Czechoslovakia 1939

The partition of Czechoslovakia from 1938 through 1939.

Following the Anschluss of Nazi Germany and Austria in March 1938, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's next target for annexation was Czechoslovakia. His pretext was the alleged privations suffered by ethnic German populations living in Czechoslovakia's northern and western border regions, known collectively as the Sudetenland. Their incorporation into Nazi Germany would leave the rest of Czechoslovakia powerless to resist subsequent occupation.[1]

Demands for Sudeten autonomyEdit

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R69173, Münchener Abkommen, Staatschefs

From left to right: Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured before signing the Munich Agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany.

Main article: Germans in Czechoslovakia (1918-1938)

Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein offered the Sudeten German Party (SdP) as the agent for Hitler's campaign. Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on March 28 1938, where he was instructed to raise demands unacceptable to the Czechoslovak government led by president Edvard Beneš. On April 24, the SdP issued the Carlsbad Decrees, demanding autonomy for the Sudetenland and the freedom to profess Nazi ideology. If Henlein's demands were granted, the Sudetenland would then be able to align itself with Nazi Germany.

The Munich AgreementEdit

Edvard Beneš

Edvard Beneš, the second President of Czechoslovakia and leader of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile.

Main article: Munich Agreement

As the previous appeasement of Hitler had shown, the governments of both France and the United Kingdom were set on avoiding war. The French government especially did not wish to face Germany alone, so took its lead from the British government and its Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain believed that Sudeten German grievances were just and that Hitler's intentions were limited. Both Britain and France, therefore, advised Czechoslovakia to concede to the SdP's demands. Beneš resisted, however, and on May 20 a partial mobilization was initiated in response to rumours of German troop movements. Ten days later, Hitler signed a secret directive for war against Czechoslovakia to begin no later than October 1.

In the meantime, the British government demanded that Beneš request a mediator. Not wishing to sever his government's ties with Western Europe, Beneš reluctantly accepted. The British appointed Lord Runciman and instructed him to persuade Beneš to agree to a plan acceptable to the Sudeten Germans. On September 2, Beneš submitted the Fourth Plan, granting nearly all the demands of the Carlsbad Decrees. Intent on obstructing conciliation, however, the SdP held demonstrations that provoked police action in Ostrava on September 7. The Sudeten Germans broke off negotiations on September 13, after which violence and disruption ensued. As Czechoslovak troops attempted to restore order, Henlein flew to Germany and on September 15 issued a proclamation demanding the takeover of the Sudetenland by Germany.

On the same day, Hitler met with Chamberlain and demanded the swift takeover of the Sudetenland by the Third Reich under threat of war. The Czechs, Hitler claimed, were slaughtering the Sudeten Germans. Chamberlain referred the demand to the British and French governments; both accepted. The Czechoslovak government resisted, arguing that Hitler's proposal would ruin the nation's economy and lead ultimately to German control of all of Czechoslovakia. The United Kingdom and France issued an ultimatum, making a French commitment to Czechoslovakia contingent upon acceptance. On September 21, Czechoslovakia capitulated. The next day, however, Hitler added new demands, insisting that the claims of ethnic Germans in Poland and Hungary also be satisfied.

The Czechoslovak capitulation precipitated an outburst of national indignation. In demonstrations and rallies, Czechs and Slovaks called for a strong military government to defend the integrity of the state. A new cabinet, under General Jan Syrový, was installed and on September 23 a decree of general mobilization was issued. The Czechoslovak army, modern and possessing an excellent system of frontier fortifications, was prepared to fight. The Soviet Union announced its willingness to come to Czechoslovakia's assistance. Beneš, however, refused to go to war without the support of the Western powers.

