Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Czechoslovakia

In 1938, the Republic of Czechoslovakia had the highest standard of living and was the only democracy in central Europe. It also had an intractable minorities problem that made it vulnerable to neighboring states, especially Germany. Czechoslovakia numbered about 15 million people in all, but only about 7 million—not even a majority of the population—were Czechs. Three million were Germans, 2.5 million were Slovaks, and 1 million were Hungarians. In addition, there were about a half million Ukrainians living in Ruthenia and also a number of Poles.

Czechoslovakia had been formed at the end of World War I from a union of Bohemia and Moravia, which had long been part of Austria, and Slovakia, which had been part of Hungary. The 1919 Paris Peace Conference awarded it Ruthenia, in order to provide a land connection with Romania. With Romania and Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia formed the so-called Little Entente. In addition, the Czechs had a firm alliance with France as well as one of Europe's most important arms-manufacturing centers in the Skoda Works at Pilsen, and it had an excellent, 400,000-man army. These facts, however, counted for little when the French and British, under heavy pressure from German leader Adolf Hitler at the September 1938 Munich Conference, forced the Czech government headed by President Eduard Benes to yield the Sudetenland, with a largely German population, to Germany. This area contained the natural defenses of the new state. Hungary and Poland also seized territory.

Then, on 15 March 1939, Hitler broke his pledge to respect what remained of Czechoslovakia and gathered the remainder of the state into the Reich. Acquiring it was a tremendous boost to the Germans militarily, for thirty-five highly trained and well-equipped Czech divisions disappeared from the anti-Hitler order of battle. Hitler had also eliminated the threat from what he had referred to as "that damned airfield," and the output of the Skoda arms complex would now supply the Reich's legions. In Bohemia and Moravia, the Wehrmacht absorbed 1,582 aircraft, 2,000 artillery pieces, and sufficient equipment to arm 20 divisions. Indeed, any increase in armaments that Britain and France achieved by March 1939 was more than counterbalanced by German gains in Czechoslovakia. There, the Germans secured nearly a third of the tanks they deployed in the west in spring 1940, and between August 1938 and September 1939, Skoda produced nearly as many arms as all British arms factories combined.

The Germans organized their new acquisition as the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia. The Slovak lands became the Republic of Slovakia, a vassal state of Germany ruled by the Slovak People's Party, which was headed by Roman Catholic priest Monseigneur Jozef Tiso. Slovakia had declared its independence from the remainder of Czechoslovakia on 14 March. The eastern province of Ruthenia (Trans-Carpatho-Ukraine) was ceded to Hungary.

The Germans immediately disbanded the Czech military, allowing President Emile Hácha only a small ceremonial guard. Although long-term German plans for the protectorate included the removal of the Slavic population and its replacement by Germans, initial German occupation policies were much more lenient than in the remainder of central and eastern Europe, inspired by the goal of exploiting Czech industry and resources without inciting revolt. The initial occupation period was peaceful. This fact is explained by several factors: the area's proximity to the Reich proper, disillusionment with the West following the Munich Agreement, lenient German policies, and the lack of coordinated Czech resistance. Student protests against German rule in October 1939 on the anniversary of the independence of Czechoslovakia did, however, bring closure of the universities and the execution of nine students.

On 16 April 1940, Baron Konstantin Hermann Karl Neurath became Reich protector of Bohemia-Moravia, after the departure of the military governor, Generaloberst (U.S. equiv. full general) Johannes von Blaskowitz. However, Berlin became dissatisfied with Neurath's lack of harsh measures to curb protests, and on 27 September 1941, he was replaced by the head of the Reich Security Office, Reinhard Heydrich. The latter declared martial law and carried out a series of arrests that destroyed the leadership of the student protesters and other Czech national opposition.

