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Under Siege
A Czech-born historian's personal chronicle of a great city under the yoke of occupation.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

PRAGUE IN DANGER

The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45

By Peter Demetz

Farrar Straus Giroux. 274 pp. $25

While the Holocaust is universally known, and the death and destruction inflicted on Poland during World War II widely so, the wartime fate of today's Czech Republic, known then as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, is less familiar. With his new book, Peter Demetz has given us an informative and personal history of the protectorate, one that makes evocative reading. Demetz, a professor emeritus of Germanic literature at Yale University and author of the highly regarded Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes from the Life of a European City, has fashioned an erudite combination of history and memoir, with memories of his youth alternating with the narrative of the political and cultural events of those turbulent years.

Demetz begins his story with the fateful March 1939 trip to Berlin of Czech president Emil Hácha. In the Reich's capital, Hácha was presented with an ultimatum: either permit the secession of the eastern province of Slovakia and accept the status of a German protectorate or face war. Having been abandoned by its allies at Munich in 1938, the state was clearly indefensible, and Hácha conceded. For the next six years, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was dominated by Nazi officials, with alternating periods of terror and calm. Demetz's narrative shows a historian's attention to detail, and his treatment of familiar characters -- Reichsprotectors Konstantin von Neurath and Reinhard Heydrich and Kafka's translator Milena Jesenská among them -- reveals psychological insight.

But Demetz truly shines in resurrecting less well-known characters, like Jirí Orten, the most promising poet of his generation, who died a tragic death in 1941 when a hospital refused to treat him (after he had been run down on the streets of Prague) because he was a Jew; and arch-traitor Emanuel Moravec, the protectorate government's minister of education and popular culture, known as the "Czech Quisling." Demetz's treatment of culture ranges widely, and his descriptions of developments in literature, jazz, theater and film, while occasionally overly encyclopedic, are similarly filled with valuable insights.

The rest of the book contains his often intensely personal experience of the protectorate and is fascinating in its own right. Half-Jewish on his mother's side (both his mother and grandmother were transported to their deaths early), Demetz was sent to a labor battalion in 1944 and eventually found himself in Auschwitz, but remarkably enough in the town jail rather than the death camp. From there he was taken to the notorious Pankrác prison, where he was treated ruthlessly by Gestapo interrogators for his involvement in a literary group that circulated illegal poetry. The war ends with Demetz and a friend liberating a police station and greeting Soviet troops. Throughout the memoir sections, he draws lively pictures of his family and friends, with his idiosyncratic father, who shows up at the most unexpected times and places after long absences, being perhaps the most intriguing character in the entire story.

Demetz's history is quite good throughout, with only a few small lapses, such as stating that "German troops readied to march across the [Czechoslovak] border in May of 1938," which is precisely the erroneous impression the Germans wanted to convey. He provides bibliographical notes that show his familiarity with current Czech historical research as well as his knowledge of more dated works. My only substantive criticism is one that applies to the literature on the protectorate as a whole, including Chad Bryant's fine new Prague in Black (a title that obviously refers to Demetz's earlier book). The entire body of work focuses too much on the first years of the occupation until the assassination of Heydrich in May of 1942; then there is a gap until the run-up to liberation. Prague in Danger suffers equally from this, as Heydrich's death comes roughly two-thirds of the way through. Still, Demetz did not set out to write the complete history of the protectorate, and what he has given us is undoubtedly successful. His personal story is gripping, although, unfortunately, not atypical of the fear and suffering inflicted on so many during those cruel years. What makes the book compelling is how well Demetz places his own unique experience against the backdrop of Prague and the catastrophe of World War II.

-- Bradley Abrams is the associate director of the Harriman Institute; his most recent book is "The Struggle for the Soul of the Nation: Czech Culture and the Rise of Communism."

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