The tragedy of the last days of the Second World War in Velké Meziříčí
In the last days of the war there was an early uprising in Velké Meziříčí, which was immediately suppressed by the Germans. After brutal interrogation, the occupiers executed several dozen people and declared martial law in the town.
At the end of the war, Velké Meziříčí, which was crossed by the important Brno-Prague road, had 7,000 inhabitants. The predominantly Czech population had been involved in the resistance since 1939, when the regional headquarters of the Defence of the Nation organisation was established there. Later, the so-called Preparatory Revolutionary National Committee and then the resistance organisation Rada tří began to operate in the area in 1942.
Resistance in the town
The latter expanded its activities in the area of the Highlands. It was divided into groups marked with the letters alphabets and in Velké Meziříčí and its surroundings the TAU group under the command of Captain Miroslav Vetiška was active. Its task was to support and cooperate with partisan units, to carry out diversionary actions and intelligence activities. In addition, there was also a Communist Party of Czechoslovakia cell led by Jindřich Nováček. In April 1945, the resistance fighters from the Council of Three concluded an agreement with the Communists on joint action, according to which Vetiška was to deal with military matters and Nováček with political ones. However, it was not easy to carry out resistance activities. There were Wehrmacht troops, a detachment of German gendarmes and, from January 1945, a Gestapo station. On 28 April, SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Schauschütz, who was one of the most experienced police officers in Moravia, became its head.
In Velké Meziříčí, the uprising broke out spontaneously. On Sunday morning, 6 May, the mayor Antonín Jelínek announced on the town radio that Czechoslovak flags could be flown, whereupon the population began to gather spontaneously in the streets. The centre of the action was the town hall building on the square, which was soon full of people. In their euphoria, the representatives of the political parties, together with the resistance fighters, began to establish the Revolutionary National Committee (RNV). The memoirist Jakub Drápela later described the messy situation: „At the town hall (…) there was (…) considerable chaos. Order followed order, nobody cared about the execution of orders (…) weapons, hand grenades were lying around on tables and windows, or they were in the possession of people who did not know how to use them at all.“ It looked similar in the streets of the city, where people were hoisting Czechoslovak flags and red banners. But the war was not over yet. The military commander of the town, Maj. Möller and Schauschütz saw that the situation was serious and began to negotiate with the rebels in the afternoon. The result was an agreement that the Wehrmacht and the police would stay at the headquarters in the school building and not come out. In return, the RNV was to provide them with personal security.
However, both sides violated the truce. Some overly active insurgents disarmed the Germans and there were several shootings, with the partisans killing one soldier. This was a major indiscretion, as units of the German 6th Armoured Division were operating in the vicinity of the town and military vehicles were passing through the town until the evening. Moreover, the town hall was inadequately secured against possible attack from outside, and a large number of people were still moving around. The Germans, however, had a telephone in the school and could therefore inform their superiors of their situation. Soldiers passing through the town to the west must have also been informed of the uprising. All this caused the tragic events that followed, and after the war many accused Vetiska of incompetence because, as a military commander, he could not cut the Germans‘ telephone connection.
The command of the German Army Group Centre operating in the Czech lands was aware of the possibility of spontaneous uprisings breaking out, and its commander, Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner, issued an order on 2 May stating, among other things, „Only now show no weakness. Against every outbreak of unrest, act ruthlessly. Decimate the participants…“ The German soldiers did indeed intervene heavily against the insurgents in many places, and it was in Meziříčí that the situation was to develop in an extremely unfortunate way. On the night of 7 May, an armed Wehrmacht detachment with two tanks under the command of Lieutenant Ostendorf arrived in the town. He drove up to the square, where he arrested the mayor, Jelinek. He then informed Major Möller that he was to suppress the uprising and punish those involved. He was said to have acted very confidently and immediately decided to ambush the town hall so that the „birds would not fly away“. When the Germans knocked on the main gate, Vetiška began to negotiate with them through the door and in the meantime instructed those present to escape through the back entrance. But it was locked.
Brutal interrogations and executions
At the time of the German intervention there were over 70 people in the town hall. Several of them jumped out of the window even as the Germans were shooting at them. Meanwhile, German soldiers broke in and asked those present to raise their hands. When asked who was in command, Vetiška and Nováček stepped forward. They tried to convince Ostendorf that they were not carrying out any violent activity and were only involved in orderly service, but at that very moment there was a shooting outside, which was the responsibility of the resistance fighters at the Světlá boarding school. They went to the aid of the town and clashed with the Germans in front of the town hall. Ostendorf urged Vetišek to come out and gave the order to cease fire. He did so, but then took advantage of the confusion and darkness to escape, saving his life. The others were not so lucky. The Germans crammed them into one small room and interrogated them one by one the next day, May 7.
Gottlieb Soukup, a former member of the Brno Gestapo, conducted the interrogations and was very brutal with his men. The prisoners were beaten, tortured (their fingertips were crushed) and Soukup even shot one man himself. When the interrogations were over, Schauschütz used the protocols to decide who would be released and who would be shot. A few people were lucky and the Germans let them go, but 56 insurgents were sentenced to death. The newcomer was hanged on a street lamp post in the square as a warning to the head of the uprising. He had a sign attached to his neck that read, „I, in the service of Bolshevism, prepared misery and death in Velke Mezirici.“ The other 55 resistance fighters were divided into four groups. Three were taken in turn by the Germans to the banks of the nearby Oslava River, where they were shot and thrown into the river. Some of the soldiers eventually threw a few more hand grenades into the water. A fourth group taken to the Balinka River met the same fate and martial law was then declared in the town. The Germans then celebrated the rampage with a boisterous drinking party.
The investigation into the massacre
As Red Army troops approached the town, the Nazis had to leave Velké Meziříčí on the night of 9 May. Before their departure, they shot three young men they had captured as partisans, and the number of victims rose to 60. Another 13 people died in various shootings and during the liberation. As the Germans retreated, one of them fired a flare, which the Soviets took as a signal to attack. The already liberated town was thus still the target of an air raid on 9 May, which killed forty people and caused numerous material damages. The massacre of 60 insurgents became the subject of an investigation after the war. Schauschütz and Soukup were captured and sentenced to death by the Extraordinary People’s Court in Brno for, among other things, their involvement in the Velkomeziříč tragedy. Lieutenant Ostendorf was not caught by the Czechs.
Investigators concluded that the uprising had broken out prematurely. The front was over 20 kilometres away and there were no large partisan units in the vicinity to come to the rescue. The spontaneity of the actions taken also contributed to the overall chaotic nature of the situation, and the behaviour (or escape) of Captain Vetiska was controversial. The German soldiers and Gestapo, on the other hand, were intent on maintaining the retreat routes to the west at all costs, and acted accordingly in suppressing the uprising. The result was one of the greatest tragedies of the end of the Nazi occupation.