In recent years Stoke-on-Trent (Stoke) has become synonymous with the politics of the extreme right, with British National Party (BNP) councillors, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) targeting its parliamentary and council seats, and the press branding Stoke “the Brexit Capital of Britain” following its nearly 70% leave vote in the Brexit referendum.
This is a profound misrepresentation of the people of Stoke who have a deep compassion and internationalism that has been buried by populist politicians and a compliant media. On New Year’s day in 1942, at the height of World War II, when the outcome was still far from certain, an explosion at the Sneyd Colliery in Stoke killed 56 men and boys and injured many more. The local mining community was devastated.
Nevertheless, a few months later in September 1942, hundreds of miners met in Victoria Hall, Hanley, to pledge a day’s pay per week to rebuild the tiny village of Lidice in what is now the Czech Republic. Why?
Reinhard Heydrich, a close friend of both Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, was a key architect of the Nazi Holocaust, and had recently been put in overall control of Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia with the express task of stamping out the local resistance movement. On 27 May 1942 Heydrich was assassinated by two British trained Czech agents.
In a case of mistaken identity, the Nazis believed the agents had come from the small mining village of Lidice. Furious at the assassination of his friend Heydrich, Hitler ordered the complete destruction of the village. He didn’t just want to destroy Lidice, he wanted to destroy the memory of the village, with all trace of it removed from history – he declared that “Lidice shall die forever”.
On 10 June 1942 Nazi reprisals began. The village of Lidice was literally demolished to the ground – the buildings looted, set on fire, the ruins bulldozed, and the area landscaped.
All of the village animals were killed, the dead exhumed from the cemetery and even the local river was diverted away from the village. All of the men and boys aged fifteen and over, most of whom worked at the local coal mines, were rounded up and shot.
The women and children were sent to concentration camps with the exception of a few children who were seen as capable of being ‘Germanised’, so were sent to live with the families of SS officers. In total 192 men, 60 women and 88 children were murdered, with most of the children being sent to gas chambers.
The name of Lidice was removed from all official records.
As a warning to others who resisted Nazi occupation, the Nazis made no secret of what they had done. The destruction of Lidice was filmed by the Nazi propaganda machine, and the film was shown around the world.
News of the massacre quickly reached Stoke-on-Trent. Dr Barnett Stross, a local GP and councillor, worked closely with the Stoke mining community and had tried hard to improve their working conditions, including providing free health care in the days before the NHS. When he heard of Lidice, and Hitler’s declaration, his immediate response was “No. Lidice shall live”.
What better way to stand up to fascism, and to defy Hitler, than to fund the reconstruction of Lidice?
Hence the meeting in Victoria Hall, attended by 3,000 people including hundreds of miners and the Czech president in exile, to launch the Lidice Shall Live campaign, co-founded by Barnett Stross and Arthur Baddeley, president of the North Staffordshire Miners' Federation. The pledge by Stoke and North Staffordshire miners to give one day’s wages per week to rebuilding Lidice raised over £1 million in today’s money, and rebuilding Lidice began in 1947.
The first part of the village was completed in 1949, and a small number of surviving women and children returned. The only two men from the village to survive had served in the RAF during the war but were prevented from returning by the then communist Czech government. Barnett Stross was awarded the White Lion of Czechoslovakia in recognition of his work and became chairman of the British-Czechoslovakia Society.
In Stoke today you can find Lidice Way close to Victoria Hall, where there is a commemorative plaque to Stross and outside the bus station, a 6.8 metres tall monument to Lidice called Unearthed.
The village of Lidice stands today as a symbol of the incredible power of spirit of the people of Stoke, of their optimism, their internationalism, and faith that fascism would not prevail, then or now.
If you want to see the real heart of Stoke today, look to Lidice.