Monday, October 06, 2014

Battle of the Dukla pass: 70 years

Exactly 70 years ago, on October 6th, 1944, the Soviet and Czechoslovak troops finally reached the Dukla pass on the Slovak-Polish border. That was the most optimistic point of the battle of the Dukla pass, one of the toughest battles of the World War II in Central Europe. This battle may be mentioned as a part of the reason why so many Czechs and Slovaks, including your humble correspondent, think of the Russians as their natural allies of a sort.

You can study the history elsewhere but let me write down just a few comments. The "pass" is an interruption in a mountain range, a saddle, a point where it's much easier to get through the mountains. Dukla is a Polish town on the Northern side of the pass; towns like Svidník may be found on the Slovak side. The Dukla pass may be found in Northeastern Slovakia, on the Eastern side from the High Tatras, Slovakia's highest mountains.

In September 1944, the Slovak National Uprising against their clerofascist regime began. Note that the historical world lines of Czechia and Slovakia diverged in March 1939 when Hitler abused the some Slovak nationalism and separated Slovakia from Czechoslovakia. The Czech lands became the protectorate, i.e. a fully occupied territory where the Czech president and others were officially downgraded to puppets and the true leader was the "protector", a German.

On the other hand, Slovakia could maintain some independence so Slovak folks were really in charge of the country but it was "guaranteed from above" that these Slovak leaders had to be clerofascists, otherwise Slovakia would be in trouble.

The differences between the situations of Czechia and Slovakia seem obvious. Slovaks may be said to have enjoyed more freedom and safety against existential threats; on the other hand, Czechs may perhaps claim to have earned a greater moral capital from their status during the war (although this point is often overhyped). In practice, the life in Czechia and Slovakia wasn't "too different". The fascists – and from a geopolitical perspective, the Germans – were in charge of both parts of the country, anyway. And there were certainly millions of Slovaks as well as Czechs who found their life within the German-controlled Europe OK enough.

Days after the Slovak National Uprising began in September 1944, the Soviet Union was already prepared to show its support for Czechoslovakia in an operation that didn't have much chance to "completely succeed" and indeed, it didn't "quite" succeed. What do I mean by "Czechoslovakia" if the country was divided to politically very different parts? Well, I mean our official Czechoslovak democratic government whose headquarters were in London.

One must understand that at that point in 1944, there was already no doubt that the Soviet Union was an ally of the Czechoslovak government. Obviously, the Soviet Union was an ally of Britain, too, but our alliance with the Russian-led union was a bit tighter, for obvious reasons.

The plan was that the Red Army would help the Slovak National Uprising and perhaps restore the Czechoslovak government's rules on the Slovak territory. The Soviets were controlling the pieces of Poland on the Northern side and they just wanted to take (or help the Slovak anti-fascists to take) Slovakia. It wasn't just the 120,000-150,000 or so Soviet troops; they came along with almost 20,000 Czechoslovak troops (organized on the Soviet-controlled territory), too.

Ivan Konev was the most important Russian general in charge of the Red Army. The Czechoslovak army was initially led by Mr Jan Kratochvíl. However, this guy was too "Western" from the Soviet viewpoint and they wanted to replace him by someone more pro-Soviet. Fortunately for them, Kratochvíl has objectively screwed the first days of the battle and the Czechoslovak government in London agreed with the Soviet view that his performance was no good and fired him. He was replaced by general Ludvík Svoboda [Louis Freedom], a much more pro-Soviet guy with some Eastern front experience. That guy, a hero of Czechoslovakia, would become the president of Czechoslovakia some years after the 1968 Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia. It's a bit ironic because he wasn't a true representative of the hardcore Stalinists who were supposed to return to power because of that occupation. But he was just respected by the Czechoslovaks as well as the Soviets which made him a very good guy for the period of "normalization". I still remember posters of Svoboda in the kindergarten when he died (about 1 year before I joined a basic school LOL).

