PLZEN, Czech Republic - It's a lovely May afternoon, bright and hot. The sun beats down on Plzen's Republic Square, showing off to fine effect the 16th-century Town Hall - the rooftop gables, the intricate Renaissance graffiti, the Nazi flag.
It's a disconcerting sight, even after the double-take recognition that the swastika hanging from an upstairs window and the portrait of Adolf Hitler over the door were placed there by patriotic residents. Today is the second day of Plzen's annual Slavnosti Svobody (Festival of Freedom) marking the anniversary of the city's liberation by U.S. troops in May 1945, and the activities include a staging of a battle for the building.
Before hundreds watching from a cordoned-off area between Town Hall and the gothic Church of St. Bartholomew, "soldiers" in GI dress pull up in jeeps and exchange noisy volleys of blank ammunition with their German-uniformed counterparts. The Yanks enter; moments later, the swastika flag is pulled in and replaced by the Czech tricolor and the Stars and Stripes.
"Dobry, dobre," murmurs an onlooker. "Good, very good."
The Festival of Freedom began as a spontaneous celebration in May 1990, six months after the fall of the Communist-run government, which had actively played down any U.S. role in the liberation of then-Czechoslovakia.
"People were singing and dancing in the street and in the parks all night," recalls Mila Raboch, who works with the city, coordinating activities for what has become an organized, multiday festival of parades, presentations and concerts of mainly American music.
This year's is the first to include the fictional battle for Town Hall. It is also being held in the immediate aftermath of another U.S. "liberation," albeit one freighted with ambiguity and political baggage. Polls show Czechs overwhelmingly opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, but Plzen in May is not the place to come for a critique of U.S. foreign policy. Events in the Middle East have done nothing to dampen this city's sentimental embrace of the U.S. military, and it's on full display on this sunny Sunday, the second and main day of the festival.
Scores of people are in uniform, from bulky middle-age men in full dress to toddlers in fatigues. The "Convoy of Remembrance," a parade of 65 period military vehicles, passes twice around the square to cheers and waves, en route to other western Czech towns freed by U.S. forces. People jockey to have their picture taken with Eric Petersen, an 83-year-old American veteran of the Plzen operation who has returned to ride with the convoy. The troops who rolled into Baghdad should have it so good in 58 years.
Rudolf Wabnegger believes they will, and a lot sooner.
"It will be much earlier," says Wabnegger, of nearby Kozolupy. Hoisting a full-size U.S. flag over his shoulder, the 32-year-old father of two predicts that in decades to come, Iraqis will hold similar celebrations: "They will be grateful to the Americans who did such a thing."
This 700-year-old city of 165,000, best known as the birthplace of pilsener beer, also marks the farthest advance of U.S. troops into the former Czechoslovakia. Arriving May 6, 1945, under the command of Gen. George S. Patton, the U.S. forces were ordered to halt so that Prague, less than 50 miles away, could be taken by the Soviet army, as agreed by the Allied powers.
Because of that history - and, perhaps, because of how it was stifled during the 40 years of Communist rule - there is a sizable subculture of U.S. military camp followers, collectors and amateur historians who frequently dress the part, in the Czech Republic. The Club of Military History-Plzen, which organized the Town Hall firefight, includes 50 members in three "regiments," said Ivan Rollinger, a captain in the club's 38th Infantry.
Though they're not part of any organized outfit, Martin Rokos and his friend Libor Stastny have come from Prague for the celebration clad head to toe in olive drab, spot-on in every detail (save for tall plastic cups of Pilsner Urquell). Stastny has a regulation L-shape flashlight hooked to his uniform, Rokos a holstered (and presumably unloaded) gun slung at his waist.
"It's our hobby. We collect these items," says Rokos, 27. Since the war in Iraq, he says, people "look differently at us" when he and Stastny wear their uniforms in public. "The perception [of the U.S. military] is more negative now."
No such change in feeling is evident among the revelers here, whether clad in camouflage or wearing civilian clothes and pushing strollers. "This is an event that must be remembered" regardless of current events, says Vladimira Rosendorfova, 32, after her 10-month-old son, Jindrich, gets some face time with Petersen. "It was denied for such a long time, people are eager to celebrate in this way."
"This was the way it was," says Milan Jisa, 55, a member of the Club of Military History. "Now the policy of the United States might be a bit different, but it doesn't matter in relation to this event."