On May 8, 1945, in the last moments of the war in Europe, the Prague uprising ended six years of German occupation, although fighting continued until the following day, when the Red Army entered the nearly liberated city.
Following the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, the conquest and breakup of Czechoslovakia, and particularly the annexation the Sudetenland, a region with a high ethnic German population, became Adolf Hitler’s next ambition. And in September 1938, the governments of both France and Britain, intent on avoiding war, acquiesced to the Führer‘s demands at the Munich Agreement.
Six months later, after Slovakia declared its independence and became a client state of Nazi Germany under the leadership of Jozef Tiso, Germany invaded the remaining Czech territories, meeting practically no resistance, while Hitler forced Czechoslovak President Emil Hácha to accept the occupation of the Czech rump state and its re-organisation into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
While the German occupation of Czechoslovakia was arguably less harsh than in other Slavic nations, it is still beleived that around 320,000 citizens, most of them Jews, were murdered during the occupation. Notably, the assassination of the Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942 led to a wave of harsh reprisals, including the destruction of villages and the mass killing of civilians.
The six years of occupation fuelled a anti-German sentiment among the Czech population and saw the emergence of a resistance network under the leadership of Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš, who coordinated resistance activity while in exile in London. And by May 1945, the approach of the Soviet Red Army and the US Third Army finally offered a chance of success for the Czech resistance.
The Prague Uprising
On the morning of May 5, an illicit broadcast in the banned Czech language from a Prague radio studio incited Prague citizens, joined by the Czech resistance, to spontaneously attack the German occupying forces. They gathered in the streets, vandalised German inscriptions, and tore down German flags as Czechoslovak flags started to appear in windows and on jacket lapels. By the end of the day, the resistance had seized most of the city east of the Vltava River.
But German troops counter-attacked, killing Czech citizens in summary executions, forcing them to clear barricades at gunpoint, and threatening to shoot hostages in revenge for German soldiers killed in action. War crimes were committed on both sides as Czech insurgents murdered surrendered German soldiers and German civilians, some of whom were hung from lampposts, burned to death, or otherwise tortured and mutilated.
A ceasefire was signed on May 8, but fighting continued until the following day, when the Red Army entered the nearly liberated the last German-held capital in Europe. Historians have argued that there was no clear-cut distinction between the end of the Prague uprising and the beginning of the expulsions, as Czech rioters assaulted, raped, and robbed German civilians, acting on suspicion, or exploiting the chaos to settle personal grudges.
The moment Czechoslovakia was lost to the West
The Prague uprising ended six years of German occupation and became a national myth of the new Czechoslovak Republic. But the Western Allies’ failure to liberate Prague was seen as emblematic of their lack of concern for Czechoslovakia, first demonstrated by the Munich Agreement. It also served as a blow to democratic forces within the country who opposed Czechoslovakia’s drift towards communism in the years after the war.
Instead, the liberation by the Red Army and the Americans’ failure to push on to Prague was used by the Czechoslovak Communist Party to increase popular support for communism, so much so that British diplomat Sir Orme Sargent argued that the Prague uprising marked the moment that “Czechoslovakia was now definitely lost to the West.”
Three years later, the Communist Party, with Soviet backing, assumed undisputed control over the government of Czechoslovakia, marking the onset of four decades of undisguised communist rule in the country… until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
While in most European countries, May 8 is a national holiday that remembers the end of World War II in Europe, in the Czech Republic May 8 is known as Den vítězství (Day of Victory) or Den osvobození (Liberation Day) and commemorates both the Prague uprising and the liberation of Czechoslovakia by Allied Forces.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.