The liberation of Czechoslovakia (modern Czech Republic and Slovakia) came from two different directions: Soviet troops advanced on the capital, Prague, in early May 1945, while US troops headed towards the industrial city of Pilsen. Popular uprisings helped oust the German occupiers, who had been present in Czechoslovakia since the invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938.
Today the Czech Republic and Slovakia are two separate nations; in 1938 they were part of a single nation, Czechoslovakia, that included Czechs, Slovaks and Germans. Many of the country’s German speaking citizens lived in areas – collectively called the Sudetenland – that bordered Germany.
Hitler saw this as a pretext for occupation. Presenting himself as the champion of the “oppressed” Sudetenland Germans, he demanded these areas be incorporated into Germany. Desperate to avoid war, the British and French caved in to his demands and persuaded the reluctant Czechoslovak president, Edvard Beneš, to do the same.
Hitler claimed the Sudetenland was the last of his territorial demands. Less than six months later, on 15 March 1939, German troops occupied the rest of the country. Offered the choice of cooperating or facing a full-scale invasion, the Czechoslovaks put up little resistance. The country was then divided: Slovakia became the Slovak Republic, a puppet state of Germany under the leadership of the fascist priest Jozef Tiso; the main Czech-speaking areas were turned into the Nazi-controlled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
To some extent, life for many Czechs continued as normal. The collaborationist government functioned under German control, but at the same time its prime minister was communicating with Beneš and the government-in-exile, supplying them with important intelligence.
Things changed in the Autumn of 1941 when the Head of Reich Security, Reinhard Heydrich, became the de facto ruler of Bohemia and Moravia. As an ardent advocate of Nazi racial beliefs, he regarded around half the Czech population as potential for Germanization; the rest were expendable. The small fortress town of Theresienstadt (Terezín) was converted into a transit camp/ghetto for the Protectorate’s Jews, and labour camps were established at Lety (southwest Prague) and Hodonín to intern the Romani population.
Many exiled Czechs and Slovaks served in the Allied armed forces, and in May 1942 two British-trained Czech agents assassinated Reinhard Heydrich in one of the most daring resistance operations of the war (codenamed Anthropoid). Nazi reprisals, on Hitler’s instructions, were extremely brutal and included the total destruction of two Czech villages, Lidiče and Ležáky. Despite the loss of life, both the assassination of Heydrich and the later Prague Uprising of 1945 were seen as worthwhile, because they reinforced the validity of the Czech exiles in London and Moscow, and made them active partners in Allied discussions about their country’s future.
In early May 1945, as the Soviets advanced on Prague and US troops on Pilsen, popular uprisings broke out across the country in expectation of imminent freedom, including at Pilsen and Prague on 5 May. Almost all the fighting in Prague ended on 8 May with the German capitulation and withdrawal. The first troops from the Soviets' 1st Ukrainian Front did not arrive in the city until the following morning.
Top image: Charles Bridge and the Old Town of Prague today © DaLiu/iStock