Early History of Theresienstadt

Bastion on southeast side of the old fortress, Sudeten mountains in background

Theresienstadt, now known as Terezin, is a tiny 18th-century walled town which is located on the main road that connects the German city of Dresden with Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic.

The Czechs initially had their own dynasty, known as the Premyslides; the "Good King Wencelas" was the ruler of the Czechs in the 10th century. The Czech homeland of Bohemia, which along with Moravia, now constitutes the Czech Republic, came under the rule of the Austrian Hapsburg empire in 1526. It was Joseph II of the Hapsburg family, the ruler of the Austrian Empire, who built the town and named it Theresienstadt (Theresa's city) after his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. This is the same Joseph II, in whose honor Josefov, the Jewish quarter in Prague, was originally named Josefstadt in 1850. Although his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, was an anti-Semite who had expelled the Jews from the Austrian empire for three years, Joseph II was an enlightened monarch who emancipated the Jews of Prague when he became Emperor in 1780 after the death of his mother.

In 1780, when the town of Theresienstadt was originally built as a military garrison at the junction of the Ohre and Elbe rivers, near the Sudeten mountain range in the province of Bohemia, the Czech people, who had lived in this area since the 5th century, did not have an independent country of their own.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I, the Hapsburg Empire, by then a multi-ethnic country called Austria-Hungary, was broken up into the separate independent countries of Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. The new country of Czechoslovakia was made up of the former states of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Russian Ruthenia and part of Silesia. Czechs and ethnic Germans had been living side by side in Bohemia for over a thousand years, and the new country had a population of 6 million Czechs, 3.5 million Germans and 2 million Slovaks. The Czechs and Slovaks were both Slavic people, like the Russians and the Poles, but the Germans were a completely different ethnic group which had rarely intermarried with the Slavs. Theresienstadt is located right between the border region (the Sudetenland), where the ethnic Germans were concentrated before World War II, and the rest of Bohemia where the Czechs were the majority.

The history of the German people in Europe goes back 2,000 years to the early days of the Roman Empire, but Germany was not yet a united country when Theresienstadt was built; in 1780 the German people lived in a collection of small states, each separately ruled by a prince or a duke; the two most powerful German states were Prussia, ruled by the Hohenzollern family, and Austria, ruled by the Hapsburg family.

The vast territory in central Europe, which was the homeland of the various German tribes, had become the Holy Roman Empire, beginning on Christmas Day in the year 800 when the Pope crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor, Karl der Grosse, who was the king of a German tribe known as the Franks. The country that we call France is referred to by the Germans as Frankreich, which means the empire of the Franks. In American history books, Karl der Grosse is known by the French name Charlemagne. The Holy Roman Empire which included Prussia, Austria, and Bohemia along with many other small states, was the first German empire or the First Reich. It lasted until 1806 when it was dissolved by Napoleon after his conquest of the German states.

Germany finally became a united country for the first time in 1871, following the Franco-Prussia war. France had declared war on Prussia but the Prussians won and the French were forced to give back the last of the Germany territory that had been conquered by Napoleon, along with Alsace and Lorraine which the French had held for over 200 years.

On January 8, 1871 Kaiser Wilhelm I of the Hohenzollern family, who was then the King of Prussia, was crowned in the Hall of Mirrors at the French palace of Versailles, as the first Kaiser (emperor) of all the German states. On this date, the new country of Germany was born, but it was to last for only 48 years. It was in this same room in the palace at Versailles in 1919 that the Germans were forced to sign the treaty which ended World War I and resulted in the loss of 20 million German citizens who became citizens of other new countries that were formed by the treaty. The post-war country of Germany was reduced to three quarters of the size it had been when it was formed in 1871 and the long reign of the Hohenzollern family came to an end. In Austria, the Hapsburgs also lost their empire, and a new era of democracy and independent nations was born.

While it lasted, the country of Germany under the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm I and then his son Kaiser Wilhelm II, was known to historians as the second German empire, or the Second Reich. Hitler's twelve year regime, which began in 1933, is referred to as the Third Reich, or third German empire. For the first time, the German people were united into "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer" or one People, one Nation, one Leader.

