A Look Inside Germany’s First Conquest

Hitler reviews troops in Prague
Adolf Hitler, Czechoslovakia’s conqueror, reviews his troops in Prague, September 30, 1939
courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By coincidence, a Post article about Czechoslovakia, the first nation conquered by Hitler, appeared just as he was grabbing up his second.

“Nazi Germany’s First Colony” appeared in the Post on August 26, 1939, the day Hitler had originally planned to invade Poland (Read full article here). But his plans were pushed back, and the issue was still on newsstands when Hitler’s armies crossed the border into Poland on September 1. The ensuing blitzkrieg, which brutally crushed all Polish resistance, had little in common with the swift, bloodless conquest of Czechoslovakia.

The Czech republic had already been reduced when Great Britain and France allowed Hitler to occupy its borderlands in 1938. The next year, he returned to grab the remaining provinces of Bohemia and Moravia through threats of invasion. United Press reporter Edward W. Beattie Jr., who was in Czechoslovakia at the time, described the curious manner of the German invasion.

After bribing a taxi driver to take him toward Germany’s advancing forces, Beattie was startled when German scouts suddenly appeared, moving rapidly, coming down the road toward him: “When we met them head-on, the driver tried frantically to turn. It was too late. The unit began passing us. The officer in command leaned out over the side of [his] scout car. I thought he was going to ask for identification but all he said was: ‘From now on in this country, you drive on the right-hand side of the road.’ The occupation was as easy as that” (collected in They Were There: The Story of World War II, edited by Curt Riess, Garden City Publishing, 1945).

Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from this week’s Post, 75 years ago:

There was no violence, no popular uprising, no guerilla warfare. The Germans simply took up residence in the capital city, Prague, and began appropriating what they wanted. Resistance was reduced to futile gestures, like the one Beattie recounted when he and other foreign correspondents had visited a nightclub. Taking advantage of their journalistic immunity, the reporters ordered the band to play “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Over There,” and other Allied songs from the First World War. In a scene reminiscent of the movie Casablanca, the songs made “a couple of dozen German officers at other tables [get] more and more restless.

“Finally two officers a short distance away pounded for silence,” Beattie wrote, “and one of them came over and demanded that we stop ‘insulting the German army.’ Later in the evening, when everyone was drinking pretty heavily, he drew me to one side and said, ‘You don’t think we like this sort of thing too much, do you? For God’s sake, let us try to make this occupation as decent as possible.’ (The army’s part in the occupation was decent in every way. Of course, the Gestapo and the S.S. arrived later.)”

Beattie’s observation was echoed by the Post’s foreign correspondent Demaree Bess: “Greater Germany has planted her first colony in the heart of Europe. Bohemia and Moravia … have become as much of a colony as any island in the South Seas. The Czechs have assumed the inferior status of natives. … [They] do most of the work and the Germans pull all the wires.” It was the Germans’ goal to turn the republic into an efficient workhouse and profit center for the German Reich.

In these early days, they were careful not to make their exploitation too obvious. As Bess wrote, the Germans still hoped to win the cooperation of Czech workers and industrialists. At least that was the intent of the new government the Germans set up in Prague. Their biggest obstacle, it turned out, was other Germans — the Gestapo, the S.S., and officials of the Nazi party.

Nazi officials descended on Prague with the sole purpose of enriching themselves. They were soon disrupting Czech manufacturing by raising production quotas while limiting managers’ profits. The Nazis were further disrupting the economy by ruthlessly exploiting the Jews.

“When the Germans entered Prague without warning last March, they made it clear at once that life would become intolerable for Jews,” wrote Bess. “Thousands therefore went to the German secret police to apply for permission to leave the country. They were told their applications could not be filed until they had made ‘satisfactory arrangements’ with a Nazi-controlled bank, which demanded full powers of attorney over their property.”

The full savagery of Nazi domination was still in the future. But already, under German rule, life was becoming miserable for the Czechs. Consequently, Bess reported, “I know of only one European country today whose people, in very large numbers, actually desire a general European war. That country is the German protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Czechs say they have discovered that some things are worse than modern war.”

They were about to find out that modern war could be much, much worse.

Listen to President Roosevelt’s August 28, 1939 address to the Herald-Tribune Forum. In talking about the need for peace, he is already distancing himself from the old policy of peace by appeasing Hitler.

Listen to a radio speech on the BBC given on August 27, 1939 by Jan Masaryk, the former head of the Czech nation. He had seen his country betrayed by his allies, Great Britain and France, who allowed Hitler to seize first the border regions of Czechoslovakia, then the entire nation, rather than go to war with Germany.

Adolf Hitler addresses Reichstag

Listen as Adolf Hitler justifies his invasion of Poland to an ecstatic Reichstag.
Meanwhile, as you’ll hear, Great Britain and France are hurriedly summoning their governments to respond to Germany’s aggression.