61 years on - the Czech Republic commemorates the end of WWII

Vitkov memorial, photo: CTK

On Monday the Czech Republic commemorated the 61st anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Over the weekend, ceremonies were held all over the country in honour of those Czechs who lost their lives, and people celebrated the end of over six years of occupation. Amongst the events which took place was the full military burial of wartime Prime Minister Alois Elias in Prague, 64 years after his execution by the Nazis.

Vitkov memorial,  photo: CTK
The 8th of May 1945. Czech Radio announces the arrival of Soviet tanks in Prague and the liberation of the Czechoslovak capital from the Nazi occupation. This marked the end of one of the most brutal periods in Czech history, a war which claimed the lives of 150,000 Czechs, 77,000 of whom were holocaust victims.

One unusual event to mark the anniversary was the burial of the Prime Minister of the wartime Protectorate, Alois Elias, at Prague's Vitkov memorial, no less than 64 years after his execution. Elias was the only wartime prime minister to be sentenced to death by the Nazis in occupied Europe, accused of "treason and espionage". On the 2nd of October 1941 a radio broadcast announced the news of Elias' execution to the nation. Despite collaborating with the Germans for the early part of the occupation, this figurehead of the Czech puppet government was continually a thorn in the side of the Nazi regime, maintaining contact with the exiled Czechoslovak government in London, and supporting underground resistance. It was for this that he was eventually executed by the Nazis. Jaroslav Hrbek from the institute of Contemporary History in Prague believes that despite his apparent collaboration, Elias always had the nation's best interests in mind.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
"Elias and to a lesser extent also President Hacha tried not to sabotage, I would say, but to put the Czech nation first and the German efforts second. They tried to lead the Czech nation through the dangerous period, and to save as much of the autonomy, the integrity of the nation as they could."

Elias was buried with full military honours alongside his wife, by the current Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek and Defense Minister Karel Kuehnl. Also present at the ceremony was the wartime Prime Minister's now 93 year old nephew, Jiri Elias, who had more personal memories of a highly paradoxical political figure.

Jiri Elias,  photo: CTK
"We both used to live in Prague; he was there simply as a soldier, and was very busy from time to time. I travelled with him to Slovakia and I'd like to say he was a real friend to me. We have waited a long time for this and not only us but the whole nation, who can now see the true worth of our uncle, an amazing person."

The Vitkov memorial was also a focus for remembrance on Monday, when politicians and war veterans alike met to pay tribute to the thousands who died during the War.. Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek were among those who paid their respects at the wreath laying ceremony, as were a number of former soldiers, including Jaroslav Cermak, who fought in the French army and participated in the Normandy Landings.

Plzen,  photo: CTK
Elsewhere in the Czech Republic celebrations had a slightly different feel. In Plzen, leading Czech politicians, including Prime Minister Paroubek, met at the "Thanks, America!" memorial on Friday to pay homage to the American liberators of the west Bohemian capital. The event is now in its 11th year and although attendance was notably lower than at last year's 60th anniversary, still over a thousand people including a number of veterans of the liberation, six American and three Belgian, came to watch the military displays which took place in the city centre. Michal Kindel, one of the organisers of the demonstrations, said he aimed to remind viewers of the ugly face of war.

"We want to remind observers how in reality war can take on a most terrible form. We want to make a Hollywood movie from this, as we'd like to show that what we've all read about in books actually happened and has simply never been paralleled."

And so even 61 years on it seems that the tragedy of World War II is still well remembered in the Czech Republic.