Prague 1945

Until the end of April Bohemia, Moravia, and the Sudetenland lay quietly, like an enchanted island, amid the tempests all around.

In March of 1939 the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia had been made into a “Protectorate” under German domination. Future generations will perhaps see nothing unusual in the breaking up of territories that economically belong together—so long as such separation is not used as an instrument for the suppression of one nation by another. But the German act of 1939 served just such a purpose— the suppression of the Czech nation.

The Czechs, needless to say, had been deeply shocked by the destruction of their national existence. The vast majority of Germans in the Sudetenland had not welcomed it. Most of them were descended from families that had settled in Czech territory many generations ago, and had achieved a standard of living that left little to be desired. The creation of the “Protectorate” brought them no advantage, nor did it cause them to become overbearing.

But a masterful attitude, well calculated to create profound enmity, had been imported by the many Germans who now came from the Reich as administrators and control officers. And then came the fearful events of Lidice. “Protector” Heydrich was assassinated. In return, Hitler in person issued the order that called for vengeful mass murder. Most Germans in the “Protectorate,” and certainly the vast majority of the old settlers, were deeply shocked by the events in and around Lidice, by the hunt for the suspect, and by the killing of hostages. But their shock was not enough to save them. They, too, had to take the consequences.

Early in May the First and Third U.S. Armies began to approach Czech territory from the west. Daily and nightly now their air forces appeared overhead, to cripple the railroads and interfere with the traffic on the roads. Several towns, among them Eger and Pilsen, were severely damaged from the air. But all this was as nothing in comparison with what went on elsewhere.

Thus the area came to be considered the last preserve of a halfway peaceful life. Refugee treks from Silesia crowded in, and refugees arrived on every railroad. Wounded soldiers arrived by the tens of thousands. Countless government offices moved into the “Protectorate,” and the German Air Force brought a large portion of its remaining resources, especially the few jet planes that had been completed, to the airports around the city of Prague. Conferences among political and industrial leaders met here in a never-ending procession, and the country became a breeding ground of rumors. There was the rumor that the area would be the base for those new miracle weapons that would bring a German victory, and the other one that Schörner had planned to turn the “Protectorate” into the last redoubt of German resistance. Handbills appeared calling for the formation of a women’s “Werwolf.” And, of course, the game of the “People’s Army” was being played wherever Germans lived. Tank traps were being raised in great numbers. . . . Confusion reigned throughout the “Protectorate.”

Confusion also reigned in the head of SS General Karl Frank, acting “Protector” of Bohemia and Moravia and absolute master of the land. Frank, slavishly devoted to Hitler, had assumed power after Heydrich’s death when the incapable and inactive Daluege had assumed the “Protector’s” title.

When the northern front of Army Group Schörner and the Oder front east of Berlin collapsed, Frank had conceived the idea of turning the Government of the area over to a Czech national body. The new Czech Government he had in mind would have been predominantly anti-communist, composed mostly of men from the Czech rightist groups who rejected Soviet domination as much as German rule. Most probably, such a Government would have enjoyed the support of a large majority of the Czechs.

Frank intended to leave the country after such a Government had been formed, taking along the German troops and police forces, the government offices, and the newly arrived Germans as well as those of the old settlers who wanted to leave. He intended to demonstrate to the Western powers that ex-President Benes’ pro-communist course did not represent the majority opinion of Czechoslovakia. He wanted to force the Western powers to take a clear position, not toward a National-Socialist puppet government, but toward a country that had been liberated from the Germans and now needed protection against the new threat arising in the east.

No one knows where a realization of his plan would have led. No one can tell whether it would have moved the United States to escape from the dilemma into which Roosevelt’s politics had led her. It seems unlikely. The plan would probably have been interpreted as another attempt of the Germans to sow discord among the Allies.

At the end of April, Frank went to Berlin and submitted his plan to Hitler. He received a flat refusal. Hitler declared he would not dream of giving up the unscathed “Protectorate,” arsenal of Germany and the German armies. Bohemia, he declared, would be held at any price and, anyway, he intended to end the war within the next few weeks.

Now as always, Frank bowed to Hitler. He returned to Prague and forbade all further discussion of his plan. He dismissed the Czech leaders with whom he had had conversations, and waited for the turn of fortune that Hitler had promised.

