"No moral or political justification" for Germans' territorial losses in 1945
On Monday, for an hour, I was sitting two meters from the current Czech president Zeman – at the birthday party of his predecessor Klaus where I was honored to be invited again. While I have somewhat mixed feelings about various acts by Zeman – especially his support for the oligarch Andrej Babiš but partly even things like the "underwear burning" – we just saw a potentially important event that reassures me that I was right to vote him twice, in 2013 and 2018. I will discuss his reaction after I sketch some background.
Today, Angela Merkel has made rather extraordinary comments about the post-war settlement in Europe – they're discussed as the #1 story of the day by the Czech media. At a Berlin event remembering some victims of the post-war expulsion of Germans, she said that "the expulsion was a result of the Nazi atrocities but there was no moral or political justification for the expulsion". The combination of the statements is rather amazing – because, among other things, it implies that there's no moral or political reason to punish people co-responsible for Nazism.
After 1945, Germany was occupied by the Allies, split to the Western and Eastern part, and both parts were trained to be sensitive in these matters. Top Nazis have been executed and Germans generally didn't dare to talk about the Nazi dreams. For more than seven decades, Germans were sometimes hysterically afraid of anything that could be interpreted as their sympathies for Nazism. The people who who would like to reinstate the Nazi glory were an extreme minority – one that was overrepresented in the small far right parties and in the Sudetenland organizations representing the expelled Germans – well, mostly their descendants.
In 1997, leaders Klaus and Kohl signed the Czech-German declaration that was the basis of the really good relationships between Germany and Czechia. The ingenious pragmatic idea – arguably one inspired by Czech (then) PM Klaus – was to draw a thick line after the history. The history was complicated, one could try to cherry-pick the good things and bad things, and both sides would be tempted to do it differently. So we accept the "conditions as of 1997" as the legitimate initial conditions – something that we really share.
So the German politicians were expected to de facto accept the legitimacy of the Beneš decrees, the documents penned by Dr Edvard Beneš, the Czechoslovak president right before and right after the Second World War (and the President of the government-in-exile in London in between). And they were doing so, indeed.
The Beneš decrees are controversial but so are most events from that era. I will get to them.
But now, let me discuss the issue of the German minority in Czechia chronologically. Some 200 years before Christ, Celts lived in Central Europe. Boii were one of the tribes – and Bavaria and Bohemia both mean the "settlement of the Boii" and "the home of the Boii", respectively. So according to this Celtic heritage (and because of the beer culture), Czechs and Bavarians are brothers. Around Christ's lifetime, German tribes were living in Bohemia – Google search for Marcomanni.
Some 500 or 600 years later, Slavs came to the Czech basin and mostly replaced the Germans. But Slavs on our territory were never too hostile towards the Germanic tribes. Instead, in the 630s, proto-Czechs created the Samo's Realm – they actually elected a Frankish (i.e. Germanic) merchant as their leader! Today, the analogous move would be to pick Berhard Maier, the boss of Škoda and a German in the Volkswagen hierarchy, as the Czech president or protector. ;-) This analogy probably makes some sense because Czechs have probably respected Germans as good managers for some 1300 years.
OK, by the mid 9th century, the Slavs – let me say "we the Czechs" although my actual heritage is probably somewhat more motley and containing some admixture of a Führer or two (Führer was the maiden name of my paternal grandmother) – already had a rather decent, cultural country – the Great Moravia – which was controlled by Slavs. It was a proto-Czechoslovakia, basically covering the Czechoslovak territory. In 863 AD, Greek missionaries came there and brought us writing (mostly in the new artificial Glagolithic script) and the Orthodox Christianity. Within 100 years, the German or Western Catholic influence won. Czechs turned into Catholics by 1000 AD or so, and the Czech Kingdom – our leader was soon promoted to the king (it became hereditary in 1212) because we were nice enough to Germany and the Catholic bosses – was incorporated to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, despite its Slavic majority. (In the early 15th century, the heretical Czechs became the first proto-Protestants, and although they were arguably more heretics than Protestants, as we agreed with Tom Vonk on Monday, Czechs were natural allies of full-blown Protestants up to the early 1620s when they lost an important battle.)
