Gordon Skilling: a Canadian witness of Czechoslovak history

This year is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Canadian historian Gordon Skilling. As we have already reported on Radio Prague, the anniversary has been marked by an international conference and an exhibition at Prague’s Kampa Museum, a rare honour for an academic. But Gordon Skilling was different. Between 1937 and his death in 2001, he was in Prague or Bratislava for many of the most important moments in 20th century Czechoslovak history, and this gave him a very close and personal relationship to the Czechs and Slovaks. David Vaughan continues.

Gordon SkillingGordon Skilling Gordon Skilling was in Prague in September 1938 when the Munich Agreement cut the country to pieces and he remained here long enough to witness the beginning of the German occupation in March 1939. After the war, he was to return many times, and following the Soviet invasion of 1968 he was untiring in his support for Czech and Slovak dissidents. At the same time he was a meticulous historian, and the research material he collected included many samizdat publications, now preserved in the University of Toronto library. Few would question his status as the most important North American historian of Czechoslovak 20th century history, with books covering subjects as diverse as the pre-WWI ideas of Tomáš Masaryk, and the history of Charter 77. During the 70s and 80s, Skilling’s support of dissidents extended to smuggling journals and books into Czechoslovakia, and among his dissident friends was Václav Havel, whom he visited at his cottage in Hrádeček.

I was lucky enough to meet and interview Gordon Skilling in 2000. Paying a visit to Radio Prague was something of a homecoming for him, because he had worked in our station’s predecessor, the shortwave service of Radiojournal in 1938, just at the time of the Munich Crisis. Here is a short extract from a news bulletin at the height of the crisis in September 1938 that is almost certainly Gordon Skilling’s voice. He is responding to German radio propaganda about alleged Czech atrocities.

"Once again tonight we must perform the distasteful task of refuting further invented reports broadcast by the German wireless stations. It is not true that the rectors and deans of the German universities in Prague were forced at the point of a gun to sign a declaration of loyalty to the state. This absurd allegation was denied by the rectors and deans themselves in a statement made today, denying that any pressure whatever was used against them."

[From a Radiojournal English news bulletin, September 1938]

Munich Agreement - Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini and CianoMunich Agreement - Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini and Ciano Here is the whole of the interview I recorded with Gordon Skilling back in 2000.

"I'd decided to do research on Czech history for my doctorate at the University of London. I came here to do my research and then I was fortunate to be employed by Radiojournal, broadcasting in English to North America. And this happened to coincide with the crisis at the time leading up to Munich. I prepared an English bulletin based on Czech news bulletins and the newspapers, and broadcast pretty regularly.”

The Italian Prime Minister, Mussolini, today made a speech in Trieste in which he touched on the most important problem of the present time, the Czechoslovak problem. The Italian Minister believed that a plebiscite was the only possible solution, a plebiscite for all nationalities in Czechoslovakia, which demanded that they were forced, he said, to stay in a state which wishes to be a “Great Czechoslovakia”.

[From a Radiojournal English news bulletin, 14 September 1938]

“When the crisis heightened, before and during Munich, I did some other broadcasts for CBS and NBC. At that time there descended onto Prague hordes of international journalists. It was, I think, almost the first occasion of this kind of international broadcasting, and many very famous journalists came.“

“This is Reynolds Packard, United Press correspondent in Prague….”

“This is John T. Whitaker of the Chicago Daily News at the microphone…”

“This is Eleanor Packard, United Press correspondent in Czechoslovakia…”

“This is William L. Shirer, speaking from Prague, and returning you now to America…”

[From Czech Radio archives]

Hitler signs Munich AgreementHitler signs Munich Agreement “Occasionally I was asked to do a broadcast on the crisis as it developed, for the American networks.“

And what do you remember of the atmosphere during the Munich crisis? For example, did people really believe that Britain and France would abandon Czechoslovakia?

“Well, I think by that time they were aware that Chamberlain was going to sell them down the river – I mean during the summer of 1938. They still hoped, of course, that they would be given the green light to resist, but they knew that Chamberlain and Daladier were more or less willing to grant Germany its demands, so the final culmination of the crisis came as no surprise. But I witnessed the mobilization of September 1938, and that was a very splendid display of readiness to resist and courage and belief, really, that the crisis, they thought, was over, and they would have a chance to fight if necessary. So it was a great let-down. The troops went off to the borders and the planes were ready, but unfortunately President Beneš decided to capitulate and give way to the British and French demands. We at the time thought that resistance was possible and desirable, and in fact some of the Czechoslovak generals felt the same way, and some of the political leaders. But I do remember a great mass meeting in what is now Jan Palach Square, a huge meeting of protest against Germany and Munich, at which leaders from the main pro-resistance parties, from the Communists to the extreme nationalists spoke. And that was an electric occasion because tens of thousands of Czech workers streamed in through the streets to the square. So there was a readiness to resist, but it was undermined by Beneš's willingness to give way to British and French pressures."

And, personally, as a journalist from abroad, this must have been a key moment for you, because suddenly it must have been very difficult for you to distance yourself from events.

Edvard BenešEdvard Beneš “We didn’t distance ourselves. We felt complete and total sympathy with the Czechs and Czechoslovakia, and we hoped that there would be resistance. We also hoped perhaps that the readiness to resist would deter Nazi Germany from attack. That was probably a vain hope, but we shared the hopes and aspirations and the fears of the Czechs and the Slovaks and were very much let down when Munich ended all hopes of any kind of resistance. I remember the man in charge of my section in Radiojournal – I think his name was Kraus – he was so angry and upset by Munich that he threw his French Légion d’Honneur into the Vltava. And there were other individual acts of protest of that kind that I recall.”

How long was it before you decided to leave?

“We decided to stay, because I was continuing and trying to finish my doctoral thesis on the relations of Czechs and Germans in Bohemia in the 19th century. It was a little ironic that I was working on that subject. And I was desperately trying to finish. We decided to stay on after the German occupation – that was six months later after Munich – and we stayed on for a month or two. I think we left probably in April of 1939. We went to Vienna, for me to do a little more concluding work on my thesis. Of course Austria was under Nazi German rule, and finally we left and went to France for a holiday and then took the last channel steamer to England the night before Chamberlain declared war on Germany. So it was quite an exciting and important series of events in our lives and we came to identify ourselves very closely with the Czechs and the Slovaks, and retain that close identity over the many, many years since that time.”

In what ways in your subsequent career have you returned to the Czechs and Slovaks?

“Well, again and again, because I kept on my interest in Czechoslovakia, its history and later on its politics under communism. I wrote a great deal about those matters and frequently visited Czechoslovakia. I wrote a book called ‘Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution’, which was a detailed study of the Prague Spring and its crushing by the Soviet tanks, and then, later on, I wrote another book on Charter 77, with whom we were also very closely associated, and made many visits during the 60s, 70s and 80s to Prague and to Bratislava. So, it was a lifetime link.”

In 1992 Gordon Skilling was awarded Czechoslovakia’s highest honour, the Order of the White Lion, which he received from President Václav Havel. You can find out more about his long and fascinating life in his autobiography, “The Education of a Canadian: My Life as a Scholar and Activist”, published by Carleton University Press in 2000.