1945-1948: From liberation to Stalinism

In this programme, the eighth in our series mapping this country’s history through the radio archives, we start with the dramatic events of the last days of the war in Prague. The radio played a major role in the Prague Uprising, and through the archives we can map how the city liberated itself from the German occupiers. In the two years that follow, the radio archives give us a picture of a Czechoslovakia returning to some kind of normality, but in February 1948 everything changes. We tell the story as it was heard on the airwaves.

Karl Hermann Frank | Photo: public domain

On the last day of April 1945, the Nazi minister of state for occupied Bohemia and Moravia and head of Prague’s Gestapo, Karl Hermann Frank went on air. By that time the Red Army had taken most of Berlin and on the same day Hitler committed suicide, but Prague was still in German hands. Frank’s address is a crude defence of Nazi policy and an attack on Bolshevism, but he also makes use of a term that was to become more than familiar in the years that followed. “If the Czechs fail to resist the approaching Red Army,” he says, “they will be fully exposed to Bolshevism, and together with other peoples will be separated from the rest of the world by an iron curtain.”

On that point, at least, Frank was right. It is one of the earliest recorded uses of the term “iron curtain” in reference to the division between the communist and non-communist world.

A few days later, with the Red Army approaching from the east and the Americans from the west, Prague rose up against the German occupiers, in what was to be one of the last battles of the war in Europe. It began here at the radio:

“Voláme všechny Čechy!”

It is May 5th 1945, and with these words, “Calling all Czechs”, the radio appeals to the people of the city to join the uprising. For some time radio staff had been working secretly with the Czech underground to prepare the uprising. Their radio appeal marked the beginning of the battle. In the confusion of the next three days, with street battles going on around the city, radio was to play an important role, and the radio building became the focus of much of the fighting, as the Germans tried to stop the broadcasts. On some recordings you can still hear gunfire in the background.

“Czech hands are defending the radio building,” the reporter announces, “we are with you. Stay with us. Prague is and will remain free.”

Thousands answered the appeal, among them a young Scottish prisoner of war, William Greig, who had escaped and decided to help defend the radio:

“At present we are broadcasting from the broadcasting station and outside there is a battle raging.”

The German side was also using radio. They still had control of the transmitters in Liblice and Mělník north of Prague.

“Citizens of Prague,” the Germans appealed in Czech, “it is not too late to choose between violence, destruction and unnecessary bloodshed, and calm, order and wellbeing, until stable conditions can be re-established.”

But here in the centre of Prague, radio was firmly in Czech hands, and on the 415 metre frequency, it responded to the German appeal in no uncertain terms:

“Through the Mělník and Liblice transmitters the Germans are spreading lies. They are trying to intimidate the brave defenders of Prague. Do not let yourself be deceived by these treacherous German reports. Stand firm at your posts till the final victory.”

Prague Uprising

The radio even gave instructions to people on the barricades, broadcasting through the city’s public loudspeaker system:

“Once again, we appeal to the people of Prague and its surroundings to build barricades to block all the roads leading into Prague.”

Many of those fighting in the streets of Prague were untrained and virtually unarmed, and the scale of the German resistance, in particular the SS units, took many by surprise. The Red Army was already approaching from the east, and General Patton’s US Third Army was in Plzeň, just a few dozen kilometres to the west. The radio appealed to both to intervene.

“This is Prague. Americans and English, help us! We need guns. There are too many Germans. Send us aeroplanes and tanks! Americans before Plzeň, send us aeroplanes too! The Germans are coming from south, north, west and east. Help us, help us!”

“Prague calls the Red Army. We need your help.”

The Scottish former prisoner of war William Greig went on air again with more than a hint of frustration in his voice:

“Hello, hello, hello! This is Prague calling London. Once again we repeat what I have already said three or four times. The Germans did not keep their promise. Prague is in great danger. The Germans are attacking with tanks and planes. We are calling urgently our allies to help. Send immediately tanks and aircraft. Help us defend Prague. Do not let Prague be destroyed. We need the greatest help possible. We don’t know how long we can hold out. We are hoping for the best, that English or American or Russian troops will reach us in the next few hours. It has to be very quick and very soon. Good night!”

