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Czechoslovakia: A Symbol and a Lesson

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

The fate of Czechoslovakia — and the story is not ended by any means—is not one of concern to Czechs and Slovaks alone. It has become a symbol of the low moral standards of contemporary statecraft. It also furnishes an illustration of what the want of enlightened and farsighted leadership means; and a lesson of what results may flow from distortions of vicious propaganda or from woeful lack of knowledge of international developments.

An important and unsettling factor in the Central European situation was, and is, a completely erroneous belief as to what was done in Paris in 1919, in respect of territorial adjustments. What we knew until the other day as the republic of Czechoslovakia was the lands of the Bohemian crown, meaning the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Margravate of Moravia, and what was left of the Duchy of Silesia after spoliations by Frederick the Great in the eighteenth century and a cession to Poland following the war—these, revived and reorganized with the addition of Slovakia, which had suffered under Hungarian rule for centuries. Bohemia was at one time an important power politically. It was, and is, the seat of an old, indigenous culture. The oldest Central European university was founded in Prague in 1348, and John Huss preceded Luther by a hundred years. The struggle of the Czechs to regain independence does not date from the commencement of the World War, and no one knew this better than Woodrow Wilson, as can be seen in a work written by him as early as 1889, “The State.” The Hapsburg emperors ruled over the lands of the Bohemian crown as kings of Bohemia. Further, the preamble to the Treaty of St.Germain—I have before me the Czech text—speaks of the severance of the connection between the nations of Bohemia and Moravia and the other lands of Austria-Hungary, and of the desires of the nations thereof and of Slovakia to unite in an independent state, and of the recognition already accorded by the Powers to the Czechoslovak republic. Thus we are confronted with considerations of history with a vengeance, despite Mr. Hermann Goering’s recent ravings about an “uncultured splinter.” Bohemia was an independent state before Germany was even a geographical expression, and long before the rise of France, and even of England, as national states.

Historical facts have been distorted in order to put a better face upon the Pact of Munich, one of the most immoral deals of history, and legends have sprung up by the dozen concerning the rise of Czechoslovak independence. Grave harm has come to Czechoslovakia from a belief that its revival was chiefly due to the dexterous diplomacy of two very mortal men, Messrs. Masaryk and Benes. No one will deny that they labored industriously abroad, but a belief that a state can be created, and even organized from a distance of thousands of miles—from Paris and from Washington— evinces a great lack of appreciation of historical processes.

Upon the outbreak of the World War Czechs and Slovaks living abroad began the organization of a movement for Czech independence. The nuclei of Czech legions appear in Russia in the winter of 1914 and in France only a little later. The epic march of Czechoslovak legions across Siberia in 1918, one hundred thousand strong, is one of the striking facts of history, and was of such help to the Allies that, on September 11, 1918, Mr. Lloyd George sent a telegram of congratulation to Mr. Masaryk which concluded: “Your nation has rendered inestimable service to Russia and to the Allies in their struggle to free the world from despotism. We shall never forget it.” How long-lived was the gratitude so promised!

When the legions appeared in Siberia, and elsewhere, it became necessary to recognize their political head, the Czechoslovak National Council, and this was done by the French on June 30, 1918, by the British on August 9, 1918, and by the United States on September 3, 1918.

Woodrow Wilson did not overestimate his personal share in these developments. I was received by the War President at the White House on September 9, 1918, shortly after recognition of the Czechoslovak National Council as a de facto government. Mr. Wilson remarked: “Throughout the war, by your entire course of conduct, and by your legions, you have shown you demand independence, and we have merely recognized an accomplished fact.” An accomplished fact!

To charge Wilson, as Germans and even others so frequently do, with ignorance or gullibility with regard to problems arising from the Great War, is offensive nonsense. To attribute Wilson’s position to the influence of T. G. Masaryk, is plainly silly. Wilson was not susceptible to such influences; and the contacts of Masaryk and Wilson were meager. The two never met before the War, and in 1918 they had exactly two rather long conferences, one in June, when Masaryk came to Washington from Russia, and the second in November, when Masaryk went to the White House to bid Mr. Wilson farewell. Masaryk was already president-designate of a republic established in Prague during his absence from his native land. I know, for I was, at the time, Masaryk’s secretary.

