The War Years, 1939-45

The War Years, 1939-45

For the Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia, German occupation was a period of brutal oppression, made even more painful by the memory of independence and democracy. Legally, Bohemia and Moravia were declared a protectorate of the Third Reich and were placed under the supervision of the Reich protector, Baron Konstantin von Neurath. German officials manned departments analogous to cabinet ministries. Small German control offices were established locally. The Gestapo assumed police authority. Jews were dismissed from the civil service and placed in an extralegal position. Communism was banned, and many Czech communists fled.

The population of the protectorate was mobilized for labor that would aid the German war effort, and special offices were organized to supervise the management of industries important to that effort. Czechs were drafted to work in coal mines, the iron and steel industry, and armaments production; some were sent to Germany. Consumer goods production, much diminished, was largely directed toward supplying the German armed forces. The protectorate's population was subjected to strict rationing.

German rule was moderate during the first months of the occupation. The Czech government and political system, reorganized by Hacha, continued in existence. Gestapo activities were directed mainly against Czech politicians and the intelligentsia. Nevertheless, the Czechs demonstrated against the occupation on October 28, the anniversary of Czechoslovak independence. The death on November 15 of a medical student, Jan Opletal, who had been wounded in the October violence, precipitated widespread student demonstrations, and the Reich retaliated. Politicians were arrested en masse, as were an estimated 1,800 students and teachers. On November 17, all universities and colleges in the protectorate were closed, and students were sent to work.

In the fall of 1941, the Reich adopted a more radical policy in the protectorate. Reinhard Heydrich was appointed Reich protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Under his authority Prime Minister Alois Elias was arrested, the Czech government was reorganized, and all Czech cultural organizations were closed. The Gestapo indulged in arrests and executions. The deportation of Jews to concentration camps was organized, and the fortress town of Terezin was made into a ghetto way station for Jewish families. On June 4, 1942, Heydrich died after being wounded by an assassin. Heydrich's successor, Colonel-General Kurt Daluege, ordered mass arrests and executions and the destruction of the village of Lidice. In 1943 the German war effort was accelerated. Under the authority of Karl Hermann Frank, German minister of state for Bohemia and Moravia, some 30,000 Czech laborers were dispatched to the Reich. Within the protectorate, all non-war-related industry was prohibited. The Czech population obeyed quiescently up until the final months preceding the liberation.

Czech losses resulting from political persecution and deaths in concentration camps totaled between 36,000 and 55,000, relatively minor losses compared with those of other nations. But the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia (118,000 according to the 1930 census) was virtually annihilated. Many Jews emigrated after 1939; more than 70,000 were killed; 8,000 survived at Terezin. Several thousand Jews managed to live in freedom or in hiding throughout the occupation.

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