Only in the 13th century, Czech kings started to invite Germans to Bohemia – correctly assuming that they would be good for the economy (the kings probably "remembered" something about Samo). Germans would settle in the mountainous borderland and did advanced things while Czechs typically favored the lowlands where the agriculture was easier. By the early 20th century (when a part of the lowland Czechs was already converted to the working class in the heavy industry – overwhelmingly Czech ethnically), the ethnic Germans were a majority at a majority of the Czech mountainous borderland. All these German-speaking folks could have considered themselves Germans or Austrians (because they were happy that their only real capital was Vienna, in the Austrian Empire) – it was always a matter of personal preferences. Some of them called themselves "Bohemians" (well, the word was in German) but by Bohemia, they really meant something that has no tight relationship to any Slavic nation.
When Austria-Hungary dissolved in 1918, a new successor state with a German majority could have included the Sudetenland but it didn't. The Germans and Austrians were clear losers of the First World War. So their dreams remained dreams and the Sudetenland remained in Czechoslovakia – it had been in the Czech kingdom for some 1000 years. Because of that, some 3 million out of 15 million Czechoslovaks were ethnic Germans in 1918-1938. The number of Germans was comparable to that of Slovaks. Cleverly, Prof Masaryk and others returned the science before the 1840s (when Slovaks really decided that they were a separate nation and they had a separate language from Czech) and restored "Czechoslovakism" – Czechs and Slovaks were one nation, speaking the Czechoslovak language that has two codified versions (Czech and Slovak). In this way, the Czechoslovak nation was a clear majority and Czechoslovakia didn't have to be viewed as a subtly balanced mixture of many comparable ethnic groups, like Austria-Hungary.
(On the Monday party, I spent almost all the time by chatting with a vice-chairman of "Slovaks in Czechia", an organization that is very bitter about the dissolution of Czechoslovakia.)
The relationships between Czechs and Germans in the Sudetenland were acceptable (not ideal) for decades but became terrible when Hitler came to power. Right before the war, over 90% of the Sudetenland Germans supported Konrad Henlein, the regional subordinary of Hitler's. Almost all the Sudetenland Germans were screaming "We want to the Reich!" And this wish became fulfilled – in fact, twice. ;-)
OK, what did they mean by "We want to the Reich" in 1938? They clearly meant that they wanted the Sudetenland as a whole – a territory where they had a majority – to be annexed by Nazi Germany. And yes, the territory was annexed by Nazi Germany in Fall 1938, after the Munich Treaty at which our formal ally France and the informal ally Britain betrayed Czechoslovakia and agreed (along with Hitler and Mussolini) that the Czech borderland would become a German territory.
In 1945, the wish "We want to the Reich!" was mockingly used when the individual Germans were expelled to Germany. Meine Damen und Herren, that's exactly where you wanted to go, right? :-)
About 2 million Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1945 (and perhaps a year or two later, some of them). A committee of Czech historians recently declared that during this spontaneous process that was often driven by "suddenly appearing Czech heroes in 1945", about 15,000-30,000 Germans were killed. It's a small number relatively to the overall German or Jewish (etc.) losses in the war. On the other hand, it's actually very comparable to the number of ethnic Czechs murdered by the Nazis (mostly members of the resistance movement, communists, and a few other groups) – that number was almost the same. So on our territory, ethnic Czechs' and Germans' game ended as a tie. However, it's usually sensible to include 300,000 murdered Czechoslovak Jews to the overall Czechoslovak casualties. I think it's important to know that the truth is in between. The Jews were Czechoslovak citizens and they really enjoyed all the civic rights and most of the informal dignity as well (up to Fall 1938 when things already changed) but according to the instinctive thinking of most Czechs, they were never quite "members of our nation" because the nation simply was self-defined ethnically or culturally.
OK, so after Germany surrendered, some of the violence continued – and Germans suddenly found themselves as the beaten ones – which had to be refreshing after 6 war years. The details were unfortunate but absolutely unavoidable. Czechia has been milked for some time, Czech elites were eradicated, and almost all the Sudetenland Germans were politically supporting all these things. So there was some kind of a moral justification – although one needs to apply the collective guilt to some extent. (One has to – but most of these German individuals were really guilty for something, too.) But even though Angela Merkel denies it, there were additional, very good political reasons for the expulsion, too.
You know, one reason was that it was basically agreed immediately by the allies that Czechoslovakia would be restored in the pre-war borders – well, except for the loss of the Subcarpathian Rus that left for the Ukrainian SSR (too bad for them). But that restoration of the territory had a consequence. You know, the ethnic Germans were not citizens of Czechoslovakia and they weren't citizens of the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia, either. Just like they wanted, the ethnic Germans – both those in the Sudetenland and those who happened to live in mainland Czechia – were directly citizens of the Third Reich only.
