War was never declared between Czechoslovakia and Germany. At 01:30 on 30 September 1938 the Munich Agreement was signed by Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier the leaders of Nazi Germany, Italy, Great Britain and France respectively. The Czechoslovak Government was neither consulted or invited to be represented at this meeting.
Only three days earlier, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, in a radio address to the British people had said of Czechoslovakia: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
A few hours after this radio address, Chamberlain flew to Munich for a final round of talks with Hitler. In his effort to avoid another war Chamberlain was intent on appeasing Nazi Germany, but Hitler was a formidable opponent. The price for this appeasement was the Munich Agreement.
Chamberlain flew back to England. On disembarking from the aircraft, he waived the Agreement to the waiting newspaper reporters and British public declaring that he had achieved ‘Peace for our time’. But the inevitable had merely been delayed.
On 1 September 1939, some 11 months after the Munich Agreement was signed, Hitler invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France, because of their military alliance with Poland, declared war on Nazi Germany.
The Munich Agreement, also know as the ‘Munich Dictat’ or ‘Munich Betrayal’ in former Czechoslovakia, ceded about 30% of its territory – the Sudentenland – to Nazi Germany. Chamberlain and Daladier informed the Czechoslovak Government that Czechoslovakia had two choices: either they resisted Nazi Germany on there own or they submitted to the annexations of the Munich Agreement. With the military alliance that Czechoslovakia had signed, in 1925, with France being renegaded upon, the Czechoslovak Government had little choice but to capitulate and accept the Munich Agreement.
During this time Karel Machaček, was a 24 year old medical student, studying to become a Doctor at the medical faculty at Brno’s University. The following is his first hand account of this event in Czechoslovak history:
Since 1933, we had been conscious of disturbing political changes in our neighbouring country, Germany. A lunatic called Hitler shouted and raved at the German people on the radio – by then everybody had a radio – using all sorts of nationalistic and inflammatory slogans, and the Germans loved it. He was a feast for the comics at first: big boots, brown shirt and Charlie Chaplin moustache. We thought that it was simply a matter of time before they locked him up or got rid of him somehow. But as time went by, the smiles left our faces. The movement was growing in Germany; pictures showed masses in uniforms, marching with banners and shouting slogans. We knew the Germans to be aggressive but we thought if they got it out of their system this way, good luck to them. Then there was news of political assassinations, persecution of Jews and concentration camps, with some democratic Germans leaving Germany and some coming to Czechoslovakia. We started to take more notice, but as far as we were concerned it was a German problem. We were a strong democratic country, committed to the League of Nations and our President Dr Eduard Beneš, was a former president of that powerful organisation. Surely, if Hitler tried to spread his domain outside Germany, the other countries would put a stop to it. In addition, we had a treaty with France and the Soviet Union of mutual aid, and we consoled ourselves that nobody would dare to lay a finger on us. That was the naïve opinion of the man in the street.
As time went by, we heard that Germany was rearming, building tanks and planes which was in breach of the treaty signed after the First World War. Nobody was making any moves to stop them and international reaction varied between ‘You naughty boy’ and ‘Hitler was a gentleman and what the Germans do in Germany is there own business’
The anxiety about Hitler’s intentions grew in spite of his assurances that he did not aspire to an inch of foreign soil. All this was not just what our papers said but it was a reflection of the world press quoted in our news. We, however, took it more seriously; we were much closer to it and we could observe the behaviour of the Germans living in Czechoslovakia. The country had a large number of Germans. Throughout the three hundred years of Austrian domination, there had been a strong Germanisation process in the border areas of the country adjoining Germany and Austria. The Germans lived seemingly in peace in Czechoslovakia, and the democratic constitution of the country assured their representation in parliament on a proportional basis. They had their own political parties, schools and a university in Prague. When Hitlar came to powering Germany, they started behaving in the arrogant manner of which they are so capable. They became louder and aggressive, demanding more than their fair share of everything. They began to display brazenly the manifestations of Nazi sympathy. The Czech attitude was that, after all, they were in a minority and as in any democratic system, it is the majority that governs. With Hitler raving and whipping the whole German nation into a frenzy of mass hysteria, the Czechoslovak Germans, called Sudeten Germans, were transferring their allegiance to him. The news coming from Germany was terrifying. Unless you could prove your pure Aryan ancestry to your great-grandfather’s level, you were a second or third class citizen and lowest of all were the Jews. They were attacked, robbed and herded into concentration camps. Nobody knew about the concentration camps apart from the fact that they were large long-term prisons. Nothing was known about the conditions there, because although many people had been taken there, none had come out to tell the story.
