IN THE BOA’S GAZE
On Saturday, 12 March 1938, the Czechoslovak ambassador in London, Jan Masaryk, called on Lord Halifax, who had recently been appointed foreign secretary. The situation was urgent: as they met, German troops were marching through Austrian territory and toward Vienna. Hitler had finally launched the Anschluss, his long-planned annexation of Germany’s smaller Alpine neighbor, and in the night his armies had crashed through the German–Austrian border. The European chancelleries were yet to react, and it remained unclear what ramifications the attack might have. That these involved Czechoslovakia, whether as participant in a hypothetical intervention, merely as an interested observer of what went on beyond its southern frontier, or as the target of a further German advance, was not in doubt. Masaryk was concerned that this was only a first step. His hope was to convince his interlocutor to deal with Hitler firmly and ward off any attempts against his own country.
Halifax: “I have learnt a lot in the last few days, but I don’t want to give up all hope that one day a dialogue will be possible with the Germans.”
Masaryk: “Once they rule Europe, then yes—until then, only an armed dialogue is possible.”
—You think so?
—I am convinced of it.
—I am new to the job. I only perceived it from a distance before, and even when I went to Berchtesgaden, I did not realize how complicated the situation was, as I do now. I understand, though, that Goering has assured Mastný [the Czechoslovak ambassador in Berlin] that they are not planning anything against Czechoslovakia. What value do you ascribe to that?
—It is momentarily true. Even the boa constrictor, when it has eaten, needs a few weeks of digestion, and today’s feast is worthy of Lucullus.
—You are probably right. You said you need some gesture of moral support. I would very much like to help you, but I don’t know what I can do.
Halifax was a conservative peer, Eton-and Oxford-educated, whose long political career had taken in various ministerial posts but whose only overseas stint had been as viceroy of India. He owed his elevation to the desire of his prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, to retain a more direct line of control over foreign policy. His predecessor as foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, had resigned a month before under a cloud, creating a vacancy for a less experienced and therefore more amenable candidate to the post.
Masaryk embodied his small nation’s twentieth-century tribulations. The son of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, a founding figure of the republic, Jan had been a headstrong youth. Before the First World War, he had emigrated to the United States, leading a penniless existence. On his return he was drafted into the Habsburg armies, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant and earned a medal of valor. After the Great War, with his father now president of a new Czechoslovakia, Masaryk embarked with fresh energy on a diplomatic career. Thanks to his adventures in the US and a brief marriage to an American woman, he boasted a “fantastic command of any and all shades of the English language; of nuance and argot and profanity and slang in either British or American idiom.” Sometimes nicknamed the “Playboy of the Western World,” he could be at once charming, restless, and plainspoken. It is perhaps this last trait that was most apt to appeal to the hesitant but austere, high-Anglican British lord who was his interlocutor.
Czechoslovakia’s motto was “The truth prevails,” taken from the fifteenth-century religious martyr Jan Hus. “The truth prevails, but it can be such a chore,” Masaryk liked to joke. Would it prove a chore to recruit Halifax to the Czechoslovak cause? In November, still in a private capacity, he had visited Berlin and Berchtesgaden. The pretext was a hunting exhibition given in the German capital. Feted by Nazi dignitaries, the future foreign secretary had posed in front of giant pairs of antlers and reveled in the award of the nickname “Lord Halalifax,” after the hunting cry. The visit to Hitler’s mountain residence had been more awkward: the Führer, who felt a strong sympathy for animals, had raged about the hunting show and the pastime itself in equal measure and sarcastically proposed to “spare ourselves all bother and make a comradely expedition to a slaughterhouse.” Behind his back, he called his visitor “the English Parson.” Yet Halifax had at least been able to convey, privately, the message he was sent to deliver: “Danzig, Austria, Czechoslovakia […] we were not necessarily concerned to stand for the status quo as today, but we were concerned to avoid such treatment of them as would be likely to cause trouble. If reasonable settlements could be reached with the free assent and good will of those primarily concerned we certainly had no desire to block.” In other words, after twenty years of stability, the door to frontier revision stood open.
The C.zechoslovak republic was born in the last days of the First World War, as the Habsburg Empire, having sued for peace, was crumbling. On 28 October 1918, a cross-party national council took control and proclaimed independence in Prague. Revolutionary takeovers followed across the country. Two days later, the same happened in Slovakia, where another group of representatives proclaimed its union with the Czechs in the small town of Turčiansky Svätý Martin. Within a month, the merged councils had established themselves as a provisional parliament and written a constitution. Abroad, a government in exile under the philosopher and politician Tomáš Masaryk and his close associate Edvard Beneš had won Allied backing. By the end of the year, the new parliament had elected Masaryk as the republic’s first president.