Under Hitler, the Germans had for the first time in their history a strong central government in which the individual states had little power. In 1938 and 1939, Hitler realized his dream of reuniting all the ethnic Germans when he annexed Austria, the Sudetenland, Silesia and Memel (an East Prussian city given to Lithuania after World War I) into what he called the Greater German Reich. Bohemia and Moravia became a German protectorate. The Greater German Reich consisted of approximately the old territory of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in its later years.

At the end of World War II in 1945, the Greater German Reich was split up: most of Silesia was given back to Poland; Memel became part of the Soviet Union and Austria became an independent country. The Old Reich, as Germany itself was called, was divided into West Germany and East Germany. Bohemia and Moravia were given back to Czechoslovakia.

In the days of the old Holy Roman Empire, the emperors were elected by the dukes and princes who ruled the states which comprised the empire. Rudolf, the first emperor from the Hapsburg family, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1273. The Hapsburgs then became the archdukes of Austria, which was a province in the Holy Roman Empire before it split off into a separate empire. By the time that Theresienstadt was built, the Holy Roman Empire had become more of an Austrian Empire than an empire of all the German people. The Hapsburgs of Austria were trying to maintain their dominant position of power in the Holy Roman Empire, while their rivals in Prussia, the Hohenzollerns, were trying to gain power. Theresienstadt was built as a fortress to defend Prague in the event of a Prussian invasion by way of the Dresden - Prague highway or the Elbe waterway.

In 1780 when Theresienstadt was built, the Prussian ruler was Frederick the Great of the Hohenzollern family. He was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson in America, and a man with similar qualities. He built the magnificent Sans Souci palace at Potsdam where President Harry Truman met with the other victorious allies after World War II to carve up Germany. At the palace, King Frederick entertained many brilliant men, such as his great friend, the French writer Voltaire, just as Jefferson invited celebrities to Monticello, his beautiful residence in Virginia. Like Jefferson, Frederick the Great was a musician and a writer. He earned the title of "the Great" after Prussia was defeated in the Seven Years War by Austria and Russia, but he managed to save Prussia from complete ruin and keep the valuable province of Silesia, which later became the prime industrial area of Germany before it was given to Poland after World War I.

In 1772, Frederick the Great had added, without going to war, a chunk of Polish territory to Prussia in the "First Partition of Poland." (After the Third Partition in 1795, Poland ceased to exist as a country and her former territory was in the hands of Prussia, Austria and Russia until after World War I when Poland finally regained its independence.) Prussia was now well on its way to hegemony in the German lands, but then the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II, made a claim to the large southern German state of Bavaria and was planning to add this large state to the Hapsburg empire. Frederick the Great backed the other claimant to the Bavarian throne, Count Palatine Charles, and a short war was fought between Prussia and Austria in which the Austrians were defeated.

When Joseph II again tried to take over Bavaria, Frederick the Great organized the League of German Princes and the Hapsburgs were driven out of Bavaria. The formation of this League was Frederick the Great's greatest accomplishment, as it led to Prussia's later undisputed leadership of the German states and the eventual unification of Germany by the Prussians.

It was in the middle of this territorial fight between Prussia and Austria that the Austrians thought it necessary to build a military garrison at Theresienstadt for protection against the Prussians and their powerful army, led by Frederick the Great. Only after the formation of the new country of Czechoslovakia, following World War I, did the town became known by the Czech name Terezin (pronounced TARA-zeen which rhymes with kerosene).

Intended to accommodate 14,500 soldiers at the most, Theresienstadt was originally built as a fortified town surrounded by two sets of brick walls and bastions jutting out on all sides, resembling the points of a star, with a wide moat between the walls. The construction of these ramparts and the barracks for the soldiers took ten years to complete.

