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Vol 3, No 16
7 May 2001
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Sudeten Dialogues
Martin D Brown and Dr Eva Hahn

The "Sudeten-German Question" can broadly be defined as relating to contemporary and historical relations between the Czech and German populations in the Bohemian lands, an area that correlates closely to the borders of the modern Czech Republic.

From the defeat of the Protestant Czech nobility by German Catholic forces in 1620, a defining moment in Czech national mythology, up until the post-1945 transfer of the Sudeten German population from Czechoslovakia these relations were often antagonistic, although largely peaceful and sometimes culturally fruitful. Nevertheless, the histories of these two populations have long been intimately intertwined.

There are several defining moments in this nexus between Czechs and Germans in the Bohemian lands. One of the most important came in October 1918, when a Czechoslovak state was created in which the Sudeten Germans, once part of the dominant ethnic group in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now became a significant minority. Their attempt to "Self-Determine" in March 1919 ended in failure.

The 1930s saw an increasing number of Sudeten Germans voting for Konrad Henlein's fascist sympathising Sudetendeutsche Heimatfront as a result of what was seen as Czech anti-German discrimination: support that eventually led to the Munich Agreement of October 1938 and the incorporation of the Sudeten areas into the Third Reich.

During the Second World War a Czecholsovak Government in exile, containing Czechs, Slovaks and anti-Fascist Sudeten Germans was formed in London. It was here that, under the leadership of President Dr Edvard Beneš, plans were formulated with Allied support, for the post-war transfer of this minority from a reconstructed Czechoslovakia.

These plans were duly carried out after the cessation of hostilities. The Sudeten Germans, except those with a provable anti-Fascist record, were denied Czecholsovak citizenship and had their residency and property rights in the Republic rescinded by the so-called Beneš Decrees. At first, these transfers occurred in an unorganised, largely spontaneous and violent manner, the period of the so-called "wild expulsions." Organised transfers to the American and Soviet zones of occupied Germany internationally sanctioned by Article 13 of the Potsdam Conference, commenced in January 1946. In all, over three million Sudeten Germans were forcibly transferred from Czechoslovakia.

After the fall of Communism the "Sudeten German Question," which had remained a sensitive topic throughout the Cold War, returned to the fore in relations between the Czech Republic and the newly reunified Germany. The desire to reach some form of closure on this issue resulted in a joint declaration by the two governments in 1997. However, the lingering problems over the Beneš Decrees remain and recently some Sudeten German political organisations have attempted to link the Czech Republic's entrance into the European Union with the annulment of these laws.

In the following text Martin D Brown and Dr Eva Hahn discuss the "Sudeten German Question."

Current Czech-German relations

Martin D Brown: I wanted to start this discussion by looking at the current state of Czech-German relations, especially in the aftermath of the joint Declaration of January 1997.

There are a range of influences on these relations that need to be examined including: the evolution of the "Sudeten-German Question," the role of historiography, myth and collective memory on both sides, and the crucial influence that the Cold War has had on this issue over the last 50 years.

The whole question, theoretically "resolved" by the Declaration,[1] has recently been resurrected following the Czech Republic's long cherished "return to Europe"—specifically EU membership—and is now being over-shadowed by renewed discussion over the role of the Beneš Decrees [2] and the transfers of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945.

Now, I realise that it's somewhat controversial to start this debate with reference to the odsun.[3] Controversial because many might feel that using the transfers as a starting point merely replicates the argument used by many Sudeten German organisations that places the transfers at the heart of the "Sudeten German Question" and pre-supposes that all the problems in Czech-German relations are a consequence of them.

Obviously, this is a highly simplistic approach and one that ignores the many other determinants that have influenced this issue over the last 300 years. But, like it or not, the transfers and the Decrees have taken centre stage in recent Czech-German relations, and, while I don't necessarily think they will seriously hinder the Republic's application to the EU (If, and when, accession actually occurs) they are obviously of interest at the present time.

