Collective guilt ignores historical responsibility
The postwar mistreatment and expulsion of German speakers from Czechoslovakia remains a European issue, one of the key factors for future co-existence of the nations of Central Europe. It remains of utmost importance that we never forget the terrors of war and ethnic cleansing that led to indescribable suffering by millions of innocents. It remains equally important that we mourn each innocent death, regardless of whether it is Jewish, Czech, German or any other ethnic origin.
This becomes particularly important in a country where the population has always been extremely intermingled. A look at the list of expelled Germans will uncover as many Czech names as there are German names among Czech politicians today for example, allow me to mention just a few “dangerously” Germanic names like Klaus, Ransdorf and Khnl.
If anyone 100 years ago had predicted that 40 million people would be brutally killed, and well over 20 million Europeans expelled from their century-old homelands during a mere 50 years, he would have been considered a lunatic. The 20th century, however, provided all nightmares imaginable, and there remains no doubt that all Europeans must take equal responsibility and we all must do what we can to prevent a repeat of these most shameful and dreadful events.
Any attempt to blame “the Germans” or “the Russians” collectively for all evil, as is still commonly done in the Czech Republic, represents an act of self-denial. Czechoslovakia after World War I, though often glorified as democratic, still had many deficiencies, including its inability to come to terms with its minorities.
In contrast to Switzerland, a country that created a strong multinational identity through a federalist system with a large degree of autonomy for its regions, Czechoslovakia took the opposite course and centralized its political structure. Because of that, the large minorities Germans, Hungarians and Poles increasingly felt like outcasts without an identity.
A Constitutional Assembly legislated the Czechoslovak constitution without including any Germans, Hungarians or Poles. No wonder most of the non-Czechoslovaks could barely relate to the identity of this state when it emerged from the ashes of Austria-Hungary in 1918.
The name Czechoslovakia (“land of the Czechs and Slovaks” hence, others do not belong to the new state’s identity) had already been badly chosen for a country in which Germans, Hungarians, Poles and Ruthenians made up 40 percent of the population. Instead of an all-inclusive state for everyone similar to Belgium or Switzerland a monolingual state similar to France, Germany and Russia began to take shape.
The most divisive piece of post-World War I legislation, however, was undoubtedly the introduction of “Czechoslovak” as the nation’s official language. Historians often take little note of it, but this seriously damaged inter-ethnic relations. It led to the introduction of Czech signage and topographic names across the ethnically German, Hungarian and Polish regions of the country, seriously provoking anti-Czech sentiment among many people.
More importantly, however, the law also cost thousands of German, Hungarian and Polish officials their jobs (mainly in the postal and railway services), as they did not speak the new “national language.” Many had been too old to learn a new language overnight, one still virtually unknown in many parts of the country. To make matters worse, thousands of Czechs arrived to fill their former positions.
Add to this a number of other devastating factors: a worldwide recession, which hit German-speaking northern Bohemia the worst; a land-reform policy disadvantageous to Germans and Hungarians; infrastructure developments channeled preferentially to Czech-speaking areas; and Czech schools opening in German-speaking areas for only a handful of students, while larger German and Hungarian schools suffered closures if the German or Hungarian population in town fell below 20 percent. In such an explosive atmosphere, Germans then became bombarded by Nazi propaganda. It is a sad fact that it wasn’t until a few weeks before the Munich Pact that Radio Prague even introduced a German radio station for 3 million of its nation’s citizens too little, too late.
These remain historic facts, known well but often downplayed to defend simplistic views on “good vs. evil.” The coexistence of Germans and Czechs before 1945 had been much more complex and multifaceted than usually portrayed.
Regardless, if we envision a politically united Europe, or even only the loose economic union supported by Vclav Klaus, we must focus on creating a Europe for everyone, one that addresses the identities not only of Germans and Czechs in their respective countries but also of Sudeten Germans, Czech Poles, Serbs, Slovak Hungarians, South Tyroleans, Basques, Bretons and so on.
The treatment of minorities in the Czech Republic, just as in most other European countries, has never been exemplary. The Polish minority in Czech Silesia has decreased by more than 70 percent since 1930 without an expulsion. The German language, estimated to have been spoken by almost half the population in the mid-18th century, has virtually disappeared. Of the 3.1 million Czech Germans counted in 1931, only 30,000 remain, a decrease of just over 99 percent.
Will this issue go away by ignoring it, as some Czech politicians seem to believe? How can we deal with this issue? Not through half-hearted apologies, like the Czech-German declaration that bypassed the suffering and injustice felt by millions of Czechs, Germans and Jews.
Every psychiatrist knows that we can only cope with emotional pain if we deal with it. Every sociologist knows that disagreements can only be solved through openness, discussion and an appreciation of the suffering of others.
It seems that Czech politicians, however, remain scared to finally, officially reach out their hands to Sudeten Germans, though such an important move would be met with enormous appreciation by many.
Any attempt to heal the wounds may or may not touch controversial issues such as the Bene Decrees. But Czech politicians can actively recognize the part-German and part-Polish heritage of the country through a number of different gestures: bilingual signage in formerly German- and Polish-speaking areas, for example, or through a greater support of German and Polish minorities by establishing bilingual schools across their traditional settlement regions.
This may be met with more appreciation among Sudeten Germans and Poles than the return of a rusty hut in western Bohemia or a few hundred euros of symbolic compensation for their suffering.
The author resides in Bern, Switzerland.