Communist Highlights in Prague and the Czech Republic

Czechoslovakia had existed as an independent state since the end of WWI and the dissolution of the Austrian Empire. However, this small yet economically advanced province was soon to be caught right in the middle of a storm which insisted on central Europe until the 1990s, at which time this country finally gained its true independence.

Back in the Thirties, Czechoslovakia was forcibly annexed to the Third Reich as a result of the Munich Agreement in 1938. This event can be seen a major destabilizing step in Hitler’s foreign relations, clearly showing that the situation was deteriorating fast in central Europe.

Following the troublesome years of Nazi rule, this region was captured by Soviet and US troops at the end of the war. A new republic was founded, but the local communist party was very well organized, so Czechoslovakia shared the destiny of many neighbor countries which had been occupied by the Red Army in the final stage of the war. Backed by Stalin, a communist coup d’état in 1948 led to the establishment of a Soviet-style dictatorship, which was to last until 1989, making Czechoslovakia a Soviet satellite country.

Despite the relatively small size on the map, Czechoslovakia played a significant role in the economy of the Eastern Bloc. This country had a well established tradition in the production of weapons, metal hardware and machinery. Its soil is rich in Uranium. Furthermore, the forward position on the border with non-communist Western Germany and Austria further raised its strategic significance. When a secession from Moscow was tried by the local communist government, led by reformer Alexander Dubcek in 1968 – a phase known as the ‘Prague Spring’ -, the USSR reacted with all its military might, staging a full-scale invasion of the country by land and air, overturning the high ranks of the unreliable Czechoslovakian government, and putting this valuable region under a stricter communist leadership.

Clearly, the end of the communist dictatorship is today duly celebrated as a historical achievement both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia – respectively the western and eastern portions of Czechoslovakia, which peacefully split in 1993. The more than 40 years of struggle against Soviet rule constitute the theme of several interesting permanent exhibitions, but these are not the only witnesses of those troubled times. More tangible relics – all open to the public – are former border posts with former West Germany, a one-of-a-kind original communist prison camp for political prisoners, as well as some pieces of architectures and bunkers from the Cold War age.

This post is dedicated to these highlights, all to be found in the region between Prague and the border with Bavaria, in todays Czech Republic. Photographs were collected on a short trip in summer 2018.

Sights

Museum of Communism, Prague

Far from a cheesy description of everyday life in the years of the Cold War, or an inaccurate account of the history of the communist plague as a social phenomenon, this permanent exhibition takes you in detail along the history of Czechoslovakia in the years immediately before WWII, when it basically lost its independence to the Germans, and going on to 1989, when with the so-called Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia abandoned the Soviet sphere of influence and overthrew the communist dictatorship.

The exhibition features an equilibrated mixture of original artifacts – paintings, statues, memorabilia,… -, photographs, models, dioramas and explicative panels.

Interestingly, speaking of the Thirties and the imposed annexation to the Third Reich, you can see models of the border forts along the former German (now Polish) border. These are covered in this dedicated post.

The history of the anti-fascist operations, and of the role of the communist party in them, are thoroughly analyzed, and so are the decisive years immediately following the war. It is recalled how this nation was partly invaded by US troops, hence it was contested as a pure-Soviet conquer. A short-lived free Czechoslovakian republic was founded, which fell under communist control, and in the years of Stalin, with a Soviet military presence in the country, this meant the end of any independence from the USSR.

Similar to East Berlin, Prague ended up to host a huge monument to Stalin. This was built on top of a hill facing the city, on the north bank of the river. It was suddenly blown after the death of the Soviet dictator, leaving an empty esplanade which can be still seen today (see a section below).

The establishment of a communist rule since the start meant the implementation of brutal repressive measures, including prison camps for political opponents, which were largely employed as forced laborers all over the territory of the state, especially for mining activities. Preventive imprisonment, extorted confessions and executions were typical to the years of Stalin. Even the troops who had come in contact with the western Allies during the war were exonerated and imprisoned, to perfectly guarantee the stability of the communist leadership of the army. A detailed account of this little-know, large-scale repressive activity is documented also by means of reconstructed interrogation rooms, as well as spy gear used by the Czechoslovakian communist political police, the StB.

