his country’s hour of need. His application was refused.139 Among the population at large, confidence in Hitler’s ability to make foreign policy gains without bloodshed was dented far more than it had been on previous occasions such as the Rhineland remilitarization or the annexation of Austria, precisely because the Czech crisis went on for so long. In the late summer and early autumn of 1938 there was a marked increase in the number of people brought before the Special Courts for criticism of Hitler himself.140

Correspondingly, the wave of relief that swept over the country on the announcement of the Munich Agreement was enormous. ‘All of us can live on,’ wrote Luise Solmitz in her diary, ‘relaxed, happy, a terrible pressure removed from us all . . . Now this wonderful, unique experience. The Sudetenland gained, in peace with England and France.’141 In Danzig, as a Social Democratic agent reported, almost everyone saw the Munich Agreement ‘as a hundred per cent success for Hitler’.142 But this was hardly surprising given the town’s situation. Among Catholic workers in the Ruhr, by contrast, there were, reports of worries that Hitler’s success would lead to an even more ruthless campaign against the Church. Nevertheless everyone was relieved that Hitler had obtained new territory for Germany without bloodshed. No wonder that Chamberlain was cheered as he passed through the streets of Munich after signing the Agreement. Everyone agreed that the Agreement had greatly strengthened Hitler’s power and prestige. Only die-hard opponents of the regime were embittered by what they saw as the betrayal of the Czechs by the Western democracies. Only the gloomiest concluded ‘that it’ll go further’.143

Hitler himself was far from triumphant over the outcome. He had been cheated of the war for which he had been planning. He felt resentful at Göring’s intervention. From this point on, relations between the two men cooled, leaving Ribbentrop, effectively excluded from the Munich negotiations, in a stronger position, as it did Himmler, who had also stood by Hitler in his desire for war. The army generals and their co-conspirators had to abandon their plans for a coup in the light of the peaceful outcome of the crisis, but they too were left weakened in their standing with Hitler, and in addition the more radical amongst them felt cheated by Chamberlain’s intervention. Moreover, Hitler was only too aware of the fact that the majority of Germans did not want war, for all the efforts of the Third Reich to persuade them of its desirability. On 27 September 1938, he had organized a military parade through Berlin just at the time when Berliners were pouring out of their offices on their way home and could be expected to pause to cheer as the lorries and tanks rolled past. But, reported William L. Shirer,

They ducked into subways, refused to look on, and the handful that did stood at the curb in utter silence unable to find a word of cheer for the flower of their youth going away to the glorious war. It has been the most striking demonstration against war I’ve ever seen. Hitler himself reported furious. I had not been standing long at the corner when a policeman came up the Wilhelmstrasse from the direction of the Chancellery and shouted to the few of us standing at the curb that the Führer was on his balcony reviewing the troops. Few moved. I went down to have a look. Hitler stood there, and there weren’t two hundred people in the street . . .144

Angry and dismayed, Hitler went inside.

On 10 November 1938 (immediately after the antisemitic pogrom, when Jewish men were being arrested all over Germany), Hitler expressed his dismay to a closed meeting of German press representatives:

Only by constantly emphasizing the German desire for peace and peaceful intentions was I able to gain the German people’s freedom step by step and thus give it the armament necessary as a prerequisite for accomplishing the next step. It is self-evident that such a peace propaganda, carried on throughout the decades, also has its questionable aspect, for it can all too well lead to the impression in the minds of many people that the present regime is identified with the resolution and the willingness to preserve peace under all circumstances. This would, however, above all, lead to the German nation, instead of being prepared for events, being filled by a spirit of defeatism in the long run, and this would take away the successful achievements of the present regime.145

