Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War

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9780374531560: Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War

A dramatic account of life in Czechoslovakia's great capital during the Nazi Protectorate

With this successor book to Prague in Black and Gold, his account of more than a thousand years of history in the great Central European capital, Peter Demetz focuses on the six years that Prague was under German occupation in World War II: from the bitter morning of March 15, 1939, when Hitler arrived from Berlin to set his seal on the Nazi takeover of the Czechoslovak government, until the liberation of Bohemia in April 1945. Demetz was a boy living in Prague then, and here he joins his objective chronicle of the city under Nazi control with his personal memories of that period, expertly interweaving a superb account of the German authorities' diplomatic, financial, and military machinations with a brilliant description of Prague's evolving resistance and underground opposition. The result is a complex, continually surprising book filled with rare human detail and warmth, the gripping story of a great city meeting the dual challenge of occupation and of war.

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About the Author:

Peter Demetz is the author of many books, including The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 (FSG, 2002) and Prague in Black and Gold (H&W, 1997). He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prague in Danger
CHAPTER I THE DAY OF OCCUPATION  
 
President Hácha Travels to Berlin Hitler never hesitated about his ultimate intent to create new "living space" ( Lebensraum) for his nation in the east and to smash the liberal state of Czechoslovakia on his way. After Germany's annexation of Austria in March 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain traveled twice to the Continent hoping to appease Hitler's aggressive intentions and to prevent another destructive European war, but with a distinct lack of success. Czechoslovakia had signed treaties with France in 1926 and with the Soviet Union in 1935 precisely to protect itself against German aggression--the Soviet Union promised to intervene, but only if France acted first--but it remained exposed and vulnerable. Concurrent agreements among the Little Entente of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia to defend against any aggression on the part of Hungary were of little use. Within the Czechoslovak Republic, a virulently German nationalist movement, led by Konrad Henlein and fully supported by the National Socialists in Berlin, resisted Prague rule and demanded that the Sudetenland, where most of Czechoslovakian Germans lived, be united with the Reich. When, only two months after the Nazis' annexation of Austria, German troops readied to march across the border in May 1938, the Czechoslovaks partly mobilized, and the situation became increasingly ominous. The ambassadors of France and Great Britain delivered a note to President Edvard Beneš on September 19 demandingthat the republic hand over its Sudeten territories to Germany in exchange for a guarantee of its new borders, this to prevent an immediate occupation by the Wehrmacht, and suddenly the Czechoslovak Republic and its (few) friends were isolated. On September 23, in a desperate gesture, Czechoslovakia once more mobilized its army and air force. Hitler's ally Benito Mussolini then proposed a four-power meeting to resolve the Czechoslovak crisis. The famous conference convened on September 29-30 in Munich with representatives of Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy in attendance, Czechoslovaks being notably absent. Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, Hitler, and Mussolini signed an agreement that conceded to all of Germany's demands. The Sudetenland was to be united with the Reich as of October 1; this and further concessions deprived the Czechoslovak Republic of a major part of its historical territory, its principal fortifications against Germany, and much of its iron, steel, and textile factories. Moreover, with the loss of the Sudetenland came the threat of further losses of border territories in the east, which Poland and Hungary coveted. A week after mobilizing, Czechoslovakia capitulated on September 30. The Munich Conference not only deprived Czechoslovakia of defensible borders but also grievously weakened its democratic traditions. The country had emerged on October 18, 1918, from the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a liberal republic with strong parliamentary institutions, in contrast with many of its neighbors, and T. G. Masaryk, its founder and first president, together with his loyal associates, including Beneš, the young minister of foreign affairs, carefully watched out for political balances and the interplay of the different political parties. By 1926 representatives of the German liberals, Catholics, and Socialists had joined the government, and they stayed with it for more than twelve years. Masaryk's resignation in 1935 because of his old age coincided with the radical worsening of the European situation that year, and after the Munich Conference and the capitulation of the Czechoslovak government, continued German pressure forced Beneš, Masaryk's successor as president, to resign. Beneš left the country two weeks later in a private plane, on October 22, but he was as resolved as ever to renew the integrityof the Republic by monitoring changes in the European situation and by continuing to act, as Masaryk had done in his time, on the international scene. His Czechoslovak National Committee, established in Paris in 1939, was not a diplomatic