Grand celebrations of World War II anniversary show Czechs less troubled by past, says historian

Prague, photo: CTK

"Soviet tanks have overcome the last German resistance and have entered Prague" was the news the capital's residents awoke to on the morning of May 9th 1945. The city had finally been liberated, bringing an end to over six years of occupation. For decades May 9th was celebrated as Liberation Day in this country, but after the fall of communism that date was brought forward to the 8th, the day marked by the Western Allies.

Prague, photo: CTK
The Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, is in Moscow for Russia's celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. But before he left the president played host to Czechs who served in the War at a special ceremony at Prague Castle's Spanish Hall. This veteran had a message for the younger generation.

"You should be aware that words have their meaning, and you should uphold those meanings. Because for you today the truth does not have any meaning, freedom has no meaning. Because you haven't experienced slavery, you haven't experienced struggle, you haven't seen the horrors that human swine can inflict on decent people."

On Sunday a memorial ceremony for those who lost their lives during the war was held on Prague's Vitkov Hill, and was attended by the president and Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, along with many veterans and their family members.

Pilsen, photo: CTK
It was one of just a host of events held in the Czech Republic at the weekend. The west Bohemian town of Pilsen saw 100,000 visitors for celebrations to mark its liberation by the US Army on May 6th, a full three days before the Soviets entered Prague.

The capital, meanwhile, saw a major reenactment of a bloody battle for control of Czech Radio, and the country's first big military parade since the fall of communism.

The 60th anniversary celebrations here in the Czech Republic can only be described as huge, and were considerably bigger than those a decade earlier, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the War.

Why were this year's celebrations so much bigger? Historian Jaroslav Hrbek says the way Czechs see the past has changed over the last decade.

"Ten years ago we were not so proud of our, let's say, heroism. We were not so proud that we were on the side of the victors. And of course in President Havel we had a person who was always putting questions on what the real history of the Czech nation during the War and in the period immediately after that; he was the first one to open the Sudeten German problem."

Vaclav Havel did start a debate about the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans; his calls for Czechs to apologise found few supporters, and was seen as evidence that Mr Havel could at times be out of step with public opinion.

Photo: CTK
Jaroslav Hrbek says there is now less debate on the history of the Second World War, which is not necessarily a good thing.

"Nowadays we feel much more secure in stressing our assurance as a nation which is firmly based in Europe, and which - as a victor of the Second World War - is just proud of its achievements.

"I'm not sure if this is the political desire of the government, of the organisers of those celebrations, but I feel that in such cases we would need a much more cautious approach to our history, and we would need much more public discussions about Czech history, which is not so straightforward as those who organised the celebrations think."