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World War II

After six months of the "Second Republic" - as the old Czechoslovakia, minus its border regions, was known - Bohemia and Moravia were occupied by the Nazis. Slovakia had ceded from Czechoslovakia the day before - on March 14, 1939 - to form an "independent" Nazi state, and thus very short work indeed was made of the former Czechoslovakia.

Overnight, everyone had to start driving on the right side of the road (they had previously driven on the left, as the British still do).

The Czechoslovak President, Edvard Benes, and other government politicians had already fled abroad - mostly to France and to Britain. (Those that were in France went to Britain when France was occupied). These leaders' political campaign to represent Czechoslovakia's interests was an uphill battle at first, as western European powers still favored the policy of appeasement at that time.

By July 1940, however, Britain recognized President Benes as the leader of the provisional "free Czechoslovak government in exile." In addition to the London center of the provisional government, the Moscow Communist center - where politicians who favored the Soviet political system had fled - also played an important role in the Czechoslovak resistance movement during the war. Unfortunately, many of the Czechs and Slovaks who had chosen to go to Moscow spent at least part of the war years in Russian Gulags as suspected spies. Czechoslovak pilots in England's RAF were particularly distinguished fighters (even if they were initially segregated from regular troops for the same reason) and they would play a fundamental role in the Battle of Britain - but we are getting ahead of ourselves yet again. Czechoslovak army units were also formed in France and in North Africa.

On October 28, 1939 - which would have been the 21st anniversary of the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence had Czechoslovakia not ceased to exist - popular celebrations turned into massive demonstrations of protest against the German occupation. A young medical student, Jan Opletal, was fatally wounded in the incident. His funeral, on November 17, 1939 turned into yet another spontaneous demonstration. (Fifty years later, on November 17, 1989, a march by students to commemorate this event helped bring about the fall of Communism). In 1939, the Nazis reacted to the student demonstration by sentencing nine student leaders to death, by closing the Czech universities, and by sending some 1,200 university students to concentration and labor camps.

The Nazi regime was very cruel and strict, and active resistance was harshly punished. Not surprisingly, then, the Czech and Slovak resistance movements were small. Yet they were very dedicated, very determined, and often surprisingly successful, especially in the field of sabotage.

During the war, Czechoslovak army units fighting abroad often parachuted foreign-trained Czech and Slovak soldiers into occupied Czech territory to perform special assignments. The most significant of these special assignments was the assassination, in 1942, of Reinhard Heidrich - the German Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the architects of the "Final Solution."

His assassination by two Czechoslovak parachutists on May 27, 1942 set off a reign of terror throughout the Czech lands. Martial law was declared and the Nazis conducted house-to-house searches looking for the parachutists and the members of the Czech resistance movement who had helped them. More than 1,600 people were executed and more were sent to concentration camps in the period immediately following the assassination. The terror reached its height with the annihilation of the village of Lidice, where 339 men were executed and the women and children of the village were sent to concentration camps. A few weeks later, the village of Lezaky, where the Nazis killed 54 men, women and children, was also razed to the ground. By the time this terror - known as the "Heydrichiada" - was over, the Nazis had damaged the resistance movement so much that it was only able to resume its activities at the very end of the war.

The resistance movements in Czechoslovakia culminated in the Slovak National Uprising of 1944 - which was brutally put down - and in the Prague Uprising in the Czech lands in May of 1945 - which started just a few days before foreign armies arrived to officially liberate the city.

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