- Czechs, Slovaks and the Jews, 1938–48: Beyond Idealisation and Condemnation by Jan Láníček
In the summer of 1945, during the first stages of the expulsion of the Germans from Czechoslovakia, Jews were included in the lists of those to be transported to occupied Germany. This was only the first of many pieces of bad news for the Jews returning from the concentration camps or from exile to their home-country. No more than 15 percent of the Czechs and Slovaks classified as Jews by the National Socialists had survived the Holocaust, and those who were now trying to find a way back into Czechoslovak society were confronted with hostility and legal discrimination.
In September 1946, the Czechoslovak government revised the most scandalous of the laws against the surviving Jews: the legal classification as “Germans” of all Jews who had opted for German nationality in the 1930 census. In doing so, the regime hoped to persuade critics in the West that this rule had been nothing more than an unintended side-effect of the more general policy towards the Sudeten Germans. In his book Czechs, Slovaks and the Jews, 1938–48, Jan Láníček argues that in fact the contrary was the case. It was only as a result of international pressure [End Page 291] that the Czechoslovak government permitted the people it labeled “German Jews” to stay in the country. The authorities’ top priority was to create a national (Czech and Slovak) state—an aim that could not tolerate individuals or groups who did not fit perfectly into this concept. This interpretation, Láníček suggests, sheds new light not only on the attitudes of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, but also on those of the First Czechoslovak Republic, which traditionally is seen as the Central European state with the friendliest and most liberal approach to the treatment of Jewish communities.
In contrast to what one might expect—indeed, the book deserves a more apt subtitle—Láníček does not present anything that might be called a “demythologized” history of Czechoslovak-Jewish relations during the decade between the Munich agreement and the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia. Rather, his study focuses on how the Czechoslovak government-in-exile dealt with the Jews. First, he investigates the channels through which Beneš’s London-based government obtained information on the National Socialist persecution of Jews, and how it framed this knowledge in its messages to the people back home. He also describes diplomatic activities aimed at helping Jews to escape the occupied countries or to hasten the liberation of the concentration camps. Second, he asks how plans concerning the position of Jews in postwar Czechoslovakia were communicated—or, more accurately, were not openly addressed —by the government-in-exile.
Initially, the main goals of Beneš and his government were to secure recognition as the legitimate representatives of the Czechs and the Slovaks, and then to gain the Allies’ support for a re-establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic after the end of the war. Czechoslovakia should be reestablished within its former borders, they felt, but modified to a large degree in terms of its internal ethnic and political structure. Láníček demonstrates in detail that the “myth of the exceptional Czechoslovak democracy” (p. 5) and of the regime’s special commitment to the Jews had a decisive impact on the diplomatic success of the Czechoslovaks. In particular, Beneš and his foreign minister, Jan Masaryk, exploited the country’s positive image.
The analysis of what was an extremely complex diplomatic landscape constitutes the strongest feature of the book. Láníček makes use of numerous archival sources to analyze the motivations of and interactions between the various actors: representatives of the Allies, the government-in-exile in Great Britain, Czech and Slovak exiles in the Soviet Union, spokesmen for international Jewish associations, and resistance groups in the occupied homeland. Beneš appears as a tactician whose interactions with the various groups were aimed at obtaining support for...