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Czech Republic: Past Imperfect -- 64 Years Later, Munich 'Betrayal' Still Defines Thought (Part 5)

  • Jolyon Naegele

Few nations in East-Central Europe have so thoroughly examined their own history as the Czechs. More than four decades of communist rule and six years of Nazi German occupation drove historians underground or abroad, but historic self-examination resumed after the collapse of communist power in 1989. But many Czechs are still unwilling to accept their country's sometimes troubling actions in the World War II era.

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The director of the Prague-based Institute for Contemporary History, Oldrich Tuma, says there have been no taboos or blank spots in Czech historiography since the collapse of communist rule.

He notes many controversial issues were addressed as early as the 1960s, including collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, and the expulsion of Germans after the war. "These are not issues which are not spoken about. Rather, the question is whether it is true that people don't want to deal with, debate or even hear about these issues. If one were to judge by the media, the Czech public is confronted with historical issues more frequently than other societies -- English or German -- which do not deal on a day-to-day basis with 60-year-old issues."

Tuma says there are historic reasons why Czechs interpret these issues so often in sharp, black-and-white terms. Decades of isolation from the West under communist rule left a lasting mark on the teaching of history.

Tuma says his university students are critical of the way history is taught in the country's secondary schools, where the Education Ministry has sought to cut back on the number of hours devoted to history lessons. "On the whole, they say that they study Ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom in detail. But when they get to the 20th century, particularly since 1945, they deal with it in a single hour of class, because there is no time and perhaps because it suits the teachers. They know what to say about the pharaohs, but the second half of the 20th century is far more complicated, so it usually ends up with them not learning anything."

One of the most crucial issues in modern Czech history was the Munich Pact of September 1938. The pact, brokered by Britain and France in a bid to preserve peace in Europe, agreed to Adolf Hitler's demand that Czechoslovakia hand over its ethnic German-inhabited borderlands -- the Sudetenland, which included much of the country's industrial heartland.

The Czech mood before Munich was one of resolve to fight the Germans. But when Czechoslovakia's allies abrogated their bilateral defense treaties, Czechoslovakia found itself alone. Tuma says the pact, in the end, meant more than the loss of its borderlands and being left to face a lone confrontation with Nazi Germany. "For Czech society, Munich was a shock to a great extent because an important component of modern Czech national identity was the desire, attempt, or goal to be in commonality with the West."

To this day, Czechs fear their affairs will again be resolved without their participation, a concern summed up by the phrase "About us, without us." Tuma notes that it is probably no accident that the most oft-quoted comment by a foreign statesman in connection with Munich is this statement by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing."

Chamberlain's remark still stings Czech ears. "The treachery of Munich," as it came to be known, was a massive blow to the Czech national psyche and was used as a political tool by the communists for decades to come.

What followed -- the Second Republic, as the old Czechoslovakia, minus its border regions, was known -- was, for many Czechs, even more troubling. Lacking its natural frontier, the new state was militarily indefensible and lasted just 5 1/2 months before the Nazis occupied Moravia and Bohemia and Slovakia allied itself with Germany. The period marked the evaporation of national pride and the rise of widespread cynicism.

Charles University sociologist Jirina Siklova says many Czechs suffer from a so-called "Munich syndrome," which she describes as a false resistance to foreign domination. This, she says, could be seen not only during the Second Republic but also during the Nazi occupation, the 1948 Ccommunist coup, and the two stultifying decades of "normalization" that followed the crushing of the heady Prague Spring liberalization of 1968.

"The Second Republic is a big problem and the fact that one doesn't speak much about it means that we have completely blocked it out, like having a bad conscience. The parallel between the [1938-39] Second Republic and the [1968-89] normalization may be substantial. [Both are] precisely about the transition from ideals and exhilaration to low feelings of 'there is nothing that can be done, we'll just have to adjust.'"

Publicist and ex-presidential chancellor Ivan Medek says that after Munich, much as with the Soviet invasion, many people felt hopeless about what had happened and looked for somebody to carry the blame for the events. In the case of Munich, Medek says, the blame fell to President Edvard Benes, whom many criticized for capitulating to German demands and failing nonetheless to protect his country from the Nazi onslaught. More than half a century later, Benes remains a controversial figure, with few Czechs willing to sing his praises.

Another target of Czech contempt, as Medek notes, is the legacy of interwar Czechoslovakia's 3 million ethnic German inhabitants. "In the history of the First Republic (1918-38), in which the life of our German citizens -- not only in the Sudeten region -- is only described negatively, only as having been anti-Czechoslovak, the Social Democratic Germans whom Hitler put in concentration camps are often ignored."

In the past few months, the so-called Benes Decrees -- which re-established a legal order in the country at the end of World War II -- have become a political football internationally, particularly those which legalized the confiscation of property belonging to ethnic Germans and Hungarians, revoked their Czechoslovak citizenship and allowed them to be forcibly expelled from the country. But most Czech politicians are adamant in their refusal to meddle with the decrees, arguing -- as the current government does -- that to do so would be a revision of the outcome of World War II.

Medek considers this argument specious: "Czech politicians are talking about the need to preserve the results of World War II. And they speak as if the only results of World War II were the Benes Decrees. But the results of World War II were the division of Germany, the practical liquidation of any kind of democratic system in all states of Eastern Europe, Russification of the Baltic states, concentration camps, and so on. And of course the loss of independence in all these states."

Controversy still surrounds the number of Germans who died during the 1945-46 "expulsion" (Vertreibung), as the Germans call it, or "transfer" (odsun), as the Czechs refer to it. Some German groups claim the number was in the hundreds of thousands or even as high as a million, but Czech and German historians estimate the number is somewhere between 28,000 and 38,000. A sizeable fraction of these were suicides -- mainly older men who were unwilling to start a new life in a defeated and occupied Germany.

Here, too, there has been no absence of historical research over the last 12 years. Nevertheless, the lay view among Czechs remains that the Germans got what they deserved, even if excesses were committed. Few Czechs are willing to accept that Czechoslovakia in 1945 had any choice other than to expel its German population. However, when it comes to the often violent aspect of the expulsions, Czechs still turn a deaf ear.

Both sides agree, however, that a number of massacres of German civilians did occur shortly after the war ended. The two best-known examples were the forced march of the German inhabitants of Brno to the Austrian border and the throwing of civilians into the Labe (Elbe) River from a bridge in Usti nad Labem. Czechs are also quick to note the expulsion of Czechs from the Sudetenland after Munich.

Siklova of Charles University says it is time for each side to stop blaming the other: "I am annoyed by the flagellant attitude on both sides, the falsification and arguing over the dead. So much has been said [recently], though earlier nothing was said about the dead at Pohorelice [between Brno and the border]. The grave can be opened. It's been over half a century, there should still be buttons on these people's bodies. It can't be that terrible."

As Siklova puts it, "why doesn't anyone undertake an exhumation to see if there really was a mass shooting of tens of thousands of people or rather whether just a few dozen people are buried there?"

While joint commissions of historians have helped to clear up some misunderstandings, the absence of will on the part of governments in Prague and neighboring countries to deal with the past openly -- rather than as a political tool -- will only further delay coming to terms with such troubling events in history.