Sunday, July 19, 2015

70 years after Beneš decrees: gestures of reconciliation

I am sure that most readers don't find German-Czech relationships to be important enough to deserve two TRF blog posts in a row. But I do so here's the second one.

Seventy years ago, on July 21st, 1945, Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš began to release his post-war "Beneš decrees" which, most importantly, meant that almost all of the 3 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia. It was an act of the government-in-exile (in London) that was retroactively approved by the Czechoslovak Parliament a year later. The expulsion was a specific implementation of some reorganization of Europe that was "implicitly" assumed by the Potsdam Conference.

Today, Mr Pavel Bělobrádek, the education minister and a deputy prime minister (and the boss of the Christian Democratic Union which is traditionally the smallest coalition party in most of the post-Velvet-Divorce Czech governments) visited Munich. He paid the honor to the Sudeten German victims of the expulsion.

He's been criticized by many politicians and enthusiastically praised by the Bavarian press. While I am generally closer to those who say that it's right to defend the national interests and who won't ever overlook the historical context that led to all these events, I don't have any problem with his acts.

Just to remind you about some basic setup of the German-Czech relationships.

Slavic tribes may have come to the Czech lands already in the 5th century, or slightly later. They were illiterate so we only know about their first funny acts from the idealized "Old Czech Legends" (I just saw some new fun cartoon version of those). In 623, the Slavs revolted against the Avar intruders and elected a Frankish merchant named Samo to be their ruler – the boss of Samo's realm. This was the first similar event among many that implies that Czechs have been used to some "kind of German" rulers for a very long time, nearly for 1400 years.

In the 8th century and especially in the 9th century, we had a prosperous Great Moravia on our territory where the Greek missionaries brought Orthodox Christianity (and a new contrived alphabet) in 863. The German influence strengthened soon afterwards and the people were already emergent Catholics a few decades later.

In the 10th century, the most promising part of the Great Moravia was already transformed into the Duchy of Bohemia. In the early 11th century, it was recognized as an autonomous part of the Holy Roman Empire. Since that time, the Czech lands have been a sometimes less, sometimes more independent component of the German-speaking empire(s) around us, and indeed the politically most consistent part – which may boil down to the natural border mountains protecting all of Bohemia – the Sudeten Mountains (let me simplify the geography just a little bit).

In 1085, the duchy became a kingdom and in 1212, an imperial document called the Golden Bull of Sicily made the royal status of a Czech king family hereditary. Half a century later, an important Czech king Ottokar II of Bohemia founded about 50 new cities. He would invite German settlers to all of them which may have been clever. He knew what he was doing, it helped the power of his empire, it improved the economy because the settlers were usually skillful and hard-working, and it also created seeds for some 20th century problems that the 13th century king could have predicted but he didn't care about the 20th century. ;-)

While the Czech kingdom has been predominantly Czech, the German-speaking minority has been important at every moment since the late 13th century. Externally, much of the Czech history may be described by one dynamical variable \(X(t)\), namely by the relative power of Germans over the Czech lands. The Czechs – or kings considering themselves Czech or at least speaking Czech – were in charge of things up to the 15th century. And especially in the 14th century, we had the golden period when Czechs ruled territories up to the Baltic as well as Adriatic Seas. The Czech self-confidence dropped in 1434 when the Hussite rebels were totally defeated in the Battle of Lipany. And in 1471, the last – elected – Czech king, George of Poděbrady (who worked hard to create the United Nations and similar things) died.

Some 150 years of Polish and other "not quite Czech" kings followed (in 1583-1611, Prague was the capital of the empire again, under Rudolph II, the great sponsor of arts, sciences, and pseudosciences) and morphed into the "Dark Ages" (according to Czech patriotic history) in 1620 when the Bohemian Estates – a group of progressive, largely protestant, pro-capitalism aristocrats – lost to the Holy Roman Empire with its reactionary form of Catholicism at the Battle of the White Mountain. After 1620, 298 years of the Dark Ages followed. The term means that the influence of Czechs, including the Czech culture, was suppressed and gradually weakening; also, all non-Catholic religions were banned in 1620. In the late 18th century, the Czech National Revival started and at some point, it was clear that the Germanization would never win. The Czech language and literature restored their full competitiveness with those of the other Western nations. The life in the Austrian Empire – and later in Austria-Hungary – was no catastrophe but the Czechs only regained their full-fledged statehood when Czechoslovakia was established in 1918 after Austria became a losing power in the Great War.

