Next week, Czechs will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the "dealing with the rest of Czechia" ("Erledigung der Rest-Tschechei"; yes, that terminology was intentionally picked to be degrading but Czechs have no problem with the word "Tschechei" although Germans typically think that the PC "Tschechien" is mandatory – for us, they're just synonyms) by Nazi Germany.
On March 14th, 1939, softcore Slovak clerofascists and anti-Prague nationalists, energized by their influential hardcore German friend, declared the independence and broke Czecho-Slovakia – which had already been broken by the hyphen for half a year, and which had been stripped of the Sudetenland. It was the first time when Slovakia became a country.
One window wasn't enough, Hitler greeted Prague from two windows.
On March 15th, German troops invaded Czechia and formally established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a new "regime" that would last for 6 more years. The Third Reich was supposed to last for 1000 years but the witty Czechs renamed the occupied structure, "Protektorát" in Czech, to "Protentokrát" which looks and sounds almost the same but it means "Just for this time", correctly (with our hindsight) or optimistically (with their uncertainty) indicating the temporary character of that regime.
On March 16th, the aforementioned hardcore German comrade triumphantly arrived to the Prague Castle, declared himself the eternal master of the Milky Way, and took a couple of selfies including one above. I have felt safer in that office when then President Klaus, and not Hitler, was standing next to me. ;-)
The moron had quite some reasons for the triumphant behavior. The rest-of-Czechia was the first territory not inhabited by a German majority that his Reich took. At that time, he was already decided to attack Poland a bit later and the weakened Czecho-Slovakia was a possible obstacle on its journey to the East.
The First Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938) emerged as the world's most readable enemy of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Most of the people but especially top politicians and cultural elites were saying lots of negative things of the modern type about Nazism. All other European countries were either downright taken by (communism or) fascism or they had mixed feelings about Nazi Germany in which some admiration often trumped the hatred and fear. Some fascination with Hitler and his regime was omnipresent and don't forget that even the Soviet Union had signed a pact with Germany. Poland had acted "according to the German example" in Fall 1938 when it took some (small) territory from Czechoslovakia, too. In this comparison, the unisono anti-Nazi approach of the Czechoslovak political elites was rare, indeed.
Czechoslovakia had one Achilles' heel, the Sudetenland German minority, about 3 million ethnic Germans who have accumulated in the borderland region – the union of the borderland mountains surrounding Czechia is known as the Sudetes although the Czech geography classes usually present the massif as a set of 10 or so independent mountain massifs with their own names. (The word "Sudety" was formally banned in 1945 but no one was ever seriously punished.) Germans have been invited to Czechia by the Czech kings since the 13rd century or so, in a successful campaign to improve the Czech royal economy. And it has basically worked great... up to the 1930s.
In this text, the Sudetenland Germans are supposed to represent a bunch of Nazi savages who were collectively the most important "small ethnic group" that has caused the Second World War. But you must understand that the German speakers born on Czechia's territory have included Ferdinand Porsche, Gregor Mendel, Kurt Gödel, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Ernst Mach, Josef Loschmidt, Ludwig Moser, Heinrich Mattoni, Gustav Mahler, and tons of other big names (quite a fraction has been Jewish). As other Czechs, I don't really count them as "Czech men" but on the other hand, as a man whose paternal grandmother was born as Miss Führer (although she was seemingly as Czech a maid as you can get), I am Cosmopolitan enough to take some credit for them because no one else seems eager to do so! So thank me very much, you're welcome. ;-)
These folks had all the individual civil rights you can imagine – much like Czechs and Slovaks within Austria-Hungary, the enlightened and modern German-speaker-led monarchy, but with some true "republican" rights added. Among all German minorities in the world, Czechoslovakia's Germans had the highest number of books published per capita, German-language schools per capita, German lawmakers in the Parliament per capita, and many other things. But as members of a "different" ethnic minority, they were obviously stripped of a realistic influence over the existential interests of Czechoslovakia (much like Czechs and especially Slovaks had no power over existential decisions in Austria-Hungary – the situations really were mirror images of one another). That could have been viewed as controversial given the high number – 3 million was a somewhat larger number than the number of Slovaks. Slovaks did make it to the name of Czechoslovakia while the Germans didn't. Why? Or how it could have been tolerated?
