Czech districts with a high ethnic German population, annexed by Germany in 1938.
In 1938, the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, announced his intention to annex the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a high ethnic German population. As the previous appeasement of Hitler had shown, the governments of both France and Britain were intent on avoiding war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier negotiated with Hitler and ultimately acquiesced to his demands at the Munich Agreement, in exchange for guarantees from Nazi Germany that no additional lands would be annexed. No Czechoslovak representatives were present at the negotiations. Five months later, when the Slovak Diet declared the independence of Slovakia, Hitler summoned Czechoslovak President Emil Hácha to Berlin and forced him to accept the German occupation of the Czech rump state and its re-organisation into the German-dominated Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Germany promptly invaded and occupied the remaining Czech territories. Although France had a defensive alliance with Czechoslovakia, neither the French nor British intervened militarily.
The Nazis considered many Czechs to be ethnically Aryan, and therefore suitable for Germanisation. As a consequence, the German occupation was less harsh than in other Slavic nations. Wartime living standards were actually higher in the occupied region than in Germany itself. However, freedom of speech was curtailed and 400,000 Czechs were conscripted for forced labour in the Reich. During the six-year occupation, more than 20,000 Czechs were executed and thousands more died in concentration camps. In 1941, the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich was made Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and began enforcing the occupation more harshly. Within five days of Heydrich's arrival, 142 people were executed. His brutality led to the Allies ordering his assassination the following year, but the Germans killed more than a thousand Czechs in reprisal, including the entire villages of Lidice and Ležáky. While the general violence of the occupation was much less severe than in Eastern Europe, it nevertheless incited violent anti-German sentiment in many Czechs.
Positions on 6 May 1945
Red: Soviet / Grey: German / Green: U.S.
During the spring of 1945, partisan forces in Bohemia and Moravia totalled about 120 groups, with a combined strength of around 7,500 people. Partisans disrupted the railway and highway transportation by sabotaging track and bridges and attacking trains and stations. Some railways could not be used at night or on some days, and trains were forced to travel at a slower speed. Waffen-SS units retreating from the Red Army's advance into Moravia burned down entire villages as a reprisal. Despite losing much of their leadership to a March 1945 purge by the Gestapo, Communist groups in Prague distributed propaganda leaflets calling for an insurrection. German soldiers and civilians became increasingly worried and prepared to flee violent retaliation for the occupation. In an attempt to reassert German authority, SS police general Karl Hermann Frank broadcast a message over the radio threatening to destroy Prague and drown any opposition in blood.
In early 1945, former Czechoslovak Army officers set up the
Bartoš Command commanded by General
Karel Kutlvašr to oversee fighting inside Prague, and the
Alex Command under General
František Slunečko to direct insurgent units in the suburbs. Meanwhile, the
Czech National Council (cs), with representatives from various Czech political parties, formed to take over political leadership after the overthrow of the Nazi and collaborationist authorities. Military leaders planning an uprising within Prague counted on the loyalty of ethnically Czech members of the police and the Government Army of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, as well as employees of key civil services, such as transport workers and the fire brigade. The Russian Liberation Army (ROA), composed of Soviet POWs that had agreed to fight for Nazi Germany, was stationed outside of Prague. Hoping that the ROA could be persuaded to switch sides in order to avoid accusations of collaboration, the Czech military command sent an envoy to General Sergei Bunyachenko, commander of the 1st Infantry Division (600th German Infantry Division). Bunyachenko agreed to help the Czechs.
On 4 May, the US Third Army under General George S. Patton entered Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was the only political leader to advocate the liberation of Prague by the Western Allies. In a telegram to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Churchill said that "the liberation of Prague...by US troops might make the whole difference to the postwar situation of Czechoslovakia and might well influence that in nearby countries." Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, also wanted his forces to liberate the city, and asked that the Americans stop at Plzeň, 50 miles to the west. The Red Army was planning a major offensive into the Protectorate, due to start 7 May. Eisenhower, disinclined to accept American casualties or risk antagonising the Soviet Union, acquiesced to the Soviet demands that the Red Army enter Prague.
The Prague uprising was part of a wave of insurrection that broke out across the Protectorate in early May as Allied forces approached, including the Plzeň (cs), Kladno (cs), and Přerov (cs) uprisings.