A related interesting chapter is that of the border shared with neighbor western countries. Similar to the German Democratic Republic (see this post), the border with West Germany and Austria was heavily guarded to stop those who wanted to flee the country. A fence of many kilometers was erected and modernized on more instances. A number of citizens were sent to prison or even lost their lives trying to escape to the West. More on this can be found today on the border with Germany (see a section below).

A significant area is devoted to the wannabe-reformer Alexander Dubcek and the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’. The aggressive Soviet reaction to the experiment, backed by the new Brezhnev leadership, provided an example for other Soviet satellite countries seeking for independence. The invasion of Czechoslovakia, called ‘Operation Danube’, was carried out as a surprise attack, paralyzing all urban infrastructures by quickly landing troops and material with a well-organized airlift on the nation’s major civil airports, including Prague and Brno. Simultaneously, land troops of many countries of the Eastern Bloc crossed the border and rapidly occupied all military installations. Guerrilla actions took place especially in Prague, but it was soon clear that an action so massive could not be counteracted by the sole Czechoslovakian forces.

The Soviet aggression cleared any doubt about the attitude of the new leadership of the USSR. It was generally condemned even by the communist parties of the western world, but this was not helpful for Czechoslovakia, which could not overthrow the re-established Soviet-style dictatorship until the almost simultaneous collapse of the communist regimes bound to the USSR in 1989.

Getting there and moving around

This museum is an excellent resource and a starting point for gaining an insight on the history of Czechoslovakia from the late 1930s to the 1990s. A general knowledge of the Cold War history may help to better collocate the facts reported in the exhibition on the world stage, yet even if this is the first museum of the kind you may visit, it can be extremely interesting.

It is located in central Prague, perfectly accessible with a walk in the beautiful central district from the majority of the hotels. Visiting may easily take 2 hours for an interested subject. All panels and captions are in double language, Czech and English. Website with full information here.

Nuclear Bunker for Civil Defense, Prague

Following the escalation of the nuclear stockpiles in the US and USSR, countermeasures to resist a nuclear attack were implemented in many countries. Besides specific training for both troops and civilians, shelters were built for government agencies, and for the population of most crowded areas. While typically far from sufficient to save even a minimal part of the population in case of a nuclear attack, these structures were nonetheless rather extensive and sophisticated. Especially in central Europe, within reach of nuclear missiles from the start of the rocket age (see this post), nuclear bunkers for civil defense were serious structures, today standing as tangible witnesses of the Cold War (see this post).

In Prague, the system for civil defense was implemented in the form of a series of bunkers around the city center, started in the early 1950s. Over the following decades a network was created comprising the underground railway system and several metro stops, which  similar to West Berlin, could be turned into nuclear bunkers providing shelter, decontamination gear and supplies for hundreds of people for several weeks.

Of this comprehensive system only a small part can be visited today. The bunker in the Parukarka district, northeast of the city center, can be accessed from a distinctive concrete gate – today covered in ignorant graffiti – in the side of a hill. Right behind the external gate you can find a massive tight door, capable of resisting to a nuclear blast, and providing access to a stair well, leading deep underground.

From the bottom of the stairs, you are led through a network of tunnels, originally intended for storing supplies and as living quarters for refugees.

The toilet is still operative today. An emergency room with original medical tools has been reconstructed.

An interesting exhibition showcases a beautiful collection of gas masks, dosimeters, posters with emergency survival procedures and propaganda items.

A room where the main tunnel splits in multiple branches gives access to a decontamination facility, a security communication post, and an area where a small exhibition on the Cold War has been placed.

The latter includes sample mass-produced goods originally stored in the bunker, maps, and full nuclear and chemical protection suits and masks.

You can also try putting on a mask, and take up a rifle for a weird selfie!

Getting there and moving around

The bunker can be reached a few tram stops from the main railway station. The entrance is located next to the southwestern corner of Parukarka park on Prokopova alley, a block away from Hotel Olsanka. However, the gate is usually closed, and there is no booth or visitor center there. The bunker can be visited by appointment only, or on a regular basis by taking the special-themed communist tour of Prague (see website here). The latter was my option. This tour is offered in English and maybe other languages, and will take you on a walk to a few places usually portrayed in the historical pictures from the days of ‘Operation Danube’ of 1968, and during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The starting point is close to the Clock Tower, on the central square of historical Prague.