Indeed, they have already led to an exchange of notes between the Czech and American governments in late summer 2000 over whether the US still stands by Article XIII of the Potsdam Declaration of September 1945—the article that originally sanctioned the transfers. Therefore, presumably the Czech government views these recent developments with a certain amount of concern.

Czech-German Declaration 1997

In 1998 Jörg Haider, prior to his electoral success in October 1999, demanded that EU membership for the Czechs and Slovenes be refused until they repealed those Decrees that, so he argued, violated human rights. Hungarian President Ferenc Madl also recently commented on the transfer of thousands of Hungarians from Slovakia. In April 1999 the European Parliament, originating with a motion from an MEP of the European People's Party (EPP), passed a resolution urging the Czech Republic to repeal the Decrees. Most recently, on 22 June 2000, the European Parliament called for a thorough investigation of the Beneš Decrees.

Baring these recent developments in mind, I wanted to start by looking at the Czech-German Declaration of January 1997. A document that was supposed to solve the legacy of the transfer issue and normalise Czech-German relations after fifty years of Cold War-driven hostility.

What do you feel were the key aspects surrounding the Declaration, and, what does the declaration reveal about the opposing position of Czechs and Germans over the "Sudeten-German Question?"

Eva Hahn: The Declaration was a diplomatic compromise, offering little intellectual satisfaction in terms of historical interpretations, yet it fulfilled the obviously political aims of its authors: it offered a new platform for interested groups to carry on their arguments about Czech-German relations out of the public’s view.

The most significant result of the Declaration is the fact that the "Sudeten-German Question" has disappeared from the headlines of both the Czech and German press. This fact could be hailed as a partial success, yet at the same time it also has some worrying consequences.

Take the political developments that you have just mentioned. Neither the European Parliament's resolutions nor Jörg Haider’s statements seem to have caused any real concern in either the Czech Republic or Germany at the moment.

If you look at the situation in Austria more closely, you will find that it is not quite that straightforward. On the one hand, there was some support for Haider’s demands—a petition with 24,335 signatures was presented to the Austrian Parliament on 29 November 2000—but, the number of signatures does not suggest that there is much enthusiasm for these ideas in Austria as a whole.[4] On the other hand, Austrian Foreign Secretary Benita Ferrero-Waldner declared that the Beneš-Decrees would be repealed before the end of this year...[5]

The problem is that no one makes any concrete statements about this matter, there are no real debates, no free flow of information and no clear political positions. No one has actually said what would be achieved if the Beneš-Decrees were repealed and who expects what as a result. All that seems to happen is now and then, general statements and actions appear and disappear on the political horizon like so many distant storm clouds. Baring that in mind one can hardly be surprised that the public has stopped taking any notice of this issue.

Clearly this is not a satisfactory state of affairs and the kind of statements you mention cannot be easily dismissed as insignificant. But, in view of the present political situation in Germany, they can hardly be seen as a serious political problem.

The present German government does not support these ideas. Maybe this is the main reason for why the public does not care. Moreover, even within the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) these attitudes appear to be paying mere lip service to long-established habits—the refusal to accept the transfer of Germans from Eastern Europe which had become a central part of West German political life since the end of the Second World War—rather than proving that the parties actually back these political demands. Also, there are many far more important questions related to EU Enlargement than annulling the Beneš-Decrees...

Back to the Declaration: The present governments in Berlin and Praha seem to agree that the Diskusní forum and Fond budoucnosti, established by the Declaration, currently provide a satisfactory service, as does the media in both countries.

The fact that the Czech-German issue has disappeared from the headlines since the Declaration is surely a positive political development, even if intellectually it leaves us with some serious difficulties. The public has lost interest, whereas traditional anti-Czech stereotypes still survive in Germany and anti-German emotions even seem to be growing in the Czech Republic. These facts should be a concern to historians as well as to intellectuals in general.

"Intellectual" problems

MDB: Something that Andrew Stroehlein makes very clear in his analysis of the conditions that surrounded the Declaration was the significant divide in Czech society regarding attitudes towards the "Sudeten German Question," one that separated the approach of intellectuals, such as Václav Havel, from that of the general population.