Well, Czechs and Slovaks cleverly realized back in 1918 that we were really one nation, the Czechoslovak nation, that spoke one language, the Czechoslovak language, that had two preferred codified forms, Czech and Slovak. To most Czechs and Slovaks, "Czechoslovak nation" sounds rather funny, but I often semi-jokingly label myself an ethnic Czechoslovak because I wouldn't have the slightest problem with that. After all, I don't find this "Czechoslovak nation" too different from e.g. "Belgian nation" or "American nation". OK, when Czechs and Slovaks combined forces, they were a clear majority in Czechoslovakia – and the rest, mainly Germans, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Jews, Gypsies, and some Romanians, were clumped as small minorities.
Great. It ceased to work in the 1930s. About 90% of our beloved Czechoslovak Germans wanted to become a part of Germany (a dream that was finally fulfilled literally in 1945 LOL). They were voting for Konrad Henlein, a puppy of Hitler. Those who can do research, do research. Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach the gyms. And those who can't teach the gyms, like Konrad Henlein (a professional teacher in gyms), become the regional Führers. ;-)
Sudetengau, a province of Germany proper in 1938-1945. The three main districts were surrounding Eger, Aussig, Troppau (CZ: Cheb, Ústí nad Labem, Opava).
OK, mainly because of the appeasement by Britain – and "appeasement" is clearly an understatement because tons of members of the higher British society were Nazi sympathizers or admirers – the Munich Treaty was signed by the four main Western European powers (DE, UK, FR, IT, it's still the same) and the Sudetenland (the German-majority region of Czechoslovakia, the percentage was about 65% there) became a part of Germany proper. Of course, as a decent treaty, it promised Czecho-Slovakia (as the truncated territory was renamed) territorial integrity etc.
In March 1939, Hitler brutally violated this (already terrible) treaty and invaded the majority Czech territory, too. He needed comfort and it was generally expected that the occupation of rest-Czechia could have been easy.
The reduced Czech lands look like the incredibly shrinking Aral Sea – smaller, shallower, and with rather arbitrary fuzzy and indefensible borders. The trend or plan was clearly to "dry out" the Czech nation.
Here is how the territory was rearranged. First, notice that all the cities and regions have German names and many of them are "more" than just some German adaptations of Czech names. Germany was always ready to take over but you shouldn't take it as too special a condition. In Czech, we use our names for all sufficiently close or important German cities, too. So for example, Regensburg, Nürnberg, Chemnitz, Dresden, Aachen are called Řezno, Norimberk, Saská Kamenice, Drážďany, and Cáchy.
The main two provinces were Böhmen and Mähren, Bohemia and Moravia (the former and latter were a kingdom and a margraviate during feudal times, respectively). They were divided to 7 smaller regions around cities Pilsen, Prague, Budweis, King's wife's courtyard (OK, I mean Hradec Králové or Königgratz), Iglau/Jihlava, Brno/Brünn, and Ostrava/Mährische Ostrau. These are large cities, perhaps except for Iglau, and they play some administrative roles. Large cities of Northern Bohemia (Liberec/Reichenberg etc.) are missing because they were Germany proper. But the German division of the territory was much more focused on the cities than the modern one. For example, a similar region around Iglau is currently called Region Vysočina (Highland), clearly suppressing the importance of the center and elevating the landscape.