The highlight of the multi-hour tour is the civil defense bunker, which makes the tour appealing. For the rest, except for little information, the tour is not excessively interesting, especially if you have already a good knowledge of the history of the Cold War and of Czechoslovakia at that time. It may the depend on the guide – mine was a relatively young man, who albeit prepared, did not seem to be able to give answers to more detailed or technical questions. Furthermore, the time spent inside the bunker is limited, and very scant explanations are provided about the exhibitions and artifacts on display there. Time is not enough for good photographs. The website of the bunker, for more info or for booking a private visit, is here.

Soviet-Related Buildings and Monuments, Prague

A few buildings in Prague have a historical significance bound to the Cold War, either for the role they had in the years of the communist dictatorship, or for the fact they were erected in Soviet style.

A first example is the headquarter of the StB, the political police of Czechoslovakia, similar to the KGB, Stasi or Securitate of other communist countries. This is located in central Prague, and occupies a building which had been previously built for another purpose.

To the northwest of the historical district, on the northern bank of the river, you can find a prominent example of Soviet architecture – Hotel International. This was designed in the years of Stalin, and this is reflected in the typical Stalinist tower architecture (see this post). It had been intended as a building of the department of defense, to host high-ranking military staff. It never covered this role, and after the construction years, lasting 1952-1956, it was inaugurated as a luxury hotel, with the same name it bears today.

After the end of communism in Europe, the hotel has been refurbished, returning the exteriors to the original appearance. The star on top the central spire is original too. The frieze features hammers and sickles, as well as other examples of typical communist iconography.

Today a rather unapparent square with a nice view of the old city, the base of the monument to Stalin with the giant staircases leading to it from the water level can be found on the northern bank of the river. This area is today partly degraded, and used for temporary art installations. Only pictures from the time allow to get an idea of the monster size of the sculpture group once standing there, with Stalin and other folks overlooking the city.

The monument was blown after Stalin was condemned by the Communist Party of the USSR, soon after his death.

Among the relatively few statues and prominent buildings dating back to the years of communist dictatorship is a couple of cosmonauts. This can be found in the southern periphery of the city, immediately out of the metro station Haje. The neighborhood is mainly residential, dating from Soviet times. Notwithstanding the general decency of the area, these two astronauts are somewhat forgotten, close to an overgrown hedge.

Getting there and moving around

The mentioned communist architectural highlights in Prague are somewhat scattered.

The StB headquarters are located on the corner between Bartolomějská Ulice and Na Perstyne, at the very center of the historical district. The former Stalin monument can be reached climbing uphill from the northern end of Chechuv Most bridge, a short walk from the historical district. Besides the questionable interest for what remains of the monument, climbing up is advisable at least for the exceptional view you can enjoy from the balcony.

The Hotel International is located further north of the city center, where Koulova alley meets Cinska road. The nice residential area is served by a number of tram and bus stops, but reaching may be easier by car. Clearly, you can also elect to stay at the hotel.

The two cosmonauts can be found in the southern peripheral district Haje, just outside of the homonym metro stop, close to a larger bus stop area. Again, reaching is less time consuming by car.

Vojna Prison Camp, Pribram

A one-of-a-kind memorial in the panorama of former communist-led countries is preserved just south of the small town of Pribram, about 40 miles southwest of Prague. This is a full scale prison camp for forced laborers, instituted by the communist dictatorship in the years of Stalin, back in 1947. The prisoners of this camp were interned only for political reasons. Together with other similar installations, it supplied workforce for the extraction of uranium ore from mines nearby. The number of inmates increased steadily until the early 1960s, reaching the order of 1,500, until a series of amnesties were promulgated and prison camps were closed in Czechoslovakia.

The camp went on to be operated as a military depot, and reopened as a national memorial in the late 1990s.