All this wiped the smiles from our faces. The comics could no longer use Hitler as a source of amusement, and it was clear that we were facing a serious situation. It made us determined to resist this evil with all the power we could muster. We had had to fight for our existence for over a thousand years and we were not going to let our history down. We had compulsory two-year military and at least two years of able men in the army apart from the regulars, and about sixteen years of reservists.
The Germans, at that time, walked into the demilitarised Ruhr and a lot of strong words were used in the newspapers and on the radio, and strong protests where made – and that was about all. It showed clearly that Hitler had allies – Mussolini in Italy, and the two of them jointly aided Franco in his conquest of democratic Spain while using the opportunity to test their military equipment and tactics. The governments of France and Great Britain were, on the other hand, indecisive. In the east was Stalin’s Russia, a ruthless dictatorship, not unlike Germany. Russia was of course anti-facist , but the choice between the two was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
We were right in the middle of it. Hitler walked into Austria without a shot being fired, and declared that this was his last territorial exploit. We could not tell an Austrian from a German anyway, and it was not a total surprise. But it did not stop there. Our Sudeten Germans, encouraged by Hitler’s successes became even more vociferous and arrogant, and Hitler’s raving now turned against us. The German nation expected more action. It became evident that an armed conflict with us was inevitable.
We trusted that France would stand by her obligations to us. Our relations with France were always cordial, many thousands of our legionnaires had fought by the side of France during the First World War only twenty years earlier. France and Britain were signatories of the peace treaty with Germany by which Czechoslovakia was reborn. We trusted Soviet Russia to help us, if we were attacked, although we did not particularly relish the idea – if you are at war, you are glad of anybody’s help. We also knew that France had a treaty of mutual help with Great Britain, which would mean that, with France being involved, Britain would have to come too. We thought that was a sufficient deterrent for anybody.
We did not know about Britain’s internal politics, but what we knew about Britain was generally very favourable. The life and habits of the British had been very well described to us by one of our best writers, Karel Čapek in his book ‘Letters from England’. We knew that Britain was respected as one of the most powerful countries in the world, and above all Britain was respected for its democratic tradition and its reputation for fairness. Britain had shown a concern about the situation in Czechoslovakia, and sent an observer in the shape of Lord Runciman. He arrived to make contact with the various parties, but to our disappointment, spent most of his time going from one German shoot to another and from one German banquet to another. We did not think that he could possibly have formed an unbiased opinion about the situation. By the time he left, we were sure he was a good friend of the Sudeten Germans. We only hoped that the British Prime Minister had other sources of information as well.
The political tension became electric, with hectic diplomatic activity in which the British seemed to have adopted a leading role. The British Prime Minister flew to Bad Godesberg to see Adolf Hitler, and we confidently awaited the next move.
On September 23rd 1938, there was to be an important announcement at ten pm and everybody was glued to the radio. I was in Kyjov in a restaurant with other members of the Academic Club. The restaurant was packed with people waiting for the broadcast on the restaurant radio. At the stated hour, only the Prague radio signal came through. We spoke in a whisper so as not to miss anything. The atmosphere was very tense . About half an hour later, the announcement came: the President of the Republic had declared a state of emergency and general mobilisation of all armed forces. There was absolute silence. At the end of the announcement our national anthem was played. Everyone stood to attention, grim faced with many moist eyes. So this was it. The men who were military reservists kissed their wives and sweethearts goodbye, sent their love to their children and made straight for the station to catch the nearest train to their units.
I walked with my friends, who were all students and like me exempt from military service until they finished their studies, in silence to our homes. When I got home, father was already busy at the station, the train schedules were on a war footing, only trains with soldiers and military equipment were allowed or had absolute priority. There was a constant stream of movement. I don’t think faher went to bed for three days. I wondered what would happen to me; there would surely be a call up. There was no way by which anybody could volunteer for military service, because everybody was involved by compulsion. All I could do was wait.
