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

Peter Demetz

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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In this book, a successor to Prague in Black and Gold, Peter Demetz's account of more than a thousand years of Central European history, the scholar focuses on just six short years—a tormented, tragic, and unforgettable time in Prague's history. He was living in the country then—a "first-degree half-Jew," according to the Nazis' categorization. In Prague in Danger, he joins his objective chronicle of the city under German occupation with his personal memories of that period: from the morning of March 15, 1939, when Hitler arrived from Berlin to set his seal on the Nazi takeover of the Czechoslovak government, until the liberation of Bohemia in April 1945, after long seasons of constant fear and loss.

Demetz interweaves a clear, thorough account of the German authorities' diplomatic, financial, and military machinations with a description of Prague's evolving resistance and underground opposition. Along with his private experiences, he offers the heretofore untold history of an effervescent, unstoppable Prague whose urbane heart went on beating despite the deportations, murders, cruelties, and violence: a Prague that kept its German- and Czech-language theaters open, its fabled film studios functioning, its young people in school and at work, and its newspapers on press. This complex book is filled with rare human detail and warmth, the story of a great city meeting the dual challenge of occupation and of war.


Praise for Prague in Danger

"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)' . . . 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 . . . Demetz's detailed account of Hácha's journey to Berlin and his fateful conference with Hitler and his henchmen, which opens the book, is the first of many tense pieces, which might have been lifted straight from an Eric Ambler novel or one of Graham Greene's early 'entertainments' . . . Demetz, who emigrated to America in 1948 and is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Germanic Language and Literature at Yale, writes of these matters with a remarkable combination of historical measuredness and personal immediacy—as he says. 'I know, I was there'—dividing his book between alternating chapters on public events and his own experiences and those of his family . . . Prague in Danger is peppered throughout with fascinating stories, from the larger world of the city but also from the smaller ones of his mother's and father's families. In a brief but splendidly written meditation on a photograph taken in 1912 of a family group on his mother's side, Demetz manages to encapsulate something of the fate of the Jews in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century."—John Banville, The New York Review of Books

"Who remembers that for six terrible years, from 1939 to 1945, Prague became one of the crown jewels of the German Reich—not just another occupied European city? Demetz, a longtime Yale professor of German and comparative literature, was actually there as a young man, and here he blends memory with meticulous scholarship to produce a portrait of this strange episode in the history of one of Europe's most vibrant and beautiful places. A new look into a neglected corner of life in the Third Reich, this book—which elucidates the extraordinary hubbub of activity in theaters, film studios, and other artistic realms—reminds us that even in the darkest periods of history, there are unexpected shafts of light."—The Atlantic Monthly

"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'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' . . . He provides bibliographical notes that show his familiarity with current Czech historical research as well as his knowledge of more dated works . . . 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 . . . 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, The Washington Post Book World

"For many years the cornerstone of Yale's distinguished Comparative Literature Department, Peter Demetz was a superb literary critic in the classroom and lecture hall and on paper. When, some years ago, he wrote Prague in Black and Gold, 'a history of my hometown from the sixth to the early twentieth century,' he proved to be a superb cultural historian as well. In Prague in Danger, he focuses on a mere six years of its history when it fell under the iron heel of Nazi rule as part of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia within Hitler's Third Reich. And once again, he shows those twin qualities of punctiliousness and passion which are his hallmark as he explores many aspects of life in those terrible years: Artistic, political, social and, above all, personal. Because he was actually there in Prague as observer and sometimes as participant in the eddies and crosscurrents of that tumultuous time. This intensely personal side to the book does not distract in the least from those sections which are detailed cultural history, beautifully and factually laid out. Indeed, Mr. Demetz's intimate knowledge of some of the places described and of the unique atmosphere of that period enhance every page. But the heart of the book—what makes it such a special and above all valuable document and testament—are those sections (printed in a different typeface) which are straight autobiography. So while it is fascinating to read how theater and moviemaking managed to continue even under the rigid Nazi occupation and other aspects of normal life persisted for so many in Prague, what one takes away in the final analysis are those first-person accounts . . . This book is imbued with a sense of loss intensely personal although surrounded by so many echoes of others. Fortunate enough to survive the war in a labor battalion after various other occupations, and adventures across the Reich, all vividly described in Prague in Danger . . . the young Czech was able to return to his birthplace, eager at twenty three to begin his university studies. But after harrowing—but mercifully ultimately anodyne brief encounters with Auschwitz and with Gestapo interrogation, Mr. Demetz returned to a land increasingly haunted by the specter of a new totalitarian tyranny which was to hold sway over it for four decades . . . One of the virtues of Mr. Demetz's book is his reminder that many of those German-speakers fellow citizens who maintained the city's Germanophone cultural institutions were in fact anti-fascist, many, but not all of them by any means, Jews . . . What a fine man, what a fine book, we have here."—Martin Rubin, The Washington Times