Close to the entrance, which is via the original gate in the outer fence of the camp, a former industrial building has been substituted by a modern building with roughly the same shape, hosting a conference center and the visitor center. When on a self-guided tour, you are advised to start your visit with an exhibition on the history of the Czechoslovakian prison camps, hosted in the former guard quarters. The exhibition provides models, pictures and quick numbers to get an idea of the proportion of the repression and internment of political prisoners, as well as of the forced labor system set up by the communist leadership.

A memorial to those who perished as a result of political repression and imprisonment in the area of Pribram concludes this part.

The partly original and partly reconstructed buildings on display include a complete external perimeter, a prison and a rigor cell.

Inside an inner guarded perimeter, a few barracks for the inmates have been reconstructed or refurbished, and are used to showcase temporary and permanent exhibitions. One of great interest at the time of my visit described in detail the days of the liberation from the Nazi occupation – US troops briefly took over control of the area, and they met the Soviet army nearby Pribram.

There are also service buildings for the guards, with a small movie theater and a canteen.

Another interesting part is the original emergency room and clinic. The face of Stalin in the doctor’s room is particularly disturbing. Besides the generally harsh living conditions, illnesses and injuries typical to mine works were rather common. Inexperience of the forced laborers clearly added to the injury rates.

In a building to the far end of the camp you can find an exhibition about mining activities in the area and uranium extraction in Czechoslovakia, which represented an asset of this country in the eyes of the USSR.

Getting there and moving around

The prison camp is opened as a national memorial. It can be reached by car along highway N.4 in 30 minutes from central Prague in the small village of Lesetice, immediately south of Pribram. There are opening times, but you can visit either on a self-guided basis or with a guide. I was not given the option of a guided tour in English though, so I enjoyed a self-guided tour. There is some paneling in English, but not extensively covering all parts of the installation. Access to the rigor cell is only possible with a guide, but you may join a guided tour only for that small part of the exhibition, just to get access.

A complete visit on a self-guided basis may take about 1.5 hours for the interested subject, including time for taking all the pictures.

Please note they accept only cash. Website in English with full information here.

Iron Curtain Museum, Rozvadov

This atypical museum is located right on the border with Germany, between the Czech village of Rozvadov and the German town of Frankenreuth, Bavaria. Back in the years of the Cold War, the highway E50 today crossing the border nearby did not exist, and this border post was a major checkpoint on the line between the Eastern Bloc and the West.

The museum is deceptively located in the basement of the gas station immediately cross the border on the Czech side. The gas station itself used to be the custom and border control station, as you can see from historical pictures inside the museum.

The museum is constituted of a collection of photographs and artifacts. The exhibits cover roughly two themes – communism in Czechoslovakia and the Cold War as a global confrontation.

Red banners, small sculptures, photographs and propaganda posters have been collected from various locations in Czechoslovakia. These include official portraits of the communist presidents of Czechoslovakia, and memorabilia belonging to their offices.

A good collection of weapons and communication gear belonging to border guards and local troops of both sides of the Iron Curtain is also on display. Communist-themed commemorative medals and dinnerware are part of the collection.

The part on the global confrontation is smaller, and include photographs from sister museums in other countries including the US, a small documentation on the history of nuclear tests and the nuclear stockpiles in the Cold War period.

On the outside, a few vehicles of the former border guards can be found (no pictures due to heavy rain).

Getting there and moving around

This nice small museum is surely worth visiting for the interested subject, even though it does not concentrate much on the history of the local border post. The website in Czech language can be found here, basic visiting info can be easily found with some Google translation. It can be reached by car on the road connecting Frankenreuth, Bavaria, and Rozvadov, immediately cross the border on the Czech side. Signs to the entrance can be found around the local gas station. Entry is behind the building of the gas station. Visiting on a self-guided basis will not take more than 45 minutes for the interested subject.

Please note that they accept only cash.

Museum of the Border Guard, Rozvadov

This museum is actually a preserved former barrack of the border guards. Not only it looks like the building is still being operated, it actually is, albeit only for reunions of the former guards and local ranger corps, which today keep it open.

Thanks to this special condition, the place is very vivid and makes for an extremely interesting visit. Besides the sleeping quarters, you can find a series of rooms with rifles and technical material, including radio and communication equipment.

If you are lucky, the guide will give you a demonstration of how parts of this technical gear work.