Earlier this year the Czech Republic marked the 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, signed in September 1938 by the leaders of Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy, resulting in the annexation of the Sudetenland by Nazi Germany. David Vaughan recently published a book in the UK titled “Hear My Voice”, most of which is set in Czechoslovakia in the months preceding the Munich agreement. Its narrator is an interpreter for the international press corps in Prague and he watches the events of 1938 unfold in Central Europe as the atmosphere is getting tenser ahead of the outbreak of the Second World War. Pavla Horáková spoke to David Vaughan and their conversation begins with a few paragraphs from the book.
“I did not join them for the initial talks with Runciman, but when
two delegations went to the bar later, minus the teetotal Viscount, I was
with them. For the British side it was Stopford and Ashton-Gwatkin who did
most of the talking.
It was an odd experience. Kundt, who always managed to sound reasonable and moderate, despite his little Hitler moustache, outlined the differences between his party’s stance and that of the Czechoslovak government.
“The government thinks only in terms of a Czechoslovak national state.”
He went on to paint a picture of a second Switzerland, basking in the Central European sun. “What we want to create is a state of nationalities.” It was all talk of autonomy, respect and recognition. As I translated, I couldn’t stop thinking about the gulf between these words and the version of the future I had heard from Kundt’s party boss a week earlier amid the crowds in Breslau. He handed out more copies of the Karlsbad demands, and ordered another round of beer.
The party broke into smaller groups, each trying out their language skills – Ashton-Gwatkin remembered his German nanny, who apparently taught the children quite the wrong accent. He tried it out, to much hilarity. A couple of beers later, Kundt cornered Stopford and launched into a monologue which took a distinctly Teutonic air. Words came thick and fast: Volksgemeinschaft and Führerprinzip, and then, as he focused on his dreams for the Sudetenland, it was all Rechtspersönlichkeit and Siedlungsgebiet. Stopford looked to me for help and I was quite literally lost for words. These words could not be translated, and it was not just a question of language. They came from a different planet, but it was a planet that was drawing us into its orbit at a great speed.”
“It’s a subject that I’ve devoted a great deal of time to over the last decade. I’m fascinated by the period because it was a time when everything was in a state of flux. There were competing versions of reality trying to gain the upper hand in Europe, and people were trapped, more and more losing their sense of orientation – where they were, where they belong, what’s going to happen. And, of course, with the rise of Hitler, everything became increasingly warped. Suddenly, there was a regime in the centre of Europe, representing over 80 million people, who were living under an alternative reality – to use a term from our own time. The regime wasn't bothered with present truth. The idea that held the whole Nazi regime together was that of ‘making Germany great again’ and that meant changing reality in order to create their own future reality. That was what has really come to fascinate me over the years because it had such frightening implications for everybody else outside that bubble, people who were somehow having to accommodate this juggernaut, this ideological machine which was trying to suppress all other versions of the truth and all complexities.”
“Yes, I mean radio was very new at the time. You have to bear in mind that until the early 1920s it hadn’t even existed, at least not in the form that people could actually buy a radio set and listen to the radio at home. And it was only by the mid-1930s that people would have a radio set at home or at least they would have access to a radio through their local pub or their local sports club. It was revolutionary, because suddenly you could hear voices from around the world, reaching you at the speed of light, and you were no longer restricted also to your local, or to your national environment. There were all sorts of other influences. You could suddenly hear what your politicians sounded like, you could even hear what politicians from the other end of the world sounded like. But it left you with a great deal of uncertainty. It was a new medium and it soon became clear that it could be used both as a tool for democracy and by people who wanted to manipulate public opinion. Because for the first time you had a mass audience that you could address simultaneously, and it could be used both to inform and to whip up passion or hatred.”
“That’s right. Czechoslovak Radio’s international services began in the mid-1930s and they were an important part of the whole environment of propaganda and counterpropaganda that we had in Europe. And the reason why they came into being was because Goebbels in Germany had already established a very effective propaganda machine. People internationally and also within Czechoslovakia were being exposed to his propaganda. This was particularly dangerous in the mainly German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia where the successive Czech governments had underestimated the need to address the German speaking populace of the country. So people were listening to Germany, and initially Austria as well, but by 1938 Austria had also been swallowed up by Germany. So it ended up with a situation where people were living physically in Czechoslovakia but in terms of where they got their news from, where they got their entertainment from, they were already virtually in the Reich.”
At one point one of the characters says: “Technology is changing our lives: Words are flying through the air with the power of a thousand bombers.” Those words are the words of propaganda, carefully crafted slander. Today we would call it fake news or hoax. You already mentioned what role it played then but is there a lesson to be learned for our time?
