A wolf in sheep's s clothing. Konrad Henlein, the leader of the German minority in Czechoslovakia, stands at the map of Czechoslovakia, pointing at the Sudetes region.



There came the spring of 1938, and the spectre of a new war haunted Europe again! This time the ominous clouds of the new conflict had been gathering over the mountainous massifs of the Sudetes. The Sudeten-German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei - SdP), by orders from Berlin, launched a massive propaganda offensive against the Czechoslovak Republic.

The anti-Czech movement of the Sudetes Germans posed a serious threat to Czechoslovakia. The German minority numbered 3.5 million people, and was the biggest, economically strongest and politically most active among the national minorities of the Czechoslovak Republic. It also enjoyed support from the 75-million German Reich.

The anti-Czech background of the Sudetes German movement had a long and complex history. First Germans settled in the Sudetes in the 13th century, during the reign of the king Wenceslaus I. The second wave of the German settlements began after Czech's national defeat in the battle of White Mountain (Bílá Hora) in 1620, when emperor Ferdinand II, in revenge for the Czech revolt, confiscated 2/3 of the Czech nobility's possessions, and distributed them among German settlers. This way German populace, settled on the Czech soil, became from the onset the vanguard of the militant Germanism in the Slavic world.

No wonder that already before the First World War the Sudetes became one of the centres of the pan-German movement, which developed in the Habsburg monarchy, and raised the slogans of uniting all German-speaking people within one state governed from Berlin. Even Germany's defeat in the First World War was not able to temper the anti-Slavic character of the militant pan-Germanism. Sudetes Germans did not intend to recognize the independent Czechoslovak state, or observe its authority. They considered it a "season state" - an ephemeric political creation, which sooner or later would cease to exist.

Yet, the weakness of the defeated Germany, which for years was not able to play the role of the champion of the Germans living outside Germany, in 1920s caused a certain diffusion of the general feelings of the Sudetes Germans towards the government in Prague. At that time emerged so-called "activist" movement, represented by the social-democratic, Christian, and agrarian parties working in the German environment. That movement proclaimed that it was in the German interest and to the German benefit to join the processes of political, social and economical building of the Czechoslovak state. As a result, representatives of the activist stream won representation in the Czechoslovak bodies, and even received ministerial portfolios.

Yet, the idyll did not last long. The Great Depression, which his hard the economics of the industrial centres of the Sudetes, changed the situation, especially after the Nazis came to power in Germany. The régime of Adolf Hitler since the beginning of its rule was extremely hostile towards Czechoslovakia. Hitler had always demonstrated his personal dislike of the Czechs, and he had instilled his entourage with the same attitude. Yet the Nazi régime was too weak yet to afford an open confrontation with a neighbouring country and to time Hitler assumed moderated stance, and even some friendly gestures, towards Prague. For example, on 9 February 1933 (nine days after the seizure of power) Hitler met the Czechoslovak ambassador Vojtěch Mastny and had a cordial conversation with him. Although the brown chancellor protested against putting on trial in Brno members of a German nationalist organization accused in anti-Czech activities, he simultaneously tried to assure Prague that Nazi Germany by no means was trying to interfere with the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia. It was of course not a real respect for principles, but temporary tactics, adjusted to the current needs and possibilities. The best evidence to that being that unable to challenge Czechoslovakia openly he covertly sponsored Germans of the Sudetes, who were receiving material and ideological support from Berlin.

The latter factor, combined with the impact of the Great Depression, which affected industrial zones of the Sudetes, caused that influence of German organizations, rallied around Konrad Henlein, grew rapidly. It coincided with the Great Depression, which affected Czechoslovakia severely around 1931.

Areas of Bohemia and Moravia inhabited by the Germans were the most industrialized region of Czechoslovakia, and they felt the worst impact of the economical crisis. While prosperity lasted, the Germans were not thinking about disappointed political aspirations and privileges they had in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. When the criss came, it brought unemployment, which left a lot of time for thinking and discussions, revived memories, and caused pique. As it lays in human nature, the responsibility for the crisis was shifted on the government, which was "Czech" of course, although the Germans shared the power. "Czechs are responsible for the misery of Germans" - that superficial slogan became the ideological weapon of the nationalist pan-Germanic propagandists.