There are all sorts of fairy tales concerning declarations of Czechoslovak independence in Washington and Philadelphia, and even in Pittsburgh, while Masaryk was in the United States, where he had come after the Czechs and Slovaks of America had created formidable organizations and raised large sums of money to finance the movement. Mr. Benes never was in the United States.

What happened in Philadelphia, in September, 1918, was a meeting participated in by representatives of various Austro-Hungarian nationalities, Mr. Masaryk presiding. The pronouncements there adopted were in the nature of a program and declaration of determination, valuable and perhaps impressive to the public, but no more than that. It is true that a so-called Declaration of Independence was issued in Washington by Mr. Masaryk on October 18, 1918; but that was something of a tactical move to forestall the death-bed machinations of the Vienna government. It is interesting to note that Mr. Masaryk coupled the October declaration with a radical and social program, and it is this that has led to another fairy tale—a claim that the Czechoslovak constitution was formulated in Washington. Many points of this program were not embodied in the Constitution, and Mr. Masaryk made no attempt to have them so embodied; the real Constitution was formulated in Prague by a committee of five and promulgated by a National Assembly after months of deliberation.

Assertions that the Czechoslovak state was born in Pittsburgh on May 30,1918, are equally false. I am one of the signers of the document formulated there; that instrument had reference to the future organization of the republic, envisaging something in the nature of a federal state with a large measure of autonomy for the historical divisions of the Czech lands, with Slovakia possessing the same measure of self-government. Even then I called Masaryk’s attention to the fact that on American soil we could not attempt to predetermine the future governmental scheme of the country. Masaryk signed, however, and the rest of us had no choice after that. Legal force the pact did not have, of course, but it did possess moral significance. The provisions of the so-called Treaty have now been carried out under stress of tragic circumstances.

Throughout the war there was a whole series of declarations and demands for independence. The first such declaration, signed by Masaryk, but not by Benes, then still in Prague, was issued on November 15, 1915, from Paris; and I am one of its signers, too, but I would be the last to contend that this manifesto, issued by a committee of Czechs and Slovaks living abroad, marked the birthday of the republic.

The real and effective declaration, accompanied by organization of a functioning government, came in the city of Prague on October 28, 1918, and was made by men on the spot, with extraordinary courage — because they did not know whether or not they would be hanged the next day by Austro-Hungarian officials who at that particular moment still had at their disposal regiments of Austro-German and Magyar soldiery. These men, led by the late former Prime Minister Svehla, the first Minister of Finance, Dr. Alois Rasin, and George Stribrny, for many years a member of successive cabinets, equal in merit the first two presidents of the republic in founding the state.

Czechoslovak independence was not a gift of magnanimous powers, who therefore could take away what they gave. It will also be clear that the Czechoslovak state was established upon a much firmer foundation than the diplomacy of individuals, and that, by the same token, dismemberment of the republic cannot make for permanent peace.


It is said that it was a violation of the principle of self-determination when there were retained the ancient boundaries of Bohemia, a territory partially, though not wholly, inhabited by Germans and one which never was a part of Germany. These boundaries were a thousand years old, fixed by nature herself, and the good King Wenceslas ruled over this territory before there was any such thing as German, French, or English national spirit. So I deny that this constituted a violation of the principle of self-determination. To organize a state without providing it with the needs of existence, would be to create a hollow shell and to make a farce of the very principle of nationality. Even Mr. Hitler has admitted that nowhere in Central Europe—probably nowhere in Europe, for let us remember Alsace—can boundary lines be drawn without including other nationalities.

When Czechoslovakia was sometimes spoken of as a state of nationalities, we were confronted with one of those inaccuracies that only the thoughtless or designing indulge in. The German minority consisted largely of Czechs Germanized under former Austrian rule, but in any event it was not a nationality, but a minority. If that is not so, how many German nationalities are there? The same rule would apply to German minorities elsewhere, in Poland, Lithuania, Italy, even in France, and for that matter, in Switzerland.

Minorities are entitled to full civil, political, and cultural rights, which, by the way, do not prevail in Hitler’s Germany. There is a maxim to the effect that one who comes into a court of equity must come with clean hands, and another, that the one who seeks equity must do equity!

At no time was there a denial of rights of minorities in Czechoslovakia. The best test of this is school facilities. The Germans had the following institutions maintained from state funds raised by general taxation: one university, two high technological institutes, seventy-three gymnasia and secondary schools, ten normal institutes, five hundred vocational schools, six hundred continuation schools (for apprentices), four hundred and forty-six so-called city schools (several grades beyond primary schools, but not preparing for universities), three thousand two hundred and eighty-one primary schools, seven hundred kindergartens.

