Ethnic Germans in the Czech lands and the fateful steps which led to their mass expulsion after WW II

Expulsion of Sudeten Germans, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0911-501 / CC-BY-SA

On the occasion of the anniversary of the end of WW II, I speak with well-known historian Matěj Spurný about the Sudeten Germans whose future in post-war Czechoslovakia was sealed when many lined up with Nazi Germany ahead of the Munich Agreement. Most of the ethnic German population was forced to leave – spelling the end of what had been a largely peaceful coexistence going all the way back to the 13th century.

Matěj Spurný,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Spurný explained the factors prompting Otakar II, regarded as one of the greatest of Czech kings, to invite German-speaking migrants to Bohemia more than 700 years ago.

“Basically the times changed: it was no longer the early Middle Ages when deep, forested areas were useful as part of natural defences for the kingdom or the realm. But by the high Middle Ages, the early 13th century more people were needed, more qualified labourers, more serfs, townspeople, craftsmen, people who would pay taxes and there were not enough in the Bohemian lands. That was, I think, where the main motivation to invite in people from abroad, especially what later became southern Germany, where there was a very developed urban culture, many qualified craftsmen, exactly the people who were needed to increase the kingdom’s wealth.”

When you describe the geographic characteristics, you mentioned deep forests – you have the Bohemian Forest or Šumava, you have hilly or mountainous areas, so I imagine that the geography and available resources also influenced the kind of trade that popped up…

“Certainly, the inaccessibility of some of the places were reasons they were not inhabited earlier, say in the 11th or 12th centuries and some areas were in fact populated only much later than at the time of Přemysl Otakar II, as late as the 16th or 17th centuries, simply because there was no agriculture and so on. But the for the most part the area that would come to be known as the Sudetenland was populated in the high Middle Ages. New towns were founded and there were a lot of opportunities for trade. So this area developed quite quickly once the people came.”

Šumava,  photo: Barbora Němcová
The history of Bohemia or the Czech lands is a turbulent one: you have the defeat at the White Mountain, the Thirty Years’ War which followed, and then 300 years of Austrian rule under the Habsburgs, which basically cemented German as the dominant language. When the idea of Czechoslovakia, hundreds of years later, came up, how did the position of German-speaking peoples, or ethnic Germans, change?

“Before we get there, just a few words on the more distant past: it should be said that although history often was turbulent, it is important to stress that the coexistence between the Czechs and ethnic Germans down through the ages was largely peaceful until mid-way through the 19th century. The reasons for conflict before then were not national but they were religious, dynastic, and territorial.

“Although history is often turbulent, the coexistence between the Czechs and ethnic Germans was largely peaceful through the ages.”

“This changed in the second half of the 19th century as people became citizens, got their rights, and language became important and nationality became the dominant aspect of how people defined themselves. In this atmosphere, and in the atmosphere of the First World War, the end of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and the founding of Czechoslovakia changed the situation for Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Germans dramatically.

“People who were used to being a part of the dominant nation in the monarchy suddenly became the minority. While they had their rights as citizens and also some collective minority rights, the position of a minority is a different one regarding institutions such as schools and general contact with the bureaucracy. Sometimes it can be difficult for Czechs to understand why the Germans were not satisfied but it was less about their absolute position or rights and more about the relative difference before and after the founding. The next factor which escalated tensions was the economic crisis in the 1930s.”

At the same time, in the early days of the First Republic, the mix of ethnicities is seen as having had a positive cultural impact as a whole…

Sudetenland,  photo: Public Domain
“It did, especially in urban areas where there was a lot of interaction. Many people also still had very ambivalent identities, we often speak about Czechs, Germans or Jews but actually in the case of the Jews most identified as either Czech or German and only a few defined themselves nationally as Jewish. This ambivalence, different levels of identity which somehow interconnect is something which is very inspiring and it was productive culturally in interwar Czechoslovakia. At the same time, conflicts got worse. The state was not really able to become something like a Switzerland in central and eastern Europe as T.G, Masaryk talked about it in the beginning. Germans and other minorities were not really patriots in the interwar Czechoslovakia: it was a state of Czechs and Slovaks – with minorities. It was not as state of all the people who became citizens in a sense and that became a huge problem even before the end of the 1930s.”