Activist parties quickly started losing support to the nationalist SdP, which in fact became just a branch of the German NSDAP. In the years before the Nazis came to power in Germany, there were two nationalist parties rivalling for the leadership of the German national minority in Bohemia and Moravia: the German National Socialist Workers' Party (Deutsche Nationalsozialistische Arbeiterpartei - DNSAP) and the German National Party (Deutsche Nationalpartei - DNP). They both duly played the role of the political detonator of the German chauvinism in Czechoslovakia, but with time it came way too obvious that they had failed to become mass parties, and what is more - they were agents clearly serving foreign interests. That only facilitated their delegalization in the summer of 1933, after their subversive, anti-Czech activities were exposed.

But against Prague's hopes banning of those parties did not put the end to the nationalistic stream in the political life of the German minority in Czechoslovakia. As soon as in autumn of 1933 a gym teacher from As, Konrad Henlein, founded the Sudeten German Home Front (Sudetendeutsche Heimatfront - SHF), the organization which officially claimed that it was genuinely independent representative of the Germans of Bohemia and Moravia, and limited its activities solely their self-governance. In fact it remained in strict, although secret, connection with the German NSDAP, and received from there directives and subventions. Originally it declared respect for the constitution and parliamentary principles, and repudiated any fascist tendencies, and links with Germany and NSDAP. It was necessary to confuse the Czechs and divert their attention from the Sudetes affairs; official institutions and prominent dignitaries of the Reich did the same as well.

But then came the year 1935 - the year of the next, after 1929, parliamentary elections. Henlein and his comrades decided to use the political activisation during the electoral campaign to enter the big politics. Henlein started his electoral campaign already on 21 October with the grand speech held in Ceska Lipa - at that time the main organizational centre of the Sudetes Germans. In that speech he called upon the Sudetes Germans to undertake the struggle to become the masters of the land where they lived, and wrestle from Prague a broad political, economical and cultural autonomy. Afraid of the reaction of the Czechoslovak government, Henlein sweetened a little his blusterous speech with a handful of platitudes about the Sudetes Germans' desire to remain the citizens of Czechoslovakia; platitudes that were in plain contradiction with the main leitmotif of his speech which openly called upon the German minority in Czechoslovakia to make a state within a state, and in further perspective - to break up the Czechoslovak Republic gradually into separate national territories.

In the election of 19 May 1935 SdP (by then created on the basis of SHF) won more than one million votes and most of the mandates of the German parties. What is more, in result of the 1935 elections SdP, with 44 mandates in the parliament, became the second political party after the Czechoslovak Agrarian Party of Milan Hodža (45 mandates). This close Henlein was to become the prime-minister of the Czechoslovak government. That was the turning point in the history of the German movement in the Sudetes. SdP started to absorb other German organizations from other political options.

For a while Henlein did not challenge Prague openly, as he focused on consolidation of his electoral success. Yet, already on 12 June 1936, during the congress of his party in Cheb, he held a speech in which he started mentoring the government in Prague how to treat ethnic minorities and construct its relations with Germany. He declared that existing minority legislation was inadequate because it offered no proper position towards the whole German nation, and the German Reich in particular.

It was not just about the words. Henlein was closely watching all the movements of the Czechoslovak authorities against his actions and used to stall them not without a success. If that was impossible, he challenged such movements legally from the position of the sole representative of the German public opinion in Czechoslovakia. He did so when the government in Prague made an agreement with the representatives of the German activist parties regarding new policies towards the Germans in Bohemia and Moravia. He stated then that he and only he was authorized to speak in nave of the Germans of Bohemia and Moravia. In the spring of 1937 the SdP members of the parliament proposed a draft of the law "on the protection of nationality" (zum Schutz des Volkstums), in which they demanded the SdP, and in fact already openly Nazi monopoly on representing all the Germans living in Czechoslovakia. That outwardly peaceful period in the existence of SdP ended with the annexation of Austria, which became the signal to the Sudetes Germans to start playing their part in the union with Germany, and simultaneously a warning signal to everyone in Czechoslovakia, who would have different ideas than the Nazi Führer.

The Anschluß of Austria spelled a complete break-up of the German "activism" in Czechoslovakia. Even the leaders of the activist parties, who saw the fate of the enemies of nazism in Austria, were not willing to put their property, freedom and lives in jeopardy in the struggle with the III Reich going from one success to another.

Immediately after the annexation of Czechoslovakia, agrarians and Christians left the government coalition; some time later social-democrats did the same. Agrarians and Christians dissolved their parties and joined the SdP, thus making Henlein's party the biggest faction in the Czechoslovak parliament with 26 seats in the Senate and 55 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The actual union of all German parties in Czechoslovakia under Henlein's tutelage was proclaimed during a grand assembly of the Sudetes Germans in Marianske Lazne, decorated on this occasion with swastika flags.