On 27 March 1942, a group of British-trained Czech commandos ambushed Heydrich's car in Prague and mortally wounded him; he died on 4 June. The Gestapo then instituted a wave of terror during a period of martial law that lasted until July and included the destruction of the villages of Lidice and Lezaky and the deaths of most of their inhabitants. On 20 August 1943, Wilhelm Frick was appointed Reich protector. However, Hans Frank, Reich minister of state for Bohemia and Moravia, exercised real authority. The level of active Czech resistance remained relatively low and consisted chiefly of providing intelligence information.

President Benes had gone abroad in October 1938, and he established a Czech government-in-exile, first in Paris and then in London. In the summer of 1942, he secured official British and Free French repudiation of the 1938 Munich Agreement. But Benes stressed accommodation with the Soviet Union, and he traveled to Moscow to sign a formal treaty of alliance with the Soviets on 18 July 1941. He sought a democratic, independent Czechoslovakia that would be a bridge between East and West.

During the war, the Czech government-in-exile contributed an armored brigade to the Allied cause—some 5,000 men who fought with British forces in the Normandy Campaign. Czech pilots participated in the 1940 Battle of Britain, and four Czech squadrons (three fighter and one bomber) served with the Royal Air Force during the war. Czech military units were also formed on Soviet territory, including, by the summer of 1943, the 1st Czechoslovak Parachute Brigade of some 2,500 men. The 2nd Czechoslovak Parachute Brigade was formed in 1944, and it participated in an uprising in Slovakia against the government there in August 1944. Czech military units in the Soviet Union ultimately established the I Czechoslovakian Corps, which distinguished itself in the fighting to cross the Carpathian Mountains. The Soviets also formed the 1st Czechoslovakian Fighter Regiment, which evolved into the 1st Czechoslovakian Air Division by the end of the war.

On 5 May 1945, a general uprising occurred in Bohemia and Moravia against the Germans, centered on a rising in the city of Prague as Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front approached from the east and U.S. Lieutenant General George S. Patton's Third Army drove on the capital from the west. The Czech government-in-exile appealed to Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower for assistance, but he refused to allow Patton to intercede. The Germans reinforced with two divisions, but they had no tanks or artillery and were halted by General Andrei Vlasov's 1st Division, which had deserted from the Germans. On 9 May, Vlasov's troops cleared the remaining Germans from Prague, taking some 10,000 prisoners. The next day, Konev's troops entered the city. The Germans formally surrendered on 11 May. During the war, an estimated 350,000 people in the protectorate died as a result of the German occupation.

Meanwhile, Tiso's Slovak People's Party ruled Slovakia. Tiso's wartime independent Slovak government was dominated by fascist, anti-Czech, anti-Semitic elements, represented by personalities such as Karol Sidor and Alexander Mach, who were supported by a paramilitary organization known as the Hlinka Guards. The war stimulated economic growth in Slovakia, and on 24 November 1940, Slovakia signed the Anti-Comintern and Tripartite Pacts. Its military commitment to the Axis was two divisions, comprising some 50,000 men. Slovakia adopted a resettlement program for its Jewish population in August 1940, and it enacted a Nuremberg-type Jewish code on 10 September 1941. An uprising by Slovaks against the Tiso government was crushed by German military intervention in the form of 40,000 troops by October, the Soviets being unable to provide military assistance to the resistance. At the end of the war, Tiso's government retreated with German forces into Austria in April 1945, and Tiso surrendered there to U.S. forces on 8 May 1945. Benes's cherished hopes of an independent democratic Czechoslovakia after the war were not realized. In 1948, the Communists seized power in the country.

Neville Panthaki and Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Dolezal, Jiri. Czechoslovakia's Fight: Documents on the Resistance Movement of the Czechoslovak People, 1938–1945. Prague: Publishing House of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, 1964.; Korbel, J. Twentieth-Century Czechoslovakia: The Meanings of Its History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.; Mamatey, V., and R. Luza, eds. A History of the Czechoslovak Republic, 1918–1948. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.; Mastny, Vojtech. The Czechs under Nazi Rule: The Failure of National Resistance, 1949–1942. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.; Prazmovska, Anita. Eastern Europe and the Origins of the Second World War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
 

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