the liberation of prague -- 9/18/17

Today's selection -- from Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright. In 1943, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in Tehran. There they agreed that the Soviets would be responsible for securing Central Europe. By the middle of April 1945, Churchill had pivoted and was pressing the Americans to liberate Prague:

"As early as the 1943 Tehran conference, it was understood by the Allied leadership that the Soviets would be responsible for securing Central Europe, including Czechoslovakia. Military planning was done on that basis. The Americans had no objections to this, and nei­ther -- at the time -- did the British. Circumstances change, however, and Churchill concluded that it might indeed make a difference which Allied army marched where. ...

The "Big Three" from left to right: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference to discuss the European Theatre in 1943.

" In mid-April 1945, the British urged the United States to dispatch its forces to Prague. Having received no response after two weeks, [Anthony] Eden sent a second note:

In our view the liberation of Prague and as much as possible of the territory of western Czechoslovakia by US troops might make the whole difference to the postwar situation. . . . On the other hand, if the western Allies play no significant part in Czechoslovakia's liberation that country may well go the way of Yugoslavia.

"The State Department was persuaded by the argument and rec­ommended that U.S. forces proceed to the Vltava Valley. However, Truman, just starting out in his presidency, was loath to meddle in ar­rangements previously agreed to by Allied military leaders. The situa­tion changed only slightly when General Patton's Third Army, moving into Austria, required protection on its northern flank. The supreme allied commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, asked the Soviets for clear­ance to send troops to southern Bohemia. This was granted, and a new understanding was reached: U.S. forces could penetrate as far east as Plzen, some fifty miles from Prague.

"From one direction, Soviet troops were heading toward [Prague]; from the other, U.S. forces were crossing the border. ... In the early days of May, the people of Prague and other urban centers decided to wait no longer. Acting spontaneously, they began to take back their country, ripping down German signs and replacing swastikas with Czech banners. Shopkeepers and tram conductors refused to accept reichsmarks, while German soldiers were harassed and, when possible, disarmed...

"[On May 5th], a U.S. intelligence team arrived in jeeps. The commander, a Lieutenant Fodor, agreed to return to Plzen and convey a request for assistance. That night, the local SS commander wired his superiors that half of Prague was in the hands of insurgents, who 'are fighting unexpectedly well.'

Marshal Konev hailed as the Soviets enter Prague,  May 9, 1945

"Tragically, the Germans were not about to put down their weapons; they needed to control the capital to protect their overall retreat. Possessing both firepower and troops, they struck back, using incendiary bombs to destroy apartment buildings and armor to break through barriers and kill as many people as possible. The rebels, ex­pecting U.S. help to arrive at any minute, would not yield. ...

"The Czechs broadcast repeated pleas for help. Churchill cabled Washington, urging that the Third Army move. Briefed by Lieutenant Fodor, Patton was eager to march into Wenceslas Square. Eisenhower informed the Soviet high command of his readiness to send his fighters east. The Russians replied: do not proceed beyond Plzen, lest a possible confusion of forces be created. At that decisive moment, the Ameri­can general acquiesced, adding only that he presumed that 'the Soviet forces [would] advance rapidly for the purpose of clearing up the situa­tion in the center of the country.'

"This exchange meant that the Third Army would not be going to Prague; the Russians, meanwhile, were not there yet."



Madeleine Albright


Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2012 by Madeleine Albright


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