On June 18 1992 Bridgwater became the first British town to twin with a town in Czechoslovakia after their Velvet Revolution. At the Medieval Sydenham Manor, then in the heart of the British Cellophane works in the east of Bridgwater, ornately costumed Slavic folk dancers in knee length leather boots, embroidered shirts and plume feathered hats skipped and pranced across the lawns with multi skirted puff sleeved ladies with scarves so tight that you could only see noses eyes and mouths whilst violins, clarinets and hammer dulcimers backed a lively Moravian chorus pierced by wild East European shrieks of ‘Yi,Yi Yahoo!’. Why on earth was this happening in Bridgwater of all places?
On June 18th 1942, 6 young Czech men and 1 Slovak had been holed up in the crypt of the church of St Cyril and St Methodius on Resslova street in Prague for almost a month and waiting for the right time before the priests would arrive with enough funereal coffins to smuggle them out and whisk them away into the Bohemian countryside and the freedom of the Czech resistance where they could continue the fight against the Nazis that were occupying their country. Trained by the British and dropped back into their homeland by parachute they had assassinated the Reichsprotektor Rheinhard Heydrich. Hitler’s ‘number 2’. And there comparisons with a shit are, well, pretty accurate.
Out of a whole continent full of Nazis, Heydrich was one of the worse. He had just put the finishing touches to the ‘Final Solution’-the Nazis racist programme for the elimination of Europe’s Jewish population in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau and the like, but also the destruction of organised political opposition to their one party totalitarian state seeing socialists, trades unionists, liberals all consigned to the death camps along with the handicapped, gays, gypsies, pacifists. All their societal victims who were either scapegoats they could unite the angry mass of the people about by pointing at them and blaming them for any and every perceived ill of society, or their political enemies who could organise and rally opposition and build a fightback against their evil system.
On May 27th 1942 Slovak fighter Josef Gabcik stepped out into a Prague street in front of Heydrich’s official car bringing it to a halt while his Czech partner Jan Kubis lobbed a grenade into the back of it. The monster was dead but the vengeance was terrible.
As the attackers escaped into the secret Crypt to join other parachutists, the Nazis randomly picked out the Czech mining village of Lidice, 5 miles from Prague and calmly filmed themselves massacring every man there, burning then razing the houses to the ground and even digging up the cemeteries of their ancestors. The children were segregated on racist lines, with the blond ones packed off to Germany for Aryanisation while the ‘non Aryan looking’ ended up in Auschwitz.
The Battle in the Crypt
On June 18 1942 Europe was totally occupied by the Fascists and although an International Rescue mission of British, Russians and Americans was massing it’s forces for an eventual liberation, to the 7 brave soldiers in the Crypt things looked bleak. One of their number-Karel Curda-had been so terrified by the Nazi oppression that he had gone to Gestapo headquarters and betrayed them in return for the safety of himself and his family.
As dawn broke on the 18th , 750 stormtroopers of the SS were in position to attack the building, capture the Czechs and , after a bit of a ‘show trial’ , publicly hang them. But the Czechs surprised them and fought back. Few in number and with little ammunition they shouted ‘We are Czech we will never surrender’ and fought to the last in that cold dark crypt underneath their capital city, the last 4 taking their own lives as the Nazis, losing almost 50 men in the attack, resorted to flooding the cellars.
A Far Off Country….
But why are we concerned about Czechoslovakia which was -as Neville Chamberlain said in 1938 ‘a far off country of which we know little’?
By 1938 Nazi Germany had rearmed and was annexing it’s neighbouring countries one by one. In September, rather than stand up and fight them, Britain and France agreed at the Munich Agreement to sacrifice multi-ethnic Czechoslovakia to the Nazis to ‘avoid a war’. Within 12 months of Munich that idea had proven misguided and the Second World War broke out lunging Europe into a dark age of Fascist murder seeing some 60 million people dead.
How did Britain and France simply let Hitler get away with it? If the Fascists are allowed to grow even slightly they multiply and conquer and oppress and murder. The British policy of ‘Appeasement’ allowed that to happen.
But not in Bridgwater.
The Bridgwater By-Election
We can be massively proud that Bridgwater alone in the UK stood up in 1938 and fought a by-election on the issue of opposing appeasement and fighting fascism and that the anti-appeasement candidate Vernon Bartlett won. Bridgwater was the only place in the UK that did this – stood up and opposed the Munich agreement. November 17 1938 the election was held and the next morning it was reported that Hitler almost choked on his cornflakes reading the name Bridgwater and it’s defiance on his newspaper. Good. For the full story click here.
Dates are odd things. November 17 1938 was the date of the Bridgwater BY-Election when the people of our town stood up against Fascism and for the Czechs and November 17th 1989 was the date of the Velvet Revolution when the Czechs stood up for themselves and overthrew the Communist system thereby opening up Eastern Europe to Western democracy and the wider world.
Another Bridgwater ‘First’
And June 18th 1942 was when the Czech soldiers -British trained to a man – chose to stand up and fight to the death against fascism rather than accept it taking over their country.
That’s why we chose June 18th 1992 as a symbolic date to make Bridgwater the first town in the UK to officially twin with a Czech town after the Velvet Revolution.
We welcomed Czechs and Slovaks to our town -home hosting them, linking with schools, taking Bridgwater students and musicians back over there. And this has been going on for 25 years now. We welcomed Czech, Slovak and other new workers as fellow Europeans and they welcomed Bridgwater people over to their town, some who still live there 25 years later. We chose to do this twinning because it was the right thing to do to help a continent divided by war and hatred for centuries come closer together. We welcomed the diversity of cultures that enriched our own and we strengthened our economy with the increasing taxes and funding for public services that the new workers wage packets contributed to. We chose the dates and the communities because of the anti-Fascist connection, because it is the iron machine heart of Fascism that has the power to divide and rule amongst it’s victims.
Fascism: A lesson from History
In 1938 Fascism was on the rise across Europe. A small sect of fanatical Nazis espousing policies of totalitarianism, racism and military expansion – how could they ever get into power in the 20th century?? Well, the same way as they’re doing today – by creating scapegoats to blame all our problems on. In 1938 it was jews, socialists, slavs in 2016 it’s immigrants, refugees, Brussels, while attacking what they call the ‘political elite’ (ie the MPs elected through a democratic system) and teaching the angry masses to hate, mobilise behind them and then kill.
After 1945 a continent recoiling from this horror resolved to unite and work together to finally remove the causes of war -disputed borders, economic influence and scant resources – and that union and peace holds to this day.
On this day in history today June 18th 2016 a supporter of Fascism who had just murdered 41 year old mother of 2, Labour MP Jo Cox, has given his name in court as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.
The fascists have not gone away and neither will we.