Hitler went on to rant against ‘intellectuals’ who were undermining the will to war. It was the role of the press, he said, to convince the people that war was necessary. They had to be brought to believe blindly in the correctness of the leadership’s policies, even when these included war. Doubt only made them unhappy. ‘Now it has become necessary gradually to reorient the German people psychologically, and to make it clear to them that there are things that cannot be achieved by peaceful means but must be carried through by force.’146 That more than five years of indoctrination and preparation at every level had not achieved this aim already was an astonishing admission of failure. It showed that the vast majority of Germans, in Hitler’s view, were falling far short of giving the regime the popular support it demanded, even in the area - foreign policy - where its aims supposedly had their broadest appeal.147

III

On 1 October 1938 German troops marched across the border into Czechoslovakia as the well-equipped Czech army withdrew from the strong positions it occupied in the mountainous and easily defensible border regions. The scenes that had greeted the German annexation of Austria were repeated in the Sudetenland. Ecstatic supporters of Henlein’s Sudeten German Party lined the streets, cheering the German soldiers as they marched by, strewing flowers in their path and raising their arms in the Hitler salute. Amongst those who did not sympathize with the Nazis, a very different mood prevailed. Over 25,000 people, mostly Czech, had already fled from the Sudetenland into predominantly Czech areas in September. Now they were followed by another 150,000 from the same territory and other border areas between the signature of the Munich Agreement and the end of 1938, and almost 50,000 more in the following few months. The refugees included Czechs and Germans who qualified as Jewish under the Nuremberg Laws; they knew only too well what awaited them if they stayed. By May 1939 the number of Jews in the Sudetenland had fallen from 22,000 to fewer than 2,000 in all. A fifth of the Czech population of the border areas fled. Almost a quarter of the Sudeten German population had opposed Henlein’s party, and 35,000 of them fled too, mostly German Social Democrats and Communists. The fate of those who remained showed that they had been wise to leave. The Gestapo and the SS Security Service moved in behind the German troops, and they arrested about 8,000 ethnic German and 2,000 Czech opponents of Nazism, putting the majority of them into concentration camps, a minority in state prisons following formal trials. Little over a month later, the violence of the pogrom of 9-10 November was extended to the Sudetenland too, and those Jews who remained there were subject to widespread violence, looting and destruction of their property. Fifty thousand employees of the Czechoslovak state, in the railways, the post office, the schools and local administration, were dismissed to make way for Germans, and also left for the rump CzechoSlovak Republic, as it was now called.148

The predominantly German-speaking areas of western and northern Bohemia, northern Moravia and southern Silesia were incorporated into the Third Reich as the Reich Region Sudetenland, while southern Bohemia became part of Bavaria and southern Moravia was assigned to the former Austria. Henlein was made Reich Commissioner of the new region under the Reich Interior Ministry, and civil servants were drafted in from other parts of Germany to fill the posts in regional and local administration vacated by Czechs, Jews and leftists. Nevertheless, most administrators at all levels were Sudeten Germans, and - in sharp contrast to Austria - the Nazi regime took great care to perpetuate a distinctive sense of identity for the Sudetenland, leaving only the Gestapo and the SS (including its Security Service) in the hands of men from the Old Reich. Sudeten Germans themselves flocked to join the Nazi Party and enrol in the SA. Yet they were soon to be disillusioned. Long-standing local voluntary associations and clubs were dissolved or incorporated into Nazi Party organizations run from Berlin. Resentment against carpetbaggers from the Old Reich, limited though their numbers were, was soon widespread. Unemployment fell sharply, but industrial workers had to live with the long hours and poor pay that had become the norm in the Old Reich. Twenty-two per cent of Czech industrial production was located in the annexed areas, and it was rapidly incorporated into the German war economy, with German firms moving quickly in to take advantage of the Germanization and Aryanization of Czech and Jewish businesses. I.G. Farben, Carl Zeiss Jena and major German banks and insurance companies made significant acquisitions, though Sudeten German companies benefited from the loot as well. The 410,000 Czechs who remained in the annexed areas found their language banned for official use, their secondary schools closed and their voluntary associations and clubs shut down. They had now become second-class citizens.149