Locally, at our territory, the roles of the two ethnic groups got reversed in 1918. Before 1918, Czechs would face some disadvantages associated with being in the minority in the country – the Habsburg Empire. Since 1918, the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia faced the mirror images of these disadvantages. They have never really "approved" of the creation of Czechoslovakia but this decision wasn't really up to them given Germany's loss in the First World War.

The relationships were OK yet not stellar but they soured rapidly in the 1930s. About 90% of the Sudetenland German ethnic minority voted for Henlein's party, an appendix of NSDAP. It was one of the two strongest parties in the Czechoslovak Parliament. In Fall 1938, the Munich Treaty meant that the Third Reich annexed the Sudetenland, an ad hoc (mostly mountainous) area inside Czechoslovakia where the Germans were a majority – just to be sure, the Sudeten are the mountains surrounding the Czech kingdom. (The term "Sudeten" is obviously German and at some points of the Czech history, it was officially banned. We don't have any exact Czech translation of the word and instead, we divide the mountains to many pieces with separate names.)

Right after the Munich, the Czechs weren't really expelled from the Sudetenland. Britain and France etc. expected that the life would continue much like in Czechoslovakia – with the co-existence of the two ethnic groups – except that this territory would be subordinate to Berlin rather than Prague. But in practice, tons of Czechs had to move into the new truncated "Czecho-Slovakia" because almost all of them were fired from the public jobs (postmasters etc.). About 170,000 of public employees plus some people dependent on them had to move inside the truncated Czech lands.

In March 1939, Hitler ignored his Munich promises and turned the rest of Czechia to a protectorate (Slovakia became a semi-independent clerofascist state), a state without its army and foreign policy that is controlled by the Third Reich through the Reichsprotektor – an ethnic German who stands above all the Czech officials, including the State President Dr Emil Hácha. All the law enforcement hierarchy etc. had to be built from ethnic Germans. But just to be sure, the protectorate's status was still different from the Sudetenland. The Sudetenland was a full-fledged part of the Third Reich, just like Berlin was, while the protectorate was a semi-independent but toothless territory on which Czech shared the status of the official language with German.

The Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London fought against the Nazi occupation throughout the war and also executed Reinhard Heydrich, a co-father of the Holocaust, in 1942. Most Czechs kept on living their lives. The protectorate was indeed largely protected against the symptoms of the war. Many people obviously liked its semi-socialist regime although they – and their ancestors – don't want to emphasize this point. In Spring 1945, Hitler's empire was already doomed and millions of Czechs became very courageous – and looking for advantages in the new regime that was bound to emerge soon. The Prague Uprising began on May 5th, 1945, which is pretty late for me to be genuinely proud about the people's courage (Pilsen was liberated by the U.S. army on the following day).

Czechoslovakia was restored and a few months after the war, in the summer, it was clear that the ethnic Germans would be expelled. The expulsion applied to every ethnic German with the exception of those who could have shown that they have fought against the Nazis – which was some 10 percent of them only. Most of those 10 percent later left Czechoslovakia, anyway. In total, about 3 million Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia.

Some estimates that have been popular for decades suggested that up to 250,000 Germans were killed during the expulsion. That would be huge because it would almost match the number of Czechoslovaks killed thanks to Nazism – which was 300,000 but 90% of those were Jews (which are full-fledged Czechoslovak citizens from my viewpoint but I do admit that many compatriots could have felt more detached).

Later, it was generally appreciated that the figure was backed by nothing and a much lower estimate of 15,000 ethnic Germans killed during the expulsion is probably more accurate. It's still a lot of casualties and lots of suffering. I don't think that we should be proud about it.

On the other hand, I do think that this reaction was largely inevitable thanks to the Third Newton's Law. If an ethnic group almost unanimously votes for NSDAP and systematically supports a regime that has treated Czechs as semi-humans for 6 years, it is making a bet that the regime will last permanently. Well, it didn't. The Third Reich has lost, Hitler and his mistress have wisely committed suicide, and those changes were bound to have consequences.

