Czech-German relations

Tim was on a bike trip on the Czech border, southwest of Pilsen, in a region which until 1945 was inhabited by mainly German-speaking people. Immediately after the war, this population was expelled. They left behind them only a few traces, mainly in the graveyards on the border, where memorials or inscriptions are to be found in German. The graveyards are often in a poor state of repair, neglected and vandalised, although in some places they have been cleaned up and repaired by the former populations over recent years. It is not unusual to find graves which have been clearly forced open by burglars, after whatever they could find. This border region saw many villages or parts of villages disappear, which resulted in the significant depopulation of the region. This is why so many Czechs have a cottage or country retreat on the border, since it is such a peaceful region.

  • What is...?

Border region: A region along the borders of the republic, especially in the south, west and north. From the fifties to the eighties, part of the border was closed for security reasons. Very few people had access to the border zone, which was guarded by soldiers in order to prevent anyone from escaping to neighbouring countries, i.e. Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany. Several hundred people lost their lives while trying to escape. These days, the region is freely accessible. It is a favourite tourist destination because of its peace and quiet, its numerous cycle routes, and its wonderful woodland.

Sudetenland: Until 1945, the border regions and neighbouring areas were known as the Sudetenland. This name, originally used for only part of the northern mountains and of purely geographical significance, was expanded after 1918 to include the entire region in which the German minority, totalling some 3.5 million people, lived in the new Czechoslovak Republic. The name thus acquired a nationalistic dimension. The minority presented itself as the Sudeten-German population. In the thirties, there was a Sudeten-German movement active here, which later became a party of the same name (Sudetendeutsche Partei). The crisis of 1938, which culminated in the Sudetenland being taken over by Hitler’s Germany, is known to the world as the Sudeten crisis.

Transfer/expulsion/ethnic cleansing: After World War II, most of the German minority was forced to leave the restored Czechoslovak Republic. The official reason given was that this was punishment for the fact that the Czech Germans had betrayed Czechoslovakia in 1938. Moreover, the Czechoslovak government, under President Beneš, argued that with such a significant minority it would be impossible for a stable and secure state to exist in the heart of Europe. The government used a special term, “transfer”, to describe the expulsion of 2.5 million Czech Germans, which is still used on the Czech side to this day. On the side of the displaced Germans, the term is “expulsion” (Vertreibung), in order to highlight the unjustness of the loss of their homes.

In the nineties, the term “ethnic cleansing” began to be used in connection with the war in the former Yugoslavia for the violent act of expelling part of the population because of their nationality. Since this time, the transfer/expulsion that took place has been referred to in international literature as ethnic cleansing, since the criteria for the expulsions had nothing to do with personal fault but ethnicity. In this article, we use the term “expulsion” since it better captures the basis of the event, i.e. forced eviction.

  • Topic

In the second half of the 19th century, tensions heightened between the Czech and German speaking population of the Czech territories, which were part of the Habsburg Empire. The emancipation of the Czech ethnic group provoked a defensive reaction on the part of the German-speaking population, which in the political arena led to debates on the liberation of both ethnic groups, basic autonomy for the Czech territories, and the federalisation of the monarchy. In Moravia, there was a settlement reached (political representation, the division of the regions, and agreement on the method of elections) between both parties in 1910, though in Bohemia an agreement was not reached due to the onset of World War I.

The result of WWI was the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A host of new countries was created in Central Europe, including Czechoslovakia. Peace negotiations were held at various places around Paris. In the new Czechoslovakia, no ethnic group had a majority. The new state presented itself as a national state, i.e. a country or a single people, the Czechoslovaks. The German nationals living here acquired the status of a minority. In the main, the political representation of the ethnically German population rejected the new state under the leadership of Czechs, and from the very beginning advocated affiliation with the new Austria. Large demonstrations broke out in 1919, in favour of the German minority being able to vote for candidates to the Austrian parliament, and the army fired into the crowd, killing several dozen protestors.
In the ensuing peace negotiations, the Czechoslovak government promised extensive rights for the German minority, which were gradually introduced. However, several were so complex to achieve that they were of almost no practical significance in terms of improving the situation of the German minority.