What does this division tell us about the "intellectual" problems that surround the "Sudeten German Question" in both countries?

EH:Well, the divide in Czech society which you mention is actually more the result of the Cold War than of the experience of the Second World War and the odsun itself. As you know, the Czech public have not been able to have free and open debates about collective and individual experience since 1945, due to the Communist dictatorship. Consequently, the present situation in the Czech Republic is really just a reflection of German attitudes.

Czech positions and arguments on this matter usually relate to various political groupings in Germany:

  • you will find traditional left-wing attitudes, for example, in Rudé právo, or amongst those historians that surround Eva Broklová and Miloslav Bednář, who stress Nazi atrocities, emphasise the significance of the Potsdam Agreement and strongly criticise Sudeten German organisations;
  • In both the Czech Republic as well as in Germany, some historians and intellectuals focus on the long history of common Czech-German relations, the ethical aspects of the odsun and the cultural damage caused by the termination of Czech-German coexistence in the Bohemian Lands (Jan Patočka, Petr Příhoda);
  • you will also find a small number of writers in the Czech media such as Bohumil Doležal, Rudolf Kučera, Jiří Loewy or Emanuel Mandler who present a view identical to those of the Sudeten German organisations, and finally;
  • there are the small groups of historians on both sides of the Czech-German border, who provide their governments with political support by sitting on the Czech-German Commission of Historians.

Apart from that, there are not many representations of any specific Czech approaches visible in the Czech discourse. You will find them more at the regional level rather than in Prague. For example, in the work of Vladimír and Kristina Kaiser in Ústí nad Labem or Tomáš Staněk in Opava.

The trouble is that German attitudes on this issue are mirrored so strongly in the Czech Republic, and that these opinions are themselves a product of the Cold War. In fact, attitudes towards the odsun in Germany are a serious problem for German collective memory. As a result of massive state intervention, the collective memory of the odsun in Western Germany has not been able to develop any more freely than it was in Communist Czechoslovakia.

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In the Federal Republic of Germany a whole network of institutions and organisations, financed by the state and established during the 1950s, have served as a "material representation" of the suffering endured by Germans at the hands of their East European neighbours, but above all for supporting revisionist attitudes towards the Potsdam Agreement. Moreover, they have conserved intellectual traditions from the pre-World War II period as well as from the National Socialist (NS) regime. In fact, post-war "de-Nazification" was not as comprehensive as most people believe, as German historians have been discovering over the last five years or so. [6]

The so called Vertriebenenorganisationen (expellee organisations), mainly financed under the slogan of "preserving the cultural heritage of the expellees" have imposed their views on the collective memory of post-war Germany by cultivating pre-war and Nazi myths and stereotypes about Eastern Europe.

They have also published a huge number of books and pamphlets, some of which have deeply intruded into German academic historiography, most Germans these days actually adhere to the traditional Sudeten German views and interpretations of Czech history without being aware of the origins of this presumed "academic historiography."[7]

Moreover, this institutional framework is still there, and is still financed by over DM 40 million (roughly USD 18 million) a year from the Federal Government (with further millions coming from the individual Lands).[8] As can be expected, any attempt to cut down on this financial support encounters strong opposition. Even Gerhard Schröder’s government in 1999 reluctantly gave up its attempt to reorganise this whole network, which is surely as outdated as many of its views.[9]

Having said that, even though these organisations are hardy survivors from the past and struggle to capture public attention, they do provide jobs for young historians, ethnologists, Slavists and Germanists so there is much lobbying on their behalf and very little interest in looking critically at what they are actually doing.

Yet, there was also an "other" kind of memory about the odsun which was prevalent amongst the German public during the first few decades after the war. You can find it in books by liberal writers such as Günther Grass, Peter Härtling, Siegfried Lenz or Horst Bienek who were themselves expellees from Eastern Europe, but who were critical of the revisionist attitudes that I have just mentioned.