Frank’s secret service reported increasing preparations for a revolt among the Czechs—not only among the communists, who received weapons from Russia by air, but also among nationalist groups hoping for the speedy arrival of the Americans. Frank, in the night of April 30, against the background music of a drum-and-bugle corps, delivered a speech over Radio Prague in which he warned the Czechs that he would smother a revolt “in a sea of blood.” Even Frank had rarely used more ill-advised language. The Germans in the “Protectorate” received the speech with deep uneasiness. But they stayed on and waited.

Neither Frank nor the German settlers nor anyone in Germany knew then of the exchange of radio messages, in the latter part of April, between General Eisenhower and the Chief of Staff of the Soviet Army, Antonov. In this exchange, Antonov did what he could to prevent the Americans from occupying a large portion of Czech territory. A communist Czechoslovakia could be achieved only if the whole country, and above all the “Golden City of Prague,” were liberated by the Red Army. Only then could the Czech nationalists, or a portion of them, be won over and used for the purposes of the Soviets. But the Russian advance was still being delayed by Schörner’s troops.

On May 4 Eisenhower radioed Moscow that the Third U.S. Army stood ready to move into Czechoslovakia and Prague and “to clean up the entire territory west of the Elbe and Moldau Rivers.” On the same day, Antonov, through the American military mission in Moscow, “invited” Eisenhower “not to advance beyond the line Karlsbad-Pilsen Budweis,” in order to “avoid possible confusion among the forces of both sides.” And Eisenhower ordered his troops to stop along the line laid down by Antonov. A line approximately fifty miles inside Czech territory, roughly parallel with Czechosvakia’s eastern border.

May 1 came and went quietly.

Shortly after midnight the news of Hitler’s death reached Prague. Every newspaper of the city—the German and the censored Czech press—appeared with black borders and printed long eulogies of the man who “had died fighting to the last.”

The first news of uprisings among the Czechs reached Prague on the same day. Frank suddenly realized that the hopes with which his visit to Berlin had inspired him had no foundations. For a time he fell victim to complete despondency, but then he transferred his faith to Dönitz. On May 3 he flew to the Admiral’s headquarters for advice.

Dönitz did not give him more than a few minutes. The Admiral felt the same aversion to Frank that he felt to so many party leaders. He instructed Frank to keep order in Prague as long as he could, and to declare it an open city.

Frank made no mention of his negotiations with the Czech leaders.

The signs of revolt were spreading. In eastern Czechoslovakia, where the arrival of the Russians seemed imminent, Czech national flags and even more Red flags were flying over towns and villages. Czech railroad workers walked out and left the trains, many of them filled with German refugees, stranded wherever they happened to stand. Wagon trains of refugees were immobilized on the roads by Czech partisan groups, who made off with the horses. Czech industry had to close down because of the railroad stoppage. Masses of factory workers drifted idly through the streets. More and more Red flags appeared. German street signs were removed, and German inscriptions on the shops disappeared under a coat of paint. But as yet there was hardly any outbreak of violence.

On May 4, mass meetings were held in the streets of Prague. Rumor had it that Frank had not returned to the city, that Schörner had assumed all power throughout the “Protectorate,” that the German troops would leave within a few days, that they were negotiating a surrender to the Americans, that the Government would be transferred to Czech leaders, and that the Americans would reach Prague in a day or so.

In the evening, public loud-speakers announced that a state of siege had been proclaimed in Prague. A curfew hour was set for the Czech population. But the masses in the streets paid no attention. And the German police, caught in the general confusion, stood by and took no action.

When Frank returned to Prague in the morning of May 5, he learned that during his absence both the Czech Government of the “Protectorate” and a newly constituted National Council, representing the anti-communist faction, had urged that the full power of government be officially turned over to them. In return, they would guarantee safe-conduct to all German troops and all German civilians who wished to leave.

But before Frank could bring himself to a decision, Czech communists had set off the bloody revolt. The communists knew how masses are put in motion—and probably they had seldom dealt with more willing masses.

In the morning hours of May 5, communists spread the rumor that American tanks were nearing the western outskirts of Prague. They followed through with the rumor that the Americans had demanded immediate surrender, and that the Germans had agreed.

Czech and Red flags at once appeared in countless windows. Crowds lined the streets along which the Americans were expected. Public demonstrations were held in streets and squares. Czech national songs filled the air. The German police, and the German troops in their barracks, stood by in utter confusion. German soldiers who showed themselves in the streets that morning were received with the words: “Be glad, boys, soon the war will be over and you can go home!”

The Czech masses were filled with exultation. Now a single spark would suffice to set off the explosion.

In a final fit of pride Frank ordered the streets cleared, the assemblies broken up. A few hours after this order, he sank again into an abyss of apathy. But then the damage had been done.