The Germans were fully represented in Parliament, having seventy-two deputies and a proportionate number in the Senate, a smaller body, where they used their own language. They controlled exclusively a number of municipalities which they used as a base for irredentist agitation. They had numerous papers, which in treasonable propaganda had considerable freedom.

During the summer of 1938 the British sent to Prague the so-called Runciman mission which was to mediate between the government and the German minority, a unique international phenomenon—a foreign power “mediating” between the government of a state and its citizens! Lord Runciman, always under suspicion that his mission was sent to find justification for what was ultimately done, with the exception of meeting a few Czech officials, limited his contacts entirely to the Germans, spending week-ends with members of the German nobility who had not forgiven the republic for its enlightened measures of land reform. Yet even the Runciman mission was unable to find, much as it wanted to find, any terrorism and oppression “as such,” but did charge, as actually a sole complaint, justifying dismemberment, that the Germans did not have their proportionate share of jobs.

Just what Lord Runciman meant by the expression “as such” does not appear. Probably this is what Theodore Roosevelt used to call weasel words. A good many state services, not only military and diplomatic, but also the railroads, owned by the state and of strategic importance, require unconditional loyalty to the country, and to staff them with individuals ready to commit treason would be folly.

An alleged lack of representatives in state services was more than outweighed by the fact that German-dominated municipalities did not employ a single Czech, but on this point Lord Runciman remained silent if he ever thought of it. When even he had to admit that there was no oppression and terrorism “as such,” we have quite conclusive evidence of the utter baselessness of the charge. If considerations of nationality and history were ever disregarded, this was flagrantly done at Berchtesgaden, Munich, and Godesberg. When Great Britain and France forced upon the Czechoslovak government acquiescence in dismemberment of a country whose boundaries have stood for a thousand years, they were guilty of an act more brutal than the partitioning of Poland in the eighteenth century. Poland was dismembered by her enemies, while Czechoslovakia was dismembered with the aid of her alleged friends. Indeed, the democracies became Mr, Hitler’s executioners.

In the territories involved, there are approximately 850,000 Czechs apart from the non-Nazi Germans and, of course, the Jews, whom the mathematicians of Munich to a large extent counted as Germans. The populations involved were never consulted and the voice of a small number of violent agitators, instructed from Berlin, was pictured as the voice of the people. No provisions were made for the protection of Czechs, of non-Nazi Germans, and of the Jews in the violated territories. They were thrown to the wolves and are already experiencing the results of British and French generosity with other peoples’ territory. This is self-determination, A. D. 1938, under the Pact of Munich and after. Czechoslovakia was not even present when her fate was at stake. The alleged consent of the Prague government was extorted by threats of overwhelming force and was the result of an utterly immoral duress.

A hazy provision was made for exchange of populations. Amputated Czechoslovakia cannot absorb refugees from Sudetenland and cannot accept them, with the exception of Czechs, because it cannot afford to create a new minority problem which would inevitably again arise to plague her, However distressing all this may be, there is no alternative, and the problem must be thrown into the laps of those who created it, primarily Great Britain and France.

Now that exchange of population has been suggested by the Munich conferees, it seems that probably this is the only way of solving minority problems on a permanent basis and in such a way that minorities are not to be used as Trojan horses by aggressor states against the victims of their designs of expansion. Indeed, that step should have been taken years ago. Difficult or not, there were possibilities in the idea, and compensation could have been provided for. However, Mr. Hitler wanted the “bastion of Europe” for strategic reasons, and because of its wealth, and cared little for allegedly oppressed people, and Great Britain and France generously gave him territory which was not theirs. The lesson, nevertheless, may be stored away for the future.


France had a treaty with Czechoslovakia, promising aid in case of attack. It is mere quibbling to assert that no attack had taken place and therefore that no treaty was violated. An attack was imminent, and France, as represented by the Daladier government, notified Czechoslovakia that she would not come to her aid, and she was one of the powers that forced capitulation. Threat of force is force; threat of aggression is aggression.

Even worse, the French government, almost to the fateful last minute, continued assuring Mr. Benes that French support would be forthcoming. Only on September 18 did the French government join the British in imposing capitulation to the Nazis as recommended by Lord Runciman. Thus to violation of treaties we can add the crudest kind of deceit.

