Prague in Black
Nazi Rule and Czech Nationalism
By Chad Bryant
Harvard University Press – £16.95
As the title of this book suggests, a very decisive darkness had already descended upon much of Europe, long before the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The Munich Agreement had already delivered the Sudentland to Germany in the September of 1938 while six months later, Hitler’s troops marched (virtually) unopposed into Prague. Although Czechs outnumbered Germans thirty-to-one, Nazi leaders established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia; and as a result, it became the first non-German territory to be occupied. The tumultuous trajectory of which evolved into a complex synthesis of ever evolving policies and laws, nationalistic euphoria(s) and lost identity(s).
Not too far removed from that of the dithering, deadly confusion that was allowed to take place due to dark clouds having ‘’descended over Europe’’ (following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo) in 1914; so too was there a European political shambles aligned to that of Hitler’s openly insatiable quest for Lebensraum, prior to his unprovoked invasion of Poland in September 1939.
As Chad Bryant makes perfectly clear in the third chapter (‘Plans to Make the Czechs German’) of this altogether in-depth and highly readable study Prague in Black – Nazi Rule and Czech Nationalism, the annexation of Austria and aforementioned Munich Agreement (not to mention Kristallnacht), ought surely to have rung countless alarm bells throughout all of Europe: ‘’In the eyes of many nationalists, Germany was, borrowing from the widely popular novel by Hans Grimm, a Volk ohne Raum (a Volk without space), Hitler made the acquisition of Lebensraum central to his foreign policy objectives. References to the ‘’need for space’’ and Germany’s rightful Lebensraum abounded, first in Mein Kampf and even more often in his unpublished ’’second book,’’ written in 1928. ‘’Politics is the carrying out of a Volk’s struggle for existence,’’ he wrote. ‘’Foreign policy is the art of securing for a people the necessary quantity and quality of Lebensraum’’ ‘’I have taken it upon myself… to solve the German problem of space,’’ Hitler told his senior commanders in February 1939. ‘’Note that as long as I live this thought will dominate my entire being.’’ ‘’Germany needs 1,320,000 square kilometres of Lebensraum,’’ the Nazi propaganda sheet Volkische Beobachter proclaimed with suspicious accuracy, comparing the Volk’s spatial growth to a small child’s balloon that expands in the direction of least resistance.’’
Naturally, it’s easy to write such prophetic words with the fortunate benefit of nigh sibylline hindsight, but Bryant – who is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – has written no run-of-the-mill account of Czech social policy circa the 1930s. He has delved much deeper into the checkerboard of identities that remained so deeply embedded within the Czech psyche; to the degree that by the end of the book, one has a much clearer understanding as to why Hitler was in a position to both manipulate and distort the most innocent of differences: ‘’A healthy Volk needed to be purged of ‘’foreign’’ elements, the mentally ill, homosexuals, ‘’asocials,’’ and, most of all, Jews, who were condemned as parasites and the embodiment of everything Nazi ideology despised most. And, of course, the Volk was ‘’German,’’ perhaps the slipperiest of words in the Nazis’ vocabulary.’’
The brevity of the last statement alone, warrants the purchase of this critical and most committed of analyses.