44 Days in Prague: The Runciman Mission and the Race to Save Europe by Ann Shukman - review by Mark Cornwall

Mark Cornwall

Deep in the Czechoslovak Quagmire

44 Days in Prague: The Runciman Mission and the Race to Save Europe


Hurst 288pp £25

In the summer of 1938, the attention of the world was focused on the state of Czechoslovakia. At issue was what to many seemed a deeply moral question of whether democracy or dictatorship would prevail there. The country was suddenly awash with British visitors – politicians, journalists and curious tourists. The most important was Walter Runciman, who was there with his wife, Hilda, to act as a ‘mediator’ in the worsening crisis between the Czech government and the country’s German minority.

Relations between the Czech- and German-speaking populations in Bohemia had been strained for almost a  century. In Czechoslovakia, which had been independent since 1918, the key issue was how much devolution the government should concede to the German minority concentrated in the border territories (the Sudetenland). Hitler’s rise to power and his aggressive rhetoric had exacerbated the situation. Lord Runciman’s mission represented a last attempt to find a solution within the Czechoslovak state to the ‘Sudeten problem’.

For Runciman, ennobled only the previous year, it was an emotional rollercoaster involving regular false starts and setbacks. In one of his few public statements the usually reticent peer exclaimed, ‘Good men and women of Bohemia! … I want to build a bridge

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