Munich Revisited

Mussolini, Hitler and Chamberlain (with interpreter)

I have been researching Alice for over three years and still there are surprises. Little bombshells arrive from unexpected sources and I have to re-think what I have written, reconsider what I thought I knew.

Since starting the research I have discovered many letters from my father that I never imagined existed. The Unitarian Service Committee had a comprehensive archive of all the letters sent back and forth to Boston during the medical missions. Thanks to the thoroughness of the StB (Czech secret service), others were preserved by being confiscated when Alice was arrested. 

A few weeks ago, I received more letters. These had survived as a result of the censorship of the Communist authorities in Spain who were monitoring all communication to Dora, Alice’s close friend. Two of the letters were from Alice, with personal messages and the third was an enclosure from Erwin, analysing the political situation in Czechoslovakia. It was written days before the Munich Agreement. Unfortunately the letters exist only in Spanish, in the form in which they were translated by the censors, so what I now have may have suffered from the effect of two levels of translation. 

I read quite a lot about the Munich Agreement and thought I understood its devastating effect on the people of Czechoslovakia. Reading my father’s letter was a different experience. He was writing on the 16th of September 1938, a day after the attempted coup by the German National party in the Sudeten land, the region bordering Germany. Chamberlain had flown to Germany to meet Hitler and in the letter Erwin speculates on the possible outcome of the negotiations.

The first part of the letter concentrates on the mood in the country, he writes: “We are not afraid of anything…. we will not let ourselves be subjugated by German fascism. … all the Czechoslovak people are determined to defend themselves.” He emphasises the unity felt by all wings of political opinion: populists, communists, social democrats, capitalists and agrarians. The only exception being those of German heritage who had supported the coup.  He compares the resolve of the Czechs to that of the Spanish, “the Czechoslovak people will fight exactly like the Spanish.”

Erwin’s pride in his country shines out of every word he writes. All recognise that war is inevitable: women and children are moving inland from the border regions and everyone is stocking up on food and provisions. He is confident that the coup has been suppressed and that “tomorrow there will be complete order throughout the Republic.”

In the second half of the letter Erwin reflects on the likely outcome of the talks between Hitler and Chamberlain. He sees England (sic) as the key to future events and analyses the position in which she finds herself, equally threatened by the rise of socialism on the one side and the imperialism of the new fascist states on the other. “England is equally afraid of the victory from the bloc of which it is a part, but at the same time of the enemy bloc.” Which was the worse outcome for England? Communism or fascism? 

Erwin knows that Chamberlain is in Germany to strike a deal and is all too aware that Czechoslovakia may be the pawn in the negotiations. He writes, “we will be the sacrifice of this deal” and immediately after having written those words, he adds, “I am convinced that is impossible.” It was an outcome too dreadful to contemplate. The letter ends trying to balance these competing scenarios imagining “a situation of compromise.. which will preserve our independence for now” but which may only bring a “temporary salvation”. 

By the end he is not even sure that capitalism itself will survive the crisis and he fears the world may be faced with a binary choice between German fascism and Soviet Communism. In the event of that choice, even he would choose the latter. “Holy God!” he exclaims at the prospect. 

So much of this letter is fascinating, including its final sentiments. Bearing in mind Erwin’s antipathy to communism, it was nevertheless a better alternative than fascism. What he had not contemplated was the agreement over the Sudetenland, the borderlands between Czechoslovakia and Germany. The country’s military defences were all situated in those lands as were the majority of its armaments factories. The Czech people may have been ready to fight to defend their country,  but the Munich Agreement removed not only the hope of any allies coming to their aid, but their own means of defence. 

Reading Erwin’s words of hope and determination to defend his country, twisted my heart. When he wrote them he believed it might still be possible. He couldn’t know that within a few weeks, he would make arrangements to leave his home forever. As part of the Munich Agreement, Slovakia was given autonomous status and its government, supportive of Nazi Germany, was in the hands of the Slovak National Party, led by Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest who would become notorious for war crimes. He would ensure that Slovak Jews were among the first to be transported to Auschwitz. 

Although the immediate future would be worse than Erwin could have imagined, in the end the fascists did not win and the binary choice was between the Western democracies and Communism – a choice that, after the war, would face Czechoslovakia and Erwin himself. He chose the West, knowing that it would mean losing Alice forever.