General Articles

I SAW MY COUNTRY BETRAYED

Even before the war ended, says this former Czech cabinet minister, Russia was laying the groundwork for the grab

FRANTISEK NEMEC May 15 1948
General Articles

I SAW MY COUNTRY BETRAYED

Even before the war ended, says this former Czech cabinet minister, Russia was laying the groundwork for the grab

FRANTISEK NEMEC May 15 1948

I SAW MY COUNTRY BETRAYED

Even before the war ended, says this former Czech cabinet minister, Russia was laying the groundwork for the grab

FRANTISEK NEMEC

Former Czechoslovak Minister to Canada.

WE KNEW, we Czechs and Slovaks, that the Communists would try a coup in our country. The timing was a surprise—we didn’t look for it quite so soon—but the event was long-expected.

Czechoslovakia would have had a free election this year. Communists, who polled 38% of the last popular vote, would have lost heavily this’time and they knew it. Russia could not permit such an electoral defeat, so we saw trouble ahead.

I myself had watched Soviet agents at work in my country even before war ended. I was in Slovakia in 1944, when a people’s revolt against the Nazis failed because the Russians would let in no help from the West. The Slovaks were to be liberated with Russian aid or with none. A few months later in Carpatho-Russia, the most easterly province of Czechoslovakia, I saw the methods that were used to wrench that province away from the Czechoslovak Republic and add it to t he Soviet Union. No one who had seen these things could have any illusions about Communist intentions.

In February, only a few days before the coup, and before I had resigned in protest as Czechoslovak Minister in Ottawa, I got a letter from an old friend in Prague. I must not mention his name, for I believe he is still alive, but we had been comrades in the underground against the Nazis. His letter was smuggled out of the country—even then, though the Communists were not yet in power, he was afraid to trust the mails or the diplomatic pouches. He wanted to let me know what he could see coming in Czechoslovakia— a new occupation by a new totalitarian tyranny.

Thus, for the second time in 10 years, we found ourselves able to work for freedom only by stealth. For the second time in 10 years we had to choose, those of us lucky enough to have any choice, between giving up freedom and giving up everything else.

When Hitler Came

TEN YEARS ago I was living a quiet, happy life in Prague. I had a small house where I lived with my wife and daughter. I had an interesting job — Member of Parliament and member of the administrative body of the national railways. I had also been general secretary of the railwaymen’s union for several years and had edited their technical journal for years before that. It was all very pleasant, stimulating work.

Then came Munich and, six months later. Hitler’s occupation of our whole count ry. The idyllic life -not. only mine but that of all European people -vanished as if it had never been.

All we Social Democrats, or indeed anyone known to have stood for personal freedom, were deeply suspect. However, we were offered a chance to buy immunity and even preferment. Our President, Eduard Benes, had escaped to London; if we, the former “Benes men,” would write articles or make speeches denouncing him, all would go well for us under the Nazi regime. Naturally we refused to do so.

Very soon the Minister of Transport called me in. I could not continue in a senior post, he said; I must no longer see any confidential papers or make any decisions. For the time being I could sit in my office each day and read books or newspapers.

But already we had other work in hand. Within two days of the Nazi invasion, some friends and colleagues had called upon me. We all believed war was inevitable and imminent. We decided to organize for the coming underground battle against Hitler.

Our committee included representatives of every Czech party except one the Communist Party. The Communists had already taken the line that they maintained through the first two years of the war, that this was merely an “imperialist” struggle in which “the people” had no interest. The Nazi authorities had declared the Communist party and press illegal, yet. (heir underground papers spent their time attacking, not the Nazis, but President Benes and the Czech patriots. But. in spite of Communist antagonism we got our “Central Committee of National Resistance” running by the

time war broke out it had united all the early, spontaneous protest movements into one efficient organization.

My own job was the illegal transit of soldiers and political leaders to France and England. In my former position I had got to know hundreds of Czech railway men by their first names and that acquaintance proved to be very useful. We knew who among the railway workers were reliable and who were not. With their loyal help, we set up an “underground railway” that provided escape for many members of the Czech Government-in-Exile and for ranking officers of the Czech Army.

Our usual method was to clot be t be ministers and generals in overalls and give them a short intensive

course in shoveling coal. When they could throw coal into the firebox of a locomotive with professional-looking skill, they would cross the frontier as firemen in the cab with engineers on whom we could depend.

