Prague recalls horrors of WW II, Cold War
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Residents of this Central European city on the banks of the Vltava River well remember, or were told by their parents or grandparents, of the great suffering here at the hands of their German conquerors during World War II.
The people of Prague and throughout Czechoslovakia endured “death by aerial bombings, mass executions, the annihilation of most of our Jewish population in concentration camps, privation and humiliation” from the Germans whose defeat of the Czech Army and overthrow of the government in 1939 marked the beginning of the most destructive war in human history, according to Roger Kachlik, a local business leader.
The Nazis hung swastika flags from buildings, street lights and bridges, took over newspapers, magazines and the radio station and banned jazz music, Western plays and modern art, added Kachlik, 57, a member of the governing board of Prague’s private Anglo-American University, which is housed in a massive 400-year-old converted Medieval palace it shares with its U.S. partner institution, Chapman University.
Knowing that my wife, Ludie, and I have been traveling to overseas WW II sites, Kachlik suggested we visit several in Prague, which has been the capital of the Czech Republic since 1992 when Czechoslovakia was split into two independent nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Two of the war memorials recommended by Kachlik, a church and a radio station, stand out in particular.
The Karel Boromejsky Eastern Orthodox Church is where Czech resistance fighters had taken refuge after assassinating Nazi SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, the military governor of Czechoslovakia and an architect of the Holocaust, as he was being driven in an open car to his office at Prague Castle on May 27, 1942.
Learning of the assailants’ hideout inside the church after torturing captured members of the resistance (one of these, a teenager, was forced to watch his mother’s beheading), Nazi stormtroopers laid siege to the church and killed Heydrich’s assassins. The Gestapo then arrested, tortured and murdered the church’s bishop, priests and lay leaders.
But Adolf Hitler’s thirst for revenge didn’t stop there.
Two weeks after Heydrich’s assassination, Hitler ordered further reprisals at Lidice, a tiny village northwest of Prague. More than 150 males, some as young as 14, were lined up and shot, Lidice and neighboring hamlets were burned to the ground, farm animals and pets were slaughtered, and bodies in local cemeteries were dug up and burned.
Lidice’s 184 women and 88 children were sent to concentration camps, where most of them were gassed to death. All told, approximately 1,300 Czechs were murdered by the Germans in retaliation for Heydrich’s assassination.
The other WW II memorial here, which consists of descriptive plaques in the Prague Radio Building lobby, honors the station’s anti-Nazi reporters and announcers who bravely stayed on the air during heavy fighting outside and inside the building just days before Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945. As German troops and paramilitary police broke into the building to silence the broadcasts and arrest the journalists, they were met by heavy fire from resistance fighters who forced the Germans back outside and ultimately won the day in what has been called “The Battle of Czech Radio.” It was the last military engagement on Czech soil during WW II.
Twenty-five years after the Battle of Czech Radio, the station again became a center of dissent against a foreign occupying power… this time the Soviet Union, which had ruthlessly ruled Czechoslovakia and several other nations behind the “Iron Curtain” as puppet states since the end of WW II.
On the day of the “Second Battle of Czech Radio,” which fell on Aug. 20, 1968, the station had been cast into the international spotlight when the USSR sent a half-million troops and 2,000 tanks into Prague and throughout the country to quell the escalating anti-communist “Prague Spring” movement that advocated liberal political reforms. USSR Premier Leonid Brezhnev, fearing this could spread to the other restive USSR satellite nations, decided he had to act at once to contain the Czech dissidents.
Radio Prague journalists, like those during the German occupation, broadcast encouragement to the street fighters, resulting in the arrest, beating and jailing of many of the station’s staff by Soviet troops who had forced their way into the building. The Soviets, sadly, ended both the insurrection and “Prague Spring” and returned Czechoslovakia to its former status as a USSR colony.
But not for long.
Growing insurgencies throughout the land eventually proved to be too much for the Soviets, and they were forced to pull their troops out of Czechoslovakia. My friend, Roger Kachlik, who as a teenager had fled the country with his parents to Italy and then to Canada, returned to a democratic Czechoslovakia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union that took place the day after Christmas, 1991, a date that signifies the end of the 46-year-long Cold War.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus and may be reached at email@example.com,