At first the country depended on the Versailles Treaty for the legitimization of its borders—in particular the Slovak border, which Hungary had attacked in 1919. By 1938, though, the republic had come to rely on a network of alliances. The linchpin was a pact with France committing both parties to support the other in the event of a German attack. In 1935, Czechoslovakia had also signed a defense agreement with the Soviet Union, a condition of that treaty being that France had to honor its own obligations before the Soviets became bound to intervene.
Among its immediate neighbors, Czechoslovakia possessed poor relations with both Poland and Hungary. The Poles, though they were fellow French allies, were not benevolent. They felt that Edvard Beneš had successfully played for a better deal at Versailles, grabbing territories (especially the Silesian enclave of Teschen) that should have been theirs. Added to this crime, Czechoslovakia was guilty of hosting the liberal critics of Józef Beck, Poland’s authoritarian leader. Hungary, meanwhile, considered itself to have been even more badly despoiled by the peace of Versailles. It possessed a large irredentist community in Slovakia, and it had never ceased to favor a restoration of the Habsburg Empire.
The second set of Czechoslovak alliances, known as the Little Entente, united Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania. Originating in 1920, this bound the three states to come to each other’s aid in case of Hungarian aggression. The value of this arrangement to the Czechoslovaks was that it guarded against the emergence of a southeastern front that would have made fighting Germany far more difficult. By 1938, the Little Entente was not as solid as it had once been: a change of ruler had recently helped Yugoslavia, under the regent Prince Paul and the right-wing premier Milan Stojadinović, mend fences with the Germans and Italians. Nevertheless, it remained quite alive as a diplomatic bloc, its members conferred together regularly, and both Romania and Yugoslavia would reiterate multiple times that year their intention to intervene on the side of the Czechoslovaks in a conflict.
Czechoslovakia was otherwise united, beyond formal diplomatic ties, to Britain and France through a host of ideological, economic, and cultural bonds. The republic embraced democratic norms, practices, and values in a part of Europe from which they had well-nigh disappeared. It played an active role at the League of Nations, and even if the League had lost some of its luster, Czechoslovakia was committed to the collective security ideals to which the French and British publics remained attached. In 1935–36, Beneš had even assumed the important role of president of the League’s assembly, the debating chamber composed of the member states’ delegates.
British and French companies were significant investors in the republic. “Great Britain and France possessed by far the greatest share of direct foreign investment in Czechoslovakia, holding between them more than half of the total,” by one calculation. British companies participated in the mining and metallurgy industries, in textiles, glass, and banking. French direct investment was prominent in engineering, steel, and sugar refining. Unilever produced most of the country’s vegetable oils, alongside other food products. Prudential and British Overseas Bank were direct investors in the Czech Union Bank, and Société Générale in the Prague Credit Bank. ICI, alongside fertilizer plants, owned the largest share in Explosia, the Czechoslovak explosives manufacturer, alongside French and other investors. The London Rothschilds owned a majority in the Vítkovice steelworks, providing them with special ties to the British defense company Vickers. Even more significantly, the French firm Schneider-Creusot held major stakes in the Ostrava-Karviná mines and steel plants and in the Škoda works, Czechoslovakia’s prime armaments concern and one of the largest in Europe.
The Czechoslovak army, finally, had from its inception enjoyed close ties to the French officer corps. A cadre of forty-five officers under General Maurice Pellé had swooped into Prague in 1919 with the mission to help train and organize the Czechoslovak army. In the 1930s, the Czechoslovak high command had developed its own doctrine and plans, but a French military mission remained in Prague, and grand strategy was still agreed and shared with Paris. Many Czechoslovak soldiers and officers had originally transferred over from the Austrian imperial army, but a large contingent also came from the legion, the group of combatants who, as liberated war prisoners, had joined and fought on the Allied side in the First World War. Prague’s castle guard, which was manned by legionaries, still wore the uniforms of the armies in which it had fought in the Great War: “pale blue of French poilu, with a floppy, dark blue beret; grey green of Italy, with a felt hat upturned at one side; khaki, and a flat-topped forage cap of Imperial Russia.”
As to Germany, in the 1920s and early 30s it had actually been one of Czechoslovakia’s friendlier neighbors. Under the Weimar Republic, it was a fellow democracy and it had no claims on Czecho- slovakia, which had not been carved out of German territory. Ever since his rise to power, however, Hitler and the controlled Nazi press had only had harsh words. Czechoslovakia was a Soviet and a French ally, and it was militarily the strongest state in central Europe. The republic, industrialized and well armed, formed an obstacle to Hitler’s expansion plans. Its Little Entente stood in the way of a German drive into the southeast, with its agricultural base and Romanian oil. In November 1937, Hitler had summoned a group of his top military and foreign-policy staff and told them he planned to wage war on Austria and Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was to be destroyed. The details remained to be fleshed out, but the prize was Lebensraum, German living space, as well as food for “five or six million,” after at least two million Czechs had been resettled to Siberia or Volhynia, a marshy area in Poland.