Military history

SLOVAKIA “WINS” ITS “INDEPENDENCE”

What had happened to the German guarantee of the rest of Czechoslovakia which Hitler had solemnly promised at Munich to give? When the new French ambassador in Berlin, Robert Coulondre, inquired of Weizsaecker on December 21, 1938, the State Secretary replied that the destiny of Czechoslovakia lay in the hands of Germany and that he rejected the idea of a British–French guarantee. As far back as October 14, when the new Czech Foreign Minister, František Chvalkovsky, had come humbly begging for crumbs at the hand of Hitler in Munich and had inquired whether Germany was going to join Britain and France in the guarantee of his country’s shrunken frontiers, the Fuehrer replied sneeringly that “the British and French guarantees were worthless … and that the only effective guarantee was that by Germany.”12

Yet, as 1939 began, it was still not forthcoming. The reason was simple. The Fuehrer had no intention of giving it. Such a guarantee would have interfered with the plans which he had begun to lay immediately after Munich. Soon there would be no Czechoslovakia to guarantee. To start with, Slovakia would be induced to break away.

A few days after Munich, on October 17, Goering had received two Slovak leaders, Ferdinand Durcansky and Mach, and the leader of the German minority in Slovakia, Franz Karmasin. Durcansky, who was Deputy Prime Minister of the newly appointed autonomous Slovakia, assured the Field Marshal that what the Slovaks really wanted was “complete independence, with very close political, economic and military ties with Germany.” In a secret Foreign Office memorandum of the same date it was noted that Goering had decided that independence for Slovakia must be supported. “A Czech State minus Slovakia is even more completely at our mercy. Air base in Slovakia for operation against the East very important.”13 Such were Goering’s thoughts on the matter in mid-October.

We must here attempt to follow a double thread in the German plan: to detach Slovakia from Prague, and to prepare for the liquidation of what remained of the state by the military occupation of the Czech lands, Bohemia and Moravia. On October 21, 1938, as we have seen, Hitler had directed the Wehrmacht to be ready to carry out that liquidation.* On December 17, General Keitel issued what he called a “supplement to Directive of October 21”:

TOP SECRET

With reference to the “liquidation of the Rump Czech State,” the Fuehrer has given the following orders:

The operation is to be prepared on the assumption that no resistance worth mentioning is to be expected.

To the outside world it must clearly appear that it is merely a peaceful action and not a warlike undertaking.

The action must therefore be carried out by the peacetime armed forces only, without reinforcement by mobilization … 14

Try as it might to please Hitler, the new pro-German government of Czechoslovakia began to realize as the new year began that the country’s goose was cooked. Just before Christmas, 1938, the Czech cabinet, in order to further appease the Fuehrer, had dissolved the Communist Party and suspended all Jewish teachers in German schools. On January 12, 1939, Foreign Minister Chvalkovsky, in a message to the German Foreign Office, stressed that his government “will endeavor to prove its loyalty and good will by far-reaching fulfillment of Germany’s wishes.” On the same day he brought to the attention of the German chargé in Prague the spreading rumors “that the incorporation of Czechoslovakia into the Reich was imminent.”15

To see if even the pieces could be saved Chvalkovsky finally prevailed upon Hitler to receive him in Berlin on January 21. It turned out to be a painful scene, though not as painful for the Czechs as one that would shortly follow. The Czech Foreign Minister groveled before the mightyGerman dictator, who was in one of his most bullying moods. Czechoslovakia, said Hitler, had been saved from catastrophe by “Germany’s moderation.” Nevertheless, unless the Czechs showed a different spirit, he would “annihilate” them. They must forget their “history,” which was “schoolboy nonsense,” and do as the Germans bade. That was their only salvation. Specifically, Czechoslovakia must leave the League of Nations, drastically reduce the size of her Army—“because it did not count anyway”—join the Anti-Comintern Pact, accept German direction of her foreign policy, make a preferential trade agreement with Germany, one condition of which was that no new Czech industries could be established without German consent,* dismiss all officials and editors not friendly to the Reich and, finally, outlaw the Jews, as Germany had done under itsNuremberg Laws. (“With us, the Jews will be destroyed,” Hitler told his visitor.) On the same day Chvalkovsky received further demands from Ribbentrop, who threatened “catastrophic consequences” unless the Czechs immediately mended their ways and did as they were told. The German Foreign Minister, so much the lackey in the presence of Hitler but a boor and a bully with anyone over whom he had the upper hand, bade Chvalkovsky not to mention the new German demands to the British and French but just to go ahead and carry them out.17

