Benes decrees at the centre of controversy

Viktor Orban

Sensitive issues dating back to the Second World War are creating fresh controversy in Central Europe. The post-war Benes decrees, which legalized the expulsion of Sudeten Germans and the confiscation of property belonging to German and Hungarian minorities in what was then Czechoslovakia, have soured relations in Central Europe. Last week a planned summit between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary was called off after the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the Czechs should abolish the decrees before they join the EU. The governing Austrian Freedom Party shares this view, and the issue fills the pages of the local media. On Tuesday the Czech embassy in Vienna issued a strong protest against what it called "manipulation of history" by the Austrian daily Neue Kronen Zeitung. Daniela Lazarova has the story -

The Neue Kronen Zeitung, read by an estimated three million Austrians every day, claimed that the extinction of the Czech village of Lidice - which later became a symbol of Nazi atrocities - had in fact been committed by "30 Czech gendarmes of the Prague security police".

The daily said the tragedy, in which 173 men were publicly executed and all women and children transported to concentration camps, was a pretext intended to justify the later expulsion of Sudeten Germans from post-war Czechoslovakia, a process legalized by the Benes decrees. The statements have evoked outrage in the Czech Republic, where historians describe the claim as "slander of the worst kind" and "absolutely shameful lies". Prof. Jan Gebhard from the Czech Academy of Sciences says the claim is ludicrous since the Lidice atrocity is known to have been committed by the Gestapo - and Nazi regulations did not even allow Czechs in this organization. Certain facts about the Lidice tragedy can be proved but this will not resolve the controversy surrounding the Benes decrees, which is at the heart of this anti-Czech campaign. I asked Petr Brod of the BBC's Czech Service, whether the Benes decrees had become a Central European problem which would have to tackled internationally.

"It is generally a central European issue in the sense that the questions concerning the Benes decrees are being raised in several countries at the same time. Not only in Hungary and Austria but also in Germany, especially in Bavaria where there's an election campaign underway for the federal elections in which the Bavarian prime minister Edmund Stoiber will play an important role because he is the candidate for the post of Federal Chancellor of Germany put forward by the Christian Democrats all over Germany. So in that sense it IS a central European issue but it is not an issue in international politics. Not yet, and I don't think it will become one. The point is that some forces in Germany, Austria and Hungary are trying to elevate the question of the Benes decrees to the level of inter-state negotiations, to the level of entry negotiations for the candidate countries who want to become part of the EU. In that respect it is becoming a political issue. The Czech government has to maintain its position that the Benes decrees are not anything that should appear in negotiations between Prague and the European Commission and there are others, like Viktor Orban, who are obviously trying to make this issue part of the negotiation process."

Do you think that this has seriously damaged the Czech Republic's relations with its central European neighbours?

"I don't think so. Not in the long run, anyway. There are too many common interests that link those countries and I think that when the elections are over in Hungary and Germany - and the Czech Republic for that matter - sounder advice will prevail and there will be a gradual return to the cooperation we've had within the Visegrad Group and also within the accession process because it is important for the frontrunners to maintain their united stand towards Brussels on issues that will affect them all / for instance agricultural subsidies/ once they join the EU."