The Munich Agreement also gave the signal to smaller powers to take their slice of the Czechoslovak cake. On 30 September 1938 the Polish military government demanded the cession of the strip of land around Teschen on the northern border of Czechoslovakia, which had a substantial Polish-speaking population; the Czechs had little option but to agree, and Polish troops marched in on 2 October 1938. The Czech general who handed over the region remarked to his Polish counterpart that he would not enjoy its possession for long: Poland was surely next in line itself. But the principle of maintaining the boundaries drawn by the 1919 Peace Settlement counted little in the face of the aggrandizing nationalism of the Polish colonels, who subjected the conquered region to the same policies of Polonization and authoritarian rule that they had already applied at home.150 Along the southern frontier of Czechoslovakia, the authoritarian government of Hungary, under Admiral Horthy, also made its claim to a long strip of land in which the Magyar minority predominated. Its armed forces were poorly prepared for an invasion, however, and so the Hungarians had to resort to negotiation. The position was complicated by the fact that tensions between Czechs and Slovaks now came to the surface, reflecting long-standing economic, social, religious and cultural differences between the two main constituent groups of the Republic. On 7 October 1938, leaders of the Slovak political parties established an autonomous region with its own government, but nominally at least within the rump state left after the Munich Agreement. Competing claims by the Slovaks and Hungarians were eventually settled by the intervention of the Italians, who imposed a settlement (with German agreement) on 2 November 1938. It gave the Hungarians additional territory of 12,000 square kilometres of land with over a million inhabitants, including a sizeable minority of more than 200,000 Slovaks. This was less than they had originally demanded, but enough to satisfy them for the moment, and Hitler made it clear that he would not tolerate any military action on their part to secure further gains. The complete absence of Britain and France from the negotiations demonstrated with startling clarity the degree to which Axis powers now controlled affairs in this part of Europe.151

In recognition of this brutal fact of life, the governments of the region now did their best to accommodate themselves to German wishes. In the new tripartite rump state governed from Prague, right-wing governments suppressed the Communists and cracked down on Social Democrats. The military government in the Czech area did its best not to offend the Germans who now surrounded much of its territory. The autonomous Slovak authorities in Bratislava created a one-party state and enforced its policies through a paramilitary force, the Hlinka Guard, which soon earned a justified reputation for brutality. In a third, newly created autonomous region in the east, known at the time as Carpatho-Ukraine, where the German consul exercised a dominant influence, national minorities were rigorously suppressed and Ukrainian was made the sole official language. On 7 December 1938 a treaty of economic cooperation was signed with Germany, giving the Third Reich control over the area’s mineral resources. The Hungarians joined the Anti-Comintern Pact and the Romanian government offered Germany its friendship; in both countries the governments moved sharply to the right, with King Carol of Romania carrying out a coup against his own cabinet. In Hungary, Poland and Romania, anti-Jewish measures were stepped up. All these measures testified to something of a panic amongst the smaller nations of East-Central Europe. For many years, France had been trying to cement them together as a bulwark against German expansion. The Munich Agreement put paid to all that.152

Hitler had regarded Munich as no more than a temporary setback to his plans for invading and taking over the whole of Czechoslovakia, whatever the Western powers might think. Strategically, possession of the rest of the country would provide an additional jumping-off point for moving against Poland, whose military government steadfastly rejected Hitler’s overtures to come into the Anti-Comintern Pact. The Polish government also refused to make concessions to Germany over Danzig, a Free City under League of Nations suzerainty, and the Corridor that gave Poland access to the Baltic but cut off West and East Prussia from the rest of the Reich. The largely German population of Danzig had rallied to the Nazi cause, as had that of another city on the borders of East Prussia and Lithuania, Memel, which had been given to the Lithuanians at the end of the First World War: Hitler now wanted both towns to return to Germany, and after the final collapse of negotiations with the Polish government, he decided to start piling on the pressure. Occupying the rest of the rump Czecho-Slovak state would also bring major economic resources into the Reich, since the bulk of the Czech arms industry was located there, along with very significant mineral resources, engineering, iron and steel, textiles, glass and other industries and the skilled workers who manned them. As the economic situation of the Reich deteriorated in the winter of 1938-9, the acquisition of these resources became an ever more tempting prospect. The Czecho-Slovak army’s large stocks of advanced military equipment would help alleviate bottlenecks in German military supplies. Czech foreign currency reserves would be extremely useful too. Already on 21 October 1938 Hitler ordered the armed forces to prepare for the liquidation of the CzechoSlovak state and the occupation of Memel and its surrounding territory. In the first two months of 1939 he gave three speeches to different, large groups of army officers, meeting in closed session, reiterating his vision for a Germany that was the dominant power in Europe, his belief that the problem of living-space in Eastern Europe had to be solved and his conviction that military force had to be used to achieve these goals.153

