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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Ramparts and dry moat
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
This page was last updated on July 17,