Only a few of the German forces followed Frank’s order. But it was enough that in one section or another of the town an SS unit began to clear the streets, or fired on demonstrators, or brought out field pieces or machine guns. The joy and excitement of the masses—who still did not know that not a single American soldier stood before Prague—turned into a wave of fury.

At this time a truckload of armed Czech communists entered the Prague Radio Station, overpowered the small guard, and took control. German efforts to recapture the station failed. Radio Prague began to call Czechoslovakia to arms. Scattered fighting broke out all over town. Other communist commandos captured German clothing and arms depots, among them a large arsenal of the People’s Army.

“Czech policemen, members of the Czech Army!” Radio Prague called, “rise up against the oppressors, come to our aid. The following roads to Prague are open. …” There followed hair-raising descriptions of atrocities committed by German SS troops, and calls for revenge.

The more moderate among the Czech leaders realized that they must take a part in the revolt if they were not to be pushed aside beyond recall. The well-armed police force of the Czech Government of the “Protectorate,” and the underground organization of Czech army officers, joined the ranks of the insurgents. For the moment their superior armament and training assured them predominance in the movement. Accordingly, the new National Council assumed the leadership of the revolt. Nationalists and communists fought shoulder to shoulder.

But underneath the surface the contest between the two factions continued. And it was precisely this concealed competition for the favor of the masses that forced both sides to adopt harsher and harsher methods. The communists, however, maintained their head start. They set examples everywhere to inflame the passions of the multitude. Their couriers from the east had informed them that Russian, not American, troops would occupy Prague. They knew that final victory would go to them, not to the nationalist camp, and so they pursued only the one aim: to kindle and keep afire a bloody revolution against the Germans out of which their own revolution would grow, the communist revolution against the old Czech bourgeoisie, against the ruling class in general.

Yet this incongruous mass of insurgents would hardly have triumphed as quickly as they did if the German forces had offered decisive resistance. But the newly conscripted SS soldiers had no enthusiasm for this battle. Many of them had been drafted from among the German population of Prague itself. And not a few of these deserted in an attempt to reach their own homes, which they knew were in danger. Only the old SS troops and the men of the Security Service fought ruthlessly, matching every cruelty of the insurgents with a cruelty of their own.

By nightfall on May 5, most of the German administrative offices had fallen to the Czechs. The main thoroughfares, most of the bridges and railroad stations, the central telephone office, and the Bohemian Radio Station as well as Radio Prague were in the hands of the insurgents. The German members of the Government of the “Protectorate” had been arrested; some of them had been shot. Only the German government sector up in Hradcany Palace, and several German army posts, were holding out. There was also a small group of German soldiers in Masaryk Railway Station whom a resolute captain had collected to defend several thousand German refugees and wounded in a train that had been immobilized by the walkout of the railroaders. But between the positions of the German soldiers and the German government offices in the Palace lay the Moldau bridges, controlled by the insurgents.

The Czech population stood by and watched while communist and nationalist partisan corps captured members of the SS and police forces, as well as regular German army men, and slew them in the streets. Radio Prague was calling every Czech to arms. Partisans began to invade German homes. Little by little, the masses followed their example.

In the afternoon of May 5 most German civilians had been ordered into the cellars of their houses, and in some parts of town they had been placed under arrest. Many of them had been collected to be crowded into jails as well as schools, theaters, garages, and other temporary prisons. This roundup had given rise to the first mass beatings, and even to a number of shootings. The public torture of Germans in the streets of Prague began on May 6. Crowds of Czechs awaited the transports of German prisoners in the streets to pelt them with stones, spit into their faces, and beat them with any object that came to hand. German women, children, and men ran the gauntlet, with arms over their heads, to reach the prison gates under a hail of blows and kicks. Women of every age were dragged from the groups, their heads were shaved, their faces smeared with paint, and swastikas were drawn on their bared backs and breasts. Many were violated, others forced to open their mouth to the spittle of their torturers. Acting “Protector” Frank, up in Hradcany Palace, knew of the events in the city. Yet through all of May 6 he made no move to establish contact with the Czech National Council or with the Czechs of the Protectorate Government.

But before May 6 had ended, the revolt in Prague suffered a strange interruption. In the evening hours, troops came marching into the city, a fully armed division of soldiers in German uniforms but displaying on their shoulder patches and their banners a blue St. Andrew’s cross on a white shield: the 1st Division of the forces of General Vlassov.

