Czechoslovakia in World War II

Adolf Hitler had completed Anschluss with Austria and now was looking towards lands not traditionally part of “Greater Germany.” The Sudetenland, a narrow strip of mountainous land in Czechoslovakia, held a predominantly ethnic German population on the border with Germany.

The Sudetenland was important to the Czechs for two reasons: the mountains were a natural defense against German aggression, and most of their man-made fortifications were located there. If the Sudetenland were to fall, the whole of Czechoslovakia would be open to German occupation. Also in the region were most of the Czech coal, electric, and iron and steel works.

Against the guarantee of Czech border integrity by her geography, they also entered into a treaty with the French to protect them against any aggressors. French had signed this treaty after World War I to actualize the new political map of Europe.

In the summer of 1938, the Nazis had an experienced political and paramilitary organization set up to ferment pro-Nazi dissent and smash their opposition. Nazi sympathizers, Czech and German, began to enter Czechoslovakia and the Sudetenland to fight with Communists, Social Democrats, and Socialists, their traditional enemies, and to focus attention on the supposed plight of the ethnic Germans. Most of these ethnic Germans did not want to be part of Germany, and many did not even speak German.

After street battles like those of Hitler’s rise to power and Austrian Anschluss, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakian President Eduard Benes. Benes turned to Britain for help, especially to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Chamberlain was a man who did not comprehend the circumstances in which he lived. The world was changing far more rapidly than he could handle. He knew that Britain did not possess the arms to fight a renewed German Wehrmacht. He sought to appease Hitler, and flew to Munich on September 29 to discuss the Czechoslovakian crisis. Also joining the discussion was Italian Duce Benito Mussolini and French Premier Edouard Daladier. Benes was not present, nor any Czech representative.

Chamberlain essentially sacrificed Czechoslovakia on the altar of appeasement. In exchange for the Sudetenland, Hitler promised to guarantee the new Czech borders. Eduard Benes immediately resigned, and Czechoslovakia would not be guaranteed. Parts of the country were broken off by Poland and Hungary, and on March 15, 1939, German troops entered Prague. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.

A Czech and Slovak brigade was set up in Poland and fought the Germans the following September. Benes fled to London and set up a government in exile after the invasion of Poland.

The Czech Skoda munitions works made tanks for the Panzer legions, and the country was broken up into districts. The Czech monuments were taken down, streets and plazas renamed for prominent Nazis, and the singing of Czech songs forbidden. The Slovak region under Czech Nazi and Roman Catholic Priest Josef Tiso was second only to Germany in enacting anti-Semitic laws. Over 70,000 Slovak Jews died in concentration camps.

The Czechs responded with guerrilla activity, underground resistance, and uprisings. A Special Operations Executive Operation dropped Czech agents into Prague, where they murdered SS Deputy Protector Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. The entire town of Lidice was executed in reprisal; the men locked in the town church and burned to death. The women and children were sent to a concentration camp.

After the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Allies in 1945, Benes returned to power and authorized the forced removal of the ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland and Hungarians from Slovakia. Thousands died on the march.

Benes was elected to form an interim government in 1946. That was the last election until 1989. Czechoslovakia became a Soviet satellite.