Our department also handled the mail. We got messages twice a week from President Benes and his colleagues in London and we sent out reports to them with the sa me regularity. Through our organization, Dr. Benes kept in touch evt,n with the so-called “Protectorate” Government, some of whose members, including Prime Minister General Elias, were pretending to be collaborators but were actually working with us. On one occasion I was the bearer of an important Continued on page 73

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message from Dr. Benes to General Elias—I can still remember the trip by tram from our organization’s hiding place to the Prime Minister’s office and how I jumped off the tram every few blocks to take another one and make sure I was not being followed.

By this time I was living in Prague under four cover names and at several addresses—none of them my own. I didn’t dare go home, ever. Only at night, I would walk past my own house to get a glimpse of my family through the lighted windows. Once 1 lived fora while in a flat so near my home that 1 could look out the back window and see my wife and daughter in our own house, but I couldn’t speak to them or let them know I was there. Like everyone in the Resistance, I had to reckon with an arrest at any hour.

The work in the Central Committee was so dangerous that none of us could stand it for more than a few months. Only two things could bring it to an end—flight abroad or arrest and death. Out of 40 men who at different times headed the Central Committee, only six of us are living today. And of the whole 40, only one had the endurance to remain in the underground for the entire duration of the war. That one was a man named Krajina, an M.P. —one whom the Communists have just deprived of his parliamentary immunity and are about to impeach for high treason. What the Germans didn’t succeed in doing, the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia intends to accomplish.

By February 1940 the ground under my feet was getting hot. We learned through secret channels that a warrant had been issued and a special search begun for two of us—Col. Bohunel Bocek, who today is General and Chief of Staff of the Czech Army, and myself. The committee decided it was time for both of us to go abroad.

We fled from Prague through Hungary to Yugoslavia, which at this time had not been attacked by the Nazis. We traveled in a sleeping car—but under a berth, not in it. The conductor was an old friend and co-worker in the Resistance; he stretched us out flat on the floor and made up the berths over

us. For five hours, from Prague to Budapest, we had f olie without moving a muscle, often seeing the boots of Gestapo men clumping past the curtain that hid us from view.

We finally got to Paris, where we joined the Czechoslovak Army—Bocek as colonel, 1 as lance-corporal. There were many difficulties about equipping our army in France; at one point we had rifles of one calibre and ammunition of another. Indeed, we never did get such troubles straightened out, for they were interrupted by the Nazi invasion of May 1910. Once again we were in flight, this time to England.

The Commies Make Trouble

We had barely arrived when the Communists precipitated a crisis. There were not very many Communists in the Czechoslovak army—most party members had been told not to join and had obeyed. But there were about 600 of them among the 5,000 Czechoslovak soldiers who reached England and no sooner had they landed than the Communist Party ordered them to desert in a body. The whole 600 obeyed.

British authorities acted promptly. They interned 30 or 40 ringleaders of the mass desertion and ignored the rest—before long practically all of them were back in the army.

One of the men interned was Dr. V. dementis, Foreign Minister in the Communist Government at Prague since the death of Jan Masaryk. Later, when I was a member of the Government-in-Exile, I went with a colleague to see him and we persuaded the British Government to set him free again. We knew that in his heart he was against the Communist Party line and in favor of the fight against Nazism; we knew he had been expelled from the Communist Party in France, a few months before, because of this heresy. He became a loyal official of the Czechoslovak Government long before the invasion of Russia converted the other Communists into superpat riots. I suspect that the memory of this old heresy, and the fear it creates, are the reasons that after the war he became even more radical than his orthodox Stalinist comrades.

However, this is taking me ahead of my story.

When our army got to England, we soldiers in the ranks had nothing but the uniforms in which we stood 1 had

one shirt, which I used to wash in a stream and dry in the breeze before putting it back on. Spare clothing I had none, not even a pair of pyjamas.

One day, an order came for LanceCorporal Nemec to report to the headquarters of the commanding general. I went; the general told me 1 had been appointed Minister of Social Welfare in the Government-in-Exile and that I must go up with him to London.

I went back to my unit and said, “Boys, I’ve been made a Cabinet Minister. Who can lend me a clean shirt?” They rallied round nobly, lent me some shirts and handkerchiefs and a suitcase to put them in and sent me on my way.

It was fun, being a Cabinet Minister in a lance-corporal’s uniform. Once, in my office, I met a young lieutenant who instructed me as to the duty of any lance-corporal to salute any lieutenant.

At other times, general officers would salute me.

Once I was walking along the street in London when I met a lad I had known in the army.

“Hello, Frank,” he said. “Have you been transferred to London?”

“Yes, I’m stationed here now,” I said. “What about you?”