In time, the German minority became reconciled to the new country, not least because life in Czechoslovakia was, from an economic point of view, better than in Austria or Germany, where political chaos reigned. The political representation was divided into two parties, one which refused to cooperate actively with the Prague government, and one which was prepared to cooperate. The second group, especially the social democrats, entered the government in 1926, where they held three ministries until the end of the 1st Republic. The best years of interwar Czechoslovakia are for these and other reasons reckoned to be the period 1926-29.

At the end of 1929, the Great Depression began in America, which had a huge effect on the European economy, especially on Germany. Over the next few years, the country suffered hyperinflation and huge levels of unemployment. The Czechoslovak economy took a bruising too, but was more resistant. The consequences of the crises for the Sudetenland were more onerous than for other parts of the CSR. The government in Prague awarded public contracts to companies of ethnic Czechs and fewer to the Sudeten regions. Moreover, an important source of income – tourism from Germany – was considerably restricted because of the crisis. The feeling of being second-class citizens again spread amongst the Czech Germans.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. His centralisation of power, abolishment of democratic structures, and economic reforms based on the arms industry and the construction of infrastructure led to the hope that Germany would quickly recover from its deep crisis. What is more, authoritative or fascist regimes were enthroned in many parts of Europe. Czechoslovakia was at this time the only country in Central Europe in which basic democratic principles continued to operate. However, relations with the surrounding states began to deteriorate. In order to improve its international position, in 1935 the CSR concluded a treaty with the Soviet Union, which, along with the treaty the country had with France, was the basic starting point for Czechoslovak international policy. The treaty provoked unease in Western Europe because of the fear of Communism.

In 1933, in the midst of this radicalised atmosphere, Konrad Henlein established the Sudetendeutsche Heimatsfront (Sudetenland Patriotic Front), later renamed the Sudeten German Party. In the elections of 1935, it won around 70% of the votes cast by the Sudeten German minority, becoming the second-largest party in parliament. Up to 1937, it tended to present itself as a fascist party in the style of Mussolini, and only later did it become a national socialist party after Hitler’s model. Henlein demanded extensive autonomy for the region, and gradually increased his demands. From 1937, he became Hitler’s tool for the break-up of Czechoslovakia.

After the recovery of full control over several Western parts of Germany (the Saarland, the Rhineland), Austria was annexed by Germany in March 1938. The summer saw pressure increasing on Czechoslovakia to resolve the situation of the Sudeten Germans. In Western Europe, mainly in Great Britain and France, the opinion was gaining ground that it was necessary to hand over the Sudetenland to the Germans, the argument being that it was natural and legitimate to include all Germans in one country, that the problem of the Sudetenland was the result of several mistakes of the Versailles Treaty which had to be remedied, and that the question of the Sudetenland was not worth war. At an international conference in Munich in 1938, Italy, France, Great Britain and Germany agreed to hand over the Sudetenland to Germany. The agreement, at which Czechoslovakia was not present, was accepted by President Edvard Beneš, who shortly after resigned and left the country. Over 200,000 Czechoslovakian citizens, often employees of the state authorities, had to be evacuated from the region. The enthusiasm of the Sudeten Germans for the annexation of the border region decreased from 1941 onwards, when the economic situation again began to deteriorate. Furthermore, the losses suffered by Sudetenland soldiers, who had to join up with the German army, were relatively high. Open resistance to Hitler amongst Sudeten Germans began to be exhibited (among several clerics, social democrats and Communists), but it was restricted in scope.

As early as March 1939, Beneš’s successor Emil Hácha was forced to sign over occupation of the Czech territories to Hitler’s Germany, while Slovakia acquired independence as a puppet state dependent on Germany. During World War II, several of the Sudeten Germans participated in the administration of the protectorate of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia and the repressive regime. The best known was K.H. Frank, the number-two man in the Sudetenland party. Henlein was given an inferior function.

In London, Edvard Beneš established a government-in-exile, which was recognised by Great Britain and France in 1941. Its main objectives were the restoration of Czechoslovakia to the borders preceding the Munich Treaty and resolution of the Sudeten question. It undertook the expulsion of the German population in the Sudetenland, at the beginning involving 800,000 persons, a figure which gradually rose to nearly 2 million. It acquired the gradual support of the allies for this step. The most important consent was that of the Soviets in 1943, when it was clear that the USSR would be the main liberator of Czechoslovakia. In return for this consent, the government-in-exile decided that it would exhibit absolute loyalty to the USSR in its foreign policy.