For example, I think it's obvious that Karl Hermann Frank, a de facto protector who organized e.g. the 1942 total burnout of two Czech villages, Lidice and Ležáky, as a revenge for the assassination of Heydrich, simply had to be executed (he was in 1946). When you exterminate whole villages because of a murder of one man who clearly deserved to be murdered, anyway, you are making a bet that your regime will be here throughout the end of your life or for a very long time – otherwise you are doomed. A BBC program tried to paint K.H. Frank as one of the poor victims. Please, you can't be serious! Such programs make it clear that the amount of pro-Nazi thinking in Britain may be – and could have been, in the late 1930s – comparable if not higher than in Germany. This guy's life was simply indefensible in the wake of the German loss in 1945 – and so were many others.

Some innocent or even fine German people have surely suffered. But I think it's totally fair to say that most of them were simply not innocent. Most of them have supported a bestial ideology that treats all people of other nationalities as animals or semi-animals, one that has executed thousands of people for their affinity to democracy and similar "sins". This meant a lot of humiliation and suffering for Czechs, too. At the microscopic level, every undeserved act of violence is unfortunate. At the macroscopic level, the expulsion of the Germans – as prescribed by the Beneš decrees – represented approximate justice. It had to happen and the courts weren't large enough to investigate and punish the tons of German wrongdoing at an individual level. And it has really solved the co-existence problem that had become very difficult and that would have surely produced lots of new tension had it remained unsolved after 1945.

Meanwhile, the ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia were moved to Germany, mostly Bavaria. They benefited because they escaped the communist misery – a welcome side-effect they didn't necessarily appreciate from 1945. An organization called the Sudetendeutschen Landsmannschaft was created to remember their heritage in the Sudetenland, occasionally emphasize that these Germans were victims, and perhaps demand some compensations or acts of respect.

During communism, the Landsmannschaft was being officially painted by the darkest colors. They are essentially Nazis, we would hear, and they want to destroy Czechoslovakia again and perhaps return all the misery of the world war. There was a lot of communist propaganda in it but I keep on thinking that the basic core of this message is right, after all. It's an organization remembering a community whose 90% were enthusiastic Hitler followers and that apparently can't reconcile itself with the unavoidable outcomes of Hitler's overly ambitious policies, if I put it really euphemistically.

At the same time, I have always realized that the Sudeten Germans were never just about the Nazism or harassment of other ethnic groups or destruction of other countries etc. They were patriots, they loved Bohemia – perhaps more so than the average Czechs do – and they were good from many viewpoints. They had their culture, and so on. It's obvious that our attitude towards the Sudetendeutschen Landsmannschaft poses a somewhat analogous dilemma as the Americans' attitude towards the heritage of the Confederacy.

Since the war, almost all the politicians and almost the whole Czech public always insisted on the validity of the Beneš decrees. The expulsion was a dramatic act but it had some important historical reasons that can't be overlooked and there is no reason to "abolish" these laws – which would only lead to the revival of all the conflicts that existed during the Nazi era. Among all the communist and new democratic politicians, Václav Havel was the main top politician who was "almost ready" to question the validity of the Beneš decrees, to work on some partial reversal of the expulsion. He could have never succeeded.

During communism, the Havel family was often described by the official press as (at least) a softcore pro-Nazi family. I would think it was pure garbage in late 1989 when my support for Havel peaked but in the following years, I did conclude that there was some approximately right essence in the communist caricature of the Havel family, too.

As our temporal distance from the war was growing longer, the Sudetengerman demands to get their houses back etc. were weakening. At some point, you simply have to adapt to the historical events that took place before you were born. Those are initial conditions that define limits of your life – you are not really an actor in these events and you should get used to this fact. The less these events from the 1940s are remembered by the average people in both nations, the more extraterrestrial your demands to reverse some events sound to almost everyone.

There have been lots of good gestures. The hardcore Sudetengerman claims were sometimes "softly" endorsed by the Bavarian government (and by the local CSU party) but never by the West German and Unified German governments. Instead, West Germany or Germany signed lots of conciliatory treaties and memorandums with Czechoslovakia or Czechia. These documents would basically say that we're on the same frequency, we're not happy about the historical events, but there is a thick line that separates us from those events. We're looking into the future. That's how things should be and most of the ordinary people want to see it in this way, too.