success, but the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, which convened in the summer of 1940 in London, was eventually recognized by Britain and the Soviet Union and successively by all the Allies, as well as the United States. Germany's operational plans against Czechoslovakia seemed for a while after Munich to be suspended. This hiatus was intended to reassure British public opinion and to avoid a premature conflict. But once the Sudeten question had been resolved in Hitler's favor, the Slovak problem came to the fore. The government in Prague that succeeded Beneš agreed in early October to federalize Czechoslovakia and make it the Czecho-Slovak Republic and to accept an autonomous government and legislature in Bratislava, Slovakia's capital. Hitler, with some delay, discovered the virtues of the Slovak separatists who were demanding independence and personally assured their militant leaders of his full, if belated, sympathies. Slovak nationalism surged, and by early March 1939 in Prague President Emil Hácha, acting within the constitution, had little choice but to dismiss four separatist Bratislava ministers and order army units stationed in that city to defend the republic, however hyphenated, if the separatists should revolt. His action may have played into the hands of Hitler, who promptly invited Monsignor Jozef Tiso, prime minister of the Slovak government, to Berlin and pressured, or rather blackmailed, him into choosing independence; the alternative the Germans offered to Slovakia was its occupation by Hungary, which had ever since 1918 been unable to accept the loss of Slovak territory. The trouble was that Germany's military clocks were ticking; secret marching orders had been given to the German troops massing at the borders of Bohemia and Moravia. At this juncture President Hácha asked the Führer for an interview to clarify the situation. President Hácha's fateful trip to Berlin in March was not, for the Czechs, a matter that had been given careful diplomatic preparation, and it could not have been. The initiative and advance planning were all in the hands of the Germans, and the old man went straight into their trap. Hácha was not well informed about German intentions. Hebelieved that in Berlin he would discuss matters concerning Slovakia, and the people around him, including his cabinet, were far too confident that Czecho-Slovakia still had a chance to survive if it did not challenge Hitler directly. They did not believe the reports issued by Colonel František Moravec, head of army intelligence, that Germany's military occupation of the country was imminent. (Moravec had received information from Czech journalists, from the French Deuxième Bureau, and from an agent, A-54, an Abwehr officer who was playing both sides.) Moravec, his duty done, packed part of his archives, gathered his officers, and boarded a KLM flight from Prague via Rotterdam to London, where he and the others landed at approximately the same time as Hácha's train arrived in Berlin. On March 14, 1939, events happened fast. At noon the Slovak parliament in Bratislava voted on the foregone conclusion of Slovak independence, fully supported if not engineered, by Germany. The Foreign Office in Berlin notified its charge d'affaires in Prague that President Hácha should come to Berlin immediately (Hitler, who originally wanted Hácha to travel by plane, gave permission that he come by train), and the signal was passed on through proper channels from the German Embassy in Prague to President Hácha, who happened to be having lunch with a Czech Catholic bishop and was looking forward to a gala performance of Dvo ák's opera Rusalka at the National Theater in the evening. The traveling party, quickly assembled after lunch, was rather small. There was the president; his daughter, Milada Rádlová (in her function as first lady); and Foreign Minister František Chvalkovský, suspected by many of political sympathies for Italian fascism, accompanied by an assistant from his office. There was also the president's secretary, Dr. Josef Kliment, who was to develop his own ideas of collaboration with Germany; the loyal butler, Bohumil P íhoda, who had served President Masaryk in better times; and a police inspector. After a few members of the government had taken leave of the president, the special train, still unheated, left the Hybernská railway station at 4:00 p.m. Mrs. Rádlová had the distinct feeling that a shot was fired at the windows of her compartment when the train left Czech territory (it might have been a stone thrown at the train). The travelers arrived a few minutes before 10:00 p.m. at the Berlin Anhalter Bahnhof, to bewelcomed, strictly according to protocol, by a military honor guard; Dr. Otto Meissner, a minister of state; and Vojt ch Mastný, Czech ambassador in Berlin. About midnight German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop made a brief appearance at the Hotel Adlon. Hácha uttered a few ceremonious remarks about the difficulties of small nations facing a great power, and as soon as the foreign minister left, it was announced that Hitler was ready to see his Czech guests at the chancellery. By now it was about 1:00 a.m., because first Hitler had watched his daily movie, not a B western, as was his habit, but a rather sophisticated German comedy entitled A Hopeless Case, directed by Erich Engel, with Jenny Jugo, Karl Ludwig Diehl, and Axel von Ambesser in leading roles. In the courtyard of the chancellery, another honor guard (not army but SS) presented arms, and Hácha and Chvalkovský were received by Hitler and a motley group that included Hermann Goring, who had just returned from an Italian vaca...

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