The US Third Army had orders from General Eisenhower to stay in Plzeň – the agreement was that the Soviets would liberate Prague – so the insurgents were left on their own. Further confusion was caused by the presence of Russian troops in the streets of Prague dressed in Nazi uniforms. They were part of General Vlasov’s so-called Russian Liberation Army, that had sided with Germany, but had switched sides. The radio called on people not to shoot at them. Further broadcasts appealed to German soldiers in the Wehrmacht to hand over their arms:

“Please stop this useless resistance immediately and give yourselves up to the Czech armed forces.”

By this stage most German soldiers realised that the war was over; their main hope was to surrender to the Americans rather than the Russians, but in the last two days of the uprising, pockets of resistance remained. By the time the fighting stopped, around three thousand insurgents had been killed, including women and children.

The Red Army rolled into the centre of Prague on the morning of May 9, by which time the city had as good as liberated itself. As the tanks came down the hill towards the Lesser Quarter and the Old Town, they were joined by a jubilant radio reporter:

“We are coming down the winding road from the Castle… Before us a city spreads out whose joy reaches the stars. At this moment, the Red Army has liberated Prague.”

Edvard Beneš | Photo: archive of Czech Radio

Czechoslovakia’s president in exile Edvard Beneš returned to Prague immediately. Here he is on the Old Town Square in September 1945, thanking Czechoslovak airmen who had fought in Britain’s Royal Air Force, and thanking Britain for accommodating them:

“Words of thanks to the government of Great Britain, which for nearly five years offered us hospitality at a time when we all were exiles, which afforded you proper training and gave you the most modern arms, and the opportunity in splendid fighting brotherhood with your British comrades to engage in the struggle against our national enemies.”

The event culminated in a flypast by planes from the Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron that had served in the RAF.

Towards the end of 1945 the Soviet and American troops that had taken part in the liberation of Czechoslovakia went home. On 15 November there were ceremonies to say farewell to the Red Army, and five days later, on November 20th, the withdrawal of the American units began. The wartime Allied supreme commander, Dwight Eisenhower came to Prague:

“This is my first visit to Prague and I’m very honored to be here. I’ve had the greatest reception, and if the people of Prague feel as good about this meeting as I do, then we’re all very happy.”

Czechoslovakia’s Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, the son of the founding president of Czechoslovakia, was himself half American, and, when he said farewell to American troops on a chilly late November day in Plzeň, it was with genuine affection.

“General Harmon, Mr Ambassador, officers and soldiers of the American Army! I’m going to say a few words in English. I’m not going to be long – it’s too cold for long speeches… You, young Americans, rediscovered Czechoslovakia a few months ago. You came at the moment of the greatest emergency the lovely land of Bohemia has ever experienced. You helped to free us and you stayed while we were catching our breath after seven years of hell, which were longer than seven times seventy years. Now you are about to leave us and I am here to say thank you and God bless you! ‘Westward Ho’ is your programme now. You will be going home and how true the song is: ‘There is no place like home.’ May I thank you in all humility for making it possible for me and my colleagues to come home. I was homesick for seven years, and homesickness can hurt more than any other affliction. Soon you will be passing that symbolic lady, the Statue of Liberty. Will you please tell her for us that we too believe in liberty, that we refuse to live without liberty? Our ways may be different. We are a small country with a great tradition of freedom. We shall not give it up. God bless America and you her sons, who fought so well to save the world. You did a swell job. God bless you!”

Jan Masaryk,  photo: United States Library of Congress,  Free Domain

In June 1946, Edvard Beneš was re-elected as president, a sign of a gradual return to what seemed like normality in Czechoslovakia. For the first time, the ceremony in which he gave his oath of allegiance to the country was broadcast live on the radio.