The opportunity to make good the enforced compromises of the Munich Agreement was provided by the rapid deterioration of relations between Czechs and Slovaks in the rump Republic over the issue of financial resources. As the squabble grew into a crisis, the mistaken belief that the Slovaks were about to declare full independence prompted the Czech government to send in troops to occupy Bratislava on 10 March 1939. A flurry of negotiations led to the Slovak leaders being flown to Berlin, where they were given the stark choice of either declaring complete independence under German protection or being taken over by the Hungarians, who had already been made aware of the opportunity. They decided on the former course. On 14 March 1939 the Slovak parliament proclaimed the country’s independence, and the following day its leaders reluctantly asked the Third Reich for protection against the Czechs, after German gunboats on the Danube had targeted their guns on government buildings in Bratislava. Confronted with the imminent dissolution of his state, the President of Czecho-Slovakia, Emil Hácha, travelled with his Foreign Minister, Franzisek Chvalkovsky, to Berlin to meet Hitler. Just like Schuschnigg before him, Hácha was kept waiting far into the night (while Hitler watched a popular film), then was mercilessly bullied by the German Leader in the presence of senior civil servants, military officers and others, including Goring and Ribbentrop. German troops were already on the move, said Hitler. When Goring added that German bombers would be dropping their payloads on Prague within a few hours, the elderly, sick Czech President fainted. Revived by Hitler’s personal physician, Hácha phoned Prague, ordering his troops not to fire on the invading Germans, then signed a document agreeing to the establishment of a German protectorate over his country shortly before four in the morning on 15 March 1939. ‘I shall enter history as the greatest German of them all,’ Hitler told his secretaries ecstatically as he emerged from the negotiations.154

IV

At six in the morning German troops crossed the Czech border. They reached Prague by nine. This time there were no crowds strewing flowers in their path, only groups of sullen and resentful Czechs who did nothing except raise their fists in the occasional gesture of defiance. That was only to be expected, Hitler later remarked; one could not expect them to be enthusiastic. During the afternoon, Hitler went by train to the border, then drove in an open-topped car through the snow, saluting the German troops as he passed them by. Prague was empty by the time he got there. The Czech troops were in their barracks, surrendering their arms and equipment to the invading Germans; civilians were staying at home. Hitler spent the night in the Hradschin Castle, the symbolic seat of Czech sovereignty, where he had a frugal meal - nothing had been prepared for his arrival - and worked out the terms of the decree establishing the German Protectorate, together with Interior Minister Frick and State Secretary Wilhelm Stuckart, who had already drafted the details of the post-annexation administration of Austria.155

Read out by Ribbentrop on Prague radio on the morning of 16 March 1939, the decree declared that the remaining Czech lands were henceforth to be known as the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, recalling their names under the old Habsburg monarchy. Democratic institutions, including the parliament, were abolished, but a nominal Czech administration remained in place, headed by Hácha as President, with a Prime Minister and an appointed, fifty-member Committee of National Solidarity under him. Altogether some 400,000 Czech state employees and civil servants remained in post, alongside, or subordinate to, a mere 2,000 administrators imported from Germany. Other Czech institutions, including the courts, were also preserved; but Czech law remained valid only where it dealt with matters not covered by the laws of the German Reich, which were now extended across the whole of the Protectorate and took precedence in every respect. Czechs and other nationalities were subject to all these laws, and to decrees issued by the Protectorate, but all Germans living in the Protectorate, including ethnic Germans already resident there, were German citizens and subject only to German law. Crucially, Czechs were not granted German citizenship. This introduced a difference in rights that was to become far more extensive, and touch far larger groups of people, later on.156