But let me return to 1944. They would be fighting really intensely. Note that the enemy side, the fascists, included both German and Hungarian troops. Their fights were so synchronized that sources usually can't separate their number, 100,000, to the German and Hungarian contribution at all. On both sides, something comparable to 70,000+ troops were injured.

About 10,000 fascist troops have been killed. On our side, "only" about 1,000 Czechoslovak soldiers died. That should be added to the 10,000 or 20,000 dead Soviet soldiers: different historians really disagree about the figures. At any rate, the Soviet losses were huge.

They would try to take a hill twice or thrice a day even if the soldiers were too tired. You can imagine that such a strategy leads to excessive casualties. Some historians would conjecture that this "overusage" was employed deliberately for the USSR to weaken the Czechoslovak army. But I agree with most of the historians that there was no malicious intent here. This wasteful way to organize the battles is simply how the Red Army always operated. After all, it's obvious that the Soviet casualties were still much higher than the Czechoslovak casualties, perhaps even higher on the per-capita basis.

I know that some people don't want to hear any good words about the Russians etc. But I can't help myself. I do think that the dead Soviet soldiers were 10,000-20,000 lives that the Soviet Union had sacrificed for the freedom of Czechoslovakia. I can't imagine how this sacrifice could be overlooked, neglected, or how it could have failed to influence the post-war evolution of Czechoslovakia (however unfortunate it may seem to me) – especially if you realize that our Western European allies have never done anything remotely comparable for us.

One simply shouldn't forget about the casualties, like the 10,000-20,000 dead Soviet soldiers, when we talk about the 1968 Warsaw Pact occupation of Czechoslovakia. The latter event has surely and hugely harmed Czechoslovakia economically and morally for more than 20 years. On the other hand, the invasion primarily led to a huge bureaucratic hassle, not to extermination. The number of Czechoslovak citizens killed during the (huge) invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies was about 100. This figure is nowhere near those 10,000-20,000 dead Soviet soldiers around the Dukla pass.

Because I think that the survival – the human life – is still more important than a political advantage for one group of communists or another (and because of many other reasons that I have described in the past), I simply have to consider the 1944-1945 events to be more important for my feelings about the Czech-Russian military relationships than the 1968 events.

At any rate, they finally reached the Dukla pass – they became able to see into Slovakia – on 6th of October, 1944. However, that didn't mean any significant victory in practice because by that time, the fascists have massively fortified the region (and crushed the Slovak National Uprising by that time) so the Soviet and Czechoslovak troops couldn't penetrate any deeper into Slovakia. For those reasons, some people say that the whole project was a hopeless waste of lives.

The long battle was useful for other reasons, however. It was binding a huge amount of German troops. Also, a less important territory on the East from Czechoslovakia could have been fully liberated in the wake of the Dukla pass operations (well, the Subcarpathian Rus, previously a Czechoslovak territory, was retaken). The name of the territory is Ukraine.

Many of us, myself included, surely want to think about the present and the future instead of "resolving" some historical events. But the history can't really become irrelevant for the sentiment in various nations. Poland, much like Western Ukraine, was trying to fight both sides (Nazis and Soviets) in some way, at least up to some point, which doesn't really mean that they were the good guys. For an example showing that the Poles were no further from Germany than from the USSR in the war, the German soldiers' memorial above is located in Krzanowice, Poland (I don't think we have any similar memorials to German WW2 soldiers in Czechia!). Slovakia was "officially" on the side of the Third Reich but in 1944, much of the nation started to recognize itself as a part of Czechoslovakia again which was an ally against Germany. Our Czechoslovak troops that were viewed as heroes by almost everyone after the war did fight along with the Soviet groups and this just can't be an inconsequential fact.

In our case, the opposition to the sanctions against Russia isn't just due to some sort of down-to-earth, purely materialistic thinking about trade – even though the good business with Russia and others is obviously more important for us (pragmatic nation(s)) than for others. It's partly due to the history that has poured the Czechoslovak and Soviet blood on the same side of a mountain range. I guess that the Poles can't find anything like that in their history but we simply can.

Blog posts of this kind have a rather small number of readers, often below 1,000, so I don't plan to proofread it too carefully.

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