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Czech Republic: Decrees Of 1945-46 Haunt Relations With Berlin, Vienna

  • Jolyon Naegele

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is due to visit Prague tomorrow for talks with Czech leaders. The visit comes at a time of renewed tension between the Czech Republic and its German-speaking neighbors over comments by Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman about his country's former German minority, the Sudeten Germans. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, German and Austrian politicians are once again calling on Prague to repeal legislation dating back to 1945-46 that legalized the expulsion of some 2.5 million Sudeten Germans.

Prague, 19 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The main Sudeten German expellees' organization asked German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer at a meeting in Munich over the weekend to speak up for them in Prague when he pays a visit to the Czech capital tomorrow (20 February).

The Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft wants Fischer to protest recent statements by Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman branding the Sudeten Germans as "traitors" and "[Adolf] Hitler's fifth column."

Zeman made the remarks in a recent interview with the Austrian news magazine "Profil."

Landsmannschaft president Berndt Posselt, who earlier this month was elected first deputy chairman of the European Parliament's Czech-EU Committee, announced that his association will open an office in Prague on 1 April to establish relations between the expellees and the Czech populace, and to answer questions from the public.

Posselt said removing the issue of controversial Czechoslovak presidential decrees from the table in an admissible way is in both sides' interests.

The Sudeten Germans had been loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire and were largely opposed to their incorporation into the new Czecho-Slovak Republic after World War I, when they went from being a member of the ruling nation to a minority that constituted barely a quarter of the country's population.

With the rise of fascism in Central Europe in the 1930s, the Sudeten Germans became a convenient tool for Hitler to destabilize Czechoslovakia. Hitler forced Britain and France, at the Munich conference in 1938, to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland. Eventually on 15 March 1939, Germany dismembered Czecho-Slovakia.

The ailing Czecho-Slovak president, Emil Hacha, having been summoned to Berlin for a nighttime talk with Hitler, capitulated in a radio address.

"After a long conversation with the Reichschancellor (Hitler), and after evaluating the situation, I have decided to announce that I am placing the fate of the Czech nation and state with full trust in the hands of the Fuehrer of the German nation."

The Munich Pact, the dismemberment, and the subsequent six years of German occupation, left a lasting imprint on the Czech national psyche and paved the way for the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans in 1945-46 and the rise of the Communist Party.

Toward the end of World War II, the Czechoslovak government in exile received approval from the allied powers to expel its German minority.

Czech vigilantes herded Sudeten Germans and other German civilians in a disorderly and often violent round-up in the first weeks after the war ended. Thousands were killed by members of the "Revolutionary Guard," who committed a variety of documented atrocities, the best-known of which were the forced marches of tens of thousands of Germans from Czechoslovakia's second-largest city, Brno, to the Austrian border in June 1945, and an anti-German pogrom on a bridge at Usti nad Labem.

Many German civilians, especially older males, committed suicide rather than face a violent death at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards or have to build a new life in permanent exile in Germany.

After the Potsdam talks between the leaders of the victorious allies in July 1945, the transfer of Sudeten Germans became more orderly. Nevertheless, Sudeten German property was confiscated. They were forced to wear armbands identifying them as such and they were confined to camps from where they were put on freight trains mainly to the neighboring American and Soviet sectors of occupied Germany.

Sudeten Germans in West Germany were vociferous throughout the Cold War in denouncing Czechoslovakia, and after the collapse of communist rule in 1989 they lost no time in demanding a formal apology, restitution, and special rights to purchase property.

Prague rejected all these demands.

Similarly, Sudeten German attempts to persuade the German federal government to make their views a component of German foreign policy never succeeded. Even when Germany negotiated a Czech-German declaration with Prague five years ago, the exiles' demands fell on deaf ears.

The declaration cleared the air and put German-Czech relations on a new footing. Germany accepted responsibility for its role in developments leading to the Munich Pact of 1938, which forced the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the annexation of the Sudetenland, and the establishment of a protectorate in the rump Czech Lands. Germany also took responsibility for having expelled Czechs from the Sudetenland -- the majority ethnic German border areas -- and expressed regret for the suffering and wrongs the Nazis committed against the Czechs.

Similarly, the Czech Republic expressed regret that much suffering and many wrongs were inflicted on innocent people during the postwar expulsion and forced resettlement of the Sudeten Germans.

In perhaps the most significant concession, the Czech Republic expressed particular regret for excesses at variance with elementary humanitarian principles and the laws valid at the time. The Czechs regretted "that under Law 115 of 8 May 1946, these excesses were not regarded as unlawful and as a consequence were not punished."

Law 115 of 1946 was one of more than 100 decrees passed by the provisional Czechoslovak parliament under former President Eduard Benes in the first year of peace after the end of World War II. Law 115 amnestied Czechs for crimes committed against German civilian inhabitants at the end of the war and in the first days of peace.

Robert Schuster of the Prague-based Institute of International Affairs says the issue of the Benes decrees completely vanished from public discourse after the Czech-German declaration of 1997. But he says that issues thought to have been resolved five years ago are now being resurrected.

"Of course there is the question -- and we'll have to wait on this -- whether this position, mainly of Germany -- will prevail through this year's (German parliamentary) election campaign, which is starting to get under way. And it is precisely Mr. Stoiber, the candidate for chancellor of the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union, [who would have] the function of patron of the Sudeten German (expellees). [He] will, of course, have room to raise this issue once again. The question is whether they will do it. I think they'll be very cautious -- they'll stay away from it."

However, in light of Zeman's recent comments and the political mood in Austria, Schuster suggests that Stoiber and other CDU/CSU politicians may feel pressure to speak out on the Sudeten German cause.

Schuster says Austria, which initially took little interest in the Sudeten German issue -- although it has several hundred thousand citizens of Sudeten German origin -- can be expected to try to find a resolution with Prague over the course of this year.

Sudeten German expellees and some populist German and Austrian politicians have demanded that the Benes decrees be repealed.

Czech politicians say repealing the decrees is out of the question, in part because only a very few actually deal with the Sudeten Germans -- expropriating their property, denying them citizenship and civil rights, and requiring them to leave the country. Part of the reason is that the forebears of the three left-of-center parliamentary parties that enacted these decrees in the first place -- the Communists, the Social Democrats, and the People's Party -- are still in existence and bear responsibility for them.

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