And to do so without worrying about any German guarantee of the Czech frontiers! Apparently there had been little worry about this in Paris and London. Four months had gone by since Munich, and still Hitler had not honored his word to add Germany’s guarantee to that given by Britain and France. Finally on February 8 an Anglo–French note verbale was presented in Berlin stating that the two governments “would now be glad to learn the views of the German Government as to the best way of giving effect to the understanding reached at Munich in regard to the guarantee of Czechoslovakia.”18

Hitler himself, as the captured German Foreign Office documents establish, drafted the reply, which was not made until February 28. It said that the time had not yet come for a German guarantee. Germany would have to “await first a clarification of the internal development of Czechoslovakia.”19

The Fuehrer already was shaping that “internal development” toward an obvious end. On February 12 he received at the Chancellery in Berlin Dr. Vojtech Tuka, one of the Slovak leaders, whose long imprisonment had embittered him against the Czechs. Addressing Hitler as “my Fuehrer,” as the secret German memorandum of the talk emphasizes, Dr. Tuka begged the German dictator to make Slovakia independent and free. “I lay the destiny of my people in your hands, my Fuehrer,” he declared. “My people await their complete liberation from you.”

Hitler’s reply was somewhat evasive. He said that unfortunately he had not understood the Slovak problem. Had he known the Slovaks wanted to be independent he would have arranged it at Munich. It would be “a comfort to him to know that Slovakia was independent … He could guarantee an independent Slovakia at any time, even today …” These were comforting words to Professor Tuka too.20 “This,” he said later, “was the greatest day of my life.”

   The curtain on the next act of the Czechoslovak tragedy could now go up. By another one of those ironies with which this narrative history is so full, it was the Czechs in Prague who forced the curtain up a little prematurely. By the beginning of March 1939 they were caught in a terrible dilemma. The separatist movements in Slovakia and Ruthenia, fomented, as we have seen, by the German government (and in Ruthenia also by Hungary, which was hungry to annex that little land) had reached such a state that unless they were squelched Czechoslovakia would break up. In that case Hitler would surely occupy Prague. If the separatists were put down by the central government, then the Fuehrer, just as certainly, would take advantage of the resulting disturbance to also march into Prague.

The Czech government, after much hesitation and only after the provocation became unbearable, chose the second alternative. On March 6, Dr. Hácha, the President of Czechoslovakia, dismissed the autonomous Ruthenian government from office, and on the night of March 9–10 the autonomous Slovakian government. The next day he ordered the arrest of Monsignor Tiso, the Slovak Premier, Dr. Tuka and Durcansky and proclaimed martial law in Slovakia. The one courageous move of this government, which had become so servile to Berlin, quickly turned into a disaster which destroyed it.

The swift action by the tottering Prague government caught Berlin by surprise. Goering had gone off to sunny San Remo for a vacation. Hitler was on the point of leaving for Vienna to celebrate the first anniversary of the Anschluss. But now the master improviser went feverishly to work. On March 11, he decided to take Bohemia and Moravia by ultimatum. The text was drafted that day on Hitler’s orders by General Keitel and sent to the German Foreign Office. It called upon the Czechs to submit to military occupation without resistance.21 For the moment, however, it remained a “top military secret.”

