Lest we forget, the Czechs became a free nation on May 8, 1945, when the Germans surrendered to them
As the Czechs were abandoned by London et al in 1938, paving the way for Hitler to invade their country, the news of their victory over the Germans on May 8, 1945, was also quickly abandoned. The country is rarely, if ever, listed as being victorious and liberated that day, but it was.
May 9th was the day touted as liberation day by the Soviets. The Red Army rolled into Prague on May 9th only to find that the Germans had unconditionally surrendered the day before and had signed a formal capitulation to the Czech National Council. Of course, once the Soviets took control of Czechoslovakia in 1948, that date stood for 40 years, until 1989 and the fall of communism.
My late husband’s father, Prof. Otakar Machotka, was a vice-president of the Czech National Council, a conglomeration of three political parties that guided and lead the Prague Uprising from 3 May to 8 May, 1945.
It was a bloody uprising with over 4,000 dead by the time it ended. Otakar was gone from the apartment those five days, and my husband remembers huddling with his mother and sisters in the basement of their apartment building as the fighting intensified in the Pancrac area. At one point a German tank blew a hole through the upper apartments, and to this day one can still see the outline of the hole in the plaster.
The Czechs fought bravely by constructing huge street barricades with cobblestones, rusted out cars and buses, any material they could find; with arms they had been stealing and stockpiling from the Germans; and they had significant help from the Vlasov Army in a strange twist of circumstance.
General Vlasov was a decorated Soviet war hero, but in 1942, he turned against Bolshevism and founded the Russian Liberation Army (ROA). It was his hope to overthrow Stalin and create an independent Soviet state. Those plans were ruined when he fell prisoner to the Germans. Believing that Stalin was even more dangerous than Hitler, he turned and became a Nazi collaborator. Then, in another twist, his small army “defected” from the Germans in February, 1945, after a terrible defeat against the Russian Army, and headed toward Prague. On May 6th, the commander of the ROA requested permission from General Vlasov to take up arms against the SS Nazi forces in Prague and help the Czech Resistance. Of course, after the Uprising, the General and most of his troops were arrested by the Soviets and were either executed or sent to the Gulag.
How the ensuing events (the communist takeover in 1948) could have had a different outcome for the Czechs is a sad 20-20 vision of futility. The fateful deal that decided who would control which parts of Europe was signed long before the end of the war, at the secret Yalta Conference in 1944, by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. Everything east of the Curzon Line would go to Stalin; Czechoslovakia was in that category. For reasons unknown, however, Eisenhower suddenly changed his mind on 5 May and instructed Patton to start liberating western Czechoslovakia. Patton’s troops liberated as far as Plzeň, 50 miles to the east of Prague, and was champing at the bit to get into Prague. But Eisenhower refused to allow this. Patten, being the good solider that he was, stood down. How different history would have been had Patton been allowed to enter Prague.
Interestingly, it would have been very easy for Patton’s troops to enter Prague. On the morning of 8 May, an army jeep carrying three soldiers breezed into Prague on empty streets and spoke to one member of the CNC. Unfortunately, that man was the only communist member (the other members were social democrats, and of other democratic parties), and his hidden agenda was to support the Soviet communists. He told the Americans the CNC did not need their help, so they drove out of Prague and back to Plzeň. One of the soldiers was a man named Eugene Fodor, who later became famous for Fodor’s Travel Literature. During WWII, he served in the Office of Strategic Services; his spy status was kept secret for 30 years.
Normally, my husband, Pavel Machotka, and I would be in Prague for this anniversary, as we have been at every anniversary since 1990 up until 2018. Our last May 8th celebration in Prague was in 2017, two months before my husband had a massive stroke that left him an invalid. He passed away last year on March 18, 2019. Sadly, even had he lived, we would not be able to be in Prague this year due to COVID.
Pavel’s parents are buried in the National Cemetery at Vyšehrad in the tomb of Milada Horáková along with other brave partisans and exiles from 1939-1945, and 1948-1989. Horáková was one of the bravest people in Czechoslovakia and was tried on trumped up charges of conspiracy and treason and hung for her bravery by the communists in 1950.
So, in tribute from my home in Italy this 75th anniversary, I say to the Czech nation, Bravo. You did well. Your fighting spirit came through, you sacrificed so much for your freedom, which sadly lasted only three years, but you didn’t give up through 40 years of hell. You endured the Prague Spring crushing in 1968 and the worst years of communism after that. In 1989, you again emerged victorious, and I hope beyond hope that your democratic ideals not only survive, but flourish.
Nina Hansen Machotka is daughter-in-low of late Otakar Machotka, one of the leaders of the CNC in the Prague Uprising. Otakar wrote a book on the Prague Uprising in 1965. Nina’s husband, Pavel Machotka, edited and re-published the book with photographs in 2015. Nina wrote an article as a small tribute to the Prague Uprising.