The anticipated attack by the Prussians never came, and the fortifications were never tested; the moat was never filled, except for a little water used as a test just after the walls were built. Theresienstadt is on the west bank of the Ohre river, and on the east bank, the Emperor built a separate smaller fortress, also surrounded by brick walls, bastions at the corners, and a moat. The Small Fortress was built as a prison and was used for this purpose throughout its history, up until recent times when it was converted into a museum.

The most famous inmate of the Small Fortress was Gavrilo Princip, the teen-aged anarchist from Serbia, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an act that touched off World War I in 1914. Princip is today regarded as a hero by the people of the Czech Republic because they gained their independence from the Germans as a result of World War I.

The last prisoners to be held at the Small Fortress were German war criminals who were incarcerated there by the Allies from 1945 to 1948, awaiting trial and execution. Thus, the fortress at Theresienstadt, which had never been used for its original purpose, was nevertheless involved in two world wars.

The Czechoslovak Republic was founded on October 28, 1918, before the end of World War I, by Tomas G. Masaryk, who strongly supported Zionism and opposed anti-Semitism. Masaryk had an American wife and during the war, he had frequent talks with President Woodrow Wilson to gain support for Czech independence. As a strong supporter of the Jews, Masaryk had made a name for himself when he publicly sided with the Jews in the blood libel case in the town of Polna in 1899. (There is an exhibit about this case in the Maisel Synagogue in Prague.)

Thomas G. Masaryk became the first president of the new country of Czechoslovakia which was set up in accordance with Wilson's Fourteen Points, on which the Armistice was signed to end World War I on November 11, 1918.

After he had united Germany and Austria in March 1938, Hitler began complaining that the Czechs were mistreating and discriminating against the 3.5 million ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia, who had been citizens of Austria-Hungary before World War I. Political parties, which were pro-Nazi, had been banned in Czechoslovakia and ethnic Germans who supported Hitler were being jailed. The Czechs hated the ethnic Germans because they had been under the rule of the Germans in the Austrian Hapsburg Empire for over 600 years before they gained their independence. On the other hand, the Slovaks tended to be anti-Semitic and they supported the Nazis. The very first Jews to be sent to Auschwitz and Majdanek were Slovaks who had already been put into labor camps in their own country.

Great Britain, France and Italy assumed responsibility for the conflict in Czechoslovakia since they had signed the Treaty of Versailles which ended the war and stripped the Germans and Austrians of a big chunk of their former territories. Czechoslovakia had become a country as a result of that treaty. America also fought on the side of the Allies in World War I, but did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles because it included the League of Nations, which the American Congress voted not to join.

Austria-Hungary and Germany both signed an Armistice based on the Fourteen Points proposed by Woodrow Wilson, the American President during the war years. One of the key points was self-determination which meant that all ethnic groups had the right to determine the country in which they would live. This point of Wilson's Fourteen Points was violated by the Treaty of Versailles when half a million Poles and a million Hungarians, along with three and a half million ethnic Germans became citizens of the new country of Czechoslovakia, which was dominated by the Czechs.

In answer to Hitler's complaints, the British formed a commission to study the problem. This resulted in the Munich agreement, signed on Sept. 30, 1938 between Germany, France, Italy and Great Britain, in which the borderland known as the Sudetenland, with its predominantly German population, was given to Germany. There were also 45,000 Jews living in the Sudetenland who were handed over to Hitler as a result of the Munich appeasement. The Sudetenland had formerly been part of the Austrian Empire but by 1938, Austria was part of the new Greater German Reich created by Hitler in the Anschluss with Austria. The unification of Germany and Austria had been expressly forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles, but the Allies did not protest this violation of the treaty. The Czech government did not have a say in the Munich agreement, since the country of Czechoslovakia was not in existence before the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

Theresienstadt was right on the dividing line between the Sudetenland and the remaining part of Czechoslovakia with the demarcation line being immediately alongside the town's fortifications. As soon as the Germans arrived to take over the Sudetenland, 25,000 of the Jews living there fled across the border into Theresienstadt and some of them took temporary refuge in the Small Fortress.

