The many faces of the Sudetenland


Usually in Czech Books we discuss poetry or prose, but for this week's programme we look at an intriguing book that fits neither category. Instead it is a collection of interviews, coming from a part of the Czech Republic that has gone through huge and sometimes traumatic changes over the last sixty or seventy years. I talk with two people who were very closely involved in the book, Matej Spurny and Ondrej Matejka.

First of all, Matej, tell us a little bit about the book. Its title is "Sudetske osudy", which could be roughly translated as "Sudeten stories".

Matej Spurny: "These are dialogues with seventeen people, most of whom live in the Sudetenland - or the borderland of the Czech Republic - today."

This is a part of the country that for many of our listeners will have very strong historical echoes. The Sudetenland was the part of Czechoslovakia that had a predominantly German-speaking population before the war.

MS: "Most of the Germans were expelled after the war, and just a few of them - mostly Germans who had Czech wives or vice-versa - could stay, as well as a few antifascists and some Germans who worked in a factory where they were needed, but these were just a few thousand people. The first part of the book is made up of interviews with these people."

Just to give us an idea - we are talking about a huge area of this country, and when you say that the Germans were expelled, we are talking about the expulsion literally of millions of people, aren't we?

MS: "Yes, we are talking about the expulsion of three or three-and-a-half million people, and this region makes up a third of today's Czech Republic."

How many Germans did stay?

MS: "About three hundred thousand Germans remained, but most of them left the country in the sixties. Today there are fewer than fifty thousand Germans."

As you say, the first third of the book is made up of interviews with people who lived in the Sudetenland before the war. Are these just Sudeten Germans, and are they just those who stayed?

MS: "There are three interviews with Sudeten Germans. One of them had to leave after the war as a child. What is interesting is that he came back in the 1990s and today he lives in the Sudetenland again. Then there are two interviews with German women who could stay, then one interview with a Czech woman who lived in the Sudetenland before the war, because there were also thousands of Czech people living there, and there are two further women - one Czech-German, the other German-Jewish. So they are very interesting stories from this dramatic time."

Tell me something about their stories.

MS: "The first story - the German man who had to leave - is sort of a typical story of a Sudeten German, because millions of them had to leave, most to West Germany. They built their lives in West Germany somehow. The other people, the mixed families, also constitute a huge theme in this area, because thousands of families were somehow mixed, of Czech-Jewish-German origin, and in these years their lives were very dramatic and very complicated. So these are mostly not very happy stories."

Many of the Germans who stayed now have grown-up children - or even grown-up grandchildren. Do they still speak German?

MS: "Mostly not, or maybe they speak it but it's just a foreign language for them. There are too few Germans today to keep the society somehow compact, and the communist regime made sure that they couldn't live in one place."

So this is the first group of people who you interviewed in the book. Who were in the second and third groups?

MS: "I think the second part of the book is even more interesting for the Czech society to read about, because these are people, mostly Czech people, who came from the eastern countries, at that time from the Soviet Union or Romania. These were people whose ancestors had emigrated to Ukraine or Romania etc in the 18th or 19th century, and after the war - with this Slavic ideology - it was said that it's good if these people come back. Some of them wanted to also, and here was the Sudetenland, which was quite empty after the expulsion of the Germans. Some two hundred thousand people like that came to the Sudetenland - and to southern Slovakia also - after the Second World War in the years 1945-48. We spoke with some of these people. It is interesting because they were Czech, most of them spoke Czech or Slovak, but they grew up in a totally different society and culture. Most of them didn't know electricity and so on, and they came to the Sudetenland and had somehow to live together with the Czech people and the few Germans who were still there."

The arrival of Wehrmacht in Sudeten Broumov,  photo:
And what about the third group that you interviewed?

MS: "The third group is actually the largest group in today's Sudetenland. These are the Czechs, and most of the Czechs interviewed in our book are people who came to the Sudetenland directly after the Second World War. One or two are actually communists, who came to build the new land with a lot of enthusiasm. There is one man who is a dissident who looked for some place where he could hide from the communists. So these are very different sides of the stories of the Sudetenland."

I'd also like to ask you about your own story, because you actually come from the Sudetenland. That is where you grew up.

