Saturday, May 09, 2015

How the U.S. didn't liberate Prague 70 years ago

Seventy years ago, Prague was liberated by the regular Soviet army led by Ivan Konev – and also by the anti-Bolshevik Russian general Andrey Vlasov (who was previously captured and whose troops were temporarily changed into units of the German army). Because the continuing control of German units over my homeland after the official capitulation seems like too "big a detail" to be neglected, I still consider May 9th (and not May 8th) to be the end of Second World War in Europe.

Moscow saw a huge military parade today. Czech president Zeman and Slovak PM Fico didn't attend the parade even though they are in Moscow. I find it weird that they missed the event.

Historically, the Czech lands have belonged to the West for 900 years. However, the 1930s and 1940s saw quite some detached attitude by the Western allies to Czechoslovakia. In September 1938, the U.K. and France – our closest allies – agreed with Hitler and Mussolini that the Third Reich should have gotten the Sudetenland – a territory that was a part of the Czech kingdom at every moment in the previous 900 years. The Munich Treaty – which energized Hitler more than almost any other event before the war – is usually referred to as the Munich Betrayal in the Czech context.

To make things worse, the Western allies showed quite some detachment in May 1945, when the Third Reich was already guaranteed to lose the war, too. Especially thanks to the much more principled treatment we got from Stalin's Soviet Union, it was pretty much decided that sooner rather than later, Czechoslovakia was going to become a communist totalitarian country. It was gradually going there – and became one in February 1948. The family of democratic nations was weakened and Czechoslovakia had to suffer through 40+ years of moral degradation, economic stagnation, loss of freedom, and general misery.

It didn't have to be like that.

Winston Churchill was convinced that it was counterproductive to leave the job of liberating almost all of Czechoslovakia to the Soviets. He knew that in this scenario, Czechoslovakia would be following in the footsteps of Yugoslavia – which was a role model of new countries guaranteed to go in the communist direction.

Churchill sent a telegram to Eisenhower, insisting that the U.S. troops should conquer Berlin. Eisenhower rejected the plea, mentioning that 100,000 U.S. troops would lose their lives. When Churchill failed, he urged Eisenhower to take Prague in an April 8th telegram. That one was rejected in three days, too. That was an unfortunate decision because German defenses began to collapse soon afterwards and it was becoming clear that Eisenhower's estimates of the casualties were probably vastly exaggerated.

At some moment, the Red Army and the U.S. army were pretty much equally far from Prague. Stalin was enthusiastic about it and Churchill recommended the operation. However, both Truman and Eisenhower said "No". A Soviet commander was lying that everything was ready to take Prague and that lie has convinced Americans to stop.

Omar Bradley, a guy from the Pentagon, ordered General Patton to take Pilsen. Patton was enthusiastic and his success in Pilsen was great. Patton called Bradley and told him: "Listen, Bred, I will lose the contact with you but tomorrow, I will call you from a public telephone on the Wenceslaus Square in Prague."

Bradley disagreed. "Sorry but Ike is the one who has to decide about these matters."

You know how the frustrating story continued.

To make things worse, Americans have betrayed the Vlasov army, too. Andrey Vlasov was a successful Russian general – up to a moment sometime in 1942 when his army was surrounded and captured. He exposed some combination of "insufficient belief in communism" and "opportunism" and ultimately agreed to incorporate his troops to the German army, as an anti-Bolshevik Russian Liberation Army.

Sometime in 1945, they deserted again and began to fight against Germany. They were located somewhere between Pilsen and Prague. Vlasov tried to contact Stalin and there were rumors that their defection would be pardoned by Stalin if they agreed to fight against Germans in Prague. And that's what they did. The liberation of Prague would be much harder without them. To make sure that they don't look like other German soldiers, they decorated their German uniforms by some czarist symbols.

It is not quite clear whether Stalin had actually promised the pardon. But you may guess what he did after the war. The whole Vlasov army including Vlasov was executed for treason in the Soviet Union in 1946. Their role in the history was as positive as you can get. But their fate was tragic – and America refused to help them in any way, too.

The Prague offensive was difficult. The Germans defending their positions in Bohemia were more fanatical than other Germans. Hitler shared this opinion in April 1945 when he ordered the German army in Bohemia to be strengthened. "The main operation won't come to Berlin, I am sure. The enemy will attack Prague," Hitler said weeks before he committed suicide. Once Berlin was lost, the Germans decided to turn Prague into their spare Berlin.

However, the difficult situation was made easier by the Prague Uprising ignited on May 5th. The Czechs have shown their characteristic "very limited but nonzero courage". When it was clear that the Third Reich was over, Germany actually established some reforms to weaken the German grip on Bohemia. Banners and tables were no longer required to be bilingual. Just Czech was enough. And the Czechoslovak flag was re-allowed.

But these commands from the top were opposed by the actual German soldiers who controlled the situation in Prague. Tensions grew and the citizens of Prague decided to take the building of the Prague Radio. Thousands of barricades were erected, among other things. Václav Klaus told everyone that he was helping to build one of the barricades. He was four at that time. ;-)

My opinions can't be quite impartial but I do think that the Western powers (especially the American leaders in this case) have underestimated the importance of keeping Czechia in their sphere of influence – or in the democratic family of nations. The Soviet ability to build a civilization that went as far as Prague (and even Pilsen) meant that the communist bloc became a formidable foe for a very long time.

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