Lost Peace

Interview with Jiri Stursa

Photograph of Jiri Stursa Q: Professor Stursa, if I can take you back to 1918, could you tell me how you first heard the news of Czechoslovakia's independence?

Stursa: I was eight and a half and my father was a teacher in the Prague suburb of Brevnov, right behind Hradcany.

It was a week-day's afternoon. I was back home from school and my aunt took me down to the main street. There was a big crowd there and we met our neighbor, a police inspector. He asked my aunt, "Madam, have you heard the news?" "No, I haven't." "Well, we have no Austrian Empire anymore. We have our own state."
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We came home and in a while my father came running home from school, dressed in a modern coat. He was all excited and he burst into the flat, ran into the corner room, knelt there and said, "Thank you Lord that I have lived to see this day." So, that was the moment when I learned that we had our own state.

Q: Why was your father so happy to be part of the republic and no longer part of the empire?

Stursa: The intelligentsia -- teachers and others -- they were all patriots. They were just waiting for the old Austrian empire to fall -- that was their ideal. And this ideal, this desire, was fulfilled at that moment....

Q: This was obviously a wonderful day. What was the mood like on the streets?

Stursa: Well, the mood was enthusiastic. People were happy. There was some shouting, but not much. Everyone was deep in their thoughts. Everybody longed for a new society..., for a new state here... -- for the Czech Republic.

Q: What was it like to grow up in a new nation, a new country free from the empire?

Stursa: An eight-year old boy cannot, naturally, have any profound ideas about it. I remember one thing, though. Even before the war, when I was a four or three-year old boy, Slovak songs used to be sung at home, Slovak stories used to be told. The Czech nation or the environment I grew up in..., we liked the Slovaks and were looking forward to creating one entity together. Hence, we welcomed the union with the Slovaks within the then Czechoslovakia. I'd say that this was accepted by the whole of the Czech nation as the correct way: a united Czechoslovak republic.

Q: Were you proud growing up in a democracy?

Stursa: Well, not everything was ideal, mind you. The times for the economic crisis came soon.... I had just graduated and got an engineering diploma, however I spent the next three years looking for a job. Poverty was everywhere, there were over one million unemployed in Czechoslovakia.

Those were difficult times. And frankly, people were looking eastward towards the Soviet Union where we could see a new society which rid itself of unemployment.... We also had rather different ideals -- socialist convictions that caught the attention of over a million voters in Czechoslovakia. That's a fact.

Q: Moving on to the 30's, do you remember the Germans soldiers arriving in Prague in 1939?

Stursa: I vividly remember it. My uncle, came to us that morning and said, "Those bastards marched into Prague; Prague is occupied by the German army." I went into town with my wife and saw that the German armored vehicles and troops were there. What could we do? Nothing. We couldn't fight them with bare hands. The fact is, though, that people shook their fists at them. The German-speaking Czechs and I think even the soldiers felt embarrassed. The Germans seemed to have felt that they were hated here. They must have seen it.

Q: You saw the birth of the Czech republic. How did you feel when you heard the news of the Munich agreement and that the republic was threatened with its end?

Stursa: Well, I think it was an embarrassing time. Everybody had to run inside into oneself and think of one's own things. No public activity was allowed. Before this, I had been actively involved in an architects' society. But that all died out. It all ended, and everyone had to look after their own activities, [such as] making money or writing articles -- specialized expert articles, not politically or socially orientated. It was an embarrassing period. A quiet period.

Q: Can you tell me when you first heard the news of the Munich agreement? What did you think about the behavior of Britain and France?

Stursa: It came as a great surprise to us since, before this, the talk had been that Hitler, the Nazis, should be forced by the Western powers to make concessions. All of a sudden, this did not materialize. On the other hand, though, Hitler was capable of wreaking destruction here. So looking back at it, I see it as a temporary retreat, like the Russians had to let the Germans up to Stalingrad in order to chase them back and destroy them. So, these tactical maneuvers exist -- sometimes you must go back to be able to go forward again.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, if I'm to judge it soberly, I'd say that the Allies actually saved Prague from the destruction with which the Germans had threatened us.... [If] we didn't obey their orders about the Protectorate, they would have simply destroyed Prague.... The whole of Bohemia would have been destroyed. So when I look at it now, I have to say that Chamberlain in a way deserves credit for saving Prague as it is.

It's difficult, you know, to find any regularity in this. All in all, the important thing is how it all ended. And it eventually ended well. And that's the main thing -- it all had a happy ending. Hitler and the Nazis were defeated, and by that all questions have been answered....



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