So at the castrated Czech territory, two states were overlapping. The Third Reich was there and the whole Czechia was divided to administrative units of the Third Reich that were governed by Germans just like any other region in the Third Reich. On top of that, the ethnic Czechs could play their own game on that territory and had some limited autonomy – but their ("our") government only had the sovereignty over the people, ethnic Czechs, not really over the territory. They could organize a Czech soccer league, hire people who play Czech music, but they obviously couldn't have any real army or minister of foreign affairs and other things linked to power.
You know, my point is that the Sudetenland Germans have broken their ties with Czechoslovakia and all countries with a Czech majority. They had nothing to do with Czechoslovakia, Czechia, Bohemia, or Moravia anymore. And it wasn't just some temporary fluke or a fast bureaucratic trick. Before 1945, it had been right for 6 years. For 6 years, they were citizens of Nazi Germany who accidentally lived at an annexed territory – but they could move anywhere in Germany.
So when Czechoslovakia regained the sovereignty and the Sudetenland, these German folks were simply aliens on our territory! And what do you do with foreigners who are rather hostile and who happen to be on your territory after they lost a war? You tell them "go away immediately" and if you're unsatisfied with their speed, you help them. You love them, e.g. with a metallic stick. It was really unavoidable that some Czech cowards who were obedient during the occupation suddenly wanted to show that they were proud Czechs – because it became legal again – so they showed some anti-German "bravery". ;-)
I don't claim that the expulsion takes place after every change of the border. But this particular example had lots of reasons why it should happen because the Sudetenland "We want to be in the Reich" ambition was one of the main reasons why the Second World War became inevitable.
You know, typical Czechs are only brave when it becomes safe. But if you think rationally, that really changes nothing about the outcome of the wars. If Czechs weren't flexible during the occupation, they wouldn't work so nicely in the German armories (e.g. in Pilsen's Škoda) and they would have killed about the same 15,000-30,000 Germans during the war. But we didn't. We only killed guys like Reinhard Heydrich – a great choice for a victim – and "we" left the revenge to 1945. The Poles aren't laughing cowards like us so they didn't work too intesely in the German factories and they were trying to kill Germans during the war as well. It wasn't too easy and it wasn't working too well for them, either.
In the Czechoslovak and Polish case, the timing was different, and so was the history (because Poland hadn't owned the disputed territory for too long a time). But the outcome was almost the same: Some Germans were killed for their nation's hostile actions, Germany lost some territories in Poland and Czechoslovakia it had once possessed (only for 7 years in the Czech Sudetenland case), and because the Germans were Reich's citizens on a different territory, they had to leave. From a perspective that is compatible with the post-war stability, it makes perfect sense.
You may also pick a different perspective in which it doesn't make sense, in which it's a "bitter injustice" as Merkel said. But all such alternative perspectives are incompatible with the post-war peace. All of them either deny what that these Germans were the citizens of the Reich only; or they deny that Germany has lost some territories in 1945 (which losers of big wars often do).
The post-war expulsion (prepared for the scenario in which Germany loses the war) became a certainty in 1942, after the post-Heydrich terror. In June 1942, Germans eradicated basically everyone (hundreds of people) in the village of Lidice, flattened it (they forgot to destroy one tree), and erased it from all documents. (The evidence that the village had participated in the assassination were spurious, if you care.) They bragged about it (unlike the Holocaust which remained a dirty secret). For the first time, the international community learned what kind of a "humanity" they represented. The U.K. revoked its signature under the Munich Treaty. And our president Dr Edvard Beneš gave some speeches in London where he made it clear that we would need a more stable solution of the German problem after Germany is defeated. The Britons silently agreed.
So this expulsion started in May 1945 with a silent approval by the allies. In August 1945, the Potsdam Agreement included a comment that the expulsion should be completed in a "humane and orderly way". It wasn't always like that but the world is a šitty place. At any rate, the international agreement in Summer 1945 envisioned the expulsion of the Germans.
Despite the imperfection of the Beneš decrees that ordered the expulsion and confiscation, we have to consider it a part of our basic legal system if we want to avoid e.g. devastating uncertainty about the ownership status of the real estate in the borderland. And to question the Beneš's decrees would mean to question the post-war settlement and open the Pandora's box towards the revival of the Second World War. No top West German or German politician has done such a thing since 1949.
