The Bridge of Terror (Brücke des Schreckens): Remembering 31 July, 1945

Dr. Edvard Benes Bridge in Usti nad Labem (Aussig). Photo taken by MaVlast / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Wartime Bridge Series

The Bridge of Terror- Brücke des Schreckens. When thinking about this bridge, the first thing that comes to mind is the film by Steven King entitled Stand By Me, where four young boys go on an adventure together only to come across the body of a person found near the railroad viaduct- a person that had been reported missing and was mentioned throughout the entire story.  We’ve had a few bridge horror stories where a tragedy, such as a murder, beating, accidental death and the like took place at a bridge located in a remote place. Most bridges are usually covered either in wood or metal and they sometimes present a horrific feeling when visiting them- especially at night.

This Wartime Bridge story features that setting, but in a city environment. It was a retaliation for the years of terror that was done by the enemy. It’s motor behind the retaliation, feared that the minority in his country was a common threat to the peace and security of the state he governed.

The story takes place in Usti nad Labem- in German and English: Aussig.  The city of 94,000 inhabitants is located on the River Elbe, approximately 20 kilometers from the German border. Since 2016, the Dresden-Prague Motorway (D8) has provided motorists with direct access to the city without having to careen along the River Elbe and go through the towns of Teplice (CZ), Bad Schandau, Pirna and Heidenau (Germany-Saxony).  The city is one of dozens in the Black Triangle Region, where Germany, Czechia and Poland meet and was infamous for years of polution caused by mining and deforestation.  Yet despite this, the city has a beautiful backdrop with the steep bluffs overlooking the valleys of both the River Elbe and the Bilina. The name is derived from the old Czech meaning Mouth Upon the Elbe, for the Bilina empties into the Elbe.  English and Germans used to call the city Aussig, yet today, the name Usti is the official given name.

Usti has five key bridges, yet this bridge is the focus of a tragedy that happened 75 years ago on July 31st, 1945. It happened on the Dr. Edvard Benes Bridge, which spans the River Elbe directly in the area of the train station and the confluence with the Bilina. In other words, the bridge lies directly in the city center.  The bridge itself is a steel through arch bridge with a total length of 263 meters long. It was built in 1936 and was named after Dr. Edvard Benes, who ruled Czechoslovakia from 1935 until his ouster in 1948. This includes seven years of exile in London, from 1938 when the Nazis took over the country until his return to the county in April 1945, shortly before the Nazis surrendered.  He had no love for the Germans and in particular, Adolf Hitler, who cheated him out of the Munich Accords which called for the Sudetenlands be annexed to Germany. The Führer later moved his troops into what was left of Czechoslovakia 0n March 30, 1939, six months after the Munich Agreement was signed. In retaliation for the deaths of millions of Czechoslovaks including 80% of the Jewish population, combined with the destruction of vast parts of the country, Benes ordered a decree upon his return to Prague on 10 May 1945, where all German and Hungarian minorities be expelled from the country, effective immediately; their properties to be redistributed to the native Czech and Slovak population. As many as 3 million Sudeten Germans were forced to leave, most of them settled in a Germany that was already divided into four zones.

During the relocation, a tragedy occurred that has stained the city of Usti ever since and resulted in years of distrust between Czechoslovakia and Germany.

On 31 July, 1945, a massacre occured on the Dr. Edvard Benes Bridge in Usti. The cause of the massacre came in response to an explosion at a munitions depot in one of the city’s suburbs in the afternoon that day. Immediately after the incident, the Czechoslovakian Police, together with the city’s residents,  purged every house and appartment of the Germans living there. Wearing white bands on their arms many were either beaten or stabbed to death and others were thrown into a nearby reservoir and drowned. The biggest travesty was when most of the victims were thrown off the Benes Bridge into the River Elbe and gunned down!  The number of casualties varied based on sources. Germans claimed that over 2000 had been killed in the incident; the official death count on the Czech side was reduced to over 200. Alarmingly, as many as 80 bodies flowed down the River Elbe and ended up in Saxony!  The massacre was jeered by Communist media which served as  retaliation for the Jews that had to wear the Star of David by the Nazis before being transported to concentration camps in Auschwitz to die in the gas chambers.

Still, the incident and the subsequent expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia left an everlasting effect on the German-Czech relations, the relations between Czechoslovakia and the allied countries of the US, France, Britain and the Soviet Union. The process of cleansing Czechoslovakia of the Germans and Hungarian subsequently stopped after the Potsdam Agreement was reached in 1946. Still the damage to the presidency of Benes was done and irreparable. On 7 June 1948 he was forced from office through a political coup, and he died a broken man seven weeks later on 3 September, 1948.  Czechoslovakia became part of the Communist Bloc after hisuhis overthrow and remained a Communist state until 1989.

Fast forward to the present:

Relations between Germany and Czechia and Slovakia have improved since the incident. Some of the German and Jewish minorities have returned to Czechia to live there, and cross-border travel has been reestablished. Still the scars of the massacre at the bridge remains. A plaque commemorating the tragedy was created on the bridge in 2010. A 75th anniversary memorial service took place there, featuring the remaining survivors who told their stories and sent a lasting message to the younger generations.  While memories of the event can fade away, we must still learn to accept the other culture and learn about it in order to understand each other. We must be tolerant and open and ensure that incidents like this never happens again. History must never repeat itself and the incident at the Benes Bridge in Usti is one that should not happen again anywhere.

 

bhc fast fact new

Unlike in the US, the name of the bridge Edvard Benes has remained due to his successes of liberating Czechoslovakia from the Nazi regime and reestablishing it as a democratic country.

Czechoslovakia was divided up into Czech Republic and Slovakia via Velvet Divorce in 1993. Since 1 January 2020, the Czech part has become Czechia.

 

BHC 10 years