On September 28, Chamberlain appealed to Hitler for a conference. Hitler met the next day, at Munich, with the chiefs of governments of France, Italy and the United Kingdom. The Czechoslovak government was neither invited nor consulted. On September 29, the Munich Agreement was signed by Germany, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom. The Czechoslovak government capitulated September 30 and agreed to abide by the agreement. The Munich Agreement stipulated that Czechoslovakia must cede Sudeten territory to Germany. German occupation of the Sudetenland would be completed by October 10. An international commission representing Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Czechoslovakia would supervise a plebiscite to determine the final frontier. The United Kingdom and France promised to join in an international guarantee of the new frontiers against unprovoked aggression. Germany and Italy, however, would not join in the guarantee until the Polish and Hungarian minority problems were settled.

On October 5, Beneš resigned as President of Czechoslovakia, realising that the fall of Czechoslovakia was fait accompli. Following the outbreak of World War II, he would form a Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London.

The first Vienna AwardEdit

Main article: First Vienna Award

In early November 1938, under the first Vienna Award, which was a result of the Munich agreement, Czechoslovakia (and later Slovakia) -after they had failed to reach a compromise with Hungary and Poland- was forced by Germany and Italy to cede southern Slovakia (one third of Slovak territory) to Hungary, and Poland obtained small territorial cessions shortly after.

As a result, Bohemia and Moravia lost about 38% of their combined area to Germany, with some 3.2 million German and 750,000 Czech inhabitants. Hungary, in turn, received 11,882 square kilometers in southern Slovakia and southern Ruthenia; according to a 1941 census, about 86.5% of the population in this territory was Hungarian. Poland acquired the town of Český Těšín with the surrounding area (some 906 km², some 250,000 inhabitants, mostly Poles) and two minor border areas in northern Slovakia, more precisely in the regions Spiš and Orava. (226 km², 4,280 inhabitants, only 0.3% Poles).

Soon after Munich, 115,000 Czechs and 30,000 Germans fled to the remaining rump of Czechoslovakia. According to the Institute for Refugee Assistance, the actual count of refugees on March 1, 1939 stood at almost 150,000.[2]

On 4 December 1938 there were elections in Reichsgau Sudetenland, in which 97.32% of the adult population voted for NSDAP. About a half million Sudeten Germans joined the Nazi Party which was 17.34% of the German population in Sudetenland (the average NSDAP participation in Nazi Germany was 7.85%). This means the Sudetenland was the most "pro-Nazi" region in the Third Reich.[3] Because of their knowledge of the Czech language, many Sudeten Germans were employed in the administration of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia as well as in Nazi organizations (Gestapo, etc.). The most notable was Karl Hermann Frank: the SS and Police general and Secretary of State in the Protectorate.

The Second Republic (October 1938 to March 1939)Edit

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The greatly weakened Czechoslovak Republic was forced to grant major concessions to the non-Czechs. The executive committee of the Slovak People's Party met at Zilina on October 5 1938, and with the acquiescence of all Slovak parties except the Social Democrats formed an autonomous Slovak government under Jozef Tiso. Similarly, the two major factions in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, the Russophiles and Ukrainophiles, agreed on the establishment of an autonomous government, which was constituted on October 8 1938. Reflecting the spread of modern Ukrainian national consciousness, the pro-Ukrainian faction, led by Avhustyn Voloshyn, gained control of the local government and Subcarpathian Ruthenia was renamed Carpatho-Ukraine.

In November 1938, Emil Hácha, succeeding Beneš, was elected president of the federated Second Republic, renamed Czecho-Slovakia and consisting of three parts: Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia, and Carpatho-Ukraine. Lacking its natural frontier and having lost its costly system of border fortification, the new state was militarily indefensible. In January 1939, negotiations between Germany and Poland broke down. Hitler, intent on war against Poland, needed to eliminate Czechoslovakia first. He scheduled a German invasion of Bohemia and Moravia for the morning of March 15. In the interim, he negotiated with the Slovak People's Party and with Hungary to prepare the dismemberment of the republic before the invasion. On March 13, he invited Jozef Tiso to Berlin and on March 14, the Slovak Diet convened and unanimously declared Slovak independence. Carpatho-Ukraine also declared independence but Hungarian troops occupied it on March 15 and eastern Slovakia on March 23. Hitler summoned President Hácha to Berlin and during the early hours of March 15, informed Hácha of the imminent German invasion. Threatening a Luftwaffe attack on Prague, Hitler persuaded Hácha to order the capitulation of the Czechoslovak army. Emil had a weak heart, so when he heard this information from Hitler, he fainted on the spot. He woke up long enough to sign Hitler's surrender terms. Then on the morning of March 15, German troops entered Bohemia and Moravia, meeting no resistance. The Hungarian invasion of Carpatho-Ukraine did encounter resistance but the Hungarian army quickly crushed it. On March 16, Hitler went to Czechoslovakia and from Prague Castle proclaimed Bohemia and Moravia a German protectorate (Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia).