An optimistic news report about the March 15th 1939 dealing with the decayed state that hadn't respected the right for self-determination and collapsed like a house of cards, as seen in German movie theaters (and restored in a TV document that is also already 25 years old). The number of Germans was high enough to establish a festive atmosphere. The speed was impressive: the Germans troops got to the Prague Castle by 9:15 am and by 10:00 am, the capital was under German control and arrests according to pre-designed lists could have begun. NSDAP started operating on our territory by giving 1 liter of soup to every unemployed person who applied in advance (40,000 portions). Germans ate the Eintopf on the Wenceslaus Square. President Hácha called the Parliament to dissolve it. He replaced it by the National Partnership, a fan club of Adolf Hitler where the membership was mandatory for all men. So much for the originality of the proponents of diversity statements etc. The NP chairman Adolf H(rubý) – a good enough name – promised unity like never before and an organization more inclusive than others. (The Jews may be erased and women weren't eligible.) After decades of slow democratic plans in Czechoslovakia, the switching of the road traffic to the right side occurred in two weeks after the occupation. Retired nobleman (Freiherr, roughly a baron) Konstantin von Neurath became the first protector. Second Republic's PM Rudolf Beran remained the (now puppet) prime minister; he only got 20 years in prison after the war. The next one, Alois Eliáš, was executed by the Nazis. The successors Jaroslav Krejčí and Richard Bienert got 25 and 3 years after the war, respectively. None of them survived those terms.
Pilsen was sitting on the border – one could get to Germany proper by going beyond the Western suburbs. It's sort of scary, you need more than a one-hour-long journey with a car or train to get to Germany now.
The Protectorate was a territory with a limited autonomous government run by the ethnic Czechs and for the ethnic Czechs. They weren't allowed any power ministries, and certainly not the ministry of foreign affairs. Those sensitive things were controlled by ethnic Germans. All ethnic Germans on the Protectorate territory were directly subordinate to German authorities – the ethnic Czech government of the Protectorate had no power over them whatsoever. It's a bizarre variation on the theme of limited sovereignty but thanks to the Nazis' scary power and tactics, it had "worked" for some six years.
I read many answers in the new Klaus Institute Newsletter about the question what the occupation means for us today. Their remarks were wonderful and I totally agree with almost everything they wrote.
First, the documentary TV channels are full of documentaries about Hitler. People still seem to be obsessed. They will say it's a negative obsession but I find it debatable whether this kind of obsession may be purely negative. For me, Hitler was a mediocre man who was allowed to do crazy things with Germany because there was a lot of demand for this kind of politics among his countrymates.
This gets me to the second point. We often hear that Nazism and the Second World War were the products of a single lunatic – perhaps with a couple of people around him. But that's a complete lie. It's unsurprising that lots of people want to promote Adolf Hitler to a Jesus Christ who can absorb all the people's guilt. But in reality, lots of the guilt and blame belongs to the generic Germans. They voted for him, they "made" him, they allowed to keep him powerful. They really wanted him to do the things he was doing – sometimes more than he wanted these things himself – and many of them were actually executing the inhuman orders he had issued. It was Adolf Hitler who was a product of the societal atmosphere of the demoralized Germany after the First World War.
Third, and it's related to the previous point, the occupation and the war are often presented as "Nazi occupation". On the other hand, the Soviet-led 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia by armies of 5 member countries of the Warsaw Pact is often simplified as a "Russian occupation". You can see the amazing double treatment here. The 1968 occupation involved East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. And the main occupying force, the Soviet Union, was a conglomerate country of 15 states – Russia was only the largest one among them. And this 1968 occupation was much less "national" in character and much more "ideological" – while the 1939 occupation was much more "national" than "ideological".
Nevertheless, the current Zeitgeist says that one should treat Germany as our great friend once again. It's so terribly unfair. The 1939 occupation was both a Nazi occupation and a German occupation. A big part of the guilt has to be attached to the German nation as a nation. Germans are much more responsible for the evils of Nazism because it was their national ideology – than Russians are responsible for the evils of communism because it was an international ideology (well, originally invented by another German). It's just terrible when lots of contemporary demagogues present the situation in the opposite way! These demagogues imply that Germans have nothing to do with the evils of Nazism while Russians are responsible for the evils of communism. Please, give me a break, aßholes! The two large nations are partly responsible for the wrongdoings in both cases but the Germans were more responsible for Nazism because it was a nationalist ideology. That's what the letters "Nazi" mean.
