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Kicking the Germans Out of the East

Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, he and the government he had assembled in London began pushing for Allied recognition of the original pre-Munich borders of Czechoslovakia, including the Sudetenland, and to support the expulsion of at least some of “their” Germans—those who might plausibly be considered collaborators—once the war was over. As long as the outcome of the war was in doubt the British were unwilling to commit themselves to any definite postwar settlement. As well, they were uneasy about Beneš’s refusal to cooperate with Wenzel Jaksch, the leader of the Sudeten German Social Democrats, who had also fled to London when the Nazis took over the Sudetenland, and who was advocating postwar solutions that did not involve expelling Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia.5

Two events broke the impasse. In 1941, the Soviet Union came into the war, raising hopes of a clear Allied victory and making postwar planning feasible. And in May 1942, on Beneš’s orders, a unit of Czech paratroopers, sent from England, assassinated the “butcher of Prague,” Reinhard Heydrich. German reprisals were swift and brutal; they razed to the ground two villages, Lidice and Ležáky, killing all the men and scattering the women and children to concentration camps; thousands more were murdered or sent to the camps, and the Czech underground was decimated.

Douglas feels it is too cynical to suggest that Beneš deliberately ordered the assassination of Heydrich to exacerbate Czech–German relations, but the reprisals did enable him to argue that the Germans and Czechs could never again live peacefully on the same ground. That summer, Anthony Eden announced British approval of “the general principle of the transfer to Germany of German minorities in Central and South-Eastern Europe after the war in cases where this seems necessary and desirable.” Beneš finally had the endorsement he wanted, and the Czechs began to plan their endgame. So did the Poles, and by 1943, Douglas says, “the expulsion project had taken on a momentum that only a decision by the Big Three [Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union] could have reversed.”

There was one more Machiavellian twist in Beneš’s thinking that would have dire consequences for his country: he began to see the expulsions not just as a practical solution to a nagging minority problem, but as a catalyst for national and social revolution. Whether he really believed it or not, he was certainly aware of how persuasive such an argument would be to some of the people he wanted on his side.6

While in Moscow to negotiate a friendship treaty with Stalin in late 1943, he told the Czechoslovak Communist leader, Klement Gottwald, that because the expulsions would also include the confiscation and redistribution of private property, supervised by the government, “the way will be opened up to radical economic intervention and social change in the Bohemian lands.” Gottwald, in turn, provided Beneš with helpful suggestions on how the expulsions might be administered. Beneš naively believed that the Soviet Union would play a statesmanlike part in the postwar European order, yet his negotiations in Moscow and events after the war make him seem less like the hapless victim of communism he is usually seen to be, and more like an overreaching fellow traveler.

On April 3, 1945, Beneš entered the city of Košice in eastern Slovakia, where he set up a temporary government, and issued edicts establishing a legal basis for the post-war order. Among them were decrees concerning the treatment not just of Czechoslovak Germans, but also of “ethnic Hungarians, traitors and collaborators, and other enemies of the Czech and Slovak nation.” The decrees dealt with matters ranging from the confiscation of property and rescinding of citizenship to the management and reallotment of seized property. (A later decree, issued in 1946, granted immunity from crimes, including murder, committed against Germans in the first six months after the war.) The “Beneš decrees,” as they are still known, were ratified in 1946 and remain part of the Czech and Slovak legal codes to this day.

In early May, just before the war ended in Europe, the Czechs rose up against the German occupiers and the Sudeten Germans alike, and the “expulsions” began, encouraged by broadcasts and speeches that Douglas says bear comparison to the hate propaganda broadcast from the Milles Collines radio station at the height of the Rwanda genocide in 1994.7 It has to be said that many Czechs were not swayed by the incendiary rhetoric; Douglas mentions the “quietly heroic figure” of the Czech pacifist and educator Přemysl Pitter, who, during the worst of the savagery, did all he could to protect both German and Jewish orphans from harm. Along with Red Cross officials, Pitter appealed to the Czech authorities to do something about the starving children being held in internment facilities, but they were ignored and Pitter ended up supporting the transports because he believed the children would stand a better chance of survival in Germany.

