Expulsion of Czech Germans: bitter memories and disrupted relations


In recent days Czech towns have been commemorating the end of the Second World War. But among the events of 60 years ago that many prefer not to be reminded of, is the expulsion of the German minority (the so called Sudeten Germans) from Czechoslovakia. The expulsion was the culmination of the clash between Czechs and Germans in the lands of Bohemia and Moravia, which had erupted in such a brutal way during the German occupation. But now even 60 years after the war this event still represents a sensitive issue in Czech public life.

There had been a German minority in the Czech lands for centuries. They had started coming, on the invitation of Czech kings as early as the 11th century. Later on, during the Habsburg Monarchy, especially from the 17th century onwards they even became the privileged ethnic and linguistic group, while Czechs felt increasingly sidelined. This situation radically changed after First World War when independent Czechoslovakia was established. The three million ethnic Germans, nearly a quarter of Czechoslovakia's population, felt deeply disappointed and many strove for separation of the Germans inhabited regions.

Herbert Werner - the head of the Czech-German Future Fund - originally comes from a Sudeten German family.

"Before the First World War the German speaking population here was in a kind of a privileged situation. But suddenly they appeared in an unprivileged situation as a minority. The Czechoslovaks wanted to build up their own national state. The Germans perceived it as a nationalistic state even though it was not. For instance the situation in education was very good during the so called First Republic."

Even though there has always been rivalry between Czechs and Germans their coexistence was generally fairly unproblematic, and such radical solutions as a mass population movements had never even been considered. The idea of expelling the Sudeten Germans only began to be considered during the Second World War. Czechs were furious at the role they had played in Hitler's annexation of the Czech lands, says historian Jan Kren.

"First in the Polish resistance movement and later also in the Czech resistance the idea began to develop - which was a reaction to the German idea - that the coexistence between Czechs and Germans, and Poles and Germans was impossible. This idea was later adopted by the exile governments. Czech President in exile Edvard Benes was not too eager in the beginning, for a long time he looked for a sort of compromise like receding a part of the territory or trying only to reduce the German minority."

But due German atrocities in the course of the war, Benes later changed his plans. The idea of the transfer of the German minority from the eastern half of Europe was gradually getting support among all the anti-Hitler allies and later it was approved in the Potsdam Conference in 1945.

The actual transfer from Czechoslovakia was carried out in two stages. It started by what has come to be known as the "wild expulsion", uncontrolled and often violent expulsions that began as soon as the war ended.

Historian Jan Kren again.

"700 - 800,000 Germans were transferred from Czechoslovakia in the so called wild expulsion, later during the organized expulsion the number reached 3 million. 250,000 Germans remained in Czechoslovakia but many of them became assimilated or moved out of the country during the 1950's and 1960's."

The transfers were carried out in very difficult conditions and many people died.

"The really heavy losses of life came during the transfer of around 9 million Germans from Poland - 437,000 people are thought to have died. The losses in Czechoslovakia have been estimated at 25 -30,000. Almost 6,000 were suicides, 6,000 died a violent death, the rest died due to the hard conditions in the collecting camps. But it is should be said too that Czechoslovakia did distribute United Nations medicine to the Germans being transferred. The health of the German minority at the time was significantly better than that of the Czech population."

British historian Martin D. Brown says that the transfer was strictly observed by different European institutions.

"We have for example from the western perspective both the reports of the reports of the British and American ambassadors in Prague. Czechoslovakia was crawling with western journalists. The Red Cross was here and reported about it in their first post war conference in 1948 in Stockholm."

On the other hand, according to Dr Brown, Czechs cannot deny their guilt for atrocities that happened during the so called wild transfer in the weeks after the war when violence was common.

"Of course they are guilty. Terrible things did happen to German civilians, murders took place, and people were deprived of their livelihoods where they lived for generations for hundreds and hundreds of years and they were kicked into the devastated Germany. I think we should never underestimate what a traumatic experience and major upheaval this was. Yet at the same time there was this international dimension to it. The British, the Americans, the Soviets--they were very clear what it was. They were very clear from the beginning that it would be unpleasant. The idea that somehow Benes and the Czechs tricked the British and the Americans into doing this--and they didn't really know how horrible it would be--is just rubbish."

But one of the greatest problems for most expellees was to accommodate to life in war torn Germany where they were treated by many as foreigners - due to their different culture and dialect.

Most of the expellees still have bitter memories and many of them also have not given up claims on their confiscated property. Their grievances have led to a lot of misgivings in the Czech Republic and still influence Czech-German relations.

The generation of expellees who remember the events is growing older and memories on both sides are fading. But one thing historians can agree on is that the issue will not go away until both sides recognise the suffering of the other.