I’ve been watching, spellbound, a German documentary released in the wake of the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland. It’s entitled Sudeten Deutschland kehrt heim (“German Sudetes Come Home”), and I’m going to gloss over the debating point – delicious, though I trust a trifle too obvious for my discerning readers’ taste – of this being the crib upon which the year’s Kremlin sensation, Krym. Put’ na rodinu (“Crimea: The Way Home”), is based. A short version of the 1939 Tobis Wochenschau production is on the internet with Russian subtitles, as it happens, while those who understand German may find the original here.
The yeast of totalitarian demagoguery is invariant. It is the acts of historical injustice against the subject people which either have just been redressed or else – in the continuous tense favoured by political propagandists – are ready be redressed. Justifications of the present depend on crooked historians the way obsessive litigants do on legal aid, and sooner or later it all comes down to the cowboys stealing land from the Indians.
Accordingly, the film opens with a map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, on the tatters of which an artificial entity, Czechoslovakia, has been created. There the Sudeten Germans – though all those brave lads and lassies ever wanted is to eat bratwurst in peace and recite Lorelei to each other – are “constrained to live in a multinational state,” constrained just as criminally, perversely, and ruthlessly as “German Austria” was “forced to become independent.”
This is followed by a chronicle of the Sudeten Germans’ abuse at the hands of the Czechs. Psychologically, it is the weakest link in the argument, because we can imagine many a European nation as abusive and wicked bullies – Germany not least among them – but who’s ever heard of a vicious, manipulative, and powerful Czech? Italy had its Machiavelli, Spain its Inquisition, France its Guillotin, and even puny Romania had Vlad the Impaler, but a Czech monster is like a Russian jurist or an English chef – there just aren’t any.
Yet more implausible still is the moment when those twenty years of brutal oppression of “our German brothers” erupt into armed violence against them. Footage of a bus, allegedly full of German children and allegedly shelled by the Czechs – so like a Webster’s Dictionary woodcut to an entry on hearsay – is eerily reminiscent of many a recent casus belli, while “barricades” appear to have been constructed from what the average family man may expect to find in a broom closet.
What makes the transition genuinely problematic is that here the film’s narrator comes to rely on the word Macht. Perhaps because we foreigners largely know the word from Wehrmacht, to hear the narrator speak of a Czech Macht – suddenly unleashed upon the “disciplined” denizens of the Sudetes “who resisted every provocation” – is just about as hilariously funny as black-and-white propaganda footage ever gets. Of course, as fearsome and lethal as the Czech war machine is, in the end it fails to deter the real McCoy from doing the right thing by occupying the Sudetenland region in October 1938 and the rest of Czechoslovakia a couple of months later.
My father has always boasted of having seen just two films in a movie theater in his entire life, one a 1913 documentary on the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty and the other a musical comedy made under Stalin. I think he would love to see this on the large screen.
Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles. The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator. His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.