From the books about the First World War, I knew that a good pair of boots were invaluable in the war. The next morning I set off on foot to Kyjov – trains were out of bounds to civilian people – and went to a good shoe shop and bought the most expensive pair of boots they had – leather, waterproof and comfortable. They cost over one pound. Then I walked home again, having seen some of my friends , who were at a loss about what to do, just as I was. On the way, I considered how the war would start and what would be our first contact with the enemy. We lived on a station and I concluded that, very likely, we would be bombed before anything else. I wanted to consult my father about it but he was too busy. So I took a spade and dug a trench in the garden over six feet deep, about twelve feet long and three feet wide Then I got my father to see it and got him to approve a loan of railway sleepers, which were laid tight next to each other on top, to form the roof of an air raid shelter. Then I spread the dug up earth over the top to mask the structure from the air. It would have held about ten people and although it would not have protected us against a direct hit, it would have saved us from blast and fragments of bombs.
The Sokol organisation was issued with rifles and some cartridges and armbands. Our wash kitchen in the garden became a guard post. As Sokol, I volunteered to patrol about three miles of railway track, two people at a time doing about a four hour spell of duty day and night, to guard against the possibility of German sabotage. At night we were given a password, each day a different one, and told to shoot if we intercepted anybody in suspicious circumstances and he tried to resist arrest. One can show no mercy in a war, but fortunately we were not put to that test.
We were constantly tuned to a radio, wondering when the war would be declared and from which direction the first attack would come. The mobilisation was progressing very smoothly. Within forty-eight hours everyone was at his unit and the morale was very high. Soldiers on trains that stopped in our station wanted to know the latest news, all eager to give the Germans bloody noses.
News came of a new round of international diplomatic activity. The British Prime Minister and the French Premier were to meet Hitler and Mussolini at Munich in the last attempt to settle Hitler’s claim to the Czechoslovak territory by peaceful means. We felt confident, with the British Prime Minister at the head of negotiations, that Adolf Hitler had met his match. There were speculations that the Germans who wanted to belong to the German state would be able to move there, and be compensated for property they could not take with them. But most people expected Hitler would be told that if he started a war, Britain and France would come out against him. Any division of our territory, which for one thousand years been an entity, even when governed by foreign kings, was quite unthinkable.
I do not remember now how the results of the Munich agreement were announced to us, whether on the radio or in the newspapers; it seems like amnesia after a severe accident, but they left us gasping with astonishment and stunned belief. We were to disarm, cede to Germany about thirty per cent of our territory, cede to Poland a district of our Silesia and to Hungary a part of southern Slovakia. Should we not accept these terms, the territories would be reclaimed by force. It meant that France not only revoked our treaty of mutual aid, but had sided with the Germans against us. Suddenly we had more enemies than we knew about. Our government was given very short notice to accept these terms and, under the circumstances, felt there was no other way. We were simply surrounded by enemies on all sides. Even Hungary and Poland were like two hyenas, were coming for a bit of the Czechoslovak carcass. We had no illusions about the Hungarians; they had been always, to our knowledge, the Germans’ best friends. About Poland, itself so exposed and vulnerable, we raised a smile of contempt.
In our eyes the chief culprit if this blatant betrayal was the British Prime Minister. He was the one who had taken the lead in the initiative and had been the most pleased with the result. When we saw his photograph, getting out of his plane on his return to England, jubilantly waving a piece of paper with Adolf Hitler’s signature, we felt physically sick. That piece of paper meant the destruction of a democratic ally, and a present to Hitler of the whole of our army’s equipment with armament factories churning out all sorts of weapons. That was in addition to the psychological devastation of the national spirit of thirteen million Czechs and Slovaks. I can’t describe the reaction to this tragic injustice. The man in the street could not find appropriate words of expression – so he just spat. We heard that there were voices in the House of Commons criticising the Prime Minister’s actions, and we were very grateful. But the damage was done. We never found out why the offer from Stalin had not been accepted, or whether it was linked with our treaty with France. The fact that the Russians were not a signatory of the Munich agreement later helped to push Czechoslovakia into the Russian orbit.
