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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Dark days in the Golden City of Prague

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On May 15th, 1945, Edvard Beneš, who since December 18th, 1935 had been the President of prewar Czechoslovakia, returned to Prague from London, where he had exiled himself since October 22nd, 1938. The artificial state of Czechs and Slovaks, two peoples with a very different history, had been created in 1918 shortly before the end of World War I. There was also a significant population of three million ethnic Germans, called Sudetendeutsche after a mountain range in the region. Their right to self-determination had been totally ignored by the infamous Treaty of Versailles, which in a way ended one war and sow the seeds for the next one. This complicated question remained a bone of contention between Germany, Austria and its new neighbor.

By the Munich Agreement, signed on September 30th, 1938 the territories inhabited by those Germans, the Sudetenland, were forcefully integrated into Germany. On March 14th, 1939, the Slovak Republic was created with German help. One day later, the Germans moved into the remainder of Czechoslovakia, which had lost even more land to Poland and Hungary, and with the proclamation of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia by Adolf Hitler from Prague Castle on March 16th, 1939, that country had de facto disappeared. After that, although there would still be a government formed by ethnic Czechs under President Emil Hácha, Berlin would decide the fate of the Czech people. Understandably, that created a lot of resentment among the Czechs, but there was never any significant act of resistance against foreign rule.

That changed on May 27th, 1942, when Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the German Reich Main Security Office since September 27th, 1939 and Deputy Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia since September 29th, 1941, was critically wounded in a bomb attack in Prague, carried out by two British-trained soldiers, Czech Jan Kubiš and Slovak Jozef Gabčík. Approved by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in England under Beneš, Operation Anthropoid eliminated the man whom many historians regard as the darkest figure within the National Socialist hierarchy for his decisive involvement in the Holocaust. Also a defender of a harsh policy against the inhabitants of the Protectorate, Heydrich died on June 4th. Tens of thousands of locals bade him farewell, though.

The Germans took bloody revenge, destroying the villages of Lidice and Ležáky completely. Up to 5,000 people in total died during the reprisals, including many family members of the Czech assassin.

When the war was coming to an end and German defeat imminent, Czech insurgents occupied the radio station Prag II for three days, until a plane silenced it on May 8th, 1945. Their slogans were extremely clear: “Kill all Germans! Kill all occupiers! Don’t spare children, women and old people! All Germans are our mortal enemies! Extirpate them once and for all!” These calls for mass murder did not fall on deaf ears. Even until then only a small minority had out up active resistance, Czechs immediately turned into beasts that showed absolutely no mercy.

Captured German soldiers, but also civilians were sprinkled with gasoline and set on fire to become human torches hanging from trees and street lights. Since May 7th, the smell of burned human flesh permeated the air over the city. According to a German eye-witness, to celebrate the return of Beneš, who during a broadcasted speech on October 27th, 1943 had already announced that „The end of the war in our country will be written with blood“, these crimes intensified.

Although the surrender agreement that the Germans had signed on May 8th with the Czech National Committee guaranteed safe conduct for all, and German women and children that didn‘t leave with the troops were supposed to be under protection of the International Red Cross, they were raped and sadistically tortured, beaten to death, hanged, drowned or shot. Germans were asked to kiss mutilated corpses on the mouth to salute their “brothers”. Two Czech women killed 50 German soldiers with machine guns. Some victims had to jump into latrines before they were murdered.

It is unknown how many of the 40,000 Germans in Prague who still lived in the city at the time, refugees, evacuees, wounded soldiers and prisoners of war were massacred during the two weeks of carnage, but the official German estimate is up to 15.000 people.

The horrible excesses that happened in Prague are considered to be the worst committed in Bohemia and Moravia at the end of the conflict. According to the Czechoslovakian indemnity law dated May 8th, 1946, they are not considered unlawful. Many Czechs still see them as just reprisal for six years of occupation. Czech losses totaled about 125,000, including Jews. Heydrich’s successor, Kurt Daluege, was among those executed for their misdeeds.

The Charles University, founded in 1348 in what is nowadays the Czech capital, was the oldest German-speaking university in Europe. Divided in 1882 into a Czech and a German part, from 1939 to 1945 only the latter was operating. It also fell victim to the tragic events described above, during which 30 professors and numerous students were killed

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