Rewriting history

Prague's World War II commemorations, as usual, all but left out a
band of heroes who saved the city

By Stephen Weeks

For The Prague Post
May 19, 2005

"Good progress, this year" said a colleague at Czech TV who had been
monitoring the Czech press and TV coverage of the V-E Day celebrations
-- also 60 years after the fall of Nazi Prague -- for references to
the Russian Liberation Army, the ROA, aka "Vlasov's army" after its
leader, the renegade former Soviet general whose troops turned on
their Nazi sponsors and made possible the liberation of Prague without
the massive bloodbath and destruction that would have undoubtedly
happened otherwise.

Vlasov was a controversial figure and his army a dangerous political
tightrope-walking act. His role in May 1945 got a few mentions this
year -- the first time ever, but not one paper had the courage to
print the full unvarnished story, suppressed by the communists and thus
virtually unknown in the West too. The communist way of maintaining a
secret was simply to eradicate it. People disappeared from photographs
and historical facts were simply rewritten. If one looks at the current
Web site of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, for example,
not only are Vlasov and the ROA not mentioned, but neither are the
Americans. ... Czechoslovakia was liberated solely by the Red Army.

Now the actual Soviet contribution to liberating the country is being
rewritten, too. Two weeks ago Prague was awash with reenactments
that paraded U.S. jeeps and the Stars and Stripes. It was a case of
retrospective wishful thinking. Apart from a handful of sorties by
U.S. reconnaissance personnel and chancers, the U.S. Army remained
firmly behind their demarcation line at Plzen 60 years ago.

Historians maintain that it was not part of the deal struck with
Stalin at the Yalta conference earlier in 1945 for the other allies
to let the Soviets take Prague -- that instead it was Eisenhower's
decision alone for separate political considerations. But then other
facts have mysteriously disappeared into history's greedy quicksand:
Why did Churchill stop the airdrop of arms to the Prague insurgents
just two days before the uprising was due to start? British transport
planes were already loaded at Bari in Italy for the job.

This cannot have had anything to do with letting Stalin take Prague
-- unless Stalin had admitted that he wanted a Prague where all
the finest patriots (who might later object to totalitarianism)
had been killed in a Nazi shootout. Stalin had performed this trick
already by waiting outside Warsaw and later in Slovakia. Churchill's
voluminous memoirs are silent on this. He must have known the likely
consequences of starving the uprising of its means of fighting. His
reputation would in the end be unsullied due to the timely arrival
of the unlikely figure of General A. A. Vlasov.

The Churchill memoirs are also pretty quiet on the matter of the
British loading the 25,000 men of Vlasov's 2nd Division onto rail
wagons at Judenberg in Austria, knowing that these men would be
murdered by the Soviets. (The excuse was that Yalta demanded the
repatriation of all citizens to their home countries. Never mind
that Stalin had earlier stripped all ROA members of their Soviet

At several of the key Prague celebrations over V-E Day this year,
not only did Vlasov and the ROA not get a mention -- but neither did
the Soviets. Can we expect a Hollywood movie soon about the Americans
(led by Tom Cruise) liberating Prague? After all, in a recent U.S.
movie the British navy's important capture of the Enigma coding
machine from a sinking U-boat was simply turned into an American
exploit that just happened to have changed the course of the war --
as well as warping history. How are young people supposed to deal
with this distortion of the facts when they don't know the truth first?

Another way of rewriting history is to acknowledge yet belittle
events. This May we have heard from a Czech historian that indeed the
ROA existed but its contribution to the Liberation didn't add up to
much -- that statement in face of the facts that the Prague insurgents
numbered about 30,000 badly or even unarmed (thanks to whatever
demon was driving Churchill) men and women. Vlasov's ROA had 22,000
well-trained, fully armed and equipped men with armor and artillery
and under excellent tactical leadership. But even if some historians
reluctantly accept this truth, Vlasov's men are then condemned as
"traitors" -- the old communist word for them. The modern word for
these anti-Soviet activists -- who succeeded in bluffing the Nazis
as well as readying themselves to fight communism -- is dissidents
... far more history-friendly.

The commemorations took place at Olšanská Cemetery this year May
7 at the national military memorials -- those of the British and
Americans, the Soviet Russians, the Romanians. The bands, the stiffly
marching wreath-bearers and the grateful passed in sight of the only
memorial to the ROA but did not stop there -- choosing to ignore
it. Still the ROA does not exist. Under two wooden Russian crosses,
right by the orthodox chapel, lie at least 184 of Vlasov's men --
buried secretly by well-wishers in May 1945. A memorial stone was
erected in recent years bearing the insignia of the ROA -- the blue
and white cross. It also lists two of its generals buried there who
had been killed surprisingly enough by Czech partisans, already firmly
under communist influence before the end of the uprising. Even the very
first editions (May 9, 1945) of the Czech newspapers Mladá fronta and
Rudé Pravo, printed on presses captured the day before from their
German predecessors on the very day of the arrival of the Red Army,
make absolutely no mention of Vlasov and the ROA. The fiction thus
started before the bodies of Vlasov's men were even cold.

By diverting their course to liberate Prague, almost all the 22,000
soldiers of the ROA's 1st Division were to lose their lives. Those
injured in the battle who had been left behind in Prague at the U
Apolináre Hospital in the care of the International Red Cross were
shot in their beds by Soviet troops. Those who managed to get to the
American zone found the demarcation line mysteriously moved -- and,
unarmed, they were left to be dealt with by Stalin's murderous wrath.

Rewriting history goes on and on. It will never end. On May 9 this
year President Putin claimed the Soviets had won the war as it had
captured "80 percent of the German army." Eighty percent? Does that
mean that only 20 percent fought across France, Belgium and Holland
and defended Germany's western front? And what about those troops
in Italy and Greece? But if you take the Wehrmacht as it existed at
ceasefire in 1945, there were only those remnants defending Berlin and
the odd pocket of diehards in Bohemia. Perhaps he means 80 percent of
that? One can, of course, make facts fit whatever scenario one needs.

And if rewriting won't work, you can keep history down by punishing
anyone disseminating the truth. Several weeks ago Turkey (soon to
be an EU partner?!) strengthened its law governing "acts against
fundamental national interests" to give jail sentences to anyone, not
just Turks, who describe the 1915 mass execution of Ottoman Armenians
as genocide. So if go for a holiday in Turkey and repeat that term,
your stay may be longer than you expect.

As for Vlasov and his men, there is no official memorial, only
the graves at Olšanská. There's no veterans' parade, there are
no plaques and no wreaths in the streets where they fell. Around
Beroun however, where the army was first encamped, they are still
remembered. A gray-haired woman remembers -- as a little toddler --
being bounced on the knee of the young Russian soldier billeted in
her family's house. Now he -- and the rest of his lost army -- is
simply one of history's ghosts.

Stephen Weeks is a writer and conservationist. He can be reached
at [email protected]