The Musical Price Paid for British Betrayal
The story of Czechoslovakia’s betrayal is illustrated by the loss of composers who were either murdered or died in exile. This is merely to underline again that it is head-in-the-sand to declare politics and the arts somehow separate.
G.E.R. Gedye’s book Fallen Bastions is in two parts. The first, Austria from 1926 to 1938 is already part of this blog. He offers a disturbing account of Austria’s unhappy slide from democracy to clerical dictatorship, which, as foreign correspondent in Vienna at the time, he saw as the unquestioned facilitator of Nazi annexation. Perhaps with hindsight, there is more information that Gedye could not have known that questions the starkness of his conclusion. Certainly Austrian historians cannot agree if the Dollfuß/Schuschnigg dictatorship was a help or hindrance to Hitler’s ambitions. Gedye is unequivocal and places the blame squarely on the Catholic Church’s refusal to acknowledge any common interests with Social Democracy. This reluctance of the Church to share the merest platform with any variant of Socialism is further obscured by its political arm, called the ‘Christian Social Party’. The Church saw in its own use of the word ‘social’ something hierarchal, while ‘social’ in the Marxist sense was viewed as the purest evil.
Haas: String Quartet No.2, Op.7 – “Z opicich hor/From the Monkey Mountain” 1. Andante “Krajina/Landscape” Hawthorne Quartet
Gedye’s eyewitness account in Fallen Bastions reminds us of how the Church had over the centuries become an instrument of the powerful, used in order to keep the masses under control. Following the bloodiest war in history resulting in revolutions, the murder of one imperial family (the Romanovs) and the removal of the rest of Europe’s Empires, wider enfranchisement and a demand by the working classes to be heard, Europe’s ruling elites were not about to give up without a fight. This attempted claw-back to a pre-1914 state of affairs was supported by all of the established Churches throughout Europe, with Catholicism being perhaps the most reactionary of all.
Viktor Ullmann String Quartet arranged for String Ensemble by Kenneth Woods; English Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Parry
We are also reminded that the slide of the new-born democracies of 1918 into fascism was not something to be taken in isolation. The Spanish Civil War and Austria’s loss of democracy were just different battle fronts within the greater war between authoritarian reaction and democratic progress. Despite the new-found influence and sheer might of the United States, Great Britain was still seen as the richest and most powerful Empire on earth. It was distressing to read how the British were inclined to see the rise of Continental Fascism as something positive and preferable to what was lazily called ‘Bolshevism’. Like the Catholic Church, British Tories saw no difference between democratically elected Social Democrats and Revolutionary Marxists. Their policy was to keep Britain actively passive, by which was meant, they implemented a weapons’ embargo during the Spanish Civil War, allowing Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to aid Franco, thus pushing the Republican forces into the arms of Stalinists who opened a left-against-left front, leaving the victory to Fascism.
‘Sudeten Suite’ (first mov.) for Piano Trio, 1964 Gerhard Seitz (Violine) Walter Nothas (Violoncello) Günter Louegk (piano)
This passive activism was repeated again in Austria, first in 1933 when Dollfuß seized control of Parliament, and then again in 1938, when Britain stood silently to one side and watched while Hitler blackmailed Austria into submission, concluding in its annexation in March 1938. Gedye offers a debate from Hansard (Parliament’s record) that leaves little doubt that the annexation was initially dismissed as being of minor significance and representing the will of the majority of Austrians – a view that Gedye goes to enormous lengths to disprove.
Schulhoff: Concerto For Piano & Small Orchestra, Op. 43, Wv66 – Molto Sostenuto; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Andreas Delfs, Aleksandar Madzar piano
Where Gedye’s book is particularly disturbing is when he comes to the final third of Fallen Bastions, as it is in these chapters that Britain is no longer a passive by-stander, who by doing nothing allows Fascism to overwhelm neighbouring European democracies, but an active agent in the promotion of Nazi expansionism. When the Czechs were informed that the British had persuaded the French to backtrack on their treaty agreements that guaranteed the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia, they realised that Britain too would not hold its word. This being the case, they had no option but to turn to the third guarantor of the treaty, the Soviet Union. Chamberlain, according to Gedye, let it be understood that engaging the Soviets to fend off German demands would result in the British joining the Nazis in a coalition against the Czechs and Soviets. The thought is boggling and in the context of Nazi atrocities, already well documented by September 1938, a horrifying potential development that has remained hidden by history written by victors.
Symphony No. 1 (written in American Exile) Václav Neumann; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
There have been recent histories of the Second World War that attempt to reposition Chamberlain’s government in the ‘blame-game’ and contest the conclusions of such historians as A.J.P. Taylor. They would have to dispute Gedye as well. If Taylor’s accounts are drawn as an eye-witness in Britain, Gedye writes as an eye-witness in Prague. Given his sources, I would find it difficult to see how Chamberlain could ever be rehabilitated. Gedye describes a British government that was not just smitten with the idea of Fascism, but a government that already practiced it within its own ranks. Chamberlain simply by-passed both parliament and his own cabinet as necessary, in order to strike deals with Hitler. The degree of Chamberlain’s genuine sympathy for the Nazi government will undoubtedly astonish modern readers. Louise London cites many examples in her book Whitehall and the Jews. Gedye gives us even more details and offers a story of duplicity, dishonesty, arm-twisting, bully-boy tactics all employed by Chamberlain in order to destroy the perceived ‘Bolshevism’ of the Czech government. The ease and degree of Goebbel’s propaganda being exploited by the British political establishment must lead us to question every account of conflict we read about today. The brazen twisting about of events in order to portray the Czechs as persecutors of a long-suffering German minority must resonate in the Ukrainian conflict today.