Thus, independent Czechoslovakia collapsed in the wake of foreign aggression and internal tensions. Subsequently, interwar Czechoslovakia has been idealized by its proponents as the only bastion of democracy surrounded by authoritarian and fascist regimes. It has also been condemned by its detractors as an artificial and unworkable creation of intellectuals supported by the great powers. Both views have some validity. Interwar Czechoslovakia comprised lands and peoples that were far from being integrated into a modern nation-state. Moreover, the dominant Czechs, who had suffered political discrimination under the Habsburgs, were not able to cope with the demands of other nationalities, however it should be acknowledged that some of the minority demands served as mere pretexts to justify intervention by Nazi Germany. Considering that Czechoslovakia was able to maintain a viable economy and a democratic political system under such circumstances was indeed a remarkable achievement during the interwar period.

Second World WarEdit

Division of Czechoslovakia Edit

Main article: Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia

During World War II, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and was divided into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia of the Third Reich and the newly declared Slovak Republic, with small slices (e.g. the Teschen) going to Poland and Hungary.

The German economy, burdened by heavy militarisation, urgently needed foreign currency. Setting up an artificially high exchange rate between the Czechoslovak Koruna and the Reichsmark brought consumer goods to Germans (and soon created shortages in Czech lands).

Czechoslovakia was a major manufacturer of machine guns, tanks, and artillery, most of which were assembled in the Škoda factory and had a modern army of 35 divisions. Many of these factories continued to produce Czech designs until factories were converted for German designs. Czechoslovakia also had other major manufacturing companies. Entire steel and chemical factories were moved from Czechoslovakia and reassembled in Linz, Austria which incidentally remains a heavily industrialized sector of the country.

Czech resistanceEdit

Main article: Czech resistance to Nazi occupation

A woman in the Sudetenland greets incoming German troops with tears and a Nazi salute.

Beneš, the leader of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, together with František Moravec, head of Czechoslovak military intelligence, organized and coordinated a resistance network. Hácha, Prime Minister Eliáš, and the Czech resistance acknowledged Beneš's leadership. Active collaboration between London and the Czechoslovak home front was maintained throughout the war years. The most important event of the resistance was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (SS leader Heinrich Himmler's deputy and the protector of Bohemia and Moravia) during the Operation Anthropoid. Infuriated, Hitler ordered the arrest and execution of 10,000 randomly selected Czechs, but, after consultations, he reduced his response.[4] Over 10,000 were arrested and at least 1,300 executed. The assassination resulted in one of the most well-known reprisals of the war. The village of Lidice and Ležáky was completely destroyed by the Nazis; all men over 16 years of age from the village were murdered and the rest of the population was sent to Nazi concentration camps where many women and nearly all the children were killed.

The Czech resistance comprised four main groups:

  • The army command coordinated with a multitude of spontaneous groupings to form the Defense of the Nation (Obrana národa, ON) with branches in the United Kingdom and France.
  • Beneš's collaborators, led by Prokop Drtina, created the Political Center (Politické ústředí, PÚ). The PÚ was nearly destroyed by arrests in November 1939, after which younger politicians took control.
  • Social democrats and leftist intellectuals, in association with such groups as trade-unions and educational institutions, constituted the Committee of the Petition We Remain Faithful (Petiční výbor Věrni zůstaneme, PVVZ).
  • The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) was the fourth resistance group. The KSČ had been one of over twenty political parties in the democratic First Republic, but it had never gained sufficient votes to unsettle the democratic government. After the Munich Agreement the leadership of the KSČ moved to Moscow and the party went underground. Until 1943, however, KSČ resistance was weak. The Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939 had left the KSČ in disarray. But ever faithful to the Soviet line, the KSČ began a more active struggle against the Nazis after Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941.
File:Prague 1939 occupation.jpg

