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Prague's war: Legacy of questions

Prague's war: Legacy of questions

Posted: May 05, 2005

By Peter Kononczuk

Historians still debate myths and mysteries of the liberation

By Peter Kononczuk

Staff Writer

The liberation of Czechoslovakia from German rule 60 years ago left behind a number of controversies and puzzles. The Prague Post examines some of the questions posed to this day about the momentous events of 1945.

Q Why, after liberating west Bohemia, did the Americans not advance to Prague? If they had entered the capital, as they could have done in a matter of hours, surely it would have been much more difficult to turn postwar Czechoslovakia into a Soviet satellite.

A Many concur that the country was handed over to the Soviet sphere of influence at the Yalta conference of February 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt, Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill met to discuss not just the close of the war but the shape of postwar Europe. But author and historian Jindrich Marek contends this interpretation is a myth.

U.S. General George S. Patton, whose Third Army entered the west Bohemian city of Plzen May 6, 1945 (See story, page A3), wanted to continue to Prague to liberate the last European capital still under Nazi control.

In fact, according to journalist and historian Steven Watsky, on May 5, U.S. Army intelligence officer Eugene Fodor, who went on to found Fodor's Guides, was among a group who slipped into Prague to reconnoiter, driving an American jeep through Wenceslas Square to the cheers of Czechs.

Locals thought they were seeing the vanguard of Patton's army, and several German soldiers tried to surrender to the bewildered Fodor. He called Patton and told him Prague was an open city, adds Watsky, who has researched a book on the last days of World War II.

Patton, however, had direct orders from Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander in Europe, not to move into the capital. Marek points out that Eisenhower wanted to maintain cooperation with the Soviet Union, which had promised to enter the war against Japan after the end of fighting in Europe.

The result: Soviet troops entered Prague May 9 while the Americans remained in Plzen.

Tomas Jakl, a historian from the Military History Institute in Prague who specializes in World War II, says, "The Yalta conference really didn't discuss Czechoslovakia. It had other issues like Poland, but Czechoslovakia was not on the agenda."

Watsky counters that the Yalta conference "drew a line at Germany and everything east of Germany was under Stalin's influence. It's by default that [the country] became a Soviet sphere."

Q The five-day Prague Uprising against German rule that broke out May 5 saw the loss of some 2,000 lives. Was it really necessary, so close to the end of the war, when German capitulation was imminent?

A Some historians say that the uprising had been planned by resistance leaders for a long time but that they were caught by surprise when it broke out.

A key moment came when Czech police decided May 5 to take control of the public radio building behind the National Museum. Clashes broke out between the police and German troops sent as reinforcements to the scene. The station staff broadcast a call for help.

Citizens responded and from then on, "it was like a domino effect which no one could stop," says Marek.

Q Who played the leading role in the uprising?

A After coming to power in 1948, the communists claimed all credit for the uprising, persecuting noncommunists who played a significant role, such as Czech Army officers, policemen, scouts and other young people, according to Marek.

Jaroslav Hrbek, of the Contemporary History Institute in Prague, says a key factor was the intervention of Vlasov's Army, a group formed by renegade Soviet General Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov.

After being captured by the Nazis in 1942, Vlasov professed that he hated Stalin and persuaded the Germans to allow him to form 50,000 prisoners of war from the Soviet Union into a force that would fight the Red Army. But Vlasov turned on his Nazi masters and, after pleas for help from uprising leaders, his army marched to Prague.

Without Vlasov's troops, "the uprising would have collapsed. Vlasov's army was well organized and, unlike the uprising forces, had its own artillery," says Hrbek.

Marek, however, says Vlasov's army "offered a lot of help, but to say that they actually saved the uprising is as extreme as saying that it [the uprising] was entirely conducted by the communists."

Q After the uprising, Vlasov's men handed themselves over to the Americans - who then handed them over to the Russians. Why did U.S. commanders do this? They were condemning Vlasov's troops to a cruel fate.

A Stephen Weeks, a writer and filmmaker who has penned a novel set against the background of the Prague Uprising, calls the handover of Vlasov's men to the Soviets "one of the most extraordinary betrayals of history."

"The officers ended up sentenced never to see daylight again - to be worked to death underground in mines in the Urals," adds Weeks.

Jakl, however, points out that under a repatriation treaty signed at the Yalta conference, all former Soviet citizens had to be returned to the USSR.

- Petr Kaspar contributed to this report.

Peter Kononczuk can be reached at

By Peter Kononczuk

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