Current Affairs The diplomat-diarist who bridged Czech, German and Jewish cultures

01-11-2006 14:53 | Ilya Marritz

In the first 20 years of Czechoslovakia's existence, the new nation's most important neighbor was the huge country lying directly to the North and West, Germany. A fascinating account of political and cultural relations between the two nations during that period has just been published - the diaries of the Czech diplomat Camill Hoffmann.

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Born in 1878 in Kolin in Bohemia, Camill Hoffman came from a German-speaking Jewish family. A talented writer and journalist, he embraced the Czechoslovak cause, and in 1920 President Masaryk appointed him cultural attaché in Berlin. In 1932, he began keeping a journal, which he wrote in German. Today it reads like a history book written in the first person:

27 January, 1936
Edvard BenesEdvard Benes Yesterday at nine I was with Benes, for the first time, PRESIDENT Benes. As usual it was enough to tell him that I was in Prague, and he instantly invited me over. I congratulated him on his election and excused myself for not having done so earlier. He looks happy and healthy, radiating optimism; full of hospitality, likeable and chatty as always. Also as usual, he gave his international prognosis: as there was no war in 1935, there won't be one in 1936. Democratic principles are coming back all around the world.

Benes' assessment ultimately proved false, and Hoffmann was recalled to Prague three years later, where he continued to write:

16 March 1939
Snowstorms, but in between there are moments of sunshine. April weather. In the afternoon Ribbentrop reads on the radio the statute establishing "the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia". The city is full of soldiers. It feels like war. Everywhere is busy with traffic, crowds, military vehicles, tanks, motorcycles, infantry. Traffic jams everywhere because the Germans aren't used to driving on the left. At the grave of the unknown soldier by town hall, throngs of people are leaving snow-drops and violets. Every flower, every Czechoslovak flag is a protest.

Besides serving his country diplomatically, Camill Hoffman also wrote poetry, and did translations into German, including Balzac, Baudelaire, and Karel Capek's "Conversations with T. G. Masaryk".

When the political climate in Germany turned nasty, Hoffmann used his position to aid many of the writers and intellectuals whom he had befriended. Publisher David Kraft:

Politicky denik 1932-1939Politicky denik 1932-1939 "He helped many many people, many german anti-fascists, many social democrats, many writers. He saved for example the library of Heinrich Mann from destruction. He helped the son of Leo Trotsky to leave Germany. He helped many Czechoslovak citizens who were under extreme pressure in Germany at that time. He did personally really as much as an individual could do to prevent this evil."

However, after Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, Hoffmann was slow to ensure his own safety.

"That's the irony of history, he himself had to know definitely what was it all about. But he sent first his daughter to England, then his son to Paris in the spring of 1939, and he himself possessed visas for Sweden but never made use of them."

Camill Hoffmann and his wife Irma were deported to the Terezin concentration camp in 1942. Two years later they were transported to Auschwitz, where they died.

"Politicky Denik", or "The Political Diaries of Camill Hoffmann from 1932 to 1939", has just been published for the first time in Czech by Prazska Edice.

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