Silent witness: Raw footage of the Allied liberation of western Bohemia premieres in Prague

Liberación de Pilsen, 1945, foto: Embajada de EE.UU.

Some fifty communities across the western part of the Czech Republic are holding celebrations in the coming days to mark the 60th anniversary of their World War II liberation by U.S., Czech and Belgian soldiers under the command of the American General George S. Patton. The Allies' role in the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Nazi tyranny was, to put it mildly, played down by the Soviet Union for propaganda purposes. Ahead of the celebrations marking 'V-E' day, the U.S. Embassy in Prague has commissioned a compilation of raw, historical footage, which, as Brian Kenety reports, bears silent witness to the Allies' mission, and the raw emotions - of jubilation, vengeance, disbelief, fear and capitulation - of the anonymous Czechs and Germans, Soviets and Allies, depicted therein.

The liberation of Pilsen, photo:
"As an archivist for most of my professional life, I take the greatest pleasure in showing you the original documents from the U.S. National Archives that are relevant and significant for Czech national history."

William T. Murphy is the man behind the film which premiered in Prague on Tuesday night. It's a compilation, actually: 70 minutes of raw footage, shot by these American servicemen as the Allied forces took control of western Bohemia in May 1945, in the final days of European operations of the Second World War.

"The motion picture footage we are about to see was shot by combat cameramen of the United States Signal Corps, assigned to various units of the United States army, including General Patton's Fourth Armoured Division."

The Signal Corps acted as the motion picture service of the American war department. It created a massive archive of film documenting the Allied campaign against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers, to which historians have had complete access for decades. But Czech audiences — and, indeed, anyone on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe for nearly half a century— would have seen little or none of it. Czechs greeting American GIs as liberators was not Moscow's idea of good PR.

The U.S. Embassy, to honour American veterans of the campaign, and arguably also for its own modern propaganda purposes, wanted to set the record straight, and commissioned a documentary of the Allied liberation of western Bohemia. But no such documentary existed.

The liberation of Pilsen, photo:
Archivist William T. Murphy:

"The [US embassy in Prague] had originally requested documentaries about the end of the war in Czechoslovakia - from the [US] National Archives, where I used to work. And, unfortunately, there are no documentaries - and by documentaries, we mean a finished production with editing, titles, soundtrack and so on. All we had are the original, unedited, camera records - and quite a lot of them, actually: as I said in my introduction, this represents less than 10 percent of what's there [in the US National Archives] about the end of the war in Czechoslovakia."

The liberation of Pilsen, photo:
RP: And this was a 70 minute film - so 10 percent means some 700 minutes/12 hours of raw footage?

"Yes, exactly. So I proposed doing this compilation of unedited film clips and they [the US embassy] hesitated a little bit because they didn't know how the audience might react to it, but I tried to make a case that the material has intrinsic value and is of compelling interest, certainly to the people who lived through that era - not to mention their descendants."

The American servicemen used hand-held cameras and recorded sound only for important planned events, for example, the address you've just heard by the Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes, speaking - in English - from Prague Castle, upon his triumphant return from over six years of heading the government-in-exile, in London.

[footage of Pres. Edvard Benes]: "Upon our arrival in the liberated Czechoslovak territory, after six-and-a-half years of exile, I could nominate a new government; a government including representatives of four major Czechoslovak parties. I have reached our golden Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, and walked into the Hradcany Castle..."

What unfolds in the compilation of original footage shown on Tuesday night is a fascinating portrait of the early days of liberation. What was chiefly interesting is the amount of time that the camera is allowed to run. The Prague audience (among them many veterans of the campaign) was privy to extended scenes of Soviet and Allied troops celebrating victory together -- dancing polkas and sharing cigarettes; of street-to-street fighting to ferret out Nazi snipers; of long processions of American jeeps, halftracks and tanks -- American GIs greeted as liberators with flower-waving fervour by Czechs in towns and cities throughout western Bohemia; of gaunt German troops laying down their arms, and freed but emaciated Soviet prisoners of war eyeing the camera with great suspicion; of ethnic Germans --and Czechs accused of being collaborators-- taunted and paraded through cobblestone streets before being hauled into holding cells.

This most graphic footage shown was of ethnic German civilians forced to exhume and rebury Jewish victims of summary executions, as Allied troops and Czech villagers look on in disgust: For several minutes, we watch an old man struggle in the heat to unearth a dead Jewish woman who is missing several fingers and whose body has begun to decompose.

The liberation of Pilsen, photo:
I asked William T. Murphy if the U.S. Embassy had given him guidance or restrictions on what material to compile.

"Not really: because of the limited lead time, I had to work with films that were readily available. Some were in deep storage, some did not have master or intermediate copies to work from, some did not have reference copies to look at; and so, in short, there were technical limitations that guided my choices. But I tried for a rough chronology showing [the liberation of] different towns in what was then Czechoslovakia."

The U.S. embassy is to donate the 70-minute master tape to the Czech national flim archives. Historians are encouraged to make use of the U.S. National Archives' 12-plus hours of footage documenting the Allied liberation of western Czechoslovakia.