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Germany: The Sudeten Problem Lingers

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 10 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading German newspaper today contrasts the different approaches in the Czech Republic and Poland to the German residents expelled after the war.

The comments in Munich's "Suddeutsche Zeitung" were prompted by the recent criticism by Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman against the association of German-speaking expellees - the Sudetens. In a recent TV program Zeman said he did not want the expellee organization, the Sudeten Landsmannschaft, represented on the German-Czech Discussion Forum which was created as part of the 1996 reconciliation treaty to discuss bilateral problems between the two countries. He went on to say that while "the Communists and the Republicans" were not represented in the forum, there was no reason "why the Landsmannschaft should be here."

The Sudetens are ethnic Germans, many of whose families had lived in what is now the Czech Republic for generations. Many of them claim the German-speaking Sudetens suffered discrimination under Czech rule. When the Germans took over the country in 1938 some -- but by no means all -- collaborated with the Nazis. After the war ended, an estimated 3.2 million Sudetens were driven out of the Czech Republic. Many were killed by angry and vengeful Czechs in the long march to sanctuary in Germany -- the figure varies from 15,000 to 240,000 depending on who is doing the counting.

Separate reports by "Suddeutsche Zeitung" correspondents discussed the continuing hostility in the Czech Republic to the expellee organization representing the Sudetens but not necessarily to individual Sudetens, some of whom are school teachers and university lecturers while others run restaurants and other businesses. It also discusses what is presented as a slightly more relaxed approach in Poland to Germans who were expelled from Silesia, Pomerania and Masuria. At the same time the "Suddeutsche Zeitung" makes clear that the question of the expellees creates problems between Bonn and Warsaw.

The articles say there is continuing concern in both countries about demands by some expellee organizations in Germany that Poland and the Czech Republic recognize a "homeland" right for the former residents forced to leave. Some organizations say expellees should be allowed to reclaim confiscated property, or at least be compensated for it.

The report on Poland acknowledged that most Poles are probably receptive to slogans warning of the "German danger" and of revenge-seeking expellees. As recently as July the German parliament caused uproar in Poland by expressing support for what was described as the "legitimate interests" of the expellees.

But the "Suddeutsche Zeitung" said relations had been improving for several years. Every year dozens of communities in Silesia, Pomerania and Masuria hosted meetings of former German expellees. According to the report Poles participated in the meetings which were held at the invitation of the Polish authorities. "Reports about friendly relations between the former German and present Polish occupants of the houses are legion," it said.

It further said that during last year's disastrous floods on the Oder river, many German expellee groups had collected money to help their former home towns

The main focus of the reports was on the Czech Republic and the demands of the expellee organization, the Sudeten Landmannschaft. It is an important political issue in the province of Bavaria because most of the Czech Sudetens resettled there.

The Bavarian prime minister Edmund Stoiber strongly supports the expellee organization and some of his cabinet have gone so far as to suggest that the Czech Republic not be allowed to join the European Union until it recognizes the demands of the Sudeten expellees.

The "Suddeutsche Zeitung" said of the Czech Republic that "a persistent myth portrays the Sudetens as gravediggers of the Czech nation." It says the Sudetens are commonly accused of having called Adolf Hitler and the German troops into the country and are held responsible for the collapse of the Czechoslovak Republic created after the first world war. The report says the myth portrays the Sudetens as those who want to take away the homes and gardens of Czech living in Bohemia and Moravia -- the two provinces which were the heart of Sudeten territory.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung" says the influence in Germany of the Sudeten expellee organization is "absurdly exaggerated." It argues that about 80 per cent Czechs recognize the name of the expellees spokesman, Franz Neubauer, while in Germany it was doubtful whether his name was known to five per cent of the population.

German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel has said repeatedly that the bilateral issue of the Sudeten claims was not a factor on the Czech Republic's possible entry into the European Union. But the report said it appeared that people in the Czech Republic took seriously warnings that the Sudeten organization would prevent the Czech Republic's entry into the EU unless the Benes decree were repudiated and withdrawn. The decrees, issued by the first postwar president, Eduard Benes, sanctioned the expulsion of the Sudetens and granted amnesty to those who killed refugees on their way to Germany. The present Czech Republic has refused to disavow the decrees.

The newspaper said "analysts believe that if a referendum were held today in the Czech Republic on entry into the European Union, it would fail because people believe that EU rules would permit freedom of residence and therefore allow the return of the Sudetens."

The "Suddeutsche Zeitung" makes a careful point that there is a difference in relations between ordinary Sudetens and the organization which represents them. "Almost every Czech has a story about his good experiences with visits by "former fellow-countrymen" from Germany." it says. But it says "this well-functioning citizens diplomacy" is not carried-over to the expellee organization, the Sudeten Landsmannschaft.

The newspaper said there is a long road to go before Czechs recognize that the Landsmannschaft does not represent Germany. The Landsmannschaft was unlikely to be an acceptable partner as long as there were provocative statements by some officials of the expellee organizations.

The "Suddeutsche Zeitung" report also makes a distinction about the type of Germans who were expelled from the Czech Republic and from Poland. It said those expelled from Poland were Germans who had some responsibility for Hitler's seizure of power there.

At the same time the article acknowledges that many other Sudetens were pro-German. Some had provided considerable help in preparing for the occupation. The newspaper said for the Czechs this was "burned into the soul" as treachery and as a "murderous attack by their own fellow-citizens against the common State."