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Munich and After

After the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in early 1938, the fear of a similar fate increased in Czechoslovakia; the authorities, however, were determined to fight rather than to submit quietly as the Austrians had done. President Benes ordered a partial mobilization, and the country began to prepare for the war that appeared to be inevitable. At that time, treaties pledged French, British, and Soviet aid to Czechoslovakia, but at Munich in September Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain and Premier Edouard Daladier of France capitulated to Hitler's demands and agreed to sacrifice Czechoslovakia in exchange for the peace promised by Hitler. Because the Soviet Union's pledge depended on whether or not France abided by its commitment, Czechoslovakia was left without allies. Hitler promised at Munich to take only the Sudetenland, but less than six months later, on March 15, 1939, German troops marched into Prague. Bohemia and Moravia became a Nazi protectorate; Slovakia was granted a measure of autonomy but, in effect, became a puppet state (see The War Years, 1939-45 , ch. 1). The Czechoslovak army, which could have mobilized as many as thirty divisions, was disarmed and disbanded.

During the occupation of the Czech lands, acts of resistance and sabotage were met with vicious reprisals. Persecution became particularly severe under Reinhard Heydrich, who was appointed Reich protector of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941. Less than nine months later Heydrich, who had previously been deputy to the infamous Heinrich Himmler, was assassinated by two Czechoslovak commandos who had been trained in Britain and parachuted into their homeland to carry out the mission. Nazi retribution was swift and frightful. The village of Lidice, selected as the target for punishment, was completely obliterated. All male inhabitants over age sixteen were shot, all women were sent to concentration camps, and all children were sent to German orphanages. Even Lidice, however, did not end Czechoslovak resistance (see Czech Resistance , ch. 1).

In Slovakia conditions were little better for the average citizen than in the Czech lands. Despite its ostensible position as an autonomous state administered by Slovaks, this puppet state had quickly taken on the characteristics of a police state, and the occupying forces pressed the Germanization of the people. All opposition was suppressed, and before long underground resistance groups arose as they had in Bohemia and Moravia. The various Slovak resistance forces coalesced into a single command and staged the Slovak National Uprising from August through October 1944. Although unsuccessful, this uprising was one of the most significant rebellions in Nazi-occupied Europe (see Slovak Resistance , ch. 1).

In addition to those fighters who devoted their energies to the resistance movements in various parts of the country, many other Czechoslovaks escaped abroad to join Allied armed forces or to form all-Czechoslovak units. Various contingents, including the First Czechoslovak Corps under the command of General Ludvik Svoboda, fought alongside Soviet formations as they liberated eastern Europe. However, these forces arrived in Slovakia too late to relieve the resistance units, which suffered heavy losses during the Slovak National Uprising. In western Europe, a Czechoslovak infantry brigade and three air squadrons accompanied the British forces in the invasion of the continent.

President Benes, in the meanwhile, had spent most of the war years in London. In March 1945 he traveled to Moscow for negotiations about the program and composition of the new Czechoslovak government that would be formed as the country was liberated. The town of Kosice in eastern Slovakia was designated as a temporary capital, and the Kosice Program, which outlined a detailed plan for government, was published there. Eight key governmental posts were designated to be filled by members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunisticka strana Ceskoslovenska--KSC), including the Ministry of National Defense, which was put under the charge of Svoboda. The government moved from Kosice to Prague on May 10, 1945, and, as defense minister, Svoboda began organizing the armed forces along Soviet lines as agreed to in the Kosice Program. Svoboda, a genuine war hero, had fought in both world wars. As a twenty-year-old conscript in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1915, he had been sent to the Russian front, where he deserted and joined the forces that eventually became the Czechoslovak Legion. After returning to civilian life briefly in the early 1920s, Svoboda joined the new army and spent the rest of his life in service, which included the presidency of the republic from 1968 to 1975.

As World War II neared its end in 1945, the American Third Army under the command of General George S. Patton was in Czechoslovakia near Plzen (Pilsen) and was fully capable of liberating Prague, but prior political arrangements had reserved that highly symbolic act for the Red Army. Over four decades later, Czechoslovak citizens were still frequently reminded that the Red Army had paid a high price in lives and wealth to secure their freedom from the Nazis. They were constantly told that they owed an everlasting debt of gratitude to their liberators. That many in the Czechoslovak Legion died fighting alongside Russian soldiers in Russia during World War I was rarely publicized.

The armed forces that Svoboda began to rebuild in 1945 were heavily influenced by the Soviet forces in which many Czechoslovaks had served, including many officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) who had become members of the KSC. Svoboda had not yet become a party member, although he certainly sympathized with the Soviet cause, and approximately one-third of his top commands were held by communist generals. That communist officers had taken over the posts of troop education officers at all levels, almost without exception, was perhaps of even greater significance. In the election of 1946, military garrisons voted heavily for the communist candidates. Because of the intense political activism of the communists, however, antagonism arose between the communist-influenced officers from the eastern front and those air force officers from the western front who had been based in London during the war. These two groups constituted the bulk of armed forces personnel in the early postwar period.

Data as of August 1987

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