Author: Josef Cermak (CzechFolks.com PLUS)
The author of the book “Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed”, Mary Heinmann, is an American historian teaching at the Strathclyde University in Scotland. Her book was published by the Yale University Press.
According to the review (an example of how reviews should be written) in the Economist (Nov.21, 2009), Ms Heinmann sees the former Czechoslovakia as a political entity which was born out of trickery and died in failure; as an artificial creature, essentially a fraud, and the wily duo responsible for the fraud, Tomas Masaryk and Edward Benes, who duped the victorious Western allies into creation of a new country, which ignored the interests of all ethnic groups (particularly the Germans) except Czechs and Slovaks; its treatment of the Sudeten Germans in the first republic as the ultimate cause of the first Czechoslovak republic’s downfall and (together with reparations imposed on Germany) in large part responsible for the Second World War; following the Munich agreement, it engaged in anti-Semitism, which – in her view – was simply continuation of existing tendencies; and the work of Edward Benes and Jan Masaryk during the Second World War she sees as a story of Czech guile and Western gullibility, while describing the three postwar years before the communist seizure of power as a horrible period of racial revenge, rape, robbery and deportation inflicted on guilty and blameless Germans alike. And the Prague Spring was simply a by-product of a factional fight in the Communist Party.
The Economist reviewer mentions the Czech music, literature and “glorious architecture”, as well as the three betrayals of Czechoslovakia by its Western allies (1938, 1948, 1968) as the ‘hooks’ explaining the West’s sympathy for Czechoslovakia. He gives Ms. Heinmann credit for excellent research, he acknowledges her right “to highlight the messy opportunism in the breakup of the Habsburg empire”, He agrees that Czechoslovakia was an artificial creature “but so, in the end, are all countries.” And this is what he has to say on the Czech treatment of Germans and Jews: “The inter-war Czechoslovakia treated Germans badly. But it was still a far more attractive country in terms of civil rights (for example in the treatment of Jews) than any of its neighbors, especially Hitler’s Germany.” He finds the postwar punishment of the Germans deplorable and the Czechoslovak Communists possibly exceptionally revolting (“but the democrats were often magnificent”)His conclusion: Yes, Czechoslovakia was a state that failed. But only to a point; the story of the revival of the Czech language in the 19th century deserves more than mockery; when describing the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, “the reader can almost hear her applauding”; it does not help her book to be spiteful; the Czechs an Slovaks have much to be ashamed of. But also much to be proud of.
I don’t intend to read Ms. Heinmann’s book: at 85, I have no time for spiteful books. Nor will I try to argue with her. Instead, I’ll offer views of men, who are familiar with the subject Ms. Heinmann is writing about (and include a few of my own).
On Czechoslovakia –
Professor S. Harrison Thomson (University of Colorado) in an article published in “University of Toronto Quarterly”, July, 1949: ” It had a scant twenty years of existence. Yet in that time, with the many faults of which Masaryk was perhaps more conscious than any other, it wenr further toward the goals he set in his philosophy of life than any other state in our Western political history. We cannot in fairness demand more than that of a people”.
On Tomas Guarrigue Masaryk
George Bernard Shaw saw him as the only man capable of being the President of a United States of Europe.
Winston Churchill writes about him as the “great Masaryk”.
S. Harrison Thomson (in “University of Toronto Quarterly”, July, 1949): ” There is no man in the history of modern civilization who better exemplifies the ideal of Plato’ philosopher-king than Thomas Masaryk, first President of the Czechoslovak Republic…Yet he came from one of the smaller and almost unknown peoples of Europe…But size is not quality and history ultimately judges quality. Fifth century Greece was small, even in its own day, but it produced men and ideas, a society, and a culture we humbly envy and accept today…”
On Edward Benes
Winston Churchill (in “Closing the Ring”): “In all his thoughts and aims he consistently sustained the main principles on which Western civilization is founded, and was ever true to the cause of his native land, over which he presided for twenty years. He was a master of administration and diplomacy. He knew how to endure with patience and fortitude long periods of adverse fortune. Where he failed – and it cost him and his country much – was in not taking a violent decision at the supreme moment. He was too experienced a diplomatist, too astute a year-to-year politician to realize the moment and stake all on victory or defeat”
Margaret McMillan (Paris !919) describes him as a man who, though not charismatic, by sheer hard work achieved much for his country
On Jan Masaryk
William Shirer (in “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: a history of Nazi Germany”): Following Neville Chamberlain’s announcement in the House of Commons on September 28, 1938 that he would accept the Munich Agreement (greeted by wild throwing of order papers in the air and many people being in tears), Winston Churchill begged to differ: We have suffered a total, unmitigated defeat. Jan Masaryk asked Mr. Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, if Czechoslovakia would be invited to Munich. Both men replied in negative. Masaryk’s response (perhaps the noblest ever made by a representative of a state, which had just been abandoned by its allies): “If you sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world, I would be the first to applaud you. But if not, gentlemen, God help yours souls.”
On anti-Semitism in inter-war Czechoslovakia
By all accounts, in the period between the two wars, Prague was the centre of a probably unrepeatable cultural milieu, during which Czech, Jewish and German cultures coexisted in creative peace. Men like Franz Kafka and Max Brod formed the Prague Circle, which met at the Arco café where they were often joined by Franz Werfel and E.E. Kisch. Brod helped his German writing friends, Franz Werfel as well as Franz Kafka, to reach the world audience, at the same time introducing to the German public Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Schweik and Leoš Janáček’s music.
Similarly affirming view about life in Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia came from composer Oskar Morawetz, and more recently from two of the only one hundred survivors of the Nazi concentration camp in Terezin, George Brady (who inspired the book (and now also a movie), “Inside Hana’s Suitcase”, and
John Freund (the author of such books as “Once Again” and “Udolí stínů smrti “/The Valley of the Shadows of Death/ and participant in the documentary film “I Will Not Die”).
On Jews and Czechoslovakia After the Munich Agreement
If it were true that, after the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia engaged in anti-Semitism, it would be difficult to explain why – when the Czechoslovak National Council in London, headed by President Benes, called upon army reservists in allied and neutral countries to enlist – many Jews, including some 2,000 Czech Jews in Palestine, enlisted in the Czechoslovak army units with the Allied Middle East forces, constituting, in fact, a majority in these units; and similarly, in some units of the Czechoslovak Division later established in the Soviet Union, up to 70% of the members were Jews.
On punishment of the Sudeten Germans after the war
I agree with the Economist reviewer that the punishment of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia after the war was deplorable, even though no punishment visited on the Sudeten Germans comes close in scale and brutality to the actions of the Nazi: all men in villages executed and their homes burnt (in Czechoslovakia, for example, Lidice and Lezaky), millions executed or more slowly killed in concentration camps. In the case of the Jewish population the numbers are numbing: the number of Jews deported from Bohemia and Moravia – 80,614; the number of Jews who died in Theresienstadt – 6,392; the number of Jews who were murdered in extermination camps – 64, 172. At the end of the war some10,000 Jews registered as returning deportees. Of the Jews who had not been deported, 5,201 were either executed, committed suicide, or died from natural causes and 2,800 survived…
I agree with the Economist reviewer that the Czechs and Slovaks – like everyone else – have much to be ashamed of, but also much to be proud of.
I beg to suggest that the Germans have much to be proud of, but also – particularly in the twentieth century – much, much to be ashamed of.