Some places, like the villages of Lidice and Ležáky, which had been wiped off the map during the German occupation, could never go back to normal. But even in Lidice, the widows of the nearly two hundred men who had been murdered were gradually returning home, and the two pilots from the village who had served in Britain’s Royal Air Force during the war, also came back. One of them, Josef Horák, who had lost seventeen members of his immediate family, brought with him his young English wife and their two children. They took part in a Christmas broadcast, on Christmas Eve 1946:

Presenter: “We want you to join us at a very special Christmas party, which is being given here in Kročehlavy, close to the martyred village of Lidice. In this house lives Josef Horák, one of the only two men who survived Lidice and who served during the war as Squadron Leader in the RAF. Josef Horák and his English wife and their two baby sons, Vašek and Josef are giving this party for the other Lidice children. Is everybody here now, Mr Horák?”

Josef Horák: “Yes, I think they are all here. You know, we are a bit afraid of this Christmas. We all live together here in Kročehlavy, so as not to feel so lonely, especially the women whose children have still not been found. We all try to help each other.”

Win Horák: “Come over here dear. We want you to say a few words into the microphone.”

Child: “What is a microphone?”

Win Horák: “If you speak into it, people who are not in this room can hear you."

Child: “Can many people hear me?”

Win Horák: “Very many. All the people in the great, wide world!”

Child: “Merry Christmas to you, the big, wide world!”

Presenter: “… and everlasting peace!”

[Children sing the Czech carol “Nesem vám noviny”]

Presenter: “And with this carol, Lidice sends Christmas greetings to all the freedom-loving peoples of the world.”

The fate of Lidice was one of the catalysts for a wave of international solidarity with Czechoslovakia after the war, particularly in Britain, where many were ashamed of the abandonment of Czechoslovakia with the Munich Agreement of 1938. Here is the president of the British Miners’ Federation, Will Lawther, laying a wreath at the grave of the men of Lidice at the end of 1945:

“Speaking on behalf of the British miners, we pledge ourselves that we shall do all that lies in our power to see that… future generations shall enter this holy ground determined to see to it that never again shall such a foul deed be perpetrated against anyone.”

Destruction of Lidice | Photo: ČT24

Another representative of the British left who came to Czechoslovakia – in October 1946 – was the playwright, novelist and broadcaster J. B. Priestley. He spoke of his impressions.

“I expected to find Czechoslovakia looking much more damaged and shabby and dingy after its experiences of the last few years. I thought the country would be only just beginning to recover and that everything would look far from being normal. But I was pleasantly surprised right from the first to discover that you are much further on in your recovery than I would have thought possible. Although the signs of battle can still be seen on some of your roads, such as the abandoned and shattered German war vehicles, the war has been left behind and the whole country is going ahead at a fine speed. People here seem to be full of vitality and hope, and a good public spirit, ready to face the future with confidence and showing all the signs of that fine spirit that made Czechoslovakia one of the model democracies of the pre-war world. In addition to that, I’ve found in many of your young people, both intellectuals and workers in mines and factories, a grand socialist enthusiasm, based on the firm belief that we are now capable of creating a society based on social justice.”

J. B. Priestley was speaking six months after parliamentary elections in Czechoslovakia, which had seen the Communists emerge as the strongest single party. Underestimating the malign influence of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Priestley was hugely confident in the country’s future.

“I believe with all my heart in socialist democracy, which is what we are trying to create in Britain [at the time Britain had its first Labour majority government], and as you are engaged in the same task and a little further ahead of us, I want to come back to see how far you’ve got and to see if we can learn anything from you. Already I know that there are some things you do better than we do, in the mines for instance… And I only hope that more and more we can not only enjoy each other’s company but can go on learning from each other. And now, please imagine I’m shaking hands warmly with all of you, as I say, thank you for letting me see this fine, brave, democratic country.”

