One of the most dramatic - but least known - events in Czechoslovak Radio’s history dates back to September 21 1938. This was the day that the government announced that it was willing to succumb to German pressure, and would give up large areas of the country’s borderlands to Nazi Germany. By this time it was clear that Britain and France would not be willing to fight for Czechoslovakia’s territorial integrity, and that to say no would mean invasion. The announcement sent a shockwave through Czech society, and immediately thousands took to the streets in protest.
Our archives include a description of the atmosphere in Prague by the British journalist, Jonathan Griffin, who was later to become the wartime head of European intelligence at the BBC.
“Everyone who took part, turned out into the streets in order to show somehow, as best they could, one thing: that they would rather fight and die for their republic, even if the cause were completely hopeless. That was the sole aim of this rising of the Czechoslovak people.”
The crowd knew where they were heading.
“A crowd burst into the Prague broadcasting station, breaking a little glass in the process, but once inside, did it loot and smash, as a revolutionary mob would have done? No. All it asked was to be allowed to speak through the microphone to the peoples of the world, to explain to them that it would rather die than yield, and to ask for a government composed of its beloved soldiers.”
As the veteran Czech broadcaster, Miloslav Disman later remembered, the crowd had heard the bad news of the government’s decision through the airwaves, and therefore they felt that “it was through the airwaves that the decision could be reversed.”
Dozens broke into the radio building here on Vinohradská Street, and eventually the programme editor, who himself could understand only too well the anger of the crowd, allowed a small group to approach the microphone.
A man – to this day we don’t know who he was - appealed for Czechoslovakia to be allowed to fight, and for a military government to be set up. He was clearly not used to the microphone and his words drifted sometimes incoherently from subject to subject, but the message was more than clear:
“We appeal to all Czechs, Slovaks and Germans living in our Czechoslovak Republic, to await the next decision of the people, who are demanding on all fronts that the territory which we have built up and lived on for centuries – fathers, mothers and sons - and for which our boys, our fathers and families have shed their blood, is not given up without a fight.”
In the coming days war really did seem close. Hitler suddenly stepped up his demands, a mobilization was declared in Czechoslovakia, and World War I hero General Jan Syrový, became Prime Minister. But one week later all had changed. The Munich Agreement was signed. It took Europe back from the brink of war, but the crowd’s worst fears were confirmed and Czechoslovakia lost its borderlands without a fight.
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