May 1945: Czechoslovakia at a crossroads

Czechia was the place where the last shots of World War II were fired in Europe. The generally accepted narrative is that, with most of the country liberated by the Soviet Red Army, the former Czechoslovakia was inevitably headed for the communist Soviet bloc. Vít Smetana from the Prague Institute of Contemporary History dispels some deeply-rooted myths perpetuated by the communists about what happened in the very last days of WWII in Czechoslovakia.

Liberation of Prague by Red Army | Photo: Karel Hájek,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

For many decades under Communism, the official storyline was simple: the Czechs with the help of mostly Communist-led resistance decided not to wait for their liberation and in many places started disarming the retreating German troops hard-pressed by the Red Army from the East. The regular Wehrmacht and elite SS troops were trying to flee to the West so as to be captured by the Western Allies rather than the Soviets because they rightly expected that the treatment would be better in their prisoner-of-war camps.

The US army of General George Patton | Photo: Patton Memorial Pilsen

The US army of General George Patton occupied a strip of territory in Western and Southern Bohemia but refused to move on. So, the Czechs and some Moravians had to wait to be liberated by the brave Red Army. That was, at least, the official Communist narrative of what happened, which, strangely enough, survived into the 21st century.

However, the real story was much more complicated, and much more interesting. Vít Smetana from the Institute of Contemporary History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic for example disputes the often quoted ‘wisdom’ that the air raid on the Škoda Works in Pilsen a few days before the war was useless and extensively destructive.

Vít Smetana | Photo: Jana Přinosilová,  Czech Radio

Vít Smetana also argues, that it was far from certain in 1945 that Czechoslovakia was by that time destined to become one of the “vassal states” of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Some sort of future similar to Austria or Finland was possible for Czechoslovakia, too.

General George Smith Patton | Photo: US national archives,  public domain

Unfortunately for the Czechs, Harry Truman had just replaced Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president of the United States and probably did not want to risk any rifts with the Soviet Union whose support he needed to finish the war against Japan in the Pacific. The military commanders on the ground such as General George Patton, did not dare to disobey orders of their American political leadership. Despite repeated pleas from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to occupy a more substantial part of the Czechoslovak territory, which could change the future direction of the country, they stayed on the line Pilsen – Budweiss (Plzeň – České Budějovice). Thus, the Soviet Union was perceived as the main “liberator of Czechoslovakia” with all the consequences for the country in the next four decades.

Listen to the full audio interview with Vít Smetana.