At the time J. B. Priestley was speaking, Czechoslovak democracy had just over a year to live. It was brought to an abrupt end by the Communist coup of February 1948. He was not alone among left-sympathising western thinkers, in overestimating the resilience of Czechoslovak democracy. One of Britain’s most respected post-war historians, A. J. P. Taylor, was hugely optimistic about Czechoslovakia’s growing alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union. He came to Czechoslovakia in July 1946, just after the general election.

“For the first time in any country there is a communist prime minister who has reached his position by strictly democratic methods. On the other hand, this is not a communist government. It’s a coalition and the Communists have not got a majority in parliament. They’re the biggest single party, and even if they haven’t got the power, they have, I think, the biggest share of the responsibility. That is an important difference. It means that in future the communists are going to be blamed if things go wrong, instead of being able to blame others. They are going to have to use their popularity not to make difficulties, but now in order to get things done.”

A. J. P. Taylor failed to read the signs that Czechoslovakia was on the brink of returning to totalitarian rule. He was so preoccupied with the possibility of a resurgent Germany that he quite failed to see any danger from Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Expulsion of Czechoslovakia’s German speakers,  photo: Czech Television

“The Czechs have had seven years of German occupation and they would pay any price not to have it again. That is the reason for the Russian alliance, which is supported by everyone in the country of whatever class and whatever party. As the prime minister said in his speech the other day: ‘The Russian alliance is for us not merely a question of safety, but even of existence.’ If a great Germany is ever restored, Czech democracy and Czech independence will again be lost.”

At the time when Taylor was in Prague – in the summer of 1946 – the expulsion of Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking minority was already well under way. In one of the most drastic and controversial transfers of population anywhere in peacetime history, three million German-speakers were expelled to Germany and Austria. The British and American governments both had misgivings about the policy, but A. J. P. Taylor was vehement in his support.

“No-one who has seen and heard what the Germans did in this country can doubt that it is impossible now to keep Germans here as citizens. This terror wasn’t the act of a few SS men. It was really the expression of the spirit of a whole people. The Germans have to go. But their transfer is being organized as decently and humanely as possible, and all the same the great majority of Czechs don’t like it. They don’t like the whole thing. They feel it is a defeat for the principles which they tried to defend, a defeat imposed on them by Hitler, but a defeat all the same. They are ashamed, as we in England are also ashamed at many of the methods we had to use in order to win the war.”

Whether or not the expulsion of Czechoslovakia’s German speakers was unavoidable has remained a subject of debate ever since, although within this country it has only been discussed openly since 1989. Today there is a broad consensus among historians that the transfer was not always carried out “as decently and humanely as possible,” as A. J. P. Taylor suggests.

Even though the number of parties allowed to stand in the 1946 election had been limited, Czechoslovakia was still a democracy. The coalition that emerged was an uneasy one, with the non-communist parties pushed into ever greater isolation, while the communists, with the weight of the Soviet Union behind them, were gaining an ever-stronger foothold. The situation came to a head in February 1948. The Justice Minister, Prokop Drtina, who was not a communist, found out that eight regional police chiefs had been sacked and replaced by men loyal to the party line. The non-communists in the government insisted that until the decision was reversed, they would not attend cabinet meetings. The communists’ response was to launch a huge propaganda campaign, some elements of which survive in our archives. Here is the head of the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement, Antonín Zápotocký, railing against minister Drtina:

“We know how difficult it is for workers to produce good products when their boss is no good, [loud applause] and it is harder still for judges to pass judgment in the spirit of our people’s democracy and our new legal code, when the man in charge of justice is trying to sabotage people’s democracy.”