“Oh, I’m just on a few days’ leave,” he said. “Tomorrow I have an appointment with the Minister of Social Welfare—they tell me it’s easy to touch him for some money. I’m going to tell him my brother is sick up in Scotland and see if I can shake him down for enough to have a little fun in London.”

“I wish you luck,” I said. It was a delightful moment, the next day, when my old comrade came into my office. But he got the money anyway and paid it hack in due time.

My colleagues, however, were not so much amused by this sort of thing. Before long it was arranged that I should get an advance on my pay to buy civilian clothes.

The Change of Heart

We spent several busy and fruitful years in London. The Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile, under President Benes, was formally recognized by the Allied Governments on July 22, 1940.

It was made up of men from many parties. A larger body of representative emigrant«, called the State Council, took the place of our Parliament, and this group included all the Czechoslovak partiesexcept one. It did not include the Communists.

Thd Czech Communist Party had its own headquarters in Moscow, under Element Gottwald, who is now Prime Minister. Such Czech Communists as lived in England were in constant touch with Moscow and kept aloof from the Czechoslovak Government in London. Their newspapers attacked the Benes Government for supporting the “imperialist war” and particularly for asking the Czechoslovak people to make sacrifices “for the benefit of English capitalism.”

This attitude persisted until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Then, of course, the war changed overnight from an “imperialist war” into a people’s struggle against Fascism. The Communists became superpatriots, superdemocrats. They came into our State Council in London, behaved very loyally and well, accepted majority decisions and generally acted like comrades.

It seems odd now, looking back, but as time went on we came to believe in the Communists’ change of heart. We really thought a new chapter had been begun— that we could all work together, in peace as in war, to build a new state in freedom and harmony. All

the democratic parties held this belief; Dr. Benes and Jan Masaryk held it very strongly at this time.

1 believed it too, like everyone else, but before war ended I had some disillusioning experiences.

In August 1944 I was nominated Government Delegate to the Liberated Areas. I had my instructions from President Benes and the Government: To defend the united Czechoslovak Republic, with her prewar frontiers. No one, Communist or democrat, suggested any other policy.

With a staff of 21 political and military experts, 1 flew to Moscow. The Red Army was advancing very fast toward Cracow in Poland, near the Czechoslovak frontier; we wanted to prepare the home-coming from the moment any Czechoslovak territory should be set free.

The Revolt That Failed

In Moscow we learned that revolt against the Nazis was being prepared in Slovakia, the eastern part of the republic. A delegation came to discuss what help could be sent by the Russian Army:

While the delegation was in Moscow the Slovak revolt broke out. Slovak rebels, with the help of part of the Slovak Army, occupied 400 square miles in the very heart of Slovakia. Their headquarters was the pretty little town of Banska Bystrica, which lies in the middle of the country and is protected by a ring of mountains 8,000 feet high.

I decided at once that my duty was to fly to Banska Bystrica. I wanted to take along political advisers from four parties, including one Communist from the London group. In addition, I suggested that members of the Czech Communist Party» in Moscow should also be added to our group.

To my surprise, this suggestion was refused by the Czechoslovak Communists in Moscow. I soon learned why —four days before our group got permission to leave Moscow, the Czech Communists sent off a delegation of their own to Slovakia. That was when I felt my first suspicion of Communist sincerity in the “united-front” policy.

Even before we got to Banska Bystrica, we heard that the Social Democratic Party in Slovakia had been liquidated and merged with the Communist Party. My suspicions grew sharper. They were not allayed when I

found that B. Lauschman, the Social Democratic M.P. who was my political adviser for that party, seemed to agree with this merger of his party with the Communists. Lauschman has since done the Communists yeoman service in making possible their final coup of last February.

However, we went into Slovakia. A whole Czechoslovak brigade, more than 2,000 men, were flown across the German lines in 90 planes on four consecutive nights. I went on the second night, with seven members of my staff —I believe I was the only Minister of any Allied Government, during the war, who went behind the German lines.

In Banska Bystrica we found the temporary government and the leadership of the revolt to be mainly in the hands of the Slovak Communists. And I discovered at once a new situation.

Back in London, and even in Moscow, all Communist leaders had professed to accept the principle of a united and independent Czechoslovak Republic with prewar frontiers. The Slovak Communist leadership revealed a quite different intention — they wanted to form a Slovak Soviet Republic and attach it to the USSR.

Meanwhile, the German armies were only a few miles away; the Slovaks hadn’t enough weapons or ammunition —they needed tanks, guns and planes. The Slovak National Council wanted help from any quarter and I thought I could get some from the Western Allies if I could send a delegation to London to explain what was needed.