Thousands of Czech troops fought alongside the British during the war in areas such as North Africa and Palestine. [5]

The democratic groups—ON, PÚ, and PVVZ—united in early 1940 and formed the Central Committee of the Home Resistance (Ústřední výbor odboje domácího, ÚVOD). Involved primarily in intelligence gathering, the ÚVOD cooperated with a Soviet intelligence organization in Prague. Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the democratic groups attempted to create a united front that would include the KSČ. Heydrich's appointment in the fall thwarted these efforts. By mid-1942 the Nazis had succeeded in exterminating the most experienced elements of the Czech resistance forces.

Czech forces regrouped in 1942 and 1943. The Council of the Three (R3), in which the communist underground was strongly represented, emerged as the focal point of the resistance. The R3 prepared to assist the liberating armies of the United States and the Soviet Union. In cooperation with Red Army partisan units, the R3 developed a guerrilla structure.

Guerrilla activity intensified after the formation of a provisional Czechoslovak government in Košice on April 4 1945. "National committees" took over the administration of towns as the Germans were expelled. More than 4,850 such committees were formed between 1944 and the end of the war under the supervision of the Red Army. On May 5 a national uprising began spontaneously in Prague, and the newly formed Czech National Council (Česká národní rada) almost immediately assumed leadership of the revolt. Over 1,600 barricades were erected throughout the city, and some 30,000 Czech men and women battled for three days against 37,000 to 40,000 German troops backed by tanks and artillery. On May 8 the German Wehrmacht capitulated; Soviet troops arrived on May 9.

Slovak National UprisingEdit

Main article: Slovak National Uprising

The Slovak National Uprising ("1944 Uprising") was an armed struggle between German Wehrmacht forces and rebel Slovak troops at the end of World War II from August to October 1944. It was centered at Banská Bystrica.

The rebel Slovak Army, formed to fight the Nazis, had an estimated 18,000 soldiers in August, a total which first increased to 47,000 after mobilisation on September 9, 1944, and later to 60,000, plus 20,000 partisans. However, in late August, German troops were able to disarm the Eastern Slovak Army, which was the best equipped, and thus significantly decreased the power of Slovak Army. Many members of this force were sent to concentration camps in the Third Reich; others escaped and joined partisan units or returned home.

The Slovaks were aided in the Uprising by soldiers and partisans from the Soviet Union, France, Czechia and Poland. In total, 32 nations were involved in the Uprising.

Czechoslovak Government-in-ExileEdit

Main article: Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile

Edvard Beneš had resigned as president of the first Czechoslovak Republic on October 5, 1938 after the Nazi coup. In London he and other Czechoslovak exiles organized a Czechoslovak government-in-exile and negotiated to obtain international recognition for the government and a renunciation of the Munich Agreement and its consequences. After World War II broke out, a Czechoslovak national committee was constituted in France, and under Beneš's presidency sought international recognition as the exiled government of Czechoslovakia. This attempt led to some minor successes, such as the French-Czechoslovak treaty of October 2, 1939 which allowed for the reconstitution of the Czechoslovak army on French territory, yet full recognition was not reached. (The Czechoslovak army in France was established January 24, 1940 and units of its 1st Infantry Division took part in the last stages of the Battle of France, as did some Czechoslovak fighter pilots in various French Fighter squadrons.)

Beneš hoped for a restoration of the Czechoslovak state in its pre-Munich form after the anticipated Allied victory, a false hope. The government in exile, with Beneš as president of republic, was set up in June 1940 in United Kingdom exile in Londons, with the President living at Aston Abbotts. On July 18, 1940, it was recognised by British government. Belatedly, the Soviet Union (in the summer of 1941) and the United States (in winter) recognised the exiled government. In 1942, Allied repudiation of the Munich Agreement established the political and legal continuity of the First Republic and de jure recognition of Beneš's de facto presidency. The success of the Operation Anthropoid, which resulted in British backed resistance worker assassinating one of Hitler's top henchmen on May 27, influenced the Allies in this repudiation.

