The Benes decrees hamper Czech relations with Austria and Germany

Benes Decrees, photo: CTK

The Benes Decrees are again in the news. The decrees, which sanctioned the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans from post-war Czechoslovakia, are now becoming a prominent theme of the pre-election campaign in neighbouring Austria and are being widely discussed in Germany as well. By Alena Skodova.

Benes Decrees, photo: CTK
he Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said in Vienna on Sunday that the Benes Decrees were dead, and called for a joint Czech-Austrian declaration on the issue be signed, stating that the decrees were no longer legally binding. But the Speaker of the Czech lower house of parliament, Vaclav Klaus, described calls to abolish the decrees as 'unrealistic', a stand being backed by nearly all Czech politicians.

The decrees were issued by Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes between 1940 to 1945 during his years in exile in London. When the country was liberated from German occupation in May 1945 the decrees became law, in order to restore constitutional order in the legislative vacuum of post-war Czechoslovakia,. There were 143 decrees signed, and three of these gave a legal base to the expulsion of over two million ethnic Germans - known as Sudeten Germans - from Czechoslovakia, and the confiscation of their property between 1945 and 1948. Professor Erazim Kohak from Prague's Charles University, argues that the Benes decrees were necessary for post-war Czechoslovakia.

"Virtually all countries at the end of the war were governed by decrees, because the ordinary systems of parliaments and senates were simply destroyed by war. So the decrees were issued because Czechoslovakia had not yet had a functioning parliament, and so presidential decrees were a constitutional way to deal with problems. There are only three which deal with the particular question of the expulsion of the German minority, and why those were expelled - I can understand it, I lived at that time. I remember the incredible fury after the 7 years of occupation. Why decrees rather than laws? Simply because there was legislative emergency, we were in a war-time condition. Why this particular content? Because it was so much of accumulated hatred."

As professor Kohak noted, only three of over 100 decrees dealt with the expulsion of Sudeten Germans, and it is these three that have long been a bone of contention with Austria and Germany. Organisations representing those who were expelled and their descendants, have been most vocal in calling for the abolition of the decrees. They argue that the decrees legitimised ethnic cleansing. But Professor Kohak shares the view of the great majority of Czech politicians that re-opening the history books will not help to improve Czech relations with their German speaking neighbours.

"The war definitely injured all of us who were caught up in it - Czechs and Germans. That seems to me quite clear. Those decrees were very much a part of the war, and it seems to me that, yes, we now want to put the war behind us. But I don't believe we can do it by simply going back and re-enacting what had once happened. It seems to me that retrospective legislation has always been held inappropriate. Let laws be made which deal with the consequences of the decrees today, but it seems to me that to claim that period never happened, is simply untenable fiction."

The debate around the Benes Decrees is set to continue, but although the wording of the decrees does in places cause embarrassment to Czech politicians, it remains highly unlikely that any Czech political party will risk opening a can of worms by distancing itself from them.