Austrians divided over Sudeten Germans, wartime past

Milos Zeman

The Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman appeared before the media on Monday to announce there would be no talks with Austria on the so-called Benes decrees, which sanctioned the mass expulsion of Czechoslovakia's large German-speaking minority after the Second World War. Accused of having collaborated with Hitler to destroy Czechoslovakia, an estimated two and a half million Sudeten Germans were forced out of the country and their property seized by the post-war Czechoslovak state. Mr Zeman certainly pulls no punches when discussing recent European history - he describes Sudeten Germans as "Hitler's fifth column" and says the Austrians were allies, not victims of the Nazis. But how much discussion is there in Austria about the country's wartime past? Rob Cameron spoke to Radio Austria International's Bethany Bell.

"They don't really talk about it very much, and they probably haven't spoken about it enough. When you compare Austria to Germany, the level of public discussion, the level of television programmes about the war and the Holocaust is just not the same. Some people would say it's to do with Cold War politics and things like that, but certainly it's a hidden issue, which a lot of people still think about, but which is still something that needs more talking about."

The Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, he has used some very strong language, he's made some very harsh comments about the Austrians. In particular, he attacked this notion that Austrians were Hitler's first victims - he says they were Hitler's first allies. Do you think that in general that the Austrian people do tend to take a rosy view of the 1938 Anschluss?

"I think that would be slightly unfair to a lot of Austrians. I would think opinion is fairly split on that, just in the same way that the political allegiance is fairly split in this country. There are a lot of Austrians who recognise what went on in wartime here, and would in no way subscribe to the idea that they were the first victims. On the other hand there are also an awful lot of other Austrians who find it much more comfortable to think of themselves in the light of "first victimhood". And sometimes people might pay lip service to the idea that they're guilty but perhaps underneath want to think that they're not, or that their families were not."

After the war, more than two million ethnic Germans - Sudeten Germans - were expelled from Czechoslovakia under the Benes decrees and many of them settled in Austria. A lot of them are still very, very bitter about what happened and are calling for some sort of compensation, and obviously that's something which a lot of Austrian politicians are talking about as well. Is there sympathy among the Austrian people for what happened to the Sudeten Germans?

"Among quite a lot of people there is sympathy, there's the sort of tying in with "we're all Germans together" type of thing. But I would say at the same time that there's also perhaps the awareness among some people that one has to distinguish between different groups of Sudeten Germans. Some people were guilty of colluding with Hitler, some were not, and that's it's actually a more complex question than just providing compensation to all those who lost their land. That's a very difficult historical issue that needs perhaps to be worked through, that it isn't necessarily as simple as "give them all back their land."