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Czech Republic: Ties With Germany Less Burdened By Past

  • Breffni O'Rourke

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, on a one-day official visit to Prague, finds little to burden political and diplomatic Czech-German ties. Considering the trauma of the 1930s and 1940s, that must count as progress, reports RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke.

Prague, 30 September 1999 (RFE/RL) - German-Czech relations, so heavily burdened for so much of this century, now appear to be almost uneventful.

That's if comments from the political leaders of the two countries in Prague today are anything to go by. At a joint press conference Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Prime Minister Milos Zeman exchanged pleasantries, but had little of substance to say.

The only reminder of the difficult past came when one of the Czech journalists present asked whether any progress is being made on the issue of compensation for those forced to work as slave labourers by Nazi Germany. Schroeder replied that his special envoy on this question, Count Otto Lambsdorff, was also present in Prague, and was talking with Czech officials about this:

"I think there will be a solution that makes clear that justified claims should be addressed to German commercial companies, not to the German state, and we believe that where these claims are morally and legally justified, they should be settled without any differences between victims in East and West".

A number of German companies which used forced labourers in the Second World War have joined in a group to settle the issue of compensation to those involved, covering all countries where such activities took place, not only the Czech lands.

Of course, the war years have still left their scars under an increasingly smooth surface. Despite the joint Czech-German declaration signed almost three years ago, which could be viewed as a document of reconciliation, many Czechs still fear German domination of their little country. And back in Germany, Sudeten Germans driven from their homes by Czechs after the war are still pushing Berlin to seek compensation.

In practical terms, any domination of the Czech lands by Germany these days is more economic than political and military. And the Czech prime minister went out of his way at the press conference to praise German investment, mentioning by name the Skoda car company, a big labour employer which has been revitalised under control of the German car maker Volkswagen. Zeman said he hopes for more German participation as the privatisation process continues.

Schroeder today also expressed support for getting the Czech Republic and other front runners into the union by 2003, a date which many in Brussels would consider optimistic. The chancellor said it's up to the EU to soon carry though internal institutional reforms which will make expansion at such a rate possible.

His comments came after more pessimistic remarks from an aide appeared in today's German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. Schroeder's foreign policy adviser Michael Steiner is quoted as saying the Czech Republic has not yet begun to take refrom steps that other EU applicant states have been tackling.

Steiner said the Czechs still have every chance of joining the EU in a first wave of expansion, but must work harder to meet the requirements.

Schroeder today also noted that exactly 10 years ago, many Czech people had helped East German citizens who sought refuge at the West German Embassy in Prague in an ultimately successful attempt to flee to the West. The flood of would-be emigrants camped around the embassy in Prague, and the acute dilemma that posed for the East German leadership was one of the events which helped bring down the Berlin wall.

Czechs had supported Germans and their desire for unity at that time, he said, and now Germans would show solidarity with the Czechs in their desire to join the EU. The 10-year anniverary of the embassy events was the official reason for Schroeder's visit to Prague.

Zeman, who so often laces his speeches with humour, recalled the scene around the embassy a decade ago. He said the streets at the time were filled with abandoned East German cars, mainly Trabants and Wartburgs, most of which had the ignition keys still in them.

Smiling, Zeman noted that no motorists anywhere like to be parted from their cars. He said the fact that the East Germans had gone away without them had taught his fellow Czechs a lesson, namely that there were values beyond the merely material. ss