The British official circles, always pretending that whatever they do has the highest moral sanction, claim that they had no treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia. Unless they are ready to admit that the Covenant of the League of Nations is no longer in force in any shape or manner, the British disregarded Article Ten of the Covenant: to “respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing independence of all members of the League.” There was also failure to invoke provisions of Article Eleven that “any war or threat of war, whether immediately affecting any of the members of the League or not, is hereby declared a matter of concern to the whole League. . . .” Furthermore, no regard was shown for the part of Article Nineteen, italicized by me, declaring that the Assembly of the League “may from time to time advise the reconsideration by members of the League of treaties which have become inapplicable and the consideration of international conditions whose continuance might endanger the Peace of the World.” Thus the British and French governments stand convicted before the bar of history as treaty breakers. They also stand convicted as violators of international law. Evidence is accumulating that Berchstesgaden, Munich, and Godesberg were nothing but a bit of stage management to obtain, by fear of war, the sanction of public opinion for an act of betrayal which was contemplated from the beginning. The first and perhaps most uncomfortable witness, would be Mr. Chamberlain, himself, who would have an exceedingly hard time explaining away a remark reported by the Associated Press and which he made in Munich in these words: “I have always had in mind that if we could find peace on the Czechoslovak question, a way might be open to the appeasement of Europe.”

Peace on the Czechoslovak question without surrender, unless the alleged democracies stood firm in advance, could not come without complying with Mr. Hitler’s dictates. Mr. Chamberlain was willing to purchase what he calls appeasement, whatever the expense to Czechoslovakia and, in the end, to all of Europe, if not to the world. It is an amazing indiscretion, of course, and it is meaningless unless we assume, as we must, that the British government cared not a continental about Czechoslovakia and the betrayal so long as the sell-out did not lead to armed conflict.

Hitler would have accepted autonomy for the Germans in Czechoslovakia, and the German program until the last few days did not go beyond that; but then came Lord Runciman who reported favorably on dismemberment. This conclusion inevitably was known to Hitler before he committed himself to annexation, clearly with the full knowledge that Great Britain would not go to war, that therefore France would not meet her obligations, and that in turn Russia was not obligated to move since her treaty with Czechoslovakia was contingent upon French support.

Another strong bit of evidence was an editorial of the London Times when the crisis was already acute, favoring annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany. The Times is too influential an organ to be disregarded, and to Mr. Hitler its editorial could only mean that the governing classes of England would not oppose his plans against Czechoslovakia.

The American press served its readers well in foreshadowing what Mr. Chamberlain and his group were bent upon. As long ago as May 15, 1938, Mr. Joseph Driscoll of the New York Herald-Tribune, in a dispatch from London, reported:

Nothing seems clearer than that the British do not expect to fight for Czechoslovakia and do not anticipate that France or Russia will either. . . . Instead of cantonization, frontier revision might be advisable. This would entail moving the frontier back for some miles to divorce this outer fringe from Prague and marry it to Berlin.

Mr. Driscoll did not, probably could not, reveal his authority, but the Liberal, Mr. George Mander, in the debate following Munich, declared in Parliament that Mr. Dris-coll’s information came from the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister did not attempt to refute the accusation.

After the crisis had arisen, but before Munich, Mr. Chamberlain said in Parliament that the British would not go to war for the sake of Czechoslovakia and could do so only for larger issues. What more did Mr. Hitler need?

The fact of Czechoslovakia did involve large, indeed very large issues. Those issues were the same as the ones that arose in August, 1914. Great Britain went to war then against the hegemony of one great power, against violations of international treaties, of international law and of international morality. At least so it was proclaimed. And, oh, how the British talked of the defense of small nations! If the British were right in 1914, then Mr. Chamberlain was wrong in 1938. In 1914, Great Britain hesitated; in 1938, she not only surrendered, but, as represented by her government, entered into a conspiracy which already is costing her dearly in respect, if in nothing else. To add another item to the already existing edifice of evidence, I call attention to what was said by a responsible correspondent of the New York Times, Mr. Ferdinand Kuhn, in a dispatch from London, printed on October 17:

The truth is that the present British government wrote off Central Europe long ago provided Germany accomplished her aim by “peaceful pressure” and not by military conquest. Today British politicians turn their eyes away from Czechoslovakia as they would from some gruesome sight in the roadway. . . .