I don’t wish to give the impression that Douglas has unduly targeted the Czechs. Much of his book deals with the Polish expulsions, which although initially not as inhumane, soon came to rival or surpass the Czech deportations in viciousness. But for many reasons, the Polish situation was different. The Nazi oppression of the Poles far surpassed anything suffered by the Czechs, and the Polish resistance fought back hard, at enormous cost in lives and property; after the war, the redrawing, not the restoration, of borders became a major issue as Poland’s borders moved west according to the Yalta Agreement. Germans who suddenly found themselves on Polish territory as a result were not Polish citizens. After 1989, the process of understanding what happened seems to have gone more smoothly in Poland, though the issues are no less complex or vexing.

In the Czech Republic, despite the existence of a joint Czech–German declaration, signed in 1997, in which each side accepted responsibility, and expressed regret, for the cruelties inflicted on the other, and despite the strong public criticism of the expulsions expressed by President Václav Havel and other former dissidents, the expulsions remain a divisive issue. But that is slowly changing. Many Czech historians have been trying since 1989 to disentangle their modern history from the myth and ideology that still cling to it. Nongovernmental civic groups as well are helping the public confront the past by memorializing places and events related to the expulsions. One of the most successful civic endeavors is the Ostrava-based PANT, a rapidly growing NGO that conducts seminars and produces materials—the most recent of which is a guide to teaching students about the expulsion of the Germans—to help teachers to take the initiative in putting postwar Czech history on the curriculum. (Astoundingly, Czech high school history textbooks still stop at the end of World War II.) Feature-length movies like Habermann’s Mill (2010), a Czech-German-Austrian coproduction about life in a mixed Sudetenland community under Nazi occupation, remind wider audiences that Czech and German citizens of Czechoslovakia once shared a common history.

How well is it working? The Czech presidential election in January—the first such election in the country’s history to be decided by popular vote—provided a surprising barometer of where things stand today. In a series of live televised debates during the run-off round, the frontrunner, Miloš Zeman, drew his last remaining rival, Foreign Affairs Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, into a discussion of the still-valid Beneš decrees. Schwarzenberg, a friend and colleague of Václav Havel, with his own distinguished record in the field of human rights, said that the expulsions would today be considered a “blatant violation” of such rights, and that had such standards been in place at the time, his government would probably have ended up in The Hague. Zeman accused Schwarzenberg of calling Beneš a war criminal and talking like a “Sudet’ák”—a disdainful expression for a Sudeten German. Schwarzenberg’s chances of winning, marginal at best, shrank even further.

As president, Zeman seems willing, when convenient, to stir the country’s darker passions.8 Still, Schwarzenberg got 45 percent of the vote—mostly from the urban young, a generation that will soon dominate public life. He even polled well in parts of the former Sudetenland, which suggests that the baleful grip of the past is not as firm as it once was.

Larger problems remain, however, and Douglas concludes his unflinching survey of the expulsions on a strong note of warning. The Czech Republic is now a member of the European Union, having been allowed, by a special protocol, to keep the Beneš decrees on its books even though they contravene the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which specifically prohibits “collective expulsions.” In effect, the decrees remain a dangerous loophole in the EU constitutional treaties. Douglas examines this, and other precedents in international law, and draws a cautionary conclusion:

We have already seen how the taboo against torture in the Western world began to erode in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks to an extent that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years previously. If the presence of an unwanted minority population should once again be seen as giving rise to a perceived international emergency, then the case for invoking the “Sudeten corollary” and exploiting the ambiguity and loopholes that continue to exist in the laws regarding forced population transfers will no doubt seem more persuasive still.