After the liberation, the Sudeten German minority was almost completely expelled from the territory of Czechoslovakia. In the first phase – approximately up to August 1945 – this was accompanied by open violence. Brigades of partisans (under the leadership of the Communists) chased people out of their homes with no warning, gathered them in very provisional conditions and then transported them under inhumane conditions across the border. During the “wild expulsions”, as they were known, most of the victims perished, as discovered by a Czech-Germany commission of historians (20,000 to 30,000 people). Mass murder was also committed (e.g. in Postoloprty and Ústí nad Labem). The second, organised phase began after a conference of the allies in Potsdam, which made its acceptance of the expulsion conditional upon the humane treatment of those involved. This phase lasted until November of 1946. Of the approximately 3 million minority, some 200,000 persons remained in Czechoslovakia, often because they occupied irreplaceable positions in companies or because of mixed marriage. Several of the antifascists from the ranks of the Sudeten Germans were able to stay, but most also chose to leave Czechoslovakia. The legislative aspects of the expulsions are set forth in the decrees published by the President of the Republic, and are known as the Beneš Decrees.

The impact of the expulsions on the border region was huge. The authorities did not only wish to repopulate the territory, they also needed to ensure the continuance of its key industries, especially coal-mining. In the end, they installed re-emigrants from Eastern regions of Europe, (e.g. from Zelow, Wolynia, etc.) and people of Roma origin from Slovakia. The revolutionary-minded border region became a support base for the Communist Party. The following years saw the border region suffer a devastation which has still not been halted. Several hundred villages disappeared, many churches became ruins or remain dilapidated, and a large number of cemeteries were devastated. The arrival of a new population, without links or roots in the region, resulted in a lack of interest in its development and future. In addition, a large part of the border region became a no-go zone, where few had access and where many settlements were destroyed on the pretext of security. As a result of all of this, today’s border region wages a constant battle with unemployment, criminality and prostitution.

Under Communist rule, it was forbidden to speak of the expulsions, and this became a subject restricted to dissident circles. After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the return to Europe, the Czech-German problem again reared its head. After long negotiations in 1997, a Czech-German declaration was signed in which the Czech party expressed its regret regarding the excesses during the expulsions of the Sudeten German minority. Declarations from churches and civil society go further and deem the expulsions to have been bad as such. On the other hand, several (political) forces are using their relationship with Germany as proof of their national loyalty. The Czech-German problem remains a very sensitive topic.

Czech Germans were mainly resettled in West Germany, as well as in East Germany and Austria. Their integration into the societies of these countries was slow but successful. Many (though by no means all) former Sudeten Germans are affiliated with an organisation entitled Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft. This comprises five parts, basically according to political persuasion and its view of Czech-German relations. While one part (Witikobund) demands compensation from the Czech Republic for confiscated property, a second (Ackermanngemeinde) is much more critical of its own past and emphasises reconciliation. The Czech government does not rate the Landsmannschaft as a partner in the dialogue on Czech-German matters. However, there are contacts on the local level with representatives of the Landsmannschaft and there even exist several joint projects (e.g. repairs to churches or cemeteries).

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
Susanne was born in 1930 in the city of Trautenau (Trutnov), but soon moved to Prague with her parents. They lived a short distance from Stromovka Park, where they used to go for walks. Her father, Alois, worked as a technician, first for Škoda and later for Siemens. At home, they usually spoke German, but when the parents didn’t want the children to hear what they were saying, they swapped to Czech. They regarded themselves as Czech Germans, which was for them a different category than Germans from Germany, whom they didn’t like. They called them “Piefkes” (something like “Krauts”). In 1937, the family moved to Märisch Schönberg (Šumperk), where the father found better work. Again they found themselves in a part of the country where only German-speakers lived. At school, the other pupils did not have too much time for Susanne, who was used to differences in customs and languages from Prague. They frequently teased her for this.

Susanne spent the summer of 1938 by the Baltic Sea. The holiday was extended, and when she eventually returned, it was to discover that the Sudetenland had been annexed by Hitler’s Germany. In 1940, her father, who in the meantime had become a member of the NSDAP (Hitler’s party), was enlisted into the air force. Susanne fell ill with a lung infection and moved temporarily with her mother to her grandmother’s house in Jungbuch (Mladé Buky). They all hoped that the war would not last long and that the father would return safe and sound.