The guilt of the French government, morally speaking, is worse than that of the British, largely because Mr. Benes to the last minute relied upon France, perhaps because so faithfully, if not blindly, he had served France in the past. And France was a close ally of Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovakia could have saved herself from dismemberment by coming within the orbit of German foreign policy and acting upon the Polish proverb: “Not honorable, but healthy.” During the past few years Germany made overtures to Czechoslovakia a number of times, but Mr. Benes always rejected the offers after consulting Paris and receiving French assurances of support. Now Czechoslovakia must accommodate herself to German plans willy-nilly.

That France is little more than a tail to the British kite is proof of weakness, but does not absolve her morally or politically, especially when we bear in mind that even in France there is what is in effect a pro-German group, led by Mr. Flandin, with whom the Foreign Minister, Georges Bonnet, has been closely associated.

That the French government cannot be acquitted of guilt in what really was a gigantic conspiracy is sufficiently attested by the fact that Bonnet falsely reported in London on September 18 the purport of his conversation with the Russian Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Litvinov. The latter told him that Russia would come to the aid of Czechoslovakia if France fulfilled her treaty obligations, Russian activities being contingent upon French good faith. Bonnet claimed, however, that Litvinov told him that Russia could not come to Czechoslovakia’s aid. It was a sad day for France when her Foreign Minister stooped to assertions distorting truth, if not directly contrary to truth.

Prior to all this Bonnet, in effect, encouraged Berlin by advocating understanding with Germany in abandoning Czechoslovakia. It was reported and never denied that Bonnet told the German Ambassador in France that he favored a plebiscite in the so-called German areas.

The French General Staff informed the government that it was ready, and that it felt confident Germany could be defeated even if the struggle would be severe. Strength in the air is important, but airplanes, as Spain has shown, are an instrument of destruction and terror, but not of occupation. The attitude of Daladier and Bonnet was not, therefore, dictated by military reasons. Obviously, too, the real attitude of the Chamberlain government must have been known to the Paris Cabinet, and at least its tacit acquiescence obtained.

One must join Professor Frederick L. Schuman in concluding that there was no war crisis at any time, only an unparalleled conspiracy, and even a hoax to intimidate public opinion and to clothe with a garment of necessity as ugly an act as the history of international politics presents for a thousand years.


What are the reasons back of the contemptible maneuvering described? Only a few can even be touched upon. There is a passage in the Runciman report which clearly indicates that the British governing classes desired that Czechoslovakia conform her policy, externally as well as internally, to Nazi aims:

Those parties and persons in Czechoslovakia who have been deliberately encouraging a policy antagonistic to Czechoslovakia’s neighbors [that is, the anti-Nazi parties] should be forbidden by the Czechoslovak government to continue their agitation and that, if necessary, legal measures should be taken to bring such agitation to an end.

Thus we have a representative of the alleged British democracy recommending suppression of political parties and destruction of civil and political liberties in order to help Hitler in his designs against Russia, which Great Britain fears not only because it is a Communistic state, but because it is—Russia, and a menace in the Far East. The Russian military alliance with Czechoslovakia, and therefore with France, has vanished, and Russia stands isolated, something that British officialdom always wished for.

The cry that Czechoslovakia is an advance guard of Bolshevism was always another case of fraudulent propaganda. Communism in a land of small land owners and petits bourgeois was always out of the question; but, of course, the enlightened Czech legislation in the field of land reform, even though for compensation and not by confiscation, and social legislation of an advanced reformist type, did not sit well with British governing classes because they, as most Tories, look upon any disturbance of a status quo from which they profit, as evidence of Bolshevism. Czechoslovakia had to go even for reasons of class interests—a consideration which also governs London in its attitude toward General Franco.

When Lady Astor denied the existence of the Cliveden set, she may have been truthful in a literal sense; that the tendency exists, and is represented by the term, is unquestionably true, and it is pro-Nazi and anti-liberal. That there were many Britishers who could not appreciate the larger issues, and the ultimate menace even to the Empire, is equally true. Only now they are beginning to awaken. In the democracies the parties of the left looked helplessly on and their hesitation is best illustrated by Mr. Blum’s sigh that he is relieved but also ashamed. His relief is only temporary. The feeling of shame will remain.


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