The Munich Agreement had been precipitated by the subversive activities of the Sudeten Germans. During the latter years of the war, Beneš worked toward resolving the German minority problem and received consent from the Allies for a solution based on a postwar transfer of the Sudeten German population. The First Republic had been committed to a Western policy in foreign affairs. The Munich Agreement was the outcome. Beneš determined to strengthen Czechoslovak security against future German aggression through alliances with Poland and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, however, objected to a tripartite Czechoslovak-Polish-Soviet commitment. In December 1943, Beneš's government concluded a treaty just with the Soviets.

Beneš's interest in maintaining friendly relations with the Soviet Union was motivated also by his desire to avoid Soviet encouragement of a postwar communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Beneš worked to bring Czechoslovak communist exiles in the United Kingdom into cooperation with his government, offering far-reaching concessions, including nationalization of heavy industry and the creation of local people's committees at the war's end. In March 1945, he gave key cabinet positions to Czechoslovak communist exiles in Moscow.

End of the warEdit

File:Prague liberation 1945 tanks barricades.jpg
Prague liberation 1945 konev

Residents of Prague greet the Marshal of the Soviet Union Ivan Konev.

On May 8 1944, Beneš signed an agreement with Soviet leaders stipulating that Czechoslovak territory liberated by Soviet armies would be placed under Czechoslovak civilian control.

On September 21, Czechoslovak troops formed in the Soviet Union liberated village Kalinov, liberated the first settlement of Czechoslovakia near the Dukla Pass in northeastern Slovakia. Czechoslovakia was liberated mostly by Soviet troops (the Red Army), supported by Czech and Slovak resistance, from the east to the west, only southwestern Bohemia was liberated by other Allied troops from the west. Except for the brutalities of the German occupation in Bohemia and Moravia (after the August 1944 Slovak National Uprising also in Slovakia), Czechoslovakia suffered relatively little from the war.

A provisional Czechoslovak government was established by the Soviets in the eastern Slovak town of Kosice on April 4 1945. "National committees" (supervised by the Red Army) took over the administration of towns as the Germans were expelled. Bratislava was taken by the Soviets on April 4. Prague was taken on May 9 by Soviet troops during the Prague Offensive. When the Soviets arrived, Prague was already in a general state of confusion due to the Prague Uprising. Soviet and other Allied troops were withdrawn from Czechoslovakia in the same year.

It is estimated that about 345,000 World War II casualties were from Czechoslovakia, 277,000 of them Jews. As many as 144,000 Soviet troops gave their lives for the liberation of Czechoslovakia.[6]

Annexation of Subcarpathian Ruthenia by the Soviet UnionEdit

In October 1944, Subcarpathian Ruthenia was taken by the Soviets. A Czechoslovak delegation under František Nemec was dispatched to the area. The delegation was to mobilize the liberated local population to form a Czechoslovak army and to prepare for elections in cooperation with recently established national committees. Loyalty to a Czechoslovak state was tenuous in Carpathian Ruthenia. Beneš's proclamation of April 1944 excluded former collaborationist Hungarians, Germans and the Rusynophile Ruthenian followers of Andrej Brody and the Fencik Party (who had collaborated with the Hungarians) from political participation. This amounted to approximately one-third of the population. Another one-third was communist, leaving one-third of the population presumably sympathetic to the Czechoslovak Republic.