It was now time for Hitler to “liberate” Slovakia. Karol Sidor, who had represented the autonomous Slovak government at Prague, was named by President Hácha to be the new Premier of it in place of Monsignor Tiso. Returning to Bratislava, the Slovak seat of government, on Saturday,March 11, Sidor called a meeting of his new cabinet. At ten o’clock in the evening the session of the Slovak government was interrupted by strange and unexpected visitors. Seyss-Inquart, the quisling Nazi Governor of Austria, and Josef Buerckel, the Nazi Gauleiter of Austria, accompanied by five German generals, pushed their way into the meeting and told the cabinet ministers to proclaim the independence of Slovakia at once. Unless they did, Hitler, who had decided to settle the question of Slovakia definitely and now, would disinterest himself in the fate of Slovakia.22

Sidor, who opposed severing all links with the Czechs, stalled for time, but the next morning Monsignor Tiso, who had escaped from a monastery where he supposedly was under house arrest, demanded a cabinet meeting, though he was no longer himself in the cabinet. To forestall further interruptions by high German officials and generals, Sidor called the meeting in his own apartment, and when this became unsafe—for German storm troopers were taking over the town—he adjourned it to the offices of a local newspaper. There Tiso informed him that he had just received a telegram from Buerckel inviting him to go at once to see the Fuehrer in Berlin. If he refused the invitation, Buerckel threatened, two German divisions across the Danube from Bratislava would march in and Slovakia would be divided up between Germany and Hungary. Arriving in Vienna the next morning, Monday, March 13, with the intention of proceeding to Berlin by train, the chubby little prelate* was packed into a plane by the Germans and flown to the presence of Hitler. For the Fuehrer, there was no time to waste.

When Tiso and Durcansky arrived at the Chancellery in Berlin at 7:40 on the evening of March 13, they found Hitler flanked not only by Ribbentrop but by his two top generals, Brauchitsch, Commander in Chief of the German Army, and Keitel, Chief of OKW. Though they may not have realized it, the Slovaks also found the Fuehrer in a characteristic mood. Here again, thanks to the captured confidential minutes of the meeting, we may peer into the weird mind of the German dictator, rapidly giving way to megalomania, and watch him spinning his fantastic lies and uttering his dire threats in a manner and to an extent which he no doubt was sure would never come to public attention.23

“Czechoslovakia,” he said, “owed it only to Germany that she had not been mutilated further.” The Reich had exhibited “the greatest self-control.” Yet the Czechs had not appreciated this. “During recent weeks,” he went on, working himself up easily to a fine lather, “conditions have become impossible. The old Beneš spirit has come to life again.”

The Slovaks had also disappointed him. After Munich he had “fallen out” with his friends the Hungarians by not permitting them to grab Slovakia. He had thought Slovakia wanted to be independent.

He had now summoned Tiso in order to clear up this question in a very short time.* … The question was: Did Slovakia want to lead an independent existence or not? … It was a question not of days but of hours. If Slovakia wished to become independent he would support and even guarantee it … If she hesitated or refused to be separated from Prague, he would leave the fate of Slovakia to events for which he was no longer responsible.

At this point, the German minutes reveal, Ribbentrop “handed to the Fuehrer a report just received announcing Hungarian troop movements on the Slovak frontier. The Fuehrer read this report, told Tiso of its contents, and expressed the hope that Slovakia would reach a decision soon.”

Tiso did not give his decision then. He asked the Fuehrer to “pardon him if, under the impact of the Chancellor’s words, he could make no definite decision at once.” But the Slovaks, he quickly added, “would prove themselves worthy of the Fuehrer’s benevolence.”