At which point did the term Sudetenland come into wider use? I read that those areas weren’t called that before but that they were known as the borderlands, but that as sentiments heated it up, it took on greater and great political connotations which went hand-in-hand with growing support among many Sudeten Germans for neighbouring Germany, under Hitler…

Adolf Hitler in Kraslice in 1938,  photo: Das Bundesarchiv,  Bild 137-049535,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Germany
“The term existed before, in the 19th century and was used by geographers or demographers and other expert circles but it is certainly the case that political usage increased in the 20th century, although Hitler was not the first one to use it – it existed before WW I and was used immediately afterwards in 1918 when ethnic Germans tried to get autonomous regions. It was the German political term, Sudetenland was how they referred to it, whereas the Czechs always called it the Czech borderlands. The difference tells a story on its own and the different perspectives. Hitler of course understood this play with the terms, as did ethnic German nationalists…”

Historically, I read that support for Germany and for Hitler was extraordinarily high among ethnic Germans and this all was part of the tragedy that was to come, with the country losing the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany in the infamous agreement at Munich to try and appease Hitler but which only paved the way for the eventual occupation ahead of WW II. How would you describe the ethnic Germans’ support for Nazi Germany, how is it that it was so high, was it masterfully exploited?

“It is not easy to estimate exactly how many ethnic Germans wanted the Henlein party and how many actually wanted Hitler.”

“It’s important to note, that the Sudeten Germans never voted for Hitler, they voted for the Henlein party which became the pro-Nazi party in the course of the 1930s. We cannot define this party in that way at the beginning of the 1930s. In 1935, the Henlein party got more than 60 percent of the vote among ethnic Germans and in local elections in 1938 nearly 90 percent voted for the Henlein party but it has to be said that there were no other parties left in the Sudetenland because of the party’s aggressive approach, certainly we cannot speak about real democracy anymore. It is not easy to estimate how many ethnic Germans wanted the Henlein party and how many actually wanted Hitler to come. Certainly there were many and one of the reasons was the earlier economic crisis which hit the borderlands harder than the rest of the country because of the structure of industry, especially light industry dependent on export.

“The area was hit by very high unemployment so even Germans who believed in Czechoslovakia and in the capacity of the state to help and organise life in a good way many of them also lost any optimism. By the second half of the 1930s many were looking to Germany where conditions were improving for many. Unemployment there disappeared and ordinary Germans here were looking to Germany with hope. I think that was decisive in the huge support for the Henlein party and the aim of joining greater Germany.”

Expulsion of Sudeten Germans,  photo: Sudetendeutsches Archiv / Creative Commons 1.0 Generic
The statement that the Sudeten Germans acted as a fifth column for Hitler, is that questioned then?

“The fifth column statement is difficult because it is a journalists’ term, a political term, but not really an historical one. On one level, it is true: Hitler certainly used the Sudeten Germans and their political representation and certainly a huge majority of the voters supported Hitler’s plans, so in this sense we can use that metaphor. At the same time, there were hundreds of thousands of Sudeten Germans who didn’t want this, who didn’t want this even under the pressure of the economic crisis. There were hundreds of thousands who voted differently and there were also hundreds of thousands of non-voters and children who didn’t vote. So it is important to see the people under the surface of political labels.”

The idea to expel the ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia arose even before the end of the war and was supported by Beneš. One pillar was the reinstatement of the country’s original borders, the other, that it would be rid of its ethnic Germans. How certain was Beneš that this was the right decision to take? Obviously, there were many tragedies which followed – massacres in the ‘wild years’…

“Beneš was thinking strategically, he was a politician and diplomat yet not the most empathic a person. This vision of the reconstruction of Czechoslovakia was his main idea in exile in London and from 1940 and 1941 he saw the displacement of the vast majority of ethnic Germans as the only chance to restore Czechoslovakia, the only realistic chance after what happened in Munich.

