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.

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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.