Czechs and Germans: learning to remember a common past


Today Germany is the Czech Republic's biggest trade partner. German tourists are traditionally among the keenest visitors to this country. But relations between the two countries whose history is so interconnected have always been complex. The atrocities of the German occupation during the Second World War and the consequent expulsion of the ethnic German minority from Czechoslovakia still leave a degree of bitterness in the two nations' relations. In order to help create better understanding a Czech-German conference takes place every year in the Czech town of Jihlava.

Czech and German intellectuals, politicians, but also many people whose personal destiny was somehow influenced by relations between these two nations in the past have been meeting in Jihlava for the last fourteen years. The main topic of this year's conference was "The collective memory and its political consequences".

A group of German activists has recently put forward a proposal for so-called "Zentrum gegen vertreibung" - "Centre Against Expulsion" - that is intended to remind us of the destinies of expelled ethnic groups and prevent such events from happening in the future, says Herbert Werner, director of the German-Czech Future Fund.

"I think it ought to be based in Berlin, because almost everything of the tragedy of the Hitler regime came from Berlin. So it will be a center where the future generations go or where they try to find orientation. It should be a center of research - research about the deportations of the Germans - but also about deportations and displacements of people all over Europe. Just think of the Armenians, Germany deported people, Stalin deported people as well, and so on."

But many Czechs are against the foundation of such a centre, since they are afraid that it could be abused by a group of people - specifically German nationalists - to promote their own version of history. Czech Parliament chairman, Lubomir Zaoralek.

"'Deustche Vertreibung' or German expulsion cannot be the central trauma of the 20th century. I think the main pillar could be, for example, wars in the 20th century. I can imagine many projects around Europe that will study and investigate these events. But it seems to me a mistake to start with expulsion as a thing - which is cut off and made a pillar of historical events. There is no reason in the Czech Republic to support something like this."

Alfred Groser - a political scientist from the Parisian Institute of Political Studies has been researching the issue of collective memory. He says that the problems in the relations of the two nations are caused by their unwillingness to sympathise with the suffering of the other side.

"The main principle of European unity - which is to have a real understanding of the suffering of the other side - has not been really understood by either side. I think the Sudeten Germans do not really understand what Czechoslovakia suffered from Hitler - nor from Henlein. On the other side - on the Czech side - the tremendous suffering of the expelled Germans has not been accepted. That is for me the root of the whole misunderstanding"

There were many interesting contributions to the conference, some of which could lead to specific projects in the future, but the problem is that in the end the conference is little more than a talking-shop. It is not widely discussed in the press or in the public arena, so the possibility for ideas to develop is very limited.