Trio for Strings – EOS Trio (Composed in Theresienstadt)
According to Gedye, The Sudeten Germans who wished to ‘be united with their German homeland’ across the border were a disruptive minority who received copious financial and political support from the Nazi government. In fact, most German-Czechs were more comfortable within Czech democracy than Hitler’s oppressive dictatorship. Most German-Czechs were conversant in both languages and the Czech government was prepared to make genuine concessions to German speaking regions. As I have often written on this blog, mono-cultural Europe is a post-1945 phenomenon. The means by which sovereign states dealt with linguistic and religious minorities could refer to a century of precedents. For the British government, it was never a question of righting the perceived wrongs of the Czech German minority, but a means by which the democratically elected Socialist government of Czechoslovakia could be made to fall in line with the rest of Europe’s anti-Bolshevik front.
Piano Concerto in D Minor, op. 7 – Allegro entusiastico; Alice Rajnohová, Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra & Tomáš Hanus
Chamberlain’s cynical acceptance and even tacit approval of Austria’s absorption by Nazi Germany is heightened by an interview that appeared in the New York Times on May 14th 1938, and based on an interview to American and Canadian journalists given by Chamberlain in which Chamberlain states that “Czechoslovakia cannot survive in its present form and the Czechs must make the best deal with Hitler possible in order to avoid war.” He further concedes Hitler’s claim to all the German speakers within the region. This was already five months before the notorious Munich Accord. At the same time, Hitler’s puppet, Konrad Henlein was heading a movement that ostensibly was demanding greater autonomy for the Sudetenland, and in frequent meetings with Chamberlain and the British press, had charmed everyone into believing that he wanted to find a viable solution whereby the Sudetenland could remain Czech. As Gedye reports in detail, this was deliberately skewed so that no concession made by the Czechs would ever satisfy Henlein and his Crypto-Nazi movement.
Chamberlain decided to send Lord Runciman for an objective assessment of the situation of the Sudeten-Germans, the Nazis crowed ‘was brauchen wir ‘nen Weihnachtsmann – wir haben unser’n Runciman!’ – ‘We don’t need Father Christmas – we’ve got our Runciman!’ Gedye is a creature of his age and unwittingly sees in the integrity of Czech borders the safety of British interests in the Levant and Middle East. He gives us what he says should have been in Runciman’s report and then offers us extracts of the real thing. It could have been written by Goebbels himself and makes for shocking reading.
Gedye contextualises much that is missing from contemporary history. He reminds us of how new the concept of Czechoslovakia was. He tells us that it was a bizarre idea to fold Slovakia together with Moravia, Bohemia and Austrian Silesia. The Czechs were the Prussians of the Slavs: serious, down-to-earth, honest and hard working. “Johannes Huss had saved them from the excesses of Roman Catholicism”, whereas the Slovaks were a subservient community (or “race” as he calls them), who spent centuries under the Magyar thumb. They were agricultural, Catholic, illiterate and conservative. He goes on to make the point that it was a wine-growing region, which he contrasts with the more mercantile beer consuming Czechs. The country in this complex combination of Slavic regions had only existed since the break-up of the Habsburg Empire. It had Polish, Ukrainian, Ruritanian, Romanian and German minorities within its existing borders, of which the Germans were most prominent. Interestingly, Gedye mentions that despite the gulf that existed between the Slovaks and Czechs, he could never imagine a situation in which they might separate.
Overture to act one of Krasa’s opera Verlobung im Traum, DSO Berlin and Lothar Zagrosek
Of course today both countries, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are very different places. It’s difficult for Slavic Czechs to accept the contributions of German Czechs after what they perceived as selling out their sovereignty to Hitler. Yet every page in the final chapters of Fallen Bastions is a painful account of British imperial bullying. The past is a very different place: The United States had its ‘Red Decade’ just as Great Britain was snuffing out every whiff of Socialism it could detect. It’s not easy for those of us, who were familiar with the Czechoslovakia of the Soviet Bloc and post-Communist Czech Republic, to imagine the liberal, progressive affluent democracy that Gedye appreciated pre-1938. Yet any stroll through the suburbs of Prague or Brno confirms a country that was headed towards greatness and already represented a bastion of tolerance. British betrayal would end what had been the most successful of post-World War I transitions. Unlike Germany, Austria, Hungary and Poland, Czechoslovakia had used its new-found independence to establish a stable democracy unshaken by attempted revolutions or coups. Perhaps the most painful pages of Gedye’s account are his descriptions of the disbelief in all of the faces of Czechs, both Slavic and German, in what until then, had been an island of democracy in the centre of Fascist Europe – and on this basis, a trusting, yet deluded friend of the west.
Meditation on Coventry for Strings – written soon after Tausky’s Arrival in the UK and witnessing the bombing of Coventry; English Chamber Orchestra, David Parry