Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939–45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War
by Peter Demetz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 274 pp. $25.00; $15.00 (paper)
Peter Demetz, born in Prague in 1922, was “sixteen, going on seventeen” when on March 15, 1939, German troops, with the enthusiastic support of indigenous fascist groups, invaded the Republic of Czechoslovakia and occupied the city of his birth. As he writes in Prague in Danger, an exciting, one might even say thrilling, account of the six hellish years of Nazi rule that he witnessed, Demetz’s interests at the time were “politics, girls, movies, and jazz (in that order approximately).” Still, he was old enough to realize the enormity of what had happened, although, like most of his fellow Praguers, he did not foresee the full horror of the times that were coming.
Indeed, one of the most striking features of this history-cum-memoir is the record it gives of the peculiarly convoluted and insinuating process by which in modern times an immense nation devoured and digested a much smaller and weaker neighbor. The Anglo- Irish writer Hubert Butler, in his 1950 essay “The Invader Wore Slippers,” recalled how, “during the war, we in Ireland heard much of the jackboot and how we should be trampled beneath it if Britain’s protection failed us,” and how “our imagination, fed on the daily press, showed us a Technicolor picture of barbarity and heroism.” Supposing, however, the invader should wear “not jackboots, but carpet slippers, or patent-leather pumps, how will I behave, and the respectable X’s, the patriotic Y’s and the pious Z’s?” He then went on to consider the reaction of the populations of various statelets and regions of Europe to the Nazi invaders, and was particularly scathing about the way in which the people of the British-ruled Channel Islands accepted German occupation and settled back to their comfortable lives as before:
The readers of the Guernsey Evening Post were shocked and repelled no doubt to see articles by Goebbels and Lord Haw-Haw, but not to the pitch of stopping their subscriptions. How else could they advertise their cocker spaniels and their lawn mowers or learn about the cricket results?
The German troops who marched into Czechoslovakia on the night of March 14–15, 1939, were certainly jackbooted, yet the response of the city, however angry and despairing the majority of its inhabitants may have been, was markedly subdued. Photographs of the occasion, when the German columns rolled through Prague, “show tears, grim faces, many clenched fists raised in the air, but also, especially later in the day, a good deal of curiosity about German weapons and motorcycles.” Within days, the Gestapo was reporting that “apart from a few incidents, the Czech population did not show any resistance worth speaking of.” However, Demetz laconically notes, “that was to change.”
In the ghastly year leading up to the invasion, Czechoslovakia had done its best to meet the Nazi threat, mobilizing its forces twice, in May 1938 and again in September of the same year …