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Occupation of Czechoslovakia

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The Munich Agreement and the first Vienna Award

After the Austrian Anschluss, Czechoslovakia was to become Hitler's next target. Hitler's strategy was to exploit the existing Sudeten German minority problem as a pretext for German penetration into eastern Central Europe (see Germans in Czechoslovakia (1918-1938)). Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein offered the SdP as the agent for Hitler's campaign. Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on March 28, 1938, and was instructed to raise demands unacceptable to the Czechoslovak government. In the Carlsbad Decrees, issued on April 24, the SdP demanded complete autonomy for the Sudetenland and freedom to profess Nazi ideology. If Henlein's demands were granted, the Sudetenland would be in a position to align itself with Nazi Germany.

In 1938 neither Britain nor France desired war. France, not wanting to face Germany alone, subordinated itself to Britain. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain became the major spokesman for the West. Chamberlain believed that Sudeten German grievances were just and Hitler's intention limited. Both Britain and France advised Czechoslovakia to concede. Benes, however, resisted pressure to move toward autonomy or federalism for the Sudetenland. On May 20, Czechoslovakia initiated a partial mobilization in response to rumours of German troop movements. On May 30, Hitler signed a secret directive for war against Czechoslovakia to begin no later than October 1. The British government demanded that Benes request a mediator. Not wishing to sever his ties with the West, Benes reluctantly accepted mediation. The British appointed Lord Runciman as mediator and instructed him to force a solution on Benes that would be acceptable to the Sudeten Germans. On September 2, Benes submitted the Fourth Plan, which granted nearly all the demands of the Carlsbad Decrees. Intent on obstructing conciliation, the SdP held a demonstration that provoked police action at the town of Ostrava on September 7. On September 13, the Sudeten Germans broke off negotiations. Violence and disruption ensued. Czechoslovak troops attempted to restore order. Henlein flew to Germany and on September 15 issued a proclamation demanding the return of the Sudetenland to Germany.

On the same day, Hitler met with Chamberlain at Berchtesgaden and demanded the swift return of the Sudetenland to the Third Reich under threat of war. The Czechoslovaks, 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. Britain and France issued an ultimatum, making the 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 Poland and Hungary for their minorities also be satisfied.

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

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 Britain. The Czechoslovak government was neither invited nor consulted. On September 29, the Munich Agreement was signed by Germany, Italy, France, and Britain. 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, Britain, France, Italy, and Czechoslovakia) would supervise a plebiscite to determine the final frontier. Britain 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.

Benes had resigned as president of the Czechoslovak Republic on October 5, 1938 (and later, after start of WWII created a government-in-exile in London).

In early November 1938, under the first Vienna Award, which was a result of the Munich agreement, Czechoslovakia (and later Slovakia) was forced by Germany and Italy to cede southern Slovakia (1/3 of Slovak territory) to Hungary, and Poland obtained small territorial cessions shortly thereafter.

As a result, Bohemia and Moravia lost about 38 percent of their combined area, as well as about 2.8 million Germans and approximately 750,000 Czechs to Germany. Hungary, in turn, received 11,882 square kilometers in southern Slovakia and southern Ruthenia; only 53 percent of the population in this territory was Hungarian. Poland acquired the town of 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).

After Munich and Vienna (The Second Republic, October 1938- March 1939)

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 Volosin, gained control of the local government, and Subcarpathian Ruthenia was renamed Carpatho-Ukraine.

In November 1938, Emil Hacha, succeeding Benes, was elected president of the federated Second Republic, renamed Czecho-Slovakia and consisting of three parts: Bohemia + 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 Hacha to Berlin and during the early hours of March 15, he informed Hacha of the imminent German invasion. Threatening a Luftwaffe attack on Prague, Hitler persuaded Hacha to order the capitulation of the Czechoslovak army. 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's Hradcany 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 was comprised of 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. In fairness to the Czechs, it should be acknowledged that some of the minority demands served as mere pretexts to justify intervention by Nazi Germany. That Czechoslovakia was able under such circumstances to maintain a viable economy and a democratic political system was indeed a remarkable achievement of the interwar period.

Division of Czechoslovakia

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.

Rationale for Invasion

Czechoslovakia was a major manfucturer of machine guns and had an highly modernized army. Many of these factories continued to produce Czech designs until factories were converted for German machine gun designs. Czechoslovakia also had other major manufacturing concerns. Entire steel and chemical factories were moved from Czechoslovakia and reassembled in Linz, Austria which, incidentally remains a heavily industrialized sector of the country. Germany's invasion was motivated by the plundering of the Czech weapons manufacturing technology and machinery.