Map 21. The Dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, 1938-9

Real power lay in the hands of the Reich Protector. The man Hitler appointed to fill this post was Konstantin von Neurath, the former Foreign Minister, an old conservative to whom Hitler felt grateful for his role in resolving the Munich crisis the previous September. Neurath, together with German army officers such as the commanding general in Bohemia, Johannes Blaskowitz, attempted to steer a relatively moderate course, maintain discipline amongst the occupiers, and act with restraint towards the Czechs. Gradually, however, the mask of moderation began to slip. His resolve stiffened by Karl Hermann Frank, his deputy, who ran the SS and the police in the Protectorate, Neurath ordered the arrest of thousands of Communists, who were interrogated by the Gestapo and mostly released, and of the many German exiles, including Social Democrats, who had been caught by the German invasion in Prague. Most of these were sent to concentration camps in Germany. On 8 June 1939, the Gestapo arrested the entire town council of the mining community of Kladno after a German policeman was murdered; they were badly beaten, and some died. At the same time, six municipal councils elsewhere were dismissed, to be replaced by German administrators. More repressive laws followed, and steps were taken to identify the Jewish population of the Protectorate with a view to applying the Nuremberg Laws to them.157

Meanwhile, special units had moved into the occupied area to seize huge quantities of military equipment, arms and ammunition, including over 1,000 airplanes, 2,000 field artillery pieces, more than 800 tanks and much more besides. All of this, however, amounted to only a tiny fraction of Germany’s military requirements; some was sold abroad in any case to earn much-needed foreign currency. Jewish firms were immediately expropriated and their assets transferred to German firms. The gold reserves of the Czech state were seized (the Bank of England, somewhat to the irritation of the British government, allowed over 800,000 ounces of gold to be shipped from the Czech government’s London account to the new occupying authorities in Prague in June 1939). Nevertheless, representatives of the Four-Year Plan and the Reich Economics Ministry who arrived in Prague on 15 March were careful not to undermine the Czech economy or alienate non-Jewish Czech businessmen. Czech-owned international companies like the Bata shoe empire, for instance, brought in valuable profits, and were not seriously restricted by the German occupiers. The Skoda and other heavy industry and manufacturing enterprises continued to produce goods mainly for export to countries other than Germany. At the same time, however, the Germans rapidly introduced measures, already in place at home, for the conscription and direction of labour. Jobless Czech agricultural workers had already tried to escape unemployment at home by taking temporary jobs in the expanding German economy - over 105,000 in 1938 - and now German agents moved in to recruit still more. Thirty thousand new workers, most of them skilled industrial operatives, were persuaded to go to the Old Reich within the first month of the occupation.158

Building on the experience of the annexation of Austria, and extending it for the first time to a country which the Nazis regarded as a conquered foreign land, the occupation of Czechoslovakia created a number of institutions that formed a model for other countries later on. Native industry was left to get on with things under German direction, and with expanded German involvement through takeovers by German firms, especially of expropriated Jewish businesses. A native bureaucracy and a nominal native government was left in place under the control of a German administrator, the Reich Commissioner. The economy was integrated into the larger German sphere of influence, involving a division of labour with Germany - in this case, Czech industry was encouraged to export to South-east Europe, Germany to the West. Assets of the state, and of the Jewish population, were ruthlessly plundered (the Czech crown jewels went to Germany, and much more was soon to follow).159