Upon arrival in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, the Czechoslovak delegation set up headquarters in Khust and on October 30 issued a mobilization proclamation. Soviet military forces prevented both the printing and the posting of the Czechoslovak proclamation and proceeded instead to organize the local population. Protests from Beneš's government went unheeded. Soviet activities led much of the local population to believe that Soviet annexation was imminent. The Czechoslovak delegation was also prevented from establishing a cooperative relationship with the local national committees promoted by the Soviets. On November 19, the communists, meeting in Mukachevo, issued a resolution requesting separation of Subcarpathian Ruthenia from Czechoslovakia and incorporation into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. On November 26, the Congress of National Committees unanimously accepted the resolution of the communists. The congress elected the National Council and instructed that a delegation be sent to Moscow to discuss union. The Czechoslovak delegation was asked to leave Subcarpathian Ruthenia. Negotiations between the Czechoslovak government and Moscow ensued. Both Czech and Slovak communists encouraged Beneš to cede Subcarpathian Ruthenia. The Soviet Union agreed to postpone annexation until the postwar period to avoid compromising Beneš's policy based on the pre-Munich frontiers.

The treaty ceding Carpathian Ruthenia to the Soviet Union was signed in June 1945. Czechs and Slovaks living in Subcarpathian Ruthenia and Ruthenians (Rusyns) living in Czechoslovakia were given the choice of Czechoslovak or Soviet citizenship.

Ethnic Cleansing of the SudetengermansEdit

The Czechoslovak National Front coalition government, formed at Košice in April 1945, issued decrees providing for the expulsion of all Sudeten Germans with the exception of those who had demonstrated loyalty to the republic. German property would be confiscated without compensation. In May 1945, Czechoslovak troops took possession of the borderland. A Czechoslovak administrative commission composed exclusively of Czechs was established. Sudeten Germans were subjected to restrictive measures and conscripted for compulsory labor and in some areas to wear a white N (Němec- Czech for German) on their clothes. Individual acts of war crimes against Germans, such as rape and murder and precipitous expulsion under harsh conditions characterized the aftermath of the war. On June 15, however, Beneš called Czechoslovak authorities to order. In July, Czechoslovak representatives addressed the Potsdam Conference (the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) and presented plans for a "humane and orderly transfer" of the Sudeten German population. In truth, this "transfer" resulted in a large-scale Ethnic Cleansing [7]

Vertreibung 1

Germans expelled from the Sudetenland

The Ethnic Cleansing of altogether 14 Million Germans from Eastern Europe was organised by the Allies at the Potsdam Agreement.

The Ethnic Cleansing and Pogroms against Germans, regardless of their personal guilt, began in May 1945. By December 31 1946, some 1.7 million Germans had been deported to the American Zone and 750,000 in the Soviet Zone, many of them had been tortured. An unknown number of them had been murdered like in the Massacre at Postelberg, the Massacre at Aussig or the Brünn Death March; the former UN-Commissioner for Human Rights, Prof. Alfred de Zayas, estimates the number of German civilians murdered by Czech Partisans and Red Army at 300 000 [8] . Many of these crimes were not "spontaneous revenge", but calculated and planned actions by the Benes government [9].

Approximately 225,000 Germans remained in Czechoslovakia, of whom 50,000 emigrated or were expelled soon after.[citation needed]

The Potsdam Agreement pertained to Germans only. Decisions regarding the Hungarian minority reverted to the Czechoslovak government. The resettlement of about 700,000 Hungarians was envisaged at Košice and subsequently reaffirmed by the National Front. Budapest, however, opposed a unilateral transfer. In February 1946, the Hungarian government agreed that Czechoslovakia could expatriate as many Hungarians as there were Slovaks in Hungary wishing to return to Czechoslovakia. As a result, 89,660 people were resettled from Czechoslovakia to Hungary, and 71,787 in the opposite direction, by 1948.

Territory ceded to Poland in 1938 and restored to Slovakia after the Nazi invasion of Poland, in accordance with the terms of the German-Slovak agreement of November 21, 1939, became part of the restored Czechoslovak state in 1945. The Polish minority (100,000) were given full civil liberties.

Around 80,000 Czech Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II, mostly at Theresienstadt. In 2006, the Czech Republic instituted a Holocaust Memorial Day, wherein the names of Czech Jews who were Holocaust victims were publicly read for four hours in Prague.

See alsoEdit



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