Unfortunately, they have never had much impact on German politics and neither have other outspoken critics of the Sudeten German organisation. For example, those critics in the German media like Der Spiegel. Finally, the traditional historiography of the German left, banned during the Cold War in the GDR (former East Germany) and only cultivated under dictatorial conditions, has ceased to offer any real alternative since unification.

This is why Germany still has serious problems regarding these issues; something it will need to work hard on to resolve. In particular, those issues regarding the consequences of the Cold War in respect to the general attitudes towards Eastern Europe, and towards the history of Bohemian Lands.

Paradoxically, anti-Communist Czech dissidents and emigrants, as well as the post-Communist elites that adhere to fundamentalist anti-Communism, still view the world through the eyes of the national-conservative right–wingers in Germany, rather then paying attention to their critics, as their predecessors under the Communist regime had done.

Consequently, they never paid much attention to the plurality of German collective memory, and as a result during the 1980s and 1990s, Czechs often repeated the arguments of German right-wingers, who they mistakenly thought represented the "West."

Thus Czech-German debates during the 1990s were conducted between the Czechs and the right-wing of the German political spectrum, which had always traditionally been hostile towards the Czechs. Unsurprisingly, some sections of the Czech public, especially the left-wing, viewed intellectuals like Václav Havel or Petr Pithart as having allied themselves with "hostile" forces which they themselves—due to their shared anti-Communist platform—were in fact doing.

Read more of the "Sudeten German" discourse here

Dr Eva Hahn and Martin D Brown, 7 May 2001

Moving on:


1. For more on the events that surrounded the declaration see The Failure of a New History: Czechs and the Czech-German Declaration, by Andrew Stroehlein
2. In German "Beneš-Dekrete" or in Czech "Benešovy dekrety." See Jech K, and Kaplan K, (vydali), Dekrety prezidenta republiky, 1940-45 dokumenty, Vol I & II, Brno. 1995.
3. odsun is the Czech term for the removal of the Sudeten German minority from Czechoslovakia after 1946. This has a rather vague meaning, literally "to go away" an adjective from the verb odsunout.Sudeten German organisations usually refer to these events as "expulsions." In English, as in Article XIII of the Potsdam Declaration, these events are termed "transfers." Clearly one has to be careful not to use these terms arbitrarily as they are imbued with political meaning. In this discussion we'll be confining ourselves to odsun and Transfers.
4. Sudetendeutsche Zeitung,8 December 2000.
5. Sudetendeutsche Zeitung, 23 February 2001.
6. Burleigh M, Germany Turns Eastwards. A Study of Ostforschung in the Third Reich, Cambridge, 1988; Schulze W, Deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft nach 1945, München 1993; Lehmann H, & van Horn Melton J,(Eds.), Paths of Continuity. Central European Historiography from the 1930s to the 1950s, Cambridge 1994; Deutsche Historiker im Nationalsozialismus, ed. by Schulze W, and Gerhard Oexle O, in collaboration with Helm G, and Ott T, Frankfurt am Main 1999
7. About the transfer in German collective memory see Hahn E, and Hahn H H, "Flucht und Vertreibung," in: Deutsche Erinnerungsorte I, ed. by Francoise E, and Schulze H, Munich 2001, pp. 335-351.
8. These subsidies cannot be traced directly, but from the fragments of information available it seems clear that there has always been a policy of covering up the amount of tax-payer’s money spend in this way, fore more see Hahnová E, Sudetoněmecký problém: Obtížné loučení s minulostí, Ústí nad Labem 1999.115f.
9. For comprehensive insight into the discussions surrounding this issue see Beauftragter der Bundesregierung für Angelegenheiten der Kultur und Medien: Konzeption zur Kulturförderung nach § 96 BVFG (Stand 20 May 1999, Konzept) and Deutscher Bundestag, Ausschuß, für Kultur und Medien: Stellungnahmen der Sachverständigen zur öffentlichen Anhörung zum Thema "Kulturförderung nach § 96—Bundesvertriebenengesetz (BVFG)," Berlin, 25 October 1999.


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