Czech workers drafted into the Old Reich were given a special, inferior legal status. Previously, because of the need to maintain good relations with their states of origin, foreign labourers in Germany had been threatened mainly with deportation if they contravened the law. Now, however, such a threat was considered not only unnecessary but counterproductive. New regulations issued on 26 June and 4 July 1939 ordered protective custody in a concentration camp for Czech labourers in Germany who stole, looted, engaged in political activity, showed an attitude hostile to the National Socialist state, or refused to work. This placed them effectively outside the law. Despite this, 18,000 Czech workers migrated voluntarily to jobs in other parts of the Reich in March 1939, and over 16,000 in each of the following two months. Thereafter, numbers fell off rapidly. They were nowhere near enough to plug the gap in the Reich’s labour supply. Coercion seemed increasingly likely. On 23 June 1939, looking forward to the coming European conflict, Goring remarked: ‘During the war, hundreds of thousands will be deployed in Germany, in barracks and under supervision, from plants in the Protectorate not engaged in the war economy, and put to work especially in agriculture.’160The way to the systematic deportation and exploitation of millions of Europeans for the purposes of the German war economy had been opened.

This pattern was also foreshadowed in Slovakia, which was similarly incorporated into the German economic empire. Encouraged by Hitler, the Hungarians, who had ruled Slovakia for several centuries before the Treaty of Versailles had taken it away from them, had originally hoped to get the territory back. They were irritated by the decision of the Slovaks, backed by the German government, to declare independence under German protection. Hitler attempted to placate the Hungarian Regent Admiral Horthy by announcing on 12 March that he had a free hand to annex the Carpatho-Ukrainian region of Czecho-Slovakia, on which Hungary had long had a claim. Both governments justified this course of action by pointing out that on 6 March 1939 the Czecho-Slovak government had effectively brought Carpatho-Ukrainian autonomy to an end, citing the widespread abuse of power by the authorities; occupation could now plausibly be presented as another case of Czech oppression requiring intervention from outside. Only just over 12 per cent of the region’s 552,000 inhabitants were Magyar, but the government in Budapest believed that the area belonged to Hungary by historic right. It sent in troops on 16 March 1939, also moving units across the Slovak border until the Germans ordered them to stop.161 Finally, as a last act in this rapid series of events, Ribbentrop told the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, summoned to Berlin on 20 March, that German planes would bomb their capital city, Kovno (Kaunas), if his government did not agree to cede Memel to Germany, as demanded by the town’s Nazi-dominated German community. The fate of Czecho-Slovakia and Carpatho-Ukraine was enough to persuade the Lithuanians to agree, and the transfer document was signed on 23 March 1938. German troops entered the Memelland the same day, and early in the afternoon Hitler himself arrived on a German warship to address the jubilant local German crowds; he departed for Berlin the same evening.162

Once more, he had succeeded in annexing large amounts of territory without bloodshed. The crisis of March 1939 was a brief one, and it did not allow time for the build-up of the kind of ‘war psychosis’ that had dominated the summer months of the previous year. Approval of the incorporation of Memel into the Reich was almost universal, even amongst former Social Democrats. Nevertheless, Social Democratic agents reported widespread anxiety about the consequences of the invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, not least because it could not be justified as the rescue of a German minority from oppression despite the fact that Goebbels’s propaganda claimed that the Czechs had been abusing the German minority in their midst. ‘I think’, one worker was reported as saying, ‘they should have left the Czechs in peace amongst themselves, it won’t end well.’ It was not until the announcement that the occupation had taken place without loss of life that people began to applaud Hitler’s latest success. Many people were reported as being indifferent, their nationalist sensibilities dulled by previous successes in Austria and the Sudetenland. Amongst the middle classes, there was a widespread feeling that it did not really matter so long as war was avoided. But doubts on this score were reported as being more widespread than ever. It was Hitler’s least popular victory to date. ‘We were always winning once before,’ said one worker cynically, looking back to the propaganda claims of the First World War, ‘and it came to a bad end.’163

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