“I think there’s a lesson to be learned for any time in terms of what happens when even just a handful of influential politicians decide that current reality is a mistake, a historical or an ideological mistake. People start saying that borders are where they are but they shouldn’t be, because this is a historical mistake. Therefore we are quite legitimate in changing them. That is something that we saw in the 1930s. And that is highly dangerous because it leads to a disintegration of collective security, to a breakdown of a sense of what world we are living in. It created space for politicians who didn’t believe that international diplomacy should involve debate, discussion and persuasion, but who felt that because the reality was wrong, you were justified by any means to change it, including lying, including the threat of violence, including the reality of violence. It was a very Machiavellian approach to politics and to diplomacy and I think we are seeing more of this at the present time than in recent years. Although it always comes and goes. The frightening thing is that, historically, it’s tended to lead to wars.”
“I deliberately made the narrator a somewhat empty character and a character who’s a kind of receptacle to all the influences and pressures around him and who finds it very hard not to be swallowed up by them. I think that the fact that he has three languages plays a role. And a large role is played by the fact that he’s from a family that has suffered material hardship, his father died when he was young and he hasn’t grown up with privilege, so he’s uncertain, he’s unsure. He’s also not even twenty, so he’s still very young. So I wouldn’t blame him for too much. But it is interesting that the moment the different nationalities or different language environments that he comes from start representing different ideological worlds, then suddenly he is trapped - confronted as we saw in the short scene that we heard at the beginning, with a conflict of worlds that are incompatible. And yet, it’s quite possible to live between nations and between languages – I know it myself, because I do and my family lives in three different languages and it’s not a problem – but if something happens where that is called into question or delegitimized or somebody claims the language for themselves and says this is the world that you should be living in and tries to force reality into that world, then you find yourself – unless you’ve got an immense inner moral strength, or inner moral resources, getting disorientated and lost. And that happens not just to this particular character but I think it also happens to another, to a real historical figure in the book who is the Roman Catholic priest, Father Reichenberger. His life history is much more interesting, I think, than the slightly boring story of the narrator. Because he really goes off the rails and becomes someone completely different.”
“He’d be a very interesting figure for a biography, Father Reichenberger. I haven’t got the time and space to tell his story here but I hinted at it in the book. Towards the end of the book, there’s a scene which I hope is rather unnerving, where the narrator and the priest who is his old friend meet again after the war but the priest has changed. He suddenly sees the villains of the Second World War in the Czechs and the Jews. He has adopted the whole discourse of Hitler himself, which is very, very frightening because before the war he was one of the few people in the Sudetenland who really saw the danger of what was happening, that Hitler was swallowing up, abusing and distorting public opinion in the Sudetenland to reach his own ends.”
“I owe a great debt to Sydney Morrell. I also used a huge number of audio sources from the archives of Czech Radio and other radio archives. I already knew them well because I’d written one book, ‘Battle for the Airwaves’, a history book looking at the role of radio in the run-up to the Munich crisis and the Second World War. So I was familiar with these different archive recordings and the voices of the different protagonists. I’d become completely absorbed by it and I’d realized that when you listen, you get drawn into the time in a way. Because you hear every breath, you can sense the mood, the hope or the fear, and you can sense the atmosphere of the time. Also, there were many people following the events of the time: Czechs, Americans, Germans, people from Britain, from all over the world. Many of them were journalists, so there are lots and lots of biographies, autobiographies, reports, which give you both the official story, the diplomatic story – which is interesting itself but which I didn’t want to tell – but which also give you a kind of blow by blow account of how people experienced the events of the time. And I think that’s important because if you’re talking about propaganda and you don’t talk about its impact on ordinary people, on the people who are actually stuck in the middle of it, you can’t really tell the story. Which was also my justification for writing a novel instead of a history book.”
“Well, I should start probably by saying this book started as a Czech book. I wrote it originally in Czech with a lot of help from native speakers. It came out as ‘Slyšte můj hlas’ and once I’d written it, I had the confidence to do an English version and to approach a British publisher. I sent the manuscript to publishers called Jantar who publish a lot of Czech and Slovak fiction. The director read it and was immediately enthusiastic and said yes, I’d love to bring it out. So then I began the process of editing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again because it was for a different readership. So I had to rewrite a lot of things and also I suddenly had the liberation of writing in my own language, which made it much easier to write between the lines. The book came out – we had an initial launch – at the end of September 2018 which was the eightieth anniversary of the signing of the infamous Munich agreement and we’ve just had a launch in Prague. The book is available online and also in some bookshops, certainly in Prague and hopefully, before long, it will also be available in bookshops in other parts of the world.”