Massacre in Czechoslovakia: Newly Discovered Film Shows Post-War Executions
By Jan Puhl
It has long been known that German civilians fell victim to Czech excesses
immediately following the Nazi surrender at the end of World War II. But a
newly discovered video shows one such massacre in brutal detail. And it
has come as a shock to the Czech Republic.
For decades, the images lay forgotten in an aluminum canister -- almost
seven minutes of original black and white film, shot with an 8 mm camera on
May 10, 1945, in the Prague district of Borislavka during the confusing days
of the German surrender.
The man who shot the film was Jirí Chmelnicek, a civil engineer and
amateur filmmaker who lived in the Borislavka district and wanted to document the
city's liberation from the Nazi occupation. Chmelnicek filmed tanks
rolling through the streets, soldiers and refugees. Then, at some point,
his camera also caught groups of Germans, who had been driven out of their
houses and into Kladenska Street by Red Army soldiers and Czech militiamen.
Chmelnicek's film shows how the Germans were rounded up in a nearby movie
theater, also called the Borislavka. The camera then pans to the side of the
street, where 40 men and at least one woman stand with their backs to the
lens. A meadow can be seen in the background. Shots ring out and, one after
another, each person in the line slumps and falls forward over a low
embankment. The injured lying on the ground beg for mercy. Then a Red Army truck
rolls up, its tires crushing dead and wounded alike. Later other Germans
can be seen, forced to dig a mass grave in the meadow.
A Shock to Czechs
The shaky images show an event that has been described again and again by
eyewitnesses and historians: the systematic killing of German civilians. Yet
the film comes as a shock to Czechs. "Until now, there was no footage
whatsoever of such executions," says Czech documentary filmmaker David
Vondracek, who showed the historical images on television. "When I watched this for
the first time, it was like seeing a live broadcast from the past."
The only such images known before were taken by a US Air Force camera team.
That footage showed injured Germans lying on the ground in Plzen, in what
was then Czechoslovakia, in early May 1945. The images included some dead
bodies, but they didn't show a liquidation, from beginning to end, like this
Vondracek's documentary about Czech atrocities, called "Killings, Czech
Style," aired during primetime on Czech state television just two days before
May 8, the anniversary of Nazi Germany's surrender. The broadcast marks yet
another milestone on the Czech road toward confronting a not-always-comfortable World War II past -- a path the country has been working its way down for years.
Even organizations representing "Sudeten Germans" -- ethnic Germans
expelled from Czechoslovak territory after the war -- took notice. Horst Seehofer,
governor of Bavaria, plans to pay an official visit to Prague soon, making
him the first holder of his office to do so since World War II. "A great
deal has come into the open where the Sudeten Germans are concerned,"
Seehofer commented recently.
Victim to Acts of Revenge
Following Nazi Germany's defeat, the Czechs and the Red Army expelled
around 3 million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland and the rest of
Czechoslovakia. In the process, up to 30,000 civilians fell victim to acts of revenge.
Only a small minority of them had been Nazi perpetrators. Germans and
Czechs had lived side by side for decades before Hitler's 1938 annexation of
Bohemia and Moravia, the two regions that make up the majority of the Czech
No one knows who singled out the Germans in Borislavka, nor what crimes
they were accused of committing. They were most likely killed by Red Army
soldiers, perhaps also by "Revolutionary Guards" -- members of Czech militias.
Those firing the shots may also have included former Czech collaborators,
who had previously worked with the Germans and who wanted to clear their
names with a show of anti-German brutality.
Helena Dvoracková, amateur filmmaker Jirí Chmelnicek's daughter, was one of
the first to see the images of these executions. She doesn't remember how
old she was when her father set up his projection screen and ran the film.
"I don't remember either whether he said anything about it -- and really,
there wasn't much to be said," she says.
'Under the Meadow'
Her father kept the film hidden at home for decades. Communist police even
came calling -- someone had figured out that the footage existed. The
police asked about the film and threatened Chmelnicek. But the filmmaker didn't
turn over his reel. He wanted the world eventually to learn what had been
done to defenseless people that day in May in Borislavka.
Ten years ago, long after her father's death, Helena Dvoracková offered
the historical footage to a well-known Czech television historian, but the
historian kept the film under wraps. "People will stone me to death if I show
this," he supposedly said, and placed the reel in the state television
station's archives. Documentary maker Vondracek found it there, after a
cameraman who knew the amateur filmmaker's family told him about it.
Today Borislavka is one of Prague's nicer districts, and tall grass has
grown over the meadow where the executions took place. Vondracek now wants to
start a search for the Germans' mass grave.
"It must be somewhere under the meadow," he says.
Likely not all that far away from a memorial plaque for two Czechs who fell
in the battle against the Nazis on May 6, 1945.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein