Dancing on an Iceberg: Czechoslovaks in London exile

Source: Čechoslovák v Anglii, 16 October 1939, 1.

The Anglo-Czechoslovak relationship stretches through centuries of religious, institutional and personal connections. Its ties could have been in a scope similar to those Britain built with France, Germany or the Netherlands, but were impeded by the geographical distance before the industrial revolution. However, the significance of the older cultural exchanges (consider for example the link between the 14th/15th century reformers John Wycliffe and Jan Hus) and the intensity of more recent connections make the study of the relationship a worthwhile endeavour.

In modern times, this relationship was mostly cemented during the Second World War, when the Czechoslovak government-in-exile resided in London. Numerous democratic politicians together with the community of a few thousands exiled Czechoslovaks spent the war under British protection. This time represents a true highlight of the Anglo-Czechoslovak relations. The unique London moment, which aimed at the defeat of Nazism and was a background for plans for a better future – for both the nation states and for the entire continent, was also actively shaped by the Czechoslovak presence in the British capital.

This article, therefore, explores how the Anglo-Czechoslovak relationship looked like during the initial stage of the war. What were the underpinnings of the cooperation which was to last for almost six years? How did Czechoslovaks perceive their protector? How did the official political discourse differ from the general media discourse, which mainly focused on cultural and everyday sphere of life? Last but not least, what was casting a shadow on the mutual affection? 

Thanks to the newspapers (Čechoslovák v Anglii, Čechoslovák, Mladé Československo, Nové Československo, Nová svoboda) issued by Edvard Beneš’s government and other emigrant groups during the war, we can reconstruct the Czechoslovak mental map of London and Britain in surprising detail.

The first issue of Čechoslovák v Anglii was published on 16 October 1939. In line with the general expectation, the editorial staff expressed a sincere gratitude to the British for their hospitality and hoped for further fruitful cooperation in the fight against Nazi Germany. However, the very first article of the newspaper also contained an important remark regarding what was then still a recent past. The behaviour of the British Conservative government from September 1938, when it, together with France and Italy, agreed to advance the disputed Czechoslovak borderland to Germany, was now called by Czechs “morální směnka” (a moral bill of exchange).[1]

The overall political discourse as performed and expressed towards Britain in 1939 and 1940 could be characterized as predominantly pragmatical. The fact that the Munich Agreement had not led to a long lasting peace in Europe and that Britain found themselves in a comparable situation to Czechoslovakia just few months later – Germany was questioning its very existence and there was practically no one to help – bestowed Czechoslovaks with a feeling of palpable ethical superiority. The open disappointment and anger, which emanated from the whole Czechoslovak society after Munich was already evaporating as a result of the exile’s relocation from France to Britain. The interwar fondness of Britain was, however, not to be fully appreciated as the scars from Munich were to deep.[2]

“The moral bill of exchange” Czechs now possessed could in other words be interpreted as ‘we did not forget, we expect a compensation and we do not consider a place at fireside in a city that is expecting a shower of German bombs any minute, an equivalent to the Munich renunciation or guarantee of the renewal of Czechoslovakia after the war’. The words of the Conservative MP Alfred Bossom, who organized an excursion of the Czech Refugee Trust Fund into the Parliament in December, seem to reflect the relation similarly: “Every Englishmen is aware how much Britain and the whole world owes to Czechoslovaks for the sacrifice they made last year and are still making.”[3]

A completely other thing, of course, was that Beneš possessed no means of enforcement in relation to British. That resulted in a situation when the foreign policy of the exile started to reorient from the West to the East. The features of the post-war order were, however, in 1939 still blurry. Therefore, the exile government was keeping its opportunities open, which was manifested by the rhetoric about the “bridge between East and West”[4].

The only place where the Czechoslovak admiration of everything British was preserved and further flourished was the cultural and everyday sphere of life. To interpret the émigrés’ utterances of Britain properly, though, one has to realize that they mainly recruited from the privileged classes. The authors of the articles either worked for the Czechoslovak government-in-exile or belonged to the upper-middle class and managed to flee Czechoslovakia. Therefore, the images mirror almost fairy-tale like myth about the ‘good old England’ with all its traditionalist features. In other words, there were no stops done on the way from Putney, where the government-in-exile’s seat was, to Westminster. The far side of the English life with its slums and the exploited masses remained hidden to the majority of the Czechoslovak exiles.

The character of the writing of the Czechoslovak refugees living in England at the beginning of the war was mostly melancholic, as they missed home and sympathized with the fate of their fellow nationals, but often also cheerful. The new place was full of excitement. Their reportages often give the impression that England could easily be ‘the promised place under the sun’. One of them described the Czechoslovak community as “people on an iceberg” – “dancing, smoking, angry individualists in a Victorian castle in a picturesque secluded provincial town” who argue about closets (A/N: which are lacking in the temporary homes) but not about margarine.[5]

The dramatic image of the iceberg unambiguously refers to loneliness. The dance and cigarettes, though, bring the reader to a party far away from war. Of particular interest is also the joke about the unpopular substitute of butter. It aptly demonstrates that Czechoslovaks were often borrowing the English sense of humour to face the horrors of the war. The topics of blackout[6] and separation of children from their parents[7] were treated in the newspapers likewise. The humour was complemented in the Czechoslovak images of Britain in 1939 and 1940 by an open fascination with English calmness, inborn love to democracy, refinement and aesthetic qualities.

The projection of manifold ideals and the adoption of a similar rhetorical style, thus, represent the most significant characteristics of the Czechoslovak reflection of Britain in the months following the arrival in the country. The political discourse of the government was far more reserved in comparison. The Munich Conference was presented as a source of Czechoslovak ethical superiority. The relationship was, however, to remain more than cordial until the end of the war firstly due to the shared cause and secondly to the proximity of values, which were cherished by the leaders of the First Czechoslovak republic, and the inspiration of which came from nowhere else but from Western Europe.

To find out more about the Czechoslovak exile in London, you are welcome to follow my posts at the London Moment blog.

[1] „Úvodem“, Čechoslovák v Anglii, October 16, 1939, 1.

[2] Czechoslovakia was during the interwar period strongly oriented to Western Europe. France was considered the closest ally (Treaty of Alliance was signed in 1924). Britain was, however, in the cultural sphere admired on a comparative level. For more see Johana Kudrnová, „The End of Faith in Burning Lights in England: The Transformation of Britain’s Position on the Czech Mental Map in 1938 (Diploma Dissertation, Charles University in Prague, 2017).

[3] „Uprchlíci v anglickém parlamentu“, Čechoslovák v Anglii, December 22, 1939, 9.

[4] See Igor Lukeš, Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: The Diplomacy of Edvard Beneš in the 1930’s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Christiane Brenner, Mezi východem a západem: České politické rozpravy 1945-1948 (Praha: Argo, 2015).

[5] „Somewhere in England“, Čechoslovák v Anglii, 16 October, 1939, 3.

[6] „Beseda: Blackout“, Čechoslovák v Anglii, 19 January, 1940, 3.

[7]  B. Londoner, „Děti v blackoutu“, Čechoslovák v Anglii, 15 December, 1939, 3.


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