I asked if a British or American plane could come in to pick up these messengers. The Russians replied that no British or American plane would be permitted to land in Slovakia. F or lack of that help, the Slovak revolt failed. It was liquidated after two months of fighting on Oct. 28—Czechoslovak Independence Day—1944.

At the personal command of President Benes, I left Banska Bystrica by air a few hours before the Germans occupied it again. Our orders were now to proceed to Carpatho-Russia, the most easterly province of the Czechoslovak Republic, which had meanwhile been liberated by the Red Army.

I made my headquarters in Chust, a little country town of about 6,000. I had brought with me a radio transmitter, especially in order to establish communications with my government in London. The Russian authorities told

mo it. was Forbidden to use this radio. All my massages to London had to be sent over the Red Army’s field telephone and no such message could be sent in code. In other words, 1 had no private contact at all with President Benes and my colleagues.

We discovered immediately that Czechoslovak citizens of the province were being recruited into the Red Army. Czechoslovak officers who tried to recruit For our own army were told by the Russians to desist. 1 protested vigorously but in vain.

After that experience, we were not surprised when a campaign began For annexation of this Czechoslovak province to the Soviet Union. Campaign meets were organized by Russian officers, mainly members of the NKVD, the Russian secret police.

1 was unable to take any action against this campaign. The only newspaper in Chust (when they got it running again) was a Communist newspaper, taking the same line as the Russian radio. Officials of my Czech Covernment delegation were forbidden to enter the larger part of CarpathoRussia, as the Red Army classified it as “military territory.” Communist organizers, however, were allowed to circulate freely throughout the entire province.

Communist “Unity”

Finally, on Nov. 11, 1941, a Congress of the National Councils of all cities and towns in Carpatho-Russia was called in the town of Mukacevo—a town which happened to be in the “military territory” from which we were debarred, so all the leaders and speakers “happened” to be Communist.

The National Councils themselves had been elected in a way that seems odd to a democrat. The elections were announced by Communist organizers to the populace gathered in the village squares. The chairman of the local Communist Party in a village would then announce the names of the candidates and for each name the people “voted” by raising their right hands. People were allowed to vote “for” a candidate; the vote “against” was never called. These were the delegates who decided the fate of CarpathoRussia.

The November congress of these National Councils unanimously agreed that Carpatho-Russia should be torn away from the Czechoslovak Republic and joined to the Soviet Union.

All this while, t he Czech Communists in Moscow were still proclaiming their devotion to the unity of the Czechoslovak Republic with its prewar frontiers. Some of them really believed it one member of the Moscow Czech Communist group, an M.P. named Krosnar, was sent from Moscow to support me in my futile struggle against the annexation campaign in Carpatho-Russia. Krosnar took with him a radio transmitter and radio operator. At the Russian border, the radio operator was arrested, the radio confiscated by the Red Army and Krosnar was told he’d better return to Moscow.

From then on, the Czech Communists in Moscow swung around and defender! the annexation of CarpathoRussia by t he USSR.

Meanwhile, I flew to Moscow to re-establish contact with my government. When l arrived, 1 learned that my headquarters in Chust had been attacked by the so-called “Ukrainian Militia,” that the aide-de-camp of my military chief had been arrested. Leaders of the Czech Communist Party gathered at our Moscow Embassy to denounce me as anti-Soviet and anti-Communist. One of t he lead

ing Russian statesmen told me quite clearly that after the unanimous decision of the Congress of National Councils at Mukacevo, Russia “would have to accept these Slav brothers” into the USSR. Carpatho-Russia was lost.

When I got back to Chust, the Carpatho-Russian populace had been forbidden to speak to me. If 1 drove through a town or village I was under surveillance any Carpatho - Russian who tric'd to approach me was chased away by Red Army guards. I was still the nominal representative of the province’s nominal government, but in fact I was not allowed any activity at all. Carpatho-Russia was already in effect a Soviet Republic.

I asked the Red Army for permission to transfer my office and staff to eastern Slovakia, which by now had been liberated too. When we drove away with the Czechoslovak flag flying on our car, the people of Chust wept in the streets.

We set up headquarters in the Slovak city of Kosice, which has a population °f about 60,000. We had plenty to do — the city had no civil administration, no police, no transport, no electricity or water service, no regular food supply and 600 cases of typhoid. We flew in a large group of Czechoslovak doctors from London and managed to prevent a typhoid epidemic. rl he situation in Slovakia appeared much better than in Carpatho-Russia-the Red Army had stopped trying to recruit here, we were able to mobilize our own army and gradually we got things under control.

