Tuesday 28 April 2009

The American liberation of Plzeň

On May 6, 2009 it will be 64 years since the end of WWII came to Plzeň and the borderlands of South-Western Bohemia.

The Czech lands spent more time under Nazi occupation than anywhere else. They were occupied by Hitler’s Germany in two stages (October 1938 and March 1939) and were among the last places to be completely liberated, with remnants of the German army continuing to fight in Prague for several days after the official capitulation.

Most of the Czech lands were liberated by Soviet red army troops advancing from the east, but American soldiers under the command of General George S. Patton were first to reach south-western Bohemia, and they decisively liberated Plzeň itself (after an uprising led by Škoda factory workers on the 5th May) early on the morning of the 6th.

Close to the bridge across the river Mže (named in the General’s honour) is the low, white building of the George Patton Memorial museum, which shows and explains everything about the final days of the war, including one of the great what-ifs of modern Czech history; why the Americans held back around Plzeň and waited for their Russian allies to liberate Prague and the rest of Bohemia.

The lobby of the building houses the ticket office and a few pieces of memorabilia, but the entrance to the museum proper is off to the right. Inside is a small room dimly illuminated by wordless black and white film footage of aerial dogfights, bombing raids and anti-aircraft fire. Another doorway then leads to the main hall of displays and exhibits.

The texts for the exhibits are in both Czech and English, and cover everything from the targeting of railways in order to prevent the Germans mounting a coherent defence to the progress of Patton’s troops from the border through Aš, Domažlice, Cheb and Klatovy. In between all the photographs and panels of text are display cases of uniforms, instruments, weapons, ammunition, instruction manuals and personal effects of the soldiers like cigarette cases, letters from home and pictures of loved ones.

Three exhibits have specific subjects. The first is General Patton himself. Amongst other things he was a successful Olympic pentathlete, was famous for his colourful phrases (If you're not alert, sometime, a German son-of-an-asshole-bitch is going to sneak up behind you and beat you to death with a sockful of shit!"), and was one of the earliest to comprehend and publicly speak about the shift in the relationship with the Soviet Union from ally to rival.

The second to last exhibit is contained in a steel cage and concerns communist-era propaganda about the American liberation of Plzeň, and the final one is about veterans of the campaign and their return visits to Plzeň. And a good number of Patton’s troops are likely to be making their way to the Czech Republic as you read this.

Every year, Plzeň celebrates its liberation by the Americans with a festival. This year it begins on Saturday the 2nd of May and culminates on the 6th.

The actual public holiday for Liberation Day falls on the 8th, which is the anniversary of the German surrender to the Red Army. During the communist years, it was celebrated on the 9th because the document was signed in Germany late at night on the 8th May 1945, when it was already early on the 9th in Moscow.

The Plzeň Liberation Festival features dozens of different activities. The memorial ceremonies and wreathlayings, tours of significant locations, and the chance to meet with visiting American veterans are likely to be quiet and respectful affairs, but there will also be outdoor concerts, battle reenactments and street parades of historic military vehicles.

An unusual event on the Saturday night gives the public a chance to meet with Czech soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan and from 8pm to 9am, to “spend the night in the real conditions of the army”, which is an experience not available to most us very often.

Whether you choose to camp out for the night or not, the liberation festival is a good chance to see Plzeň at its best and to gain an insight into one of the major events of the 20th Century in the Czech lands.

See you there?

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