Now, Angela Merkel is "partly" doing such a thing. Is she threatening the legal system in which the expulsion was legally kosher and the Czechoslovak citizens really regained the sovereignty over the territory? The answer depends on your interpretation. And interestingly enough, the Czech president and the ministry of foreign affairs use different interpretations.
The Czech president Zeman said that he "deeply disagreed" with Angela Merkel's comments. He could have burned some German underwear or do something crazy or Zemanesque like that. But he understood that this is a potentially serious statement and it requires a serious, concise, unprovoking, but unambiguous reaction. And that's exactly what Zeman provided Merkel with.
Later, designed PM Babiš said the comments were "absolutely unacceptable", especially after the anniversary of Lidice, and he suggested it was an internal political fight in Germany. Petr Fiala, the boss of Klaus-founded now center right ODS, said that it doesn't help our relationships when history is being interpreted in this one-sided way. Boss of the main nationalist party SPD, Tomio Okamura, talked about the Merkel's revanchism.
The ministry of foreign affairs was more pro-German. They said that they believed that Merkel's comments don't threaten the Czech-German declaration or the legal framework in the Sudetenland. She has just expressed her moral judgment about some events and every Czech and German citizen – including the German Chancellor – has the right to articulate his or her moral judgments.
Just to be sure, I agree with the general point. The only problem is that there are also other points and I doubt that this is the right point to be emphasized. She has the right to issue moral judgments but she's still the most powerful German leader so her comments may be expected to have some consequences, and even if their character is ethical, it makes sense to partly interpret her statements as the official opinion of Germany as a whole – and therefore as a basis for some possible moves in the future. You know, when Merkel or someone else says that an event is morally or politically unjustifiable, this criticism could be expected to be the first step towards efforts to undo the event or its consequences. Is this way of thinking too shocking for somebody?
For this reason, I think it's right for the top politicians – and Zeman didn't disappoint – to say that Czechia (or at least its president) deeply disagrees with these comments.
It's possible that she knows perfectly what she's doing. It could be just an internal political move in Germany. She may have decided that many people voting for AfD are Nazi apologists. And if she becomes a more vocal apologist for Nazism than almost anyone in AfD (you could have heard some irredentist comments in AfD but they're clearly not the main focus of the party today), she may persuade some of the AfD voters to vote for CDU again. Is she intelligent enough for that? And if she is, can this strategy work at all? I have doubts about both questions.
Sadly, Germany – as a country that is powerful enough to seriously think about some European domination but weak enough to be almost guaranteed to lose against the union of everyone else who disagrees – has naturally caused a lot of suffering on the European continent. And I think it's right to blame the First World War mainly on Germany, too. We may be seeing the evolution towards the Third World War. Because Angela Merkel seems to misunderstand it, I must be explicit about what will happen after Germany causes and loses (as expected) the Third World War.
Its leader, maybe Angela Merkel if she's still around, will probably be executed, along with the Islamic leaders, her allies. But that won't undo the actual injustice. After they lose a world war, Germans could be tempted to say that they have had nothing to do with the wrongdoing and Adolf Hitler or Angela Merkel absorb all their sins so that the other Germans are clean. I am sorry but neither Adolf Hitler nor Angela Merkel operate like Jesus Christ. Both Hitler and Merkel have been products of the mainstream Germans' political atmosphere of Germany in certain epochs. Both chancellors have been democratically elected by an impressive fraction of the German electorate – and repeatedly so (although the repetition became unnecessary in Hitler's case). So the electorate simply have to share some responsibility for certain sins whose magnitude clearly surpasses the level of a "crime that can be done by one person". There's always some room to assume "collective guilt" simply because the events of such big wars are so far-reaching that they must be considered consequences of "collective efforts".
So it's possible that after the German loss in the Third World War, the remaining Germans (if any) will be moved out of Europe because their continued existence on our continent will be considered an existential threat by the victorious Allies. So for the Chancellor of Little Germany in Africa, 2100 AD, I have one message: your diatribe about the non-existence of a moral and political justification of the expulsion of Germans from Europe is a pile of hogwash. There will have been very good moral and political reasons for those decisions made after 2020 – and intelligent people (at least those who were parttime visionaries) understood them very well already in 2018 if not many years earlier. So shut up, future German chancellor, and return to your bananas.