Our President, Dr Benes, and the whole government resigned instantly, and the head of state became a non-political figure, the president of the Supreme Court, whose personality was acceptable to Hitler. Dr Benes and some of his colleagues took refuge in England and then in the U.S.A. where the former was offered a place at a university. In the months that followed, a number of politicians and industrialists whose businesses had been ruined by the partition of Czechoslovakia or who did not see any future in staying, found their way out of the country.
As for me, I filled up the air raid shelter in the garden, returned the railway sleepers to the previous place and went back to university. Nobody had much to say without swearing and people avoided each others eyes out of shame. The soldiers returned to their families, some with relief that war had been avoided, although others would have preferred to fight for the honour of the nation, irrespective of the sacrifices. My father kept saying dejectedly: ‘There is more to come, it can’t stay as it is.’
I was glad to detect a trace of optimism.
I returned to my studies, hospital and Student Union activities with the acute realism that whatever happened I had to qualify. With a medical degree, there would always be some way of earning a living somewhere. It was impossible to be reconciled with the new political situation, but we still had a country, which we loved, although it was not the same as before. The spirit of the nation was broken. The Germans were jubilant and more provocative than ever, and we chose to ignore them, which was sometimes difficult.
Meanwhile Hitler raved and raved. The Germans idolised him with very few exceptions and were prepared to jump into the fire for him. I don’t know where they got the courage from to claim now that so many of them were good democrats and anti-Nazis. Hitler;s displeasure with what was left of Czechoslovakia continued, and increased, although the borders were now supposed to be guaranteed by the Munich agreement. Was there no end to our national suffering and degradation? The tension was increasing and we were anxiously awaiting the next blow. It came on March 14th, 1939 at midnight.
I was listening to my radio with earphones in my student bed in Kaunic College. The announcement said that the German forces, by order of Hitler, had crossed the borders of our diminished country, which was being turned into a German Protectorate. The Slovaks, more cooperative with the Germans than the Czechs had been given autonomy. There was an appeal for the population to stay calm with a warning that any resistance would be ruthlessly crushed. At the end of the announcement, our national anthem was played for the very last time. It sounded like the last gasp of a dying nation. It was too much for me to bear after all that had happened before. I buried my head in the pillow and wept – for my country, that the British and French Prime Ministers had foolishly given away.
In the morning the streets were full of steel-helmeted German troops, columns and columns of them, on lorries and motor-cycles with sidecars, guns pointed at any group of people on the pavement and ready to shoot. The population ignored them’ to speak to a German was unthinkable. The Brno Germans were wild with joy, all in their Nazi uniforms. All public buildings draped with German flags brandishing swastikas. The names of some public buildings were replaced by German equivalents. Newspapers carried only the instructions of the German military command; any traces of yesterday had been almost obliterated. Wherever you looked, there were German posters. Hitler drove to Hradcany Castle in Prague – the seat of the Czech kings and Presidents. A number of prominent Czech personalities were arrested. We became foreigners in our own homes.
There was one ironic twist to this tragic day. For years our government had been considering a change from left hand traffic to right hand traffic to match most of Europe. So many arguments and objections had been raised against it, that it did not get any further than a discussion. From the moment the German army crossed the Czech border, all traffic drove on the right – by order of the Wehrmacht. What we had not been able to manage in years, the bloody Germans had done in a few hours.
Prague had become the first capital city to be occupied by the Nazi’s.
Shortly after this occupation Karel Machaček, like many of his countrymen, made his decision to escape from Czechoslovakia. He made his way to France where he enlisted in the Czechoslovak Army who were forming military units, manned by Czechoslovaks who had escaped from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. Following evacuation from France to England he transferred to the Royal AIr Force and served in 311 Sqd. More details can be found in his autobiography here.
“Extract from the autobiography of Dr. K.A. Machaček, E.O.M.B. – F/Lt RAF (1916 – 2005), donated by his close family – his sister Ms. Vlasta Machačková and sons Jim, Karel and Tony Machaček.”
Article last updated 31 January 2014