Fourth, we have this problem with the collaborationist attitude of lots of Czechs. I think it's obvious that regular people had collaborated too much in average – well, I do feel that the people around the Klaus Institute wouldn't quite subscribe to this sentence of mine. But I think it's true, the Protectorate worked "too well". But I still agree with them that the collaborationism has to be evaluated in the context – and relatively to what was happening in other German-occupied territories.
It wasn't really too different. If things worked well, it's because Czechs are more organized and have better (German-like) work ethics and other things than most other occupied nations including the French. On the positive side, our government-in-exile operating from London managed to mastermind the only successful wartime assassination of a powerful Nazi official, the acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, a near-world-class violinist and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. On top of that, the collaborationist Protectorate government had the only (not so) puppet prime minister, Alois Eliáš, who had to be executed for his self-evident links to the resistance. Nominally a Quisling, you could also call him a great hero of the anti-Nazi movement! ;-)
We still had lot of pilots in the British Royal Air Force (there were also Polish pilots there). Lots of people listened to the London Radio. And my late grandfather Koliha (a painter) was really courageous during the time and I have no doubts that I trusted those statements although I can't produce an example of a courageous act he has done...
So while I am not proud about the attitude of median Czechs to the Protectorate, I do think that with the appropriate comparisons to the other occupied nations, we weren't as bad. And just to be sure, I think it's existentially important to accept and remember that the guilt for the monstrosities of Nazism really belongs to the Germans. Citizens of occupied territories such as Czechia could have hypothetically been more courageous but that's something else than being straight on the evil side. They were at risk of execution if they opposed the Nazi regime. The equivocation of the roles of the Czechs (or Poles) on one side and the roles of the Germans in the wartime era is absolutely dishonest, indefensible, offensive, and dangerous.
But this equivocation is still being served to us. Some fanatically pro-EU Czechs indirectly say that both Czechs and Germans did (the same amount of) evil things during the war. No, they didn't and even if they did, the chronology matters. Some pro-EU folks talk about the "Czech or Polish concentration camps". No, they were German concentration camps built on our conquered territories. And so on.
Fifth, we may compare the assertive German behavior of 1939 and the contemporary one. Germany unsurprisingly regained its role as the most powerful (fully) European power. For more than a century (and perhaps for 1500 years, depending what you include), Europe has had the instability associated with Germany that is strong enough to be the main power (which is tempting) but weak enough to be safely dominating the continent. Thankfully, it's applying this power more peacefully now so far. And in many respects, Germany wants to be "the opposite" of what it was in 1939. However, if you look at it differently, Germany that currently spreads its views (e.g. about the green energy and the need to welcome the Muslim anti-Semitic migrants) is doing a very similar thing as the German Nazis did. After all, Nazis were the first environmentalists and they were allied with the Palestinian Arabs and other Muslims, too. At any rate, Germany of 2019 is surely trying to spread its ideas about the ideal world or ideal Europe beyond its borders again – and ignore the interests, opinions, and sovereignty of other nations along the way.
The March 1939 occupation ended a temporary, half-a-year-long period in which people were waiting for the apparently unavoidable full-blown Nazi supervision. Rest-of-Czechia didn't even consider fighting. The president of the Second Republic, lawyer Emil Hácha (who was also the translator of Three Men In a Boat by Jerome Klapka Jerome to Czech, among other things), was invited to Berlin a day before the occupation. He was threatened by carpet bombardment of Prague, suffered two heart attacks, and signed a document donating the Czech lands as a gift to Adolf Hitler who would lovingly protect them. In those conditions, I would have signed it, too. The Nazis came and bragged about their power – they also posted lots of posters in Czech and it was broken Czech, probably intentionally broken in order to mock the occupied nation.