Eduard Benes, who replaced Masaryk as president of Czechoslovakia in 1935, had been opposed to the Germans in World War I. During the period between wars, Benes was a strong supporter of the League of Nations and was active in trying to prevent Germany from regaining military power. As an opponent of Fascism, Benes had complained to the League of Nations many times when Hitler began to violate the terms of the Versailles Treaty by rearming and placing troops in the Rhineland on the border between France and Germany.

The Munich "appeasement" of Hitler was intended to prevent another world war, but soon afterwards, Hitler demanded the resignation of Benes, his unrelenting opponent, who was agitating against the German takeover of the Sudetenland. In an effort to maintain peace, Benes resigned and went to England where he set up a Czech government in exile.

On March 14, 1939, following the resignation of Benes, Slovakia declared itself an independent state under the rule of Father Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest and a Nazi supporter. On the following day, the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia and took over the rest of the country without a fight. The states of Bohemia and Moravia, which had been dominated by the Germans for centuries under the Holy Roman Empire, became a German Protectorate. The Czech town of Terezin became once again a German town, and the name was changed back to the original name of Theresienstadt.

The Czechs fought as partisans against the Fascists in World War II, even sending men from England into Czechoslovakia by parachute to assassinate a top Nazi, SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. According to Ben G. Frank in his book entitled "A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe," over 50% of the Czech partisans were Jews.

After Slovakia split off into an independent country, it became an ally of the German Fascists. The rest of the small states in Czechoslovakia were taken over by Poland and Hungary to bring their former citizens back into their respective countries in accordance with Wilson's Fourteen Points. Hungary became a Fascist ally of Germany, but there was still an ongoing dispute between Germany and Poland over the territory which Germany had lost to Poland after World War I. Germany had been divided into two parts, separated by the Polish Corridor which was created to give the Poles access to the port of Danzig.

Once again, Hitler used the excuse that ethnic Germans were being mistreated and discriminated against when he invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 after efforts to resolve the problem peacefully had failed. Allegedly, 58,000 ethic Germans had been killed since April 1939 when the Germans first started trying to negotiate for a right-of-way across the Polish Corridor. Without a highway or railroad through the Corridor, the Germans could only access the eastern part of Germany by boat.

At the heart of the dispute between Germany and Poland was the free city of Gdansk, formerly the German city of Danzig, with its 100% German population, which was taken from the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles. Another bone of contention was the industrial section of Silesia which was given to Poland after World War I. In a self-determination vote, the people of Silesia had voted to become part of Germany, but this was ignored by the League of Nations, even though this was one of Wilson's Fourteen Points. Although war had been avoided in the conflict between the Germans and the Czechs, this time there was no "appeasement" of Hitler. Great Britain and France, after signing an agreement to protect Poland in case of an attack by Germany, were forced to declare war on Germany and World War II began two days after the Germans fired the first shots near Danzig on September 1, 1939.

Ramparts and dry moat surround Theresienstadt

It was not long before Hitler's prediction, that another world war would mean the annihilation of the European Jews, became an actuality. Theresienstadt soon became one of the most infamous transit centers in Hitler's systematic plan to exterminate European Jewry. With the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, Czechoslovakia again became an independent country and all the ethnic Germans, except for the few who could prove that they were anti-Fascist during the war, were expelled from their homes and sent into war-torn Germany, many of them dying along the way from hunger and exhaustion. The Czechs and the Jews exacted their revenge by attacking these refugees as they fled to Germany. Many of the refugees had to live for as long as 18 years in the former Nazi concentration camps, such as Dachau, until they could find new jobs and homes, as Germany was slowly rebuilt. As soon as a typhus epidemic at Theresienstadt was brought under control, the prisoners were released and the Small Fortress became a prison for German Nazis from 1945 to 1948.

In its long and ignominious history, Theresienstadt has come full circle and is now the Czech town of Terezin, although Czechoslovakia has now been split once again into the two independent countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

History of the Theresienstadt Ghetto

Death Statistics of Theresienstadt Ghetto

The Red Cross Visit


This page was last updated on July 17, 2009