"Peter Demetz, the Czech-born Yale professor whose Prague in Black and Gold covered a thousand years of Bohemian history, literature, and art as if it were Finnegans Wake, returns in Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1935-45—Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, the Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War to finish what he started, discarding the wide-angle for the close-up. He was a boy when Hitler arrived from Berlin on March 15, 1939. He lived through the occupation, 'first-degree' half-Jewish and the rest of him literary/cinematic, thanks to a resourceful mother, good luck, and quick wits. He survived the death camps; his mother didn't. We eavesdrop on his personal story in fleeting italics interpolated on the run between chapters of a bigger picture of accommodation and resistance of hypocrisy and wishful thinking, of going-along-to-get-along and a denial almost catatonic. In this erstwhile multiculture, now gone the fratricidal way of Sarajevo, there had been two languages, German and Czech, many more dialects, thousands of exiles and refugees, very long memories, Kafka of course but also Brecht and Yiddish theater, and Arthur Schnitzler, Frank Wedekind, and Max Brod, even the poems and essays of Heinrich Heine, until all of a sudden there weren't. Demetz names names—of the ultraright nationalists who thought they could outsmart 'Czech Gestapism'; the liberal leftists incapable of appreciating the death of reason; the writers, actors, editors, and musicians who tried to behave as if art would go on while politics couldn't; the Stalinists biding their time and waiting their turn; the feckless young with their bicycles and their hormones. All of this is brilliantly evoked, only to break our hearts. We are once again stupefied by just how busy the Nazis were, with their fantasies and lists. How proud their mothers must have been when they banned Prague's Jews from buying first tobacco and apples, then cheese and fish, then coffee and onions."—Harper's Magazine

"Prague in Danger is a compulsive read, and very finely done. There is by now a mass of more or less analytical commentary on the Protectorate, and of course we have powerful memoirs and personal testimony. But I haven't seen the two genres combined in this way, and with such great sensitivity to the interplay of public and private. Demetz conveys very poignantly, and with sharp insight, just what it was like to live day to day in occupied Prague, and moreover to live right at the intersection of the Czech, Jewish and German spheres. He embodies exactly what was destroyed by Nazi thuggery and then by Czech vengefulness . . . the forays into cultural history—of jazz or film, for example, or about Orten and Jesenska . . . [convey] a flavour of the period and place. The politics are likewise depicted with a sure touch and sound judgment, as well as with an eye for the unfamiliar vignette, even in the case of the best-known episodes. Demetz's book should sharpen many readers' sense of the peculiar tragedy of the very last phase of the old multicultural Prague whose downfall he chronicles."—Robert Evans, Regius Professor of History, Oxford University

"Prague-born historian Demetz covers a vast amount of political and cultural material, veering between scholarly and autobiographical approaches. [An] academic analysis . . . with rich, balanced profiles of significant figures ranging from Konstantin von Neurath, the Nazi-installed leader of Bohemia and Moravia, to Franz Kafka's beloved Milena Jesenska, an essayist who was active in the resistance movement. The half-Jewish Demetz, who lost several family members in concentration camps, also includes detailed descriptions of the impact on Jews' daily lives of Nazi racial policies, which could be as petty as bans on the purchase of fruit and coffee. On the cultural front, Czech films, literature and music are viewed mainly through the prism of the era's political climate; Demetz discusses at length, for example, the role jazz played in inspiring members of the resistance . . . The book really shines, however, in the haunting accounts of the author's childhood and youth, including a 1944 stint in Prague's Pankrac prison: 'In the morning, when the guards banged on our door, the oldest of us had to shout "Alles gesund [All are healthy]," but that did not stop the guards from rushing in to dunk our heads in the toilet bowls or taking us out to the corridor to do special gymnastics.' Deftly mingling subjective and objective material, Demetz shines a bright literary light on an important piece of political and cultural history."—Kirkus Reviews

"Demetz takes a creative approach to this account of wartime Prague . . . Interspersing political and cultural history with snippets of memoir of his own wartime experiences and those of other Czechs, Demetz, whose mother was Jewish, focuses on politics and culture to explain how the Nazis ruled his home country and how the Czechs tried to hang on to their vivid prewar cultural life. Without avoiding the issue of collaboration with the Nazis, Demetz takes great pride in Czech resistance, both political and cultural, such as honoring the late president Masaryk on Hitler's birthday, on April 20. Demetz also focuses on individuals like Milena Jesenska, Kafka's onetime lover turned political writer, who was sent to Bergen-Belsen for helping Jews and others escape from Czechoslovakia. This history is both vivid and compelling, especially Demetz's personal stories. Some of those passages, particularly how a young Demetz dealt with romance and sex in a country ravaged by war, are achingly beautiful."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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Prague in Danger


President Hácha Travels to Berlin
Hitler never hesitated about his ultimate intent to create new "living space" (Lebensraum) for his...

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  • Peter Demetz

  • Peter Demetz is the author of many books, including The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 and Prague in Black and Gold. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  • Peter Demetz Isolde Ohlbaum