Vlassov had once been a Soviet general. He had earned high honors in the Battle of Moscow and had become commander of an army. He was the son of a Russian peasant and had been a communist since his youth. But as he grew older, he had begun to notice the cleavage between socialist doctrine and Soviet reality.

In 1942 Vlassov had been captured by the Germans. While a prisoner he had conceived the idea that with Hitler’s help he might be able to remove Stalin and Bolshevism, and so create a new, truly socialist Russia. He was confident that he could raise an army of millions from among those Russians and peoples of Russian language who loved their country but did not love Stalin. It is possible that he could have defeated the Soviet armies and won the war in human as well as military terms. But he could not even attempt fighting the Soviets if his efforts were to be used by Hitler for the establishment of a German colonial empire in the east of Europe.

Vlassov and a number of German sympathizers had struggled desperately for recognition of his plans. They had struggled in vain. Down to the final days of horror neither Hitler nor Rosenberg understood what opportunity for an honorable solution of the eastern conflict had been offered them. Not until late in the autumn of 1944, when the war had been lost for the Germans, had Vlassov been allowed to stand up in public and call for the formation of an anti-Bolshevist Russian army and a Russian counter-government. But even this one proclamation had been turned almost into a farce: the man who had sponsored Vlassov had been Himmler, most ardent advocate of a German colonial empire in the east where a Slavic slave caste would be ruled by Germanic masters. Himmler had acted under the influence of certain advisers who had persuaded him that the promise of freedom, of a free Russia, could even now move large numbers of Russian soldiers to leave the Soviet ranks. Himmler’s opportunism had made it possible for Vlassov to read his proclamation in Prague, and to form a “Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia.”

The proclamation was read on November 14, 1944. Twenty-four hours later, Vlassov’s headquarters had received answers from forty thousand volunteers in prisoner-of-war and labor camps. What would have happened, Vlassov had asked some German visitors at that time, if you had given me a free hand back in 1943?

Vlassov had been promised matériel and equipment for twenty-five divisions. It is not certain whether Himmler, supreme authority of the Reserves, had kept this equipment from reaching Vlassov or whether it simply had no longer been available. What is more, Vlassov had been kept without the facilities to bring together, or even to get in touch with his countless volunteers.

Nonetheless, Vlassov had been able to raise and equip two divisions. By February of 1945 he had formed a general staff of the “Armies of the Liberated Peoples of Russia,” under Chief of Staff Trukhin, himself a former Soviet general. A beginning had been made with an officers’ training school, and air corps, and several special units. Two other former Soviet Generals, Bunishenkov and Saitsev, were training the two divisions.

Vlassov had soon lost all illusions about the outcome of the German-Russian contest. But like countless Germans, he had nursed another hope until the very hour of the end: the hope that the Allies, after Germany’s collapse, would oppose the extension of Stalin’s power into the heart of Europe, that the unnatural alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western powers would fall apart as soon as Germany was defeated. He had hoped to receive from the Western powers the support that Hitler had failed to give him.

In March of 1945 Vlassov had sent secret envoys to the English and American headquarters in France and Belgium. He had tried to make clear that he was not a slave of Germany but an enemy of Bolshevism who had hoped to find help somewhere for building a new Russia. He had tried to inform the Western powers of Stalin’s political and ideological aims, and of the fact that communism, the old unreconstructed communism, would remain imperialistic to the end of its days.

His envoys had been arrested as henchmen of Germany and traitors to the Soviet Union. No one had troubled to listen to them.

Vlassov had not given up. He had moved all his forces into a non-German area of Bohemia where a clear separation from German troops and civilians was an easy matter. His general staff, and his 1st Division of about eighteen thousand men, had been stationed some twenty miles from Prague. The Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia stayed in Karlsbad, seventy-five miles west of Prague.

Early in May the German High Command had ordered Vlassov’s 1st Division to the north, where it was to be used against the Russian forces driving on Berlin. Vlassov had declined to follow the order, even though he did not know what the consequences of his refusal would be. But now he found himself in a truly desperate position.

Then the news of the revolt in Prague reached him, and his radios picked up the calls for help from Radio Prague. On May 5 he ordered his 1st Division to march on Prague, support the Czech insurgents, and restore order in the city. The division entered Prague in the evening of May 6.

It has since been said that Vlassov’s 1st Division, commanded by General Bunishenkov, tipped the scales in favor of the Czechs. This is doubtful at best. The decision was a question of time only. But there is no doubt that Bunishenkov’s six regiments sped up the victory of the insurgents.