Czech Resistance

In exile, Benes—the leader of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile—organized a resistance network. Hacha, Prime Minister Elias, and the Czech resistance acknowledged Benes's leadership. Active collaboration between London and the Czechoslovak home front was maintained throughout the war years.

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 Britain and France.
  • Benes's collaborators, led by Prokop Drtina, created the Political Center (Politicke ústredí--PU). The PU 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 (Peticni vybor Verni zustanme--PVVZ).
  • The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) was the fourth resistance group. The KSC 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 KSC moved to Moscow and the party went underground. Until 1943, however, KSC resistance was weak. The Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939 had left the KSC in disarray. But ever faithful to the Soviet line, the KSC began a more active struggle against the Nazis after Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941.

The democratic groups--ON, PU, and PVVZ--united in early 1940 and formed the Central Committee of the Home Resistance (Ustredni vybor odboje domaciho--UVOD). Involved primarily in intelligence gathering, the UVOD 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 KSC. 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 Kosice on April 4, 1945. "National committees" took over the administration of towns as the Germans were expelled. Under the supervision of the Red Army, more than 4,850 such committees were formed between 1944 and the end of the war. On May 5 a national uprising began spontaneously in Prague, and the newly formed Czech National Council (Ceska narodni 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.

Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile

Benes had resigned as president of the Czechoslovak Republic on October 5, 1938. 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. Benes hoped for a restoration of the Czechoslovak state in its pre-Munich form after the anticipated Allied victory. In the summer of 1941, the Allies recognized the exiled government. In 1942 Allied repudiation of the Munich Agreement established the political and legal continuity of the First Republic and Benes's presidency.

The Munich Agreement had been precipitated by the subversive activities of the Sudeten Germans. During the latter years of the war, Benes 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. Benes 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, Benes's government concluded a treaty with the Soviets.

Benes'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. Benes worked to bring Czechoslovak communist exiles in Britain into active 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 War

On May 8, 1944, Benes 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 vilage 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 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 over on April 4, 1945, and Prague on May 9, 1945 by Soviet troops. Both Soviet and Allied troops were withdrawn in the same year. (The Soviet troops, however, came back in 1968 (see Prague Spring) and were withdrawn only in the early 1990s).

Annexation of Carpatho-Ukraine (Subcarpathian Ruthenia) by the Soviet Union

In October 1944, Carpatho-Ukraine 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 Carpatho-Ukraine. Benes's proclamation of April 1944 excluded former collaborationist Hungarians, Germans, and the Russophile 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 Carpatho-Ukraine, 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 Benes'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 Carpatho-Ukraine 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 Carpatho-Ukraine. Negotiations between the Czechoslovak government and Moscow ensued. Both Czech and Slovak communists encouraged Benes to cede Carpatho-Ukraine. The Soviet Union agreed to postpone annexation until the postwar period to avoid compromising Benes's policy based on the pre-Munich frontiers.

The treaty ceding Carpatho-Ukraine to the Soviet Union was signed in June 1945. Czechs and Slovaks living in Carpatho-Ukraine and Ukrainians (Ruthenians) living in Czechoslovakia were given the choice of Czechoslovak or Soviet citizenship.

Minorities and Population Transfers

The Czechoslovak National Front coalition government, formed at Kosice 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. All officials of the SdP, or the Sudeten Nazis, and all members of the Nazi Security Police would be prosecuted.

In May 1945, Czechoslovak troops took possession of the Sudetenland. A Czechoslovak administrative commission composed exclusively of Czechs was established. Sudeten Germans were subjected to restrictive measures and conscripted for compulsory labor to repair war damages. Individual acts of retaliation against Germans and precipitous expulsion under harsh conditions characterized the immediate aftermath of the occupation. On June 15, however, Benes called Czechoslovak authorities to order. In July Czechoslovak representatives addressed the Potsdam Conference (the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union) and presented plans for a humane and orderly transfer of the Sudeten German population.

The Potsdam Agreement provided for the resettlement of Sudeten Germans in Germany under the supervision of the Allied Control Council. The transfer began in January 1946. By December 31, 1946, some 1.7 million Germans had been resettled in the American Zone and 750,000 in the Soviet Zone. Approximately 225,000 Germans remained in Czechoslovakia, of whom 50,000 emigrated or were expelled soon after.

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 Kosice 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 declared full civil liberties. However, the minority organisations were restricted and their property confiscated.

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