In Zápotocký’s speech we can already hear the aggressive tones of the new political order. In a desperate attempt to turn the tide of events, the non-communists in the government resigned, confident that their resignation would not be accepted by President Edvard Beneš. But the communists reacted immediately by occupying the ministers’ offices, and on February 25th President Beneš unexpectedly accepted all the ministers’ resignations, inadvertently completing the coup that was to lead to forty years of communist rule. After seeing Beneš at Prague Castle, the Communist Party leader, Klement Gottwald, made the following historic declaration from a balcony on Wenceslas Square, declaring that the president had approved a new communist government under his leadership:

Klement Gottwald | Photo: Czech Radio

“I have just returned from the Castle, from seeing the President of the Republic. I can inform you that the president accepted all my proposals, exactly as they were laid down.”

Gottwald’s words were greeted by a huge and enthusiastic crowd. Czechoslovakia’s experiment with democratic socialism was over. Four months later, President Beneš resigned, his health already failing, and three days after the coup, the former Justice Minister, Prokop Drtina, attempted suicide by jumping from a window. He survived, and in a later show trial a communist court sentenced him to fifteen years in jail. The coup, which came to be known as Victorious February, was complete.

At first sight, little had changed, and that was the impression Czechoslovakia was keen to give abroad. In this respect Radio Prague, as the international service of Czechoslovak Radio, was expected to play its part. A small group of British nationals working for the shoemaking Baťa corporation, were invited to make a statement in support of the changes. They addressed Radio Prague’s listeners on March 1 1948, a week after the coup:

“As English employees of Baťa National Corporation we wish to pay tribute to the fine spirit shown by our fellow workers and their representatives in the trade union, work council and action committees during these historic days when the republic was in danger. The promptness of their action at the beginning of the crisis, their untiring work and vigilance to protect their factory and ensure production and their fine achievement have demonstrated to us their great sense of responsibility for their people’s democracy and the political and economic integrity of their country. Throughout this period we have been working and living here without any restrictions on our liberty or movement and have not witnessed any disturbance, violence or undemocratic behaviour.”

This was one of the strangest things about the coup of 1948. A fragile democracy was turned into a Stalinist totalitarian regime quietly and step by step, without widespread violence or civil conflict. It was to take several years and numerous show-trials and executions before the full impact of the change was to sink in. In March 1948, when this recording was made, it is very likely that the optimism of these British workers in Czechoslovakia was sincerely felt.:

“In conclusion we would like to place on record our admiration of the restraint and discipline shown by members of all parties, remarkable when the gravity and magnitude of the crisis is realized, and our confidence in their ability to work together with enthusiasm to surpass all their previous achievements. They have demonstrated to the world all that solidarity can achieve. Signed: Mr and Mrs Lewis, and P. Young, Baťa National Corporation.”

We have already heard the Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk in 1945, expressing his faith in the future of Czechoslovakia as a free country. After the 1948 coup, he was the only non-communist to remain in the government, but he was plagued by doubts.

He had few words for the radio, when they asked him about his role in the new government, saying simply that he was “looking forward to it.” Five days later, he was dead. His body was found, dressed in pyjamas, under the bathroom window of his apartment in the Foreign Ministry. The subsequent investigation concluded that it was suicide, but to this day suspicions linger that someone, maybe in Moscow, maybe in the new government itself, wanted him dead.

Jan Masaryk’s funeral,  photo: CC0 1.0

With more than a dose of cynicism, Czechoslovakia’s new Stalinist rulers turned Masaryk’s funeral into a huge public event, with a live broadcast of his interment at the family grave in Lány, west of Prague. Among those who spoke at the funeral was the man who took Masaryk’s place as foreign minister, Vladimír Clementis. Ironically Clementis had played a decisive role in organizing the communist coup that – directly or indirectly – had led to Masaryk’s death.

“He loved people and trusted them,” Clementis stated. “In many ways we might even say that he was too trusting.”

Two years later, these words were to come back to haunt Foreign Minister Clementis himself. The revolution was beginning to eat its own. In 1950 he was forced to resign, accused of “bourgeois nationalism” and was hanged after a show trial in December 1952. Subsequently his image was carefully removed from the most famous photograph of the 1948 coup.