Vlassov had sent his forces in the hope of saving Prague from long fighting and heavy destruction, and thereby of establishing some connections with the Western Allies, who so far had rejected him. For he, too, acted under the false assumption that it was not the Soviets but the much closer American forces that would occupy the city.

The excited population of Prague gave Bunishenkov’s division an enthusiastic welcome. The mounting blood thirst subsided, and for twelve hours Vlassov’s men became the salvation of the German civilians, prisoners, and wounded. Some of the Russians released imprisoned German soldiers and let them escape to the west—although they could not keep most of them from falling into the hands of Czech partisan groups and being slain, or tortured to death. Other “Free Russia” troops joined in the bitter fight against the Germans, whom they now saw as no more than traitors to their cause.

During the night of May 6 a small American patrol on tanks and trucks appeared in the seething city. The Czech population and General Bunishenkov were convinced that occupation by American forces was imminent. But the patrol was merely a reconnaissance detachment charged with the mission of finding out what went on in Prague. Perhaps the commander of the Third U.S. Army had become doubtful whether, after all, the revolt in Prague might not make it advisable for him to occupy the city. Czech broadcasts had reported harrowing atrocities committed by the SS, and the Russian advance did not seem to develop with the speed that Soviet General Antonov had predicted.

But when the leader of the American patrol learned that German resistance had been reduced to a few small centers, which were in a hopeless position, he decided to return to his own lines. Before leaving, he spoke to Bunishenkov. With the genuine but for that no less staggering artlessness that distinguished most American officers in those days, he told the Russian to maintain order in Prague and wait for the arrival of the Soviet forces. He did not understand why Bunishenkov looked aghast. He did not understand that he had invited Vlassov’s men to walk open-eyed into certain death.

Desperate, Bunishenkov ordered his men to stop fighting immediately, to leave Prague, and to march west to Vlassov’s headquarters. Street blocks and barricades prevented his forces from departing at once. They left in the morning of May 7. The Czechs, crowding the streets in mounting excitement, watched their withdrawal in open-mouthed amazement.

The division arrived at Vlassov’s headquarters in the afternoon. On May 8 Vlassov received reports that Soviet tanks were approaching Prague from the northwest. He gave orders to march west, and his columns, fresh from fighting the Germans in Prague, marched among the straggling remnants of German troops, amid treks of German refugees, all bent for the American lines.

Three of Vlassov’s generals who traveled separately were set upon by Czech partisans, captured, and a few days later turned over to the Soviets. But the 1st Division passed through the American lines without difficulty and surrendered to the Third U.S. Army.

Vlassov himself was put up at U.S. Third Army headquarters. He had the impression of being a guest rather than a prisoner of the U.S. staff. Once more he tried to explain his position and the real aims of the Soviet Union. Perhaps he met with understanding among some of the American officers.

But there were none among them who could change the general policy to which General Eisenhower was committed.

Without Vlassov’s knowledge, his troops had meantime been disarmed and closely surrounded by American tank forces. Soviet commissars pressed for the extradition of the traitors and had little trouble in obtaining what they demanded. And from a purely formal point of view, such extradition was indeed the duty of the American commanders.

At eleven o’clock in the morning of May 13, the American command informed Bunishenkov that the armored American enclosure around the 1st Division would be opened to the east, and that the division would march out in that direction at three o’clock in the afternoon. The General and his men knew what this order meant. A few of the troops tried to hide. The bulk of them streamed east in the hope of getting beyond the American enclosure before the arrival of the Russians, and fleeing west. But as they marched on, they found themselves moving in a corridor of American forces who drove them straight into the Soviet ranks.

Vlassov’s 2nd Division, and his various separate units stationed in Bavaria and Austria, had also become prisoners of the Americans. They were being held in a number of camps. Some of them could show that they were not Soviet citizens, and were let go. Others committed suicide. All the others were turned over to the Soviets.

Vlassov and his staff at Third U.S. Army headquarters knew nothing of the fate of the troops. The seat of this headquarters, a small town named Schlüsselburg, was at the time occupied partly by American, partly by Soviet forces. Some time after May 15 an American officer invited Vlassov and his staff to go with him to a conference in a near-by locality. While the party was passing through a wooded lane on the way to the mysterious locality, it was suddenly surrounded by Soviet troops. Vlassov and his staff were overpowered before they knew what was happening.

A year and a half later, after a speedy and secret trial, Vlassov and twelve of his officers were hanged in the Red Square in Moscow.