Germany happily suppressed the majority population on their own territory and the Sudetenland Germans often played an important role in that – disproving the silly claims that their political campaign on Hitler's side before the war could have been justified by their desire for minorities to be fairly treated.
For six years, the increasingly ill and weak – and very short – Protectorate President Hácha was the perfect visual symbol of the Czech submission, especially when contrasted with Reinhard Heydrich who was actually tall, blonde, and blue-eyed, a true Aryan unlike his boss from the photograph at the top. But Hácha was really a great guy. It's terrible that the history had manipulated him into this position. Just to be sure, Hácha was the president of the Second Republic of Czecho-Slovakia (half a year in 1938-1939) and then the Protectorate president (1939-1945).
Well, the role of his predecessor, Dr. Edvard Beneš, was comparably tragic. Beneš, one of the three most important founders of Czechoslovakia (with Masaryk and Štefánik), was the Czechoslovak president twice: in 1935-1938 and 1945-1948. Note that these two three-year-long periods differ exactly by ten years. In both cases, his resignation was linked to the collapse of democracy in Czechoslovakia. In 1938, he couldn't reconcile himself with the Munich Treaty (he wasn't invited there, of course), resigned, and escaped to England – which was wise because his life would surely be at risk in a few months. In 1948, he accepted the ill-conceived resignation of the last democratic ministers in the communist-led government – which allowed the communists to have a total control over the governments and everything else for 41 following years.
These bad events are unsurprisingly conflated with Beneš. But he wasn't really responsible for them. He was a great guy, indeed, and his decisions made a lot of sense. It's really unfair to give Beneš so much worse press than to Masaryk – Masaryk was more lucky in choosing the time when he reigned so he could have been treated as the beloved undisputed monarch-like Daddy of a problem-free country for twenty years. The temporal lottery was less kind to Beneš.
In the late 1930s, he could move to Britain and become the main face of the government-in-exile (see Beneš's photos with Churchill). That government wasn't doing the visible daytime activities over the Protectorate – like the Protectorate government that surely organized lots of concerts etc. ;-) – but in some sense, the work of Beneš was more important. He was preparing the post-war conditions. He signed the assassination of Heydrich. The Nazis revenged which was cruel but it was great, too. Britain removed its signature from the Munich Treaty in the wake of the 1942 retribution for Heydrich's execution (which including the complete burnout of the Lidice and Ležáky villages). And Beneš teamed up with the Britons and Soviets to make sure that Czechoslovakia would be restored after the war and it would regain the Sudetenland. He accumulated enough political support to make the expulsion of Germans possible, too.
He was a true democrat but also a Russophile – lots of the democrats who founded Czechoslovakia in 1918 were Russophiles. The first prime minister Karel Kramář (the top warrior for the independence from within) planned the Russian Tsar as the formal head of Czechoslovakia! Lenin has made that plan obsolete before Czechoslovakia was actually founded. But due to his tough fight against the Nazis – and, indeed, Germans – Beneš drifted further, of course. He became a solid international ally of Stalin's (see Beneš's pictures with Stalin. Beneš's was a pact with a devil – but it was one of the two devils who was less urgently existentially threatening for Beneš's nation's survival, you know. So I would have picked the same devil – there was really no other choice. When it came to the international questions, he was really on the same boat with the communists in the 3 years of the postwar opposition-free democracy, 1945-1948. He still didn't want the totalitarian system to be imported to Czechoslovakia, of course, but it would be silly to assume that he "had to" take some violently anti-Soviet positions. That would have been totally incompatible with what he had to do during the war to save our very statehood in the medium term.
The history is tough. Lots of things are bad today and the world is a šitty place – as Larry Summers likes to say – but I do think that many events that were happening in 1938-1945 were more brutal, indeed.