When I moved to live and work in the Czech Republic in September 2008, I believed I had a pretty good grasp of European History. I had studied the subject for many years at school and it was one of the three subjects I read, along with Geography and Theology, during my first year as an undergraduate student at university. However, during these past 16 months, my historical knowledge and understanding has been greatly increased as I’ve sought to understand the Czech people and this country which has become my current adopted home.
Good students of history do not just learn dates and places when and where certain events took place, such as knowing that the Battle of White Mountain occurred in 1620 on a hill just to the west of Prague. Rather they will want to understand the causes that led to the battle taking place and the consequences that followed from the victory of the Catholic League over the supporters of the Bohemian Estates. But a student still needs to know the dates and events before s/he can do any historical analysis.
During the last hundred years, the Czech and Slovak people have suffered much. Until 1918, they were a subjugated people incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then, having enjoyed twenty years as an independent democratic nation, their country was partly carved up without any consultation, by Neville Chamberlain and others at Munich. Six months later, the whole of Czechoslovakia was under Nazi occupation. Then, two and a half years after being liberated from the Nazis, the country was subjected to nearly forty-two years of Soviet inspired communist rule.
Under communist rule, many Czech and Slovak people suffered greatly. But it was not just people who suffered, another victim was historical truth.
Czechoslovakia has the distinction of being the country that endured the longest period of Nazi occupation. It was already fully occupied by March 1939 and was not liberated until the last days of World War Two in early May 1945. Liberation came from two different directions. Slovakia and Moravia and eventually Prague in Central Bohemia, were liberated from the east by the Soviet Red Army. But the whole of Western Bohemia, including the major city of Plzen, was liberated from the west by the Third US Army under General G.S. Patton.
After the Communist seizure of power at the beginning of 1948, there was a systematic campaign to suppress all acknowledgement of the U.S. Army’s role in liberating Western Bohemia. This effort continued until December 1989 when the Communists were removed from power. History textbooks declared that the whole of Czechoslovakia was freed from Nazi oppression by the valiant efforts of the Soviet Red Army. Schoolteachers were obliged to perpetuate the myth – to suggest otherwise would mean the loss of your job.
Last month, we drove out to Western Bohemia in order to visit our friend, Adrian Blank of Nepomuk, so he could carry out a couple of minor repairs to my car. But we combined the trip with a pastoral visit to one of our congregation who lives in a village very near to the German border but who regularly comes to Prague at weekends in order to worship at St. Clements.
Driving from Nepomuk towards the German border, we arrived in the attractive town of Klatovy where we stopped for lunch. We parked in the large square in the centre of the town which is surrounded by many architecturally interesting buildings including the Town Hall, pictured above. As we explored the square we saw two plaques, either side of a window on the outside of the Town Hall.
The first is only in Czech and reads in translation;
9th May 1945 the Soviet Army liberated Czechoslovakia
Unveiled as part of the celebrations of the 700th Anniversary of founding of the town of Klatovy
Klatovy was founded in 1260 so the plaque was presumably unveiled in 1960, twelve years into Communist rule.
Not only does the wording on the plaque perpetuate the myth that it was the Soviet Red Army that liberated the whole of Czechoslovakia, it also includes another little Soviet quirk. The German surrender that brought World War Two to an end in Europe came into effect late on 8th May 1945. This became known as VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) and is a public holiday in many Western European countries such as France. But because it was late on 8th May in France and Germany, it was already past midnight in Moscow. Therefore as far as the Soviet communists were concerned, VE Day was 9th May 1945! Since the Velvet Revolution, the VE Day public holiday is now marked on 8th May each year in the Czech Republic, not 9th May.
On the other side of the window is a second plaque, pictured below, with text in both Czech and English. Although not dated, it has clearly been put up since 1989.
With this second plaque, the facts of Czech history have been corrected. Klatovy was liberated on 5th May 1945 by the US Third Army under General Patton. The following day, they moved on and liberated Plzen.
What I was most struck by was the fact that the Town Council had obviously decided not to take down and destroy the first incorrect plaque. They clearly felt that it was important to preserve it as a historical record of the Communist era. But the truth has eventually triumphed and is now clearly displayed for all to read. Much as many people would like to, especially Communist dictatorships, you cannot re-write history.