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The Second World War

Munich 1938

On 15 September 1938, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went and met with Hitler in Berchtesgaden. Together with the French government, he exerted pressure on the Czechoslovak administration to meet Hitler’s demands, i.e. to cede territories with populations that were more than 50% German to Germany.

The Czechoslovak government capitulated under pressure and accepted the conditions. But the population did not intend to reconcile itself to the capitulation and wanted to defend their republic.  The cabinet submitted its resignation and a new government was assembled. On 22 September 1938, at a second meeting with Chamberlain, Hitler demanded the fulfilment of his other demands, which included satisfying the territorial claims of Hungary and Poland. The Czechoslovak government rejected these and declared a general mobilization. Hitler publicly issued a threat of war against Czechoslovakia. An armed uprising subsequently erupted in the Sudetenland, which was organised by followers of Konrad Heinlein and supported by Germany. The Czechoslovak army and security forces successfully intervened against this rising.

At the suggestion of the fascist state of Italy, the four great powers – German, Italy, Great Britain and France – met for a conference in Munich on 29 September 1938. They agreed on a solution to the crisis, which involved Czechoslovakia surrendering the desired territory.  It itself had not been invited to the negotiations.  The government and President Beneš did not want to risk waging a war without allies against a superior force with the label of being a warmonger. Consequently, they agreed to the Munich Diktat. In November 1938, the Viennese Arbitration resulted in Hungary gaining southern Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Ukraine, while Poland won part of Cieszyn and parts of northern Slovakia. Upon returning home, Neville Chamberlain naively boasted that “I believe it is peace for our time.”

The ceding of territory without a fight brought huge disenchantment, disillusionment and a political shift to the right in Czechoslovakia. The state was affected by a loss of industry, the severance of transport connections, and a flood of refugees (because 150,000 people had to leave the Sudetenland.  These were not just Czechs, but also democratic-thinking Germans and Jews, who didn’t expect anything good from Germany).

The new borders were absolutely indefensible in military terms and so Czechoslovakia was wholly dependent on the capriciousness of Germany.  On 5 October 1938, under pressure from this powerful neighbour, President Edvard Beneš resigned from his post and emigrated shortly afterwards. Emil Hácha was chosen as the new president.

The state’s polity was changed. Andrej Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party pushed through wider autonomy for Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Ukraine also attained the same status. Hlinka’s party enforced a de facto one-party government at variance with the previous 20 years of democratic practice. In the Czech lands, where a multitude of political parties had existed in the First Republic, the parties merged into two entities – the governing Party of National Unity (Strana národní jednotky) and the opposition National Labour Party (Národní strana práce).

On 14 March 1939, the Slovak parliament declared an independent Slovak state. Germany, which had prepared the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, contributed to this with the pressure it applied. Slovakia was formally an independent state, which was internationally recognized, but was in fact a satellite of Germany. On 14 March 1939 President Emil Hácha left for negotiations in Berlin with his Foreign Minister František Chvalkovský. With pressure and threats, Hitler attained their consent to a German occupation. While heavy snow fell, German units invaded across the borders of the truncated state, which were less than six months old. Those of the allied statesmen who believed that the surrender of Czechoslovak territory fulfilled what was really Hitler’s last demand were deeply mistaken. Poland was to be the next victim of German aggression within a few months.

The German Occupation

Hitler issued a decree on establishing a Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. A protectorate government worked under German administration and supervision, and Emil Hácha continued as president.

During large demonstrations held on 28 October 1939, on the anniversary of the establishment of the independent state, several participants were either killed or badly injured as a result of German intervention. The funeral of one of the demonstrators – the medical student Jan Opletal – turned into another anti-German demonstration.  The Germans reacted by closing all Czech universities on 17 November 1939 and by executing nine student and sending 1200 students to concentration camps.

Today, this date is commemorated as a state holiday known as the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day.

The breakout of the Second World War was welcomed by the resistance movement, which was striving for the restoration of pre-War Czechoslovakia.  Only a complete defeat of Germany could liberate the nation from the Nazi occupation.

The resistance was divided into domestic and foreign sections. Many groups and movements operated in the domestic resistance – Obrana Národa, (“National Defence”), petiční výbor Věrni zůstaneme (“We Shall Remain Faithful Petition Committee”), Politické ústředí (the “Political Centre”) Rada tří (the “Council of Three”), the communist resistance, etc. Participation in the resistance was punished by death or, at best, by being sent to a concentration camp.

Even the prime minister of the protectorate government General Alois Eliáš joined the domestic underground movement, and he was executed by the Germans for his work in the resistance. The Nazis used the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) against the illegal movement.  After the war, this was declared a criminal organization by the Nuremberg tribunal.

The German terror increased even further after the arrival of Reinhard Heydrich, who took the post of acting Reich Protector.

On 27 May 1942, a Czechoslovak parachutist mission from Great Britain assassinated him in cooperation with the local resistance. In response to the assassination, the Nazi’s increased their terror once again by burning and destroying the villages of Lidice and Ležáky.

From the beginning of the occupation people fled from Czechoslovakia so that they could join the fight for the restoration of the republic. The fight against Nazism both at home (e.g. the Heydrich assassination) and abroad helped in the effort to restore Czechoslovakia with the borders it had in 1937. The position of the government abroad was harder by virtue of the fact that the truncation, break-up and occupation of Czechoslovakia had occurred before the war. Even so they gained international recognition as the valid representatives of Czechoslovakia, they got the French and the British to revoke their signing of the Munich Agreement and, last but not least, they achieved the restoration of Czechoslovakia. After 1941, the Czechoslovak Communist Party became increasingly involved in the work of both branches of the national resistance (foreign and domestic).  Its foreign leadership was based in Moscow.

In Slovakia, which was fighting on the German side, the national democratic and communist resistance joined forces and created a supreme body – the Slovak National Council.

On 29 August 1944, the so-called Slovak National Uprising broke out.  Its exponents fell in with Czechoslovakia. A mobilisation into the Czechoslovak army was declared on the territory of the insurrection. It resisted superior German forces for two months.  Afterwards the fight continued in the mountains, but the uprising was eventually suppressed.

President Beneš, who had a decisive say in the formation of Czechoslovak foreign policy, was aware of the growing influence of the USSR on post-War events. In 1943, he concluded an alliance treaty with the Soviet Union.

Prague rebelled in May 1945 and the German army surrendered to the insurrectionists on the understanding that they would allow it to depart freely.  The Red Army arrived in Prague on 9 May 1945 and clashed in battle with the last fanatical German divisions. Czechoslovakia was mostly liberated by the Soviet Union, but western Bohemia was freed by the American army.

The events of Munich, the time of the Protectorate and the German terrorisation of the population during the war caused general hatred among Czechs towards Germans. As regards the issue of the resettlement of the German population away from Czechoslovakia, there was general unanimity and conviction that it was essential for this measure to be implemented.  In the initial phase in the months after the war, the displacement of the German population took place in an unrestrained manner during a period of so-called “wild expulsions.” The manner of the resettlement provoked criticism among the country’s Western allies. The resettlement of the German minorities from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary was officially approved at a meeting of the allies in Potsdam in 1945.

An organised resettlement took place in the years 1946–1947 and a total of up to three million people ended up leaving Czechoslovakia.