Earlier this year the Czech Republic marked the 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, signed in September 1938 by the leaders of Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy, resulting in the annexation of the Sudetenland by Nazi Germany. Radio Prague’s David Vaughan recently published a book in the UK titled “Hear My Voice”, most of which is set in Czechoslovakia in the months preceding the Munich agreement. Its narrator is an interpreter for the international press corps in Prague and he watches the events of 1938 unfold in Central Europe as the atmosphere is getting tenser ahead of the outbreak of the Second World War. Pavla Horáková spoke to David Vaughan and their conversation begins with a few paragraphs from the book.
“I did not join them for the initial talks with Runciman, but when the
two delegations went to the bar later, minus the teetotal Viscount, I was
with them. For the British side it was Stopford and Ashton-Gwatkin who did
most of the talking.
It was an odd experience. Kundt, who always managed to sound reasonable and moderate, despite his little Hitler moustache, outlined the differences between his party’s stance and that of the Czechoslovak government.
“The government thinks only in terms of a Czechoslovak national state.”
He went on to paint a picture of a second Switzerland, basking in the Central European sun. “What we want to create is a state of nationalities.” It was all talk of autonomy, respect and recognition. As I translated, I couldn’t stop thinking about the gulf between these words and the version of the future I had heard from Kundt’s party boss a week earlier amid the crowds in Breslau. He handed out more copies of the Karlsbad demands, and ordered another round of beer.
The party broke into smaller groups, each trying out their language skills – Ashton-Gwatkin remembered his German nanny, who apparently taught the children quite the wrong accent. He tried it out, to much hilarity. A couple of beers later, Kundt cornered Stopford and launched into a monologue which took a distinctly Teutonic air. Words came thick and fast: Volksgemeinschaft and Führerprinzip, and then, as he focused on his dreams for the Sudetenland, it was all Rechtspersönlichkeit and Siedlungsgebiet. Stopford looked to me for help and I was quite literally lost for words. These words could not be translated, and it was not just a question of language. They came from a different planet, but it was a planet that was drawing us into its orbit at a great speed.”
“Well, it’s a subject that I’ve been devoting a great deal of time to over the last at least decade, really, since roughly 2007, 2008, and I’m fascinated by the period because it was a time when everything was in a state of flux and Europe was… well, realities were kind of shifting, and there were competing versions of reality which were trying to gain the upper hand in Europe, and people were trapped, and were more and more losing their sense of orientation – where they were, where they belong, what’s going to happen. And, of course, with the rise of Hitler, everything was warped. Suddenly, there was this regime in the centre of Europe, of over 80 million people where there was this alternative reality – to use a term from our own time – where they weren’t bothered with what was the reality around them. The idea that held the whole regime, the Nazi regime, together was the idea of the great German nation and of ‘making Germany great again’ at the expense of reality around them. So they had to change reality in order to create their own future reality. And that was what has really come to fascinate me over the years because it had all sorts of very frightening and unnerving implications for everybody else who was trying to get by in the world they were actually living in and were somehow having to accommodate this juggernaut, this ideological machine which was trying to suppress all other versions of the truth and all complexities.”
“Yes, I mean radio was very new at the time. You have to bear in mind that until the early 1920s it hadn’t even existed, at least not in the form that people could actually buy a radio set and listen to the radio at home. And it was only, really, by the mid-1930s that people would often have a radio set at home or at least they would have access to a radio through their local pub or their local sports club or whatever, and it was revolutionary. Because suddenly you could hear voices from around the world, really, reaching you at the speed of light, and you were no longer restricted also to your local, or to your national environment, but there were all sorts of other influences which were very exciting. You could suddenly hear what your politicians sounded like or you could hear what politicians from the other end of the world sounded like. But also, of course, it left you with a great deal of uncertainty and because it was a new medium, it was also both a tool for democracy but also it could be very easily used by people who wanted to manipulate public opinion. Because there you had a huge collective, mass audience that you could address simultaneously and it could be used both to inform but also to whip up passion or hatred or to misinform.”
“That’s right. Czechoslovak Radio’s international services began in the mid-1930s and they were an important part of the whole, I suppose, propaganda and counterpropaganda environment that we had in Europe. And the reason why they came into being was because Goebbels in Germany had already established a very effective propaganda machine and people internationally and also within Czechoslovakia were being exposed to his propaganda. And this was particularly dangerous in the mainly German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia where unfortunately the successive Czech governments had underestimated the need to address the German speaking populace of the country. So people were listening to Germany and initially Austria but by 1938 Austria had also been swallowed up by Germany, and so there was this: people were living physically in Czechoslovakia but in terms of their mental, let’s say, environment, where they got their news from, where they got their entertainment from, they were already virtually in the Reich.”
At one point one of the characters says: “Technology is changing our lives: Words are flying through the air with the power of a thousand bombers.” Those words are the words of propaganda, carefully crafted slander. Today we would call it fake news or hoax. You already mentioned what role it played then but is there a lesson to be learned for our time?
