In this programme, the last in the current series, we get a flavour of the Cold War. The archives throw up some curious stories: a man in love with a drill, a Czechoslovak cosmonaut celebrated in song, a campaign against noisy rockers with long hair, and some Cold War dramas – tales of defectors and spies. And we end with the strange, sad story of the Red Elvis. But first to the glowing dawn of the new regime in 1948.
Czech interest in African American culture goes back to the 19th century. When Antonín Dvořák spent three years in the United States in the 1890s he explored African American and Native American musical traditions, seeing parallels with the Czech experience of living under Austrian domination. In the Czechoslovakia of the 1920s and 30s, interest in American jazz spread rapidly and Native American culture was romanticised in the so-called “tramping” movement. After the war communist Czechoslovakia was quick to point to discrimination and segregation in the United States and encouraged civil rights activists to visit the country. The voices of some of these visitors are preserved in the Czech Radio archives. And two decades after the fall of communism the first African American US President visited Prague. This long and fascinating connection is the subject of the ninth programme in our series looking at aspects of Czech and Czechoslovak history through the sound archives.
In this podcast, the eighth in our series mapping this country’s history through the radio archives, we start with the dramatic events of the last days of the war in Prague. The radio played a major role in the Prague Uprising, and through the archives we can map how the city liberated itself from the German occupiers. In the two years that follow the radio archives give us a picture of a Czechoslovakia returning to some kind of normality, but in February 1948 everything changes. We tell the story as it was heard on the airwaves.
The Czech Radio archives include many recordings from the time of World War II. They come from both sides: propaganda from within occupied Bohemia and Moravia aimed at intimidating the population, but also recordings from abroad. Both the BBC and the government in exile in London were broadcasting to occupied Europe in Czech, at the same time informing the wider world about the fate of Czechoslovakia in English. Some of the extracts we’ll be hearing have become well known, but our archives also hold many surprises, rare recordings that give us unexpected insights into life during wartime.
As a result of the Munich Agreement of September 1938, Czechoslovakia ended up losing 30% of its territory, a third of its population and the greater part of its industry and raw materials. It was, as Jan Masaryk put it, an “experiment in vivisection”. The radio archives give vivid insights into the consequences of that experiment, which was to last less than six months and end in occupation and ultimately war.
The Czech Radio archives give us a rich and nuanced picture of the months leading up to the Munich Agreement of September 1938 that resulted in Nazi Germany annexing huge areas of Czechoslovakia. So many recordings survive that we can reconstruct the events leading up to Munich almost day by day. They include insights from many angles, not least the perspective of the German-speakers of Czechoslovakia, those who supported, but also those who opposed Hitler. The archives offer a sober warning of how easily a democratic state can be shattered through rumour, lies and propaganda.
In this episode I’d like to use the radio archives to evoke the atmosphere of Czechoslovakia during the First Republic of the 1920s and 30s. The recordings that survive in the archives offer a fragmentary picture, but they capture something of the spirit of the time, from Prague’s first traffic light to the charms of the Ruthenian countryside, just before Europe was torn apart by the Second World War.
Sport has always played a big role in Czech life. At the time of the national revival in the 19th century, the Sokol gymnastics movement was founded on the idea that a healthy body was a recipe not only for a healthy mind, but also for a civilised nation. We hear recordings from the huge Sokol gathering of 1938 and from the Spartakiáda displays of mass callisthenics in the communist period. This episode also features an ice hockey report from the Olympics in 1936 as well as Europe’s first ever live football commentary and the voices of some of the great Czech sportsmen and women of the 20th century, from Emil Zátopek to Martina Navrátilová.
In the first of this series we heard the voice of Czechoslovakia’s first President, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937). His wife Charlotte was American, and thanks to her influence Tomáš became a champion of feminism. Charlotte went on to inspire many women both within Czechoslovakia and beyond. In this episode we hear memories of Charlotte from her friend, the American feminist and peace advocate Martha Root, speaking in 1932. We hear the voice of Tomáš and Charlotte’s daughter Alice in 1938 on the urgent need to defend democracy against the threat of Nazi Germany. And we hear two of the most prominent woman politicians of the time, Františka Plamínková and Milada Horáková. Both paid with their lives for their belief in democracy and the rights of women. We end with Tomáš and Charlotte’s great granddaughter Charlotta Kotík who talks about Masaryk’s feminism from the perspective of the family today.
We start with one of the great European democrats of the 20th century, Czechoslovakia’s first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Born in 1850, he was already in his late sixties when he became president in November 1918. He took inspiration from the western democracies, in particular the United States and Britain, having spent time in both countries during his First World War exile. The archives include recordings of him speaking almost flawless English as well as Czech.