But we soon found that we were not free agents here, either.

I got orders to prepare for the homecoming of the Czechoslovak Government-— President Benes and a4 his ministers were to set up a temporary capital in Kosice. I was told to prepare accommodation for ambassadors and ministers from most of the Allied countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and many others. Altogether we expected a diplomatic corps of about 150 and were ready to receive them.

When the government arrived, the Soviet Ambassador Zorin was the only one to accompany it. Moscow had decided that Kosice was still a "‘military zone” and the other ambassadors had been refused permission to come.

In Kosice Dr. Benes set up his new government, the fruit of an agreement he had reached in Moscow between the London and the Communist émigré groups. The Communists insisted on the Ministry of the Interior, which controls the police.

Once the new government had taken office, my own function as a Minister of the London Government and as Government Delegate to Liberated Areas was finished. The new Prime Minister, Zdenek Fierlinger, offered me the job of Minister to Bulgaria; I refused, saying I wanted above all things to return to Prague. But at home no political position was open to me—I was not acceptable to the Russians and therefore I could not be employed.

So I rejoined the army—again as a lance-corporal. My commanding officer was a lieutenant-colonel whom I had nominated to that rank, three weeks before, in my capacity as Government Delegate. With the Czechoslovak Army, after the final few weeks of the war, I returned at last to Prague.

“Unacceptable” to Russia

1 found there nothing of my own but an empty house. My wife and daughter, my brother and sister and my mother had all been executed by the Nazis in 1942 in the concentration camp of Oswiecim. Most of my personal friends suffered the same fate. My property had been confiscated, my furniture stolen by the Germans.

These troubles of mine were far from unique. Thousands had the same experience, but nobody at home complained. On the ruins of our personal and national happiness we began again to build a new life. After two years of work in my country, I remarried— my present wife had been widowed by the Nazi occupation. Her husband and her mother had died in a concentration camp; of our two families, only my wife’s daughter is left to us.

Twice, in 1945 and 1946, the people of my constituency nominated me as Social Democratic candidate for Parliament. Both times, my nomination was disallowed. The Russians told the executive of the Social Democratic Party that I would be “unacceptable” as a candidate of that party.

1 still wanted to remain at homo; I had refused to go as Minister to Bulgaria and at first 1 was inclined to refuse the post of Minister to Canada when that; was offered in 1946. But I did in the end accept and I spent a year and a half very happily in Ottawa.

That happiness ended in February when, for the second time in 10 years, Czechoslovakia fell captive to a foreign power. Indeed, our situation now is more tragic than in 1939, for today there is a Czechoslovak party which prefers to serve foreign interest instead of its own country.

For us abroad, representatives of the Czechoslovak democracy, only one course was open. It was not. an easy course to take—this all-too-familiar turning away from comfort, income, future, for the second time in 10 years —but we knew we had no alternative.

In my office in Ottawa, I am proud to say, five of us resigned together— only one civilian, a clerk who had recently come out, remained to serve the Communist regime. My first, preoccupation is to find jobs for those who resigned with me; so far, only one has got a place. When employment has been found for the rest, I shall he looking for a job for myself. For all of us who worked in Ottawa, the future seems to lie in Canada.

To us in Ottawa people were extraordinarily kind. One good friend gave up her apartment and went to stay with another good friend, so that we might have somewhere to live until we could find new quarters for ourselves. Even from people we scarcely knew, we received offers of help.

In the weeks that have gone by since I resigned from the service of my country, we have all been busy. With Dr. Juras Slavik who resigned in Washington, and with others who have escaped from Czechoslovakia, we have been trying to set up an organization that will help refugees from Communist Czechoslovakia, that will continue to receive accurate information from behind the Iron Curtain and will try to keep Czechs and Slovaks in other lands informed of what is really happening at home.

For our unhappy country, the outlook is indeed dark. It is difficult to hope that Czechoslovakia can escape, in peacetime, from the chains that hind her. Perhaps, if the western countries form a peaceful and prosperous United States of Europe, the time may come when the eastern captives may break away and join itbut this is a dream, not a sober hope.

Czechoslovakia is going through Calvary for the second time in 10 years. In 1938 the tragedy of Czechoslovakia was a warning to the world— hut the warning was not believed and the world paid for its disbelief by war. I would like to believe that this time the tragedy of Czechoslovakia will he a warning given in time. ★