“The Nazis were very brutal and that definitely influenced how Czechs behaved towards the ethnic Germans in the post-war years.”

“Initially, the plans didn’t go that far but Nazi brutality over the course of the war, especially after the assassination of Heydrich in 1942, changed Beneš’ and others’ minds. He and other Czech politicians didn’t think about Germans as individuals and Germans and Nazis became synonymous. Shortly into the post-war period Beneš even said in one of his speeches that Germans had ‘stopped being human’ in the course of the war. I think that is something important to remember if we are asking why these politicians, beginning with Beneš, didn’t pay much thought to what actually happens when so many people are expelled or displaced, what happens to them; all that is underlined by the statement from the spring of 1945 that they stopped to be human.”

In that context, collective guilt is a term that is hardly surprising: once the war ended, the final days of the Prague Uprising which were very brutal, many people were dying. I suppose the rage was out of control...

“The Nazis were very brutal and that definitely influenced how Czechs behaved towards the ethnic Germans in the post-war years. I mean, the Nazi occupiers were brutal all the time but in the final days of the war it came out form the camps and spilled out into the streets, in the forests, in death marches and other acts. And ordinary people were confronted with that. I don’t wish to relativize matters but it is important that these actions were not without response.”

Many were expelled even before the Potsdam Conference which decided on their relocation or expulsion – who was allowed to stay, not very many…

“The original plan, cemented in the legislation of the presidential decrees, was that only anti-fascists would be allowed to stay. But of course that was something which was very hard to prove and even then the around 5,000 – 10,000 who did didn’t stay either. The majority of those who stayed were either those who were forgotten, many in northern Moravia who didn’t leave before the transports were stopped in 1947, and then there were those who weren’t allowed to leave, people who were needed in industry, glass, mining, forestry etc. regardless of whether they had been Nazi supporters in the past. The second group was around 70,000 strong, so in all, I think the number of ethnic Germans who were left was around 170,000.”

Expulsion of Sudeten Germans,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-W0911-501 / CC-BY-SA
Down from an original 3.5 million people or so…

“That’s right.”

Many of the atrocities which happened on the Czech side as well were kept quiet for many years but many of the issues were readdressed after 1989. How are they viewed now?

“Some intellectuals tried to address these questions as early as the 1960s and continued in the underground in the 1970s under Charter 77. This split between intellectuals and dissidents and broader society which did not know many of the facts about what happened, is important to understand as the issue was raised and approached again after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. There was very turbulent discussion about the decrees, collective guilt and the expulsion as such. Broader society was very afraid of relativizing the post-war reconstruction of Czechoslovakia but as more information came out and became available, as there was greater contact and willingness to work together in the borderlands, with our German counterparts, the general opinion today is much more self-critical. It changed a lot over the last 27 years.”

People are unafraid now to admit that even though Nazi Germany bore the blame for most of the atrocities committed, for the Holocaust and what they unleashed, it doesn’t mean there weren’t wrongs committed by the other side…

“Certainly there is more confidence. Anyone studying history knows that you have to maintain a critical eye and young people today realise that an open and critical reflection on our own history does not make us weaker but the contrary – stronger. We do not have to be afraid to criticise what happened on the Czech side after the war.”

The next chapter in the history of the Sudetenland is what happened after the continuity was cut: can you still see the scars even today? When I drive through, there are still abandoned buildings and factories in some places. There are long shadows and empty areas even if by and large it is slowly disappearing and things have changed.

“The people who moved to the borderlands after the war had no historic ties to the area. The thread was cut.”

“Certainly the expulsion had a major impact. Almost 3.5 million people were gone and a million less than that – Czechs, Slovaks and others brought in, so a huge number was still missing. The people who moved there had no historic ties to the area, no roots. Communist industry deepened problems in parts of the area and the area had difficulty to recover. Today we have some booming towns like Liberec and attractive tourist sites, but there still are places where the landscape is still affected, places that never fully recovered as villages. While much has changed, there are still places where people are ‘missing’. The organic contact was cut and some places you can still feel what it means when an area is left by its inhabitants.”

Sudetenland demographics: