Henry Zehr





 Blue skies


It is a most beautiful clear day with blue skies, not a cumulus to be seen. The countryside below is a pretty green and the national anthem is right in calling it an “earthly paradise”. I am standing on top of a low hill called Baba not far from my hometown Olomouc looking down the valley that carries the River Morava to the Danube which then takes about 1900 km to empty itself into the Black Sea.

My vista is practically in the centre of Europe and the time is the last year of World War II - 1944/45. The Allies control the skies with the Americans flying at daytime and the British at night.


The scene is changing rapidly by the appearance of some heavy machinery. Starting gently, – but rapidly accelerating , there is a formation of heavy bombers – Flying Fortresses the B17 - with an escort of Mustang fighters buzzing around the heavies like bees. The whole flying circus is about 10 km east of me and is heading north, probably to Poland or East Germany. It scares me enough to try to take cover in a ditch surrounding the road. As I do I notice an elderly lady dressed in black marching around in total disregard of any danger from the flying beasts. She has a black shawl, which is not nearly as nice as the hijab – a scarf worn by Muslim women. I try to talk the lady into taking cover, which she, initially disregards, as she is, ironically, in a hurry to attend a funeral of a person killed by the fighter pilots last week when just being a walking target. No casualties this time .


On other occasions, when working in the town, I frequently cycled to the countryside when the alarm sounded. That gave me 15 minutes to get out of harm’s way. On one cloudy day the Luftwaffe managed to shoot down one flying fortress. I heard the explosion in the air and saw some members of the crew coming down with parachutes. Sadly, one crew member lay dead as his chute did not open. German soldiers promptly took the survivors captive.  At the beginning of the raids (or over flights) we used to get the siren warning before the planes came. Later, as it became obvious that we were not likely to be bombed, and to avoid the loss of working time, we were not encouraged to leave the city during these raids.


 When the sky is not so blue

On the 5th of May 1945 – only 3 days before Germany’s surrender, an SS battalion executed 38 men over the age of 15 at Javořičky near my home town for allegedly aiding partisans, the guerrilla fighters who fought the Nazis. These were very emotional issues at the war’s end. Later historical research found evidence of badly organised guerrilla groups executing civilians of German origin and so called Czech collaborators at random.  The execution of those at Javořičky may have been a reprisal. It appears to be a sad fact that reprisal or revenge is often meted out by persons who were not wanted todirectly hurt by the enemy.



 The SS was a separate army, fiercely loyal to Hitler – in a sense independent of the German regular army – the Wehrmacht. The SS supported Hitler right up to his suicide.


The city of Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony is very close to Prague. They share the same waters – a river that changes its name from Vltava/Moldau to Labe/Elbe and proceeds to Hamburg.


 A few years ago I wanted to travel by boat from Prague to Dresden, but the water level was not high enough for such a passage. When we got there by car we inspected some of the repairs and renovations done to historic places – the Frauenkirche (Women’s Church), the Semperoper and the Zwinger - and we admired some beautiful Meissen porcelain.


 In Dresden you are frequently reminded of the dreadful bombing attacks only three months before the end of WW II. The bombing was done by over 500 airplanes at daytime and then again at night. Phosphorous bombs were used and the casualties were very high – 25.000 people (with some estimates considerably higher). With hindsight it appears to have be a reprisal for the bombing inflicted by the Nazis during the Battle of Britain on London and industrial Midlands – some 5 years earlier. The Allied high command denies this and claims that only military targets were attacked.


 I agree with Kurt Vonnegut, a US born prisoner of war in Dresden, who was a German POW incarcerated in Dresden and later wrote the book  Slaughterhouse - five and whose comment is cited here:


“The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in.”


Many students of history idolise war leaders, even if they had committed  atrocities – just because it all happened a long time ago and there is still some glamor attached to them. Napoleon Bonaparte is one. Apart from winning many battles he also totally altered Europe’s legal system. He also led his army into alien freezing territory and abandoned it on his retreat from Moscow. He didn’t do much better in Egypt, where his fleet was beaten on the Nile. Combined with the Spanish he was also comprehensively beaten at a naval battle at Trafalgar.


 Another hero – Alexander the Great – died in his early thirties. During his short but intense military career, he dragged his faithful troops all the way from today’s Macedonia to India, and left them to make their own way home from Babylon. He rejuvenated Egypt’s culture by adding some Hellenistic touches to it and his commandants became governors of various provinces in the Holy Lands.


I shall never idolise these leaders, including Hitler, who apart from a very cruel racist streak proved to be – initially – a brilliant general. He conquered most of Europe, but lost the plot after Stalingrad. One could say that he prolonged the war by good two years. He sidelined his professional generals, took their job, executed many, including Rommel and stood in the way of peace and surrender talks which have saved hundreds of thousands of civilian and military lives.


The devastation was monumental. On the way to Rotterdam in December 1948 (three and a half years after the war’s end) I walked four blocks of (Nuremburg (Germany) and all I saw was cleared bitumen roads and heaps of rubble where houses used to stand. Iin Rotterdam (Holland) the roads and properties were all cleared.) Yet, within a few decades most of the countries recovered from the destruction, reconstructed and prospered.

Let us hope that we can keep these lunatic geniuses at bay for a long time.