MS: "I was born in Prague, but when I was three years old I went with my parents to the Giant Mountains, which are in the north-northeast of Bohemia - so right in this region - and certainly this was a very important motivation for me to ask some questions myself: what is the history of this country, why are there so few people whose families were already living here before the war, and that was how I came to this theme."

When you were growing up in the 1980s in the mountains, were there still - and are there still today - fragments of the old world? It's very hard for somebody from outside to imagine what it is like to live in a place where ninety percent or maybe more than ninety percent of the population has just disappeared and been replaced. It's extraordinary to imagine it. It must be a strange place to grow up.

MS: "I think that for most people who live there it is not a strange place. It's just a normal place where people live for years, but maybe if you are sensitive or if you look around a bit, then you feel there is something different, something strange. There are also a few people, one of them my teacher - who is also interviewed in this book - from mixed families or even German people."

This is your teacher from primary school?

MS: "Yes, that is my teacher from primary school, who a bit later told me a lot about the history and about her family, which had been living in Pec [pod Snezkou] - in this village - since ages actually."

This isn't the only book which you have produced about the border regions of the Czech Republic. I'd like to ask you a bit more about how your interest came about and what other projects you have been doing as part of your interest in the region. And for that I'd like to turn to Ondrej Matejka.

Ondrej Matejka: "Our biggest project up to now is called 'Das verschwundene Sudetenland - Zmizele Sudety'. We could translate it as the 'Disappeared Sudetenland'. Our point is that we just wanted to show that there is a big civilization, actually a disappeared civilization of Sudeten Germans, a civilization hundreds and hundreds of years old, and that after the war this civilization, this culture, just disappeared."

The way that you bring that across in the book 'Disappeared Sudetenland' is very powerful. You place photographs of what it looked like before next to the same scene as it looks today. In some cases you have a photograph showing a whole village - and in the picture you can see the life of the village, but then in the next photograph - as it looks today - there is nothing left, there is literally just a field.

Zwittermühl 1919,  photo:
Haje 2005,  photo:

OM: "It's very effective, because you can in very simple ways just see that many, many villages disappeared, that the people disappeared, and that means that also that the culture connected with the people living there has disappeared. For Czechs, and for Czech society, this kind of culture, this German culture, is almost totally unknown. For most of the Czechs the Sudetenland is synonymous with a land which is somehow destroyed. So we have tried to explore the rich history of this country and to show it to Czechs, not only because we want to be nostalgic. Our goal is to show that there are some traditions that maybe we could connect with. We could try to keep them alive and use them for us."

I would like to ask both of you about the association that you have founded, called "Antikomplex", which is exploring some of the issues that you have been talking about. Up until the fall of communism any discussion of this topic was pretty much taboo, wasn't it? Have you found it difficult to create a non-political foundation on which you can build your research and your work?

OM: "It was difficult for us to find the right way how to discuss it, because at the beginning we were trying to discuss these topics in a rather political way, and I would say that we weren't very successful. After three or four years, we tried to find a new way and this new way is a non-political one, showing what we have lost. We have seen that it works."

Matej, what sort of responses have you encountered in your work?

MS: "We can see that Czech society is changing, because even in the 1990s the Sudeten question was a political-historical question and speaking about this question meant a conflict, which today is no longer the case. When we created this exhibition 'Disappeared Sudetenland', there were just a few negative reactions, but these are maybe five percent of people who come to our events."

But the name of your association, "Antikomplex" is slightly provocative, isn't it? It is implying that there is a prevailing complex on the Czech side about the history of the borderlands and the expulsion of the Germans.

MS: "Yes, this title of our association comes of course from when it was first founded in 1998. At that time we were about eighteen or nineteen years old and it was our rebellious time, when we were very critical of Czech society. We had a theory, which I think is not false, that the problems which we have with the Germans and with speaking in a critical way about our own history also come from a lack of self-confidence. We have a complex that we are a small nation, there is this feeling that we shouldn't speak about our own mistakes in a critical way, because it will make us even weaker and smaller. It is a sort of inferiority complex. We wanted to fight against this complex, because we are a country and a society with a very rich history and we don't have to think that we are small and weak, but we also have to speak about our own mistakes, about the things which went wrong in our history, and we also have to show this German history of our land because that's also a part of our culture. These cultures were connected."