June 6th 1944, D-Day. Allied troops land on beaches in Northern France. The operation to liberate Europe from the Nazis took eleven months, and on May 8th, 1945, with Berlin in ruins and Hitler dead, President Truman made the following historic radio address to the people of America:
U.S. President Harry S. Truman
Most of Europe was liberated by U.S., British and Soviet troops. But Prague fought its own battle to rid itself of the Nazi occupiers. For five days, from May 5th to the arrival of the Red Army on the morning of May 9th, thousands of Czechs took up arms, building barricades and fighting fierce street battles with German troops. Almost 1,700 participants of the Prague Uprising, as it came to be called, lost their lives, and plaques to commemorate their sacrifice can be found throughout the city. One of them is located at number 12, Vinohradska street, home of Czech Radio, which as my colleague Olga Szantova
explains, played a crucial role in the liberation of Prague.
Barricades on Revolution Square in Prague
That call for help to Russian and American forces was broadcast from the Czechoslovak Radio building on May 6th - one day after the start of the Prague Uprising. American forces were in fact already deep inside Czechoslovak territory - General Patton's troops had liberated most of West Bohemia by May 5th.
Professor Jaroslav Blahos, president of both the Czech and World Medical Associations, was a 14-year-old schoolboy when, on May 5th 1945, American jeeps rolled into his village in south-west Bohemia.
Dr Jaroslav Blahos, sharing his recollections of the arrival of American troops on May 5th. But why didn't the Americans roll on to liberate Prague, just a few hours' drive away? Tomas Jakl works for the Institute of Contemporary History and the Prague City Archive.
Prague's Old Town Square City Hall - on fire
So while the Americans were stranded in West Bohemia, and the Russians were still several days away from the Czech capital, the people of Prague launched a fierce assault on the German forces. Dr Jaroslav Kohout was one of the many young men who took up arms against the Nazi occupiers.
Journalist Miroslav Prchal was just 15 when he joined the Prague Uprising.
Journalist Miroslav Prchal, recalling the street battles of the Prague Uprising. Communist propaganda, of course, later claimed the Red Army liberated all of Czechoslovakia. The Prague Uprising was rewritten as a Communist-organised revolution, and there was no mention of General Patton entering Plzen in a U.S. Army jeep. But as Dr Jaroslav Blahos explains, few swallowed the Communist version of events.
As for the myth surrounding the liberation of Prague, historian Tomas Jakl says the Czech capital liberated itself, with the help of several dozen foreign soldiers - escaped POWs and deserters - from afar afield as Britain, the Soviet Union and Bulgaria.
Red Army in Prague
The Germans surrendered to the Czechs on the evening of May 8th - one day before the arrival of the Red Army. German troops started fleeing Prague that evening, to avoid capture by Soviet troops. Russian tanks rolled in on the 9th, only catching the last of the retreating Germans. The role of the Red Army in the liberation of Prague was wildly exaggerated by Communist propaganda, but among many inhabitants of the Czech capital there were outpourings of genuine emotion. Journalist Miroslav Prchal was among the crowds when the Soviet tanks rolled in.
A Russian soldier with children in Prague
Miroslav Prchal says the liberation by Russian soldiers left a deep imprint on the Czechoslovak psyche:
Almost 1,700 Czechs lost their lives liberating Prague, along with 300 of General Vlasov's Soviet deserters and 30 Red Army soldiers. Around 1,000 German troops were killed. On May 9th Prague was free, although isolated pockets of German resistance continued for several days. Philosopher Erazim Kohak shared his memories of the first days of liberation with my colleague Nick Carey
An American soldier with children in Plzen
The post-war euphoria was dampened by the 1948 Communist take-over and the persecution of those who had fought to defend their country. But for Erazim Kohak and many others who remember the Prague Uprising, it remains an almost spiritual experience.