It's also questionable whether the Sudetengermans would like to live on the same Sudetenland territory again. I have some doubts about it. The situation is completely different. Even if some brutal event managed to expel the Czechs from that territory of ours, I have problems to imagine that you would find enough Germans to refill the territory again. The memories of the Germans in the Sudetenland have become a marginal curiosity of a sort, not a realistic political program with some genuine mass support. Those things are increasingly hypothetical, of course. And our restitution laws generally don't go before 1948 – you know, the totalitarian communism in Czechoslovakia began in the "Victorious February" of 1948 and we generally interpret all the events and decisions between 1945 and 1948, the years of "preparation for communism", to be legally kosher. This basic rule doesn't apply just to German claims but especially to lots of Czech claims.

Sudetengermans need to be caressed

At the end, I do think that the Sudetengermans don't really have material problems and almost none of them are dreaming about some cottages or old villas in the Czech mountains. They're wealthy, they're doing fine. The current Czech president Zeman has once called the boss of the Sudetendeutschen Landsmannschaft, Bernd Posselt, "a Hitler who has returned from the fattening station". ;-) That's not exactly friendly but yes, many Czechs appreciate it – although people like me mostly appreciate it because it's pretty humorous, a typical Zeman's witticism, not necessarily because it's too accurate.

But today, Mr Pavel Bělobrádek, the boss of the Christian Democratic Union which is the smallest party in the current coalition government (yes, Christian things are bound to be rather weak in the atheist Czechia), went to the "lion's den", a Sudetendeutschen Landmannschaft headquarters in Munich, and he paid homage to the Sudetengerman victims of the Beneš decrees. In some sense, it's totally natural that a guy from a Christian party does so. Germany represents the most important pro-Christian antidote in politics which pushes the Czech Christians closer to Germany (and it has done so for centuries) – and the Christian Churches are also the only major force in Czechia that is thinking about breaking the 1948 limit and reverse some decisions made before February 1948, too. (The problem of church restitutions is still a hot topic in the internal Czech politics.)

If you've read the text above, you can surely figure out which guy is Bernd Posselt. ;-) Mr Pavel Bělobrádek is in the middle and the third guy is Mr Ludwig Spaenle, a minister.

Oberbayerisches Volksblatt, a Bavarian paper, reacted very happily: The visit was the greatest act of reconciliation we have seen so far. Mr Bělobrádek's wreath for the Sudetengermans has created the history. And so on.

Mr Bělobrádek was supposed to visit Munich on behalf of the Czech prime minister so it was in no way just "his personal enterprise". That's why many Czech politicians reacted angrily. Even the prime minister, Mr Bohuslav Sobotka, sort of criticized Mr Bělobrádek. We shouldn't forget about the German sins etc. Sure. Mr Zahradil (a European Parliament deputy from the Klaus-founded ODS, Civic Democrats that I keep on voting for most of the time) has criticized Mr Bělobrádek more vigorously and demanded an official explanation about the status of the visit from the government. Zahradil's letter suggested some further problems.

Well, I think that they overreact. Mr Bělobrádek has placed a wreath in Bavaria to pay his respect to the German victims of some acts that were demonstrably done by the Czechs. Those acts happened at the end of a hectic period, to put it mildly, but that doesn't make them disappear. There were German victims. There was a lot of wrongdoing and "excessive post-war would-be bravery" from the Czech side.

I think it's right to pay homage to these people – especially if it makes some contemporaries (who are no longer "Nazis" in any useful sense) happier and if this gesture doesn't seem to produce any truly dangerous consequences. There were victims and lots of them were probably innocent. Czechs should be careful about events that are dangerous but that doesn't mean that we need to repaint our role in the history by the pink ink. The Czechs haven't been a nation of perfect saints and no one should try to pretend otherwise.

So apologies to the (especially innocent: children, some women, and others) victims of the expulsion of the ethnic Germans. And I sincerely hope that the word "sorry" is the main thing that their descendants have really been waiting for because to demand more than a wreath and a "sorry" could be as controversial and dangerous as many events in the late 1930s. At the end, I do think that the Czech thinking and the German thinking (plus other things) was and is very similar and most of the differences between the nations boil down to the different roles that have been "predetermined" for us. I am generally reconciliated with my being a Czech, and proud about many things that it means. But in some contexts, being a Czech (or a German) puts one in a straitjacket that I don't find too comfortable and I often prefer to think that those of us in the two nations are people who live this part of Europe.

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