At the beginning of the war, when she was 10 years old, Susanne entered the youth organisation Hitlerjugend, which organised activities for young people. This was not because she wanted to especially, but it was a bit like going to school, automatic and logical. From 1943, there were the first signs that the war would end in defeat for Hitler’s Germany. More and more injured soldiers started turning up in the Sudetenland. Some had lost limbs and others were paralysed. The radio often played songs about bidding farewell to dead soldiers. In the summer of 1944, reports began of the first refugees from the East, who had left their homes out of fear of the approaching Red Army. A trickle became a flood, and several of the refugees were accommodated with Susanne.

When in May 1945 the Soviet soldiers arrived, Susanne and her mother had to hide in the attic for fear of being raped. They would hide there every night for a long time. It soon became clear that they could not remain in their home, which had been taken over for the local national committee. They lived for a year in a collection camp, where Susanne had to work in the local mill. She could not travel and had to wear a white band around her wrist with the letter ‘N’ written on it.

In June 1946, Susanne was finally moved along with her family to the village of Rattelsdorf in Bavaria. Her father, who a short time before had been released from war captivity, found work in nearby Bamberg. After several months, the family received a house. Susanne returned to school, but had to get used to a different Germany. For instance, while she had been used to “schén” from the Sudetenland, everyone else pronounced the work “schön” (beautiful). It took Susanne a long time to get used to her new home. She closed the door on the period of the war and the expulsions only when she got into university. In 1977, she visited the native country she had known as a child for the first time since the expulsion. She realised that it was no longer her home. She would not want to live in Communist Czechoslovakia. She has never become a member of the Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft, as she was never keen on the organisation. Over recent years, she has been involved in helping refugees, especially during the war and ethnic cleaning in the former Yugoslavia.

Story 2
Marta was 24 when the Sudetenland was annexed by Germany. She was born in Most in 1924, to a Czech father and a German mother. Her father worked for the railways. At home, the family spoke both languages, though German more than Czech. Marta went to the local German junior school. At that time, Most was a very mixed place. The Czech minority was large, and the German predominance was not too large, especially given the presence of a large Jewish population.

Before the arrival of Hitler on the scene, relationships between these groups in Most were pretty good on the whole. Then some pupils started to wear white knee-socks. Symbols of fascism started to appear, mostly in connection with followers of Henlein. They would periodically organise marches through the streets of Most. A neighbour who joined the movement changed his way of behaving towards Marta’s family. Where previously he had always been pleasant, he now made plain his objection to mixed marriages. And then he stopped greeting them: “Good day” became a simple “Heil Hitler”.

After the Sudetenland was annexed by Hitler’s Germany, Marta’s father lost his job and eventually found work in Karlovy Vary. Marta’s mother opted for Czechoslovak nationality (i.e. she wanted to register herself), but the German officials would not let her because they said she had been born German. Life for a mixed family was very difficult in Most, which is why the family eventually plumped for Postoloprt, which was also located in the Sudetenland. Marta’s father went to work in a local sugar refinery.

After the liberation, the family returned to Most. However, the town had changed considerably, as the Germans had been expelled and the Jewish population had been liquidated during the war. The Communists had taken control over the mining town. Marta had difficulties in finding work because of her mixed background. For a long time, she had to face questions as to why she spoke such good German. Eventually she found a man to be her husband who was willing to accept her mixed identity. They still live in Most to this day.

  • Sources


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Glotz, P. (2006). Die Vertreibung, Böhmen als Lehrstück, München 2003; Vyhnání, České země jako poučný případ. Litomyšl.

Hahnová, E. (1996). Sudetoněmecký problém: obtížné loučení s minulostí. Praha.

Krčmář, L. a.j.(2004). Zničené kostely (Průvodce historií západních Čech č. 14). Domažlice.

Mikšíček, P. a.j. (ed.) (1996). Zmizelé Sudety / Das verschwundene Sudetenland. Domažlice.

Staněk, T. (1996). Perzekuce 1945. Praha.

Vyšohlíd, Z. & Procházka, Z. (2003). Čím ožívá krajina, osudy 129 kostelů na Domažlicku a Tachovsku 1990-2002 (Průvodce historií západních Čech č. 6). Domažlice.

Wagnerová, A. (2000). Neodsunuté vzpomínky, česká zkušenost pohraničí. Praha.

Wagnerová, A. (1993). Odsunuté vzpomínky. Praha.

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