In recent weeks, I’ve tried to capture something of the tense atmosphere of the time leading up to the Munich Agreement of September 30 1938, when the British and French Prime Ministers Chamberlain and Daladier allowed Hitler to carve up Czechoslovakia and march unopposed into the Sudetenland. The agreement left the country as a fragment of its former self; not only Germany, but also Hungary and Poland, claimed large chunks of Czechoslovakia’s borderlands. Here is how Radio Prague reported on the final border agreement, reached some weeks after Munich was signed. The scale of the loss is huge.
“Czechoslovakia, diminished in size by her frontier territory ceded to Germany, Hungary and Poland has now her definite boundaries. She has lost almost five million inhabitants and ten million remain to her. She has lost about thirty percent of her territory and has an area today of approximately a hundred thousand square kilometers.”
Within hours of the Munich agreement being signed, German troops had swarmed unopposed into the Sudetenland, and it was not long before Hitler was welcoming the new citizens of the Reich. Our archives include a recording of him in the West Bohemian town of Cheb – in German Eger – just a few days after Munich, on October 3 1938. “Now, at last,” he said, “I can address you as ‘my Egerlanders’”. The huge Sudeten German crowd burst into cries of “We thank our Führer“.
Among Czechs the mood could not have been more different. Overnight the nation’s spirit had been broken. Czechoslovakia was left a vassal of Germany. On Radio Prague, the British journalist, Jonathan Griffin, captured the atmosphere.
“Prague is a sad place now, but not a dangerous place, not even an uncomfortable one. Food here is plentiful and good as usual, prices are so far pretty normal, there is not so far a shortage of coal, and the electric light has not been cut off. What I have found in wandering about and talking to all sorts of people is this. Everyone is determined to try to rebuild some sort of a tolerable Czechoslovakia, even though the change to frontiers has dealt frightful blows to trade, and many people expect as much as a million unemployed during the winter.
“Why do I tell you these particular facts? The reason is that I have just met an English friend, who has just got a letter from his mother in England, saying that she is very worried about him, because she gathers that communications between Prague and the outside world are almost impossible, and because rumours are current that Prague has little food, little coal, no light and a great deal of disorders and excesses. What is more, I am told that the American papers are full of reports that in Prague and everywhere in Czechoslovakia, there are hideous scenes of Jew-baiting – so much so that many people in America talk of a boycott of Czech goods. To anyone on the spot, these reports and rumours seem just amazing, they are so completely untrue.”
Czechoslovakia had been well and truly left to her own fate, and the shadow of that trauma, 70 years ago this year, has never fully lifted.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on January 31, 2008.