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Benes-Decrees

Edvard BeneŇ°
¬© ČSK (Czech News Agency)

As recently as the beginning of 2000, many European observers still believed that the expulsion of the German minority from Czechoslovakia after 1945 was a topic of central contemporary importance only insofar as it was a permanent campaign topic of the Freedom Party in Austria in the heated debate on the expansion of the EU. The Freedom Party was half-heartedly supported - as far as the threat of a veto against the membership of the Czech Republic was concerned - by their partners in the ruling coalition, the Austrian People's Party. It seemed therefore that the topic was of real interest only in this local party political context. But then it also became a major issue in the EU This was exemplified by the fierce debate in the Czech elections and by the resolution passed unanimously by the Prague parliament, April 24, 2001, not to rescind formally the Benes Decrees that had provided the legal basis for the dispossession and expatriation of the German minority. Another indication of the growing European importance of the topic was a speech made by Edmund Stoiber, candidate of the Christian Democratic and Christian Social parties for the position of Federal German Chancellor: In his speech at the traditional Whitsun meeting of the Sudeten Germans on May 19, 2002, he raised, at least subliminally, the issue of the exiles' claims for restitution. However, a report that was made on behalf of the European Parliament concluded that the Benes-Decrees were not an obstacle to Czech Republic membership in the European Union, and this brought the discussion to an end or at all events took away its explosiveness.

Various nations have thus used these questions for their own purposes, but since the 1990's there has also been social pressure to raise the topic of human rights abuses, as a result of the debate on the Nazi use of slave labor and the non-compensated property losses of holocaust victims: Such pressure has been exerted predictably in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France, but also in other countries such as Holland and Great Britain. Human rights abuses in the recent European past are precisely the topic, in parallel with the war crimes trials against atrocities of war and expulsion in the former Yugoslavia, that a younger generation has subjected to critical discussion without taboos or justifications under the rubric of collective memory: Be it the Algerian war in France or the colonial past of the Netherlands right up to the Nazi period in Austria and Germany but also in other west and east European states.

In the past many politicians in the Federal Republic of Germany, in the Czech Republic and rudimentarily also in Austria, may have believed that they could guide social discourse on the expulsion and its consequences into academic and consequently controllable paths through the educational and research work of representative commissions of historians. Today it is becoming ever clearer that it is still a "hot topic," and needs to be discussed in a much wider arena.

This applies to the collective memory of many Sudeten Germans, but also most importantly to functionaries of the welfare and cultural associations of Sudeten Germans in Germany and Austria, those of the first generation as well as the smaller number of functionaries of the second generation. It applies also however to the collective memory of Czech society. Neither one nor the other has really accepted the research findings on this event and both frequently reproduce their traditional views of history, neither one taking into consideration the perspective of the opposite "side".

Many German minority exiles have their sights trained on the policies of the Czechoslovakian governments after 1918 which were by no means friendly to minorities; they then put all the blame for what happened in the Nazi-period on Hitler's Germany (in the same way that Austrians liked to shift the blame after 1945). Their own central memory is of the 1945 period of expulsion which was in many cases gruesome and bloody.

In the center of discussion in Czech society is, now as ever, the oppression and persecution of the Nazi period and the traumatic loss of state sovereignty through the Munich Treaty of 1938 as well as the enthusiasm with which the Sudeten Germans after 1935 supported the radical Nazi-Henlein party in free elections. Reference is made again and again to the massacre of Lidice in 1942: An entire village and most of its inhabitants were razed to the ground as revenge for the murder of Reich Protector Heydrich. Other acts of terror are also frequently brought up, such as the racist planning directed against the Czechs in the framework of Nazi territorial politics - insofar as they could not be "Germanized," they were supposed to be removed after the end of the war to Siberia, or even to the polar regions. Increasingly however reference is now also being made to the expulsion and expropriation measures taken against German minorities after 1945 in European countries other than Czechoslovakia, a policy that was not only accepted by the victorious allies as "ethnic homogenizing" but was also included in the resolutions of the Potsdam Conference in 1945.

Many critical observers such as the former German Social Democratic politician, Peter Glotz, himself an exile, reject attempts at analysis involving research into cause and effect, on the basis that this only leads to new reproaches and also to excuses, and ultimately only contributes to a hardening of present positions.

Since however images are already firmly fixed in the historical memory of the second generation in the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria - even though they are frequently articulated without the emotional load placed on them by the first generation - there is no other choice but to analyze the isolated public images of history, distinguished from each other almost entirely along ethnic lines. It seems to be important in this attempt at analysis to leave aside legal discussion, which will finally have to be decided politically. Rather one should increasingly put the question: Which images in the historical memory actually play a part in determining the present consciousness of the exiles of the German minority (to which before 1938 more than 300,000 people of Austrian citizenship originally belonged) but also are factors in determining the present consciousness of Czechs and Slovaks. Only by deconstructing many subjective constructs of this kind which change nothing in the individual traumas caused by expulsion as well as by Nazi persecution and stigmatizing, can one possibly attempt a reconstruction of the theme of the Nazi-occupation and terror politics of the post-war expulsion, which was primarily carried out directly after the crushing of the Nazi regime, in many cases with inhuman cruelty and with the abuse of all human rights.

The former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, both in his earlier "illegal" days and more recently as head of state after 1989, tried more than once to analyze the images in the Czech historical memory, judiciously but nonetheless critically. He set out to raise the topic of the German role - latterly with regard to the function of Eduard Benes - both in pre-1938 politics and following that, in exile in London and after 1945. It is no coincidence that Havel was the one who, in his speech of February 17, 1995 in Prague, found the right words of regret but also of collective shame over the atrocities that occurred during the expulsion - above all in the savage phase of 1945. The official Sudeten German answer was a long time coming and as late as 2002 it still failed to convince: By contrast with Havel's principled reflections, it lacked all depth.

Thus Havel for instance on June 5, 2002 again demanded from his fellow countrymen a reappraisal of Czech history, because "the Czechs have certainly been disadvantaged by their communist regime, but they should nevertheless not conceal their own past from themselves." In April 2003, the newly elected Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, said that this question "must be discussed." Further declarations on the part of the Prague government followed - for example from Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla in the Europa-Forum in the Wachau in June 2003. In August 2005 the new Czech prime minister, Jiri Paroubek, finally made a "gesture of reconciliation" towards those Sudeten Germans who were antifascist, as he had often promised he would. In this Czech government declaration, mention is made for the first time of "deep appreciation" and "great regret" in regard to the citizens, particularly those of German heritage, who lived within the territory of the present Czech Republic before the Second World War, who "remained true" to the Republic and to whom no suitable tribute had been paid. It goes on to say that these citizens "were affected by measures taken in post-war Czechslovakia against so-called hostile segments of the population." The Benes decrees are not mentioned and the point is also made that this statement would not result in the reparation payments which had been widely hoped for and in part also discussed by Czech politicians themselves; the fate of those thus affected would however be recognized in the framework of a documentation project. The Sudeten German exile associations really ought to endorse such differentiated positions to allow a real exchange of opinion to take place; the post-war generation is scarcely even represented in their ranks any more.

Oliver Rathkolb
See also: Coudenhove-Kalergi, Barbara/Rathkolb, Oliver (eds), Die Benes-Dekrete [The Benes-Decrees], Czernin-Verlag, Vienna, 2002.

Station: Benes-Decrees
(Last update: 02/2006)

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