This they did in a conference which continued far into the night at the Foreign Ministry. According to the Nuremberg testimony of Keppler, who had been Hitler’s secret agent in Bratislava, as he had been the year before in Vienna on the eve of the Anschluss, the Germans helped Tiso draft a telegram, which the “Premier” was to send as soon as he returned to Bratislava, proclaiming Slovakia’s independence and urgently requesting the Fuehrer to take over the protection of the new state.24 It is reminiscent of the “telegram” dictated by Goering just a year before in which Seyss-Inquart was to appeal to Hitler to send German troops to Austria. By this time the Nazi “telegram” technique had been perfected. The telegram, considerably abridged, was duly dispatched by Tiso on March 16, and Hitler immediately replied that he would be glad to “take over the protection of the Slovak State.”

At the Foreign Office that night Ribbentrop also drafted the Slovak proclamation of “independence” and had it translated into Slovak in time for Tiso to take it back to Bratislava, where the “Premier” read it—in slightly altered form, as one German agent reported—to Parliament on the following day, Tuesday, March 14. Attempts by several Slovak deputies to at least discuss it were squelched by Karmasin, the leader of the German minority, who warned that German troops would occupy the country if there was any delay in proclaiming independence. Faced with this threat the doubting deputies gave in.

Thus was “independent” Slovakia born on March 14, 1939. Though British diplomatic representatives were quick to inform London as to the manner of its birth, Chamberlain, as we shall see, was just as quick to use Slovakia’s “secession” as an excuse for Britain not to honor its guarantee of Czechoslovakia after Hitler, on that very evening, March 14, acted to finish what had been left undone at Munich.

The life of the Czechoslovak Republic of Masaryk and Beneš had now run out. And once again the harassed leaders in Prague played into Hitler’s hands to set up the final act of their country’s tragedy. The aging, bewildered President Hácha asked to be received by the Fuehrer.* Hitler graciously consented. It gave him an opportunity to set the stage for one of the most brazen acts of his entire career.

Consider how well the dictator had already arranged the set as he waited on the afternoon of March 14 for the President of Czechoslovakia to arrive. The proclamations of independence of Slovakia and Ruthenia, which he had so skillfully engineered, left Prague with only the Czech core ofBohemia and Moravia. Had not Czechoslovakia in reality ceased to exist—the nation whose frontiers Britain and France had guaranteed against aggression? Chamberlain and Daladier, his partners at Munich where the guarantee had been solemnly given, already had their “out.” That they would take it he had no doubt—and he was right. That disposed of any danger of foreign intervention. But to make doubly sure—to see to it that his next move looked quite legal and legitimate by the vague standards of international law, at least on paper—he would force the weak and senile Hácha, who had begged to see him, to accept the very solution which he had intended to achieve by military force. And in so doing he could make it appear—he, who, alone in Europe, had mastered the new technique of bloodless conquest, as the Anschluss and Munich had proved—that the President of Czechoslovakia had actually and formally asked for it. The niceties of “legality,” which he had perfected so well in taking over power in Germany, would be preserved in the conquest of a non-Germanic land.

Hitler had also set the stage to fool the German and other gullible people in Europe. For several days now German provocateurs had been trying to stir up trouble in various Czech towns, Prague, Bruenn and Iglau. They had not had much success because, as the German Legation in Prague reported, the Czech “police have been instructed to take no action against Germans, even in cases of provocation.”26 But this failure did not prevent Dr. Goebbels from whipping up the German press into a frenzy over invented acts of terror by the Czechs against the poor Germans. As the French ambassador, M. Coulondre, informed Paris, they were the same stories with the same headlines which Dr. Goebbels had concocted during the Sudeten crisis—down to the pregnant German woman struck down by Czech beasts and the general “Blutbad” (“blood bath”) to which the defenseless Germans were being subjected by the Czech barbarians. Hitler could assure the proud German people that their kinsmen would not remain unprotected for long.

Such was the situation and such were Hitler’s plans, we now know from the German archives, as the train bearing President Hácha and his Foreign Minister, Chvalkovsky, drew into the Anhalt Station in Berlin at 10:40 on the evening of March 14. Because of a heart condition the President had been unable to fly.

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