It is not an idle warning. Douglas cites a 1996 manifesto in which the Boston University political scientist Andrew Bell-Fialkoff argued that mass transfers of population “conducted in a humane, well-organized manner, like the transfer of Germans from Czechoslovakia by the Allies in 1945–47,” can provide permanent solutions to intractable problems. The temptation is still with us.9

Douglas concludes by underlining his central point: since events like the expulsion of the Germans are inevitably accompanied by brutality, injustice, and needless suffering, they shouldn’t be carried out, or even contemplated, at all:

A firm appreciation of this truth, and a determination to be guided by it at all times and in every situation…is the most appropriate memorial that can be erected to this tragic, unnecessary, and, we must resolve, never to be repeated episode in Europe and the world’s recent history.
  1. 5

    Douglas points out that the Beneš government’s animosity toward Jaksch went so far that Clause 4 of the so-called Great Decree, drafted in London and made official in June 1945, makes any Czechoslovak citizen living abroad who “subverted the movement to liberate the Czechoslovak Republic in its pre-Munich constitutional form and unity, or who otherwise consciously harmed the interests of the Czechoslovak Republic” liable to a punishment of up to twenty years in prison. This effectively made the proposal of any solution to the German question short of outright expulsion an act of treason. Douglas, citing the historian Benjamin Frommer, suggests that this provision was written with Jaksch and his fellow Social Democrats in mind. In any case, Jaksch never returned to his homeland. 

  2. 6

    In his memoirs, From Munich to New War and New Victory, translated by Godfrey Lias (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954), p. 218, Beneš says he told Jaksch and his colleagues: “In the social revolution which will certainly come, it will be necessary to rid our country of all the German bourgeoisie, the pan-German intelligentsia and those workers who have gone over to Fascism. That would be the final solution and, so far as we were concerned, the only possible solution which we would be able to implement, namely the coupling of our social revolution with the national one.” He goes on to remark that this plan “contains an element of Marxism and Marxist dialectics in the revolutionary process which must inevitably accompany the changes in the social structure of the Nation as a result of that great and world-wide catastrophe.” 

  3. 7

    This, one of Douglas’s most damning statements, can be supported by facts. An article in Der Spiegel from April 9, 2009, about the massacre in June 1945 of about two thousand Sudeten Germans in the northern Bohemian town of Postoloprty, quotes a broadcast from London in November 1944 by the Czechoslovak minister of defense in exile, Sergej Ingr, calling upon Czechs to “beat them, kill them, let nobody survive.”

    In the first book on the expulsions to come out in Czech after 1989, Tomáš Staněk’s Odsun Němců z Československa 1945–1947 (Prague: Academia/Naše Vojsko, 1991), the author cites a series of speeches made around the country in May and June 1945 by Beneš and other government officials. For instance, on May 16, in Prague’s Old Town Square, Beneš told his listeners: “We must uncompromisingly purge [ vylikvidovat ] all Germans from the Czech lands, and Hungarians from Slovakia, as only such a purge, in the interests of the national unity of Czechs and Slovaks, can be carried out.” By this time, Beneš had fully accepted the principle that, as he said a few days later in Lidice, “the Germans as a whole are responsible” for the horrors visited upon the Czechs. 

  4. 8

    Zeman, who was briefly a member of the Communist Party in the late 1960s, has always been an outspoken supporter of the transports and of the Beneš decrees. On April 24, he raised the issue again on a state visit to Austria, where he reiterated his opinion that many of the three and a half million Sudeten Germans had behaved treasonously during the war, and that deportation was therefore to be seen as a more moderate solution than the death penalty such crimes usually incur. His remarks brought a sharp rebuke from the leader of the Austrian Sudeten Germans, Gerhard Zeihsel, and from the Czech columnist and former dissident, Jan Urban, who wrote in the Czech Web newspaper Aktuálně.cz that by the same standards, a large part of the Slovak population ought to have been expelled as well, and concluded: “Seventy years after the war, it’s time to grow up…time to stop lying…about the violence done to German-speaking citizens expelled from the Czech lands…time to admit to our own crimes, and apologize for them.” The following day, Zeman condemned the excesses of the transport, but reiterated the validity of the Beneš decrees. 

  5. 9

    The most recent invocation of the “Sudeten corollary” comes from an error-ridden manifesto released by the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik, the day he murdered seventy-seven people in Oslo in July 2011. In addition to crazed calls for the violent liquidation of “Eurabia” and multiculturalism, he wrote that the Beneš Decrees provide a model to follow in dealing with “the Muslim population in the West.” 

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