“I think there’s a lesson to be learned for any time in terms of what happens when a significant number of – or even just a handful of – influential politicians decide that current reality is a mistake, a historical or an ideological mistake. Therefore when people start saying, well, borders are where they are but they shouldn’t be, this is a historical mistake therefore we are quite legitimate in changing them, for example. That is something that we saw in the 1930s and then you see the whole process of justifying this shifting sense of reality, this idea that the future reality is more important than the current one. And that is highly dangerous because it leads to a disintegration of collective security, of a breakdown of a sense of what is the world we are living in. and also it created a space for politicians who didn’t believe in international diplomacy which involves discourse and discussion and persuasion but who felt that because the reality was wrong, you were justified by any means to change it, including lying, including the threat of violence, including the reality of violence. And it was, of course, a very Machiavellian approach to politics and to diplomacy and I think we are seeing more of this at the present time than in recent years. Although it always comes and goes. But, I mean, the frightening thing is that historically, it’s tended to lead to wars.”
“I deliberately made the narrator a somewhat empty character and a character who’s a kind of receptacle to all these influences and pressures around him and who finds it very hard not to be swallowed up by them. And I think that the fact that he has three nationalities or three languages plays a role. And I think an equally large role is played by the fact that he’s from a family that has suffered material hardship, his father died when he was young and he hasn’t grown up with privilege, so he’s uncertain, he’s unsure. He’s also not even twenty, so he’s really young and anybody who’s still a teenager is all over the place anyway, as opposed to most of the other characters in the book. So I wouldn’t blame him for too much. But it is interesting, the fact that the moment the different nationalities, or the different language environments that he comes from, the moment they start representing different ideological worlds, then suddenly, there he is, confronted as we saw in that little scene there that I just read, with a conflict of worlds that are incompatible. And it’s quite possible to live between nations and between languages – I know it myself, because I do and my family lives in three different languages and it’s not a problem – but if something happens where that’s called into question or delegitimized or somebody claims the language for themselves and says this is the world that you should be living in and tries to force reality into that world, then you find yourself – unless you’ve got an immense inner moral strength, or inner moral resources, you find yourself getting disorientated and lost. And that happens not just to this particular character but I think it also happens to another, to a real historical figure in the book who is the Roman Catholic priest, Father Reichenberger, whose life history is much more interesting, I think, than the slightly boring story of the narrator. Because he really goes off the rails and he becomes someone completely different.”
“I was wondering about that, actually. He’d be a very interesting figure for a biography, Father Reichenberger. I haven’t got the time and space to tell his story here but I sort of hinted it in the book. And towards the end of the book, there’s a scene which I hope is rather unnerving where the narrator and the priest who is his old friend meet again after the war but the priest has changed. He suddenly sees the villains of the Second World War in the Czechs and the Jews. And so he’s kind of adopted the whole discourse of Hitler himself, which is very, very frightening because before the war he was one of the few people in the Sudetenland who really saw the danger of what was happening, that Hitler was really swallowing up, abusing and distorting public opinion in the Sudetenland to reach his own ends.”
“I used a huge number of audio sources from the archives of Czech Radio and other archives which I already knew well because I’d written one book, ‘Battle for the Airwaves’, which is a history book, talking about the role of radio in the run-up to the Munich crisis and the Second World War and so I was very familiar with these different archive sounds and the voices of the different protagonists. And I’d become completely absorbed by it and I’d realized that when you listen, that you do in a way get drawn into the time. Because you hear every breath, you hear every bit of intonation and you can sense the atmosphere of the time. Also, there were thousands of people looking at, commenting on the events of the time, Czechs, Americans, Germans, people from Britain, really from all over the world, and because so many of them were journalists or just enjoyed writing, there are lots and lots of biographies, autobiographies, reports, which kind of give you both the official story, the diplomatic story – which is interesting itself but which I didn’t want to tell – but which also give you a kind of blow by blow account of how people experienced the events of the time. And I think that’s important because if you’re talking about propaganda and you don’t talk about its impact on ordinary people, on the people who are actually stuck in the middle of it, you can’t really tell the story. Which was also my justification for writing a novel of what could also have been a history book.”
“Well, I should start probably by saying this book started as a Czech book. I wrote it originally in Czech with a lot of help from native speakers. It came out as ‘Slyšte můj hlas’ and once I’d written it, I kind of had the confidence to do an English version and to approach a British publisher. I sent the manuscript to publishers called Jantar who publish a lot of Czech and Slovak fiction and the director read it and was immediately enthusiastic and said yes, I’d love to bring it out. So then I began the process of editing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again because it was for a different audience, different readership. So I had to rewrite a lot of things and also I suddenly had the liberation of writing in my own language, so I found it much easier to write between the lines. The book came out – we had an initial launch – at the end of September 2018 which was the eightieth anniversary of the signing of the infamous Munich agreement and we’ve just also had a launch in Prague. The book is available online and also in some bookshops, certainly in Prague and hopefully, before long, it will also be available in bookshops in other parts of the world.”
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