Merkel calls Sudeten German expulsion “immoral”, drawing Czech ire

Angela Merkel, photo: ČTK/AP/Markus Schreiber

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has drawn condemnation from both the Czech president and prime minister for a speech she delivered on World Refugee Day in which she said there was “no moral or political justification” for Czechoslovakia’s post-war expulsion of some 3 million ethnic Germans.

Angela Merkel,  photo: ČTK/AP/Markus Schreiber
Angela Merkel’s remarks on Wednesday came ahead of a series of meetings, summits and “mini-summits” of EU leaders in Brussels and regional capitals in the coming days on the highly contentious issue of how to reform the bloc’s migration and asylum policy while protecting its borders.

Prime Minister-designate Andrej Babiš (ANO) told journalists that Merkel’s comments would serve only to stir up “old wounds” precisely when the EU needed to present a united front to fight illegal migration, which is the centrepiece of his current foreign policy agenda.

“I reject this characterisation – especially when we recall the horrors of Heydrich, Lidice, Ležáky and the killing of our paratroopers. I have the feeling that there is some internal political struggle in Germany now, and it is very unfortunate that old wounds are opening because of it.”

Babiš was referring to two Czech villages that were wiped off the map by the Nazis: Lidice, in retaliation for the assassination in 1942 of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich, known as “the butcher of Prague”, by Czech and Slovak paratroopers; and Ležáky which was targeted for harbouring a resistance group. In both cases, innocent men, women and children were summarily executed or sent to extermination camps.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK/Krumphanzl Michal
Twenty-one years ago, the leaders of the Czech Republic and Germany signed a declaration aimed at improving bilateral relations and drawing a line under the past. In that declaration of August 1997, the German side took full responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime and their consequences – as did Merkel in her remarks on Wednesday – while the Czechs expressed regret over expulsion and the deaths and suffering of innocents that came of it.

President Miloš Zeman, who has long justified the expulsion of Sudeten Germans, arguing they were a disloyal “fifth column”, said through a spokesman that he “strongly rejected” Merkel’s view. The Potsdam Conference 1945, he said, offered political justification for the expulsion, as the Allies decided upon and legitimized it there.

In fact, Czechoslovak leaders had discussed plans for an expulsion already in 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed much of the country’s borderlands, and throughout the war, Charles University history professor Tomáš Dvořák told Radio Prague in an earlier interview.

“We know the first plan to deport part of the so-called Sudetenland population was already in place at the time of the Munich Agreement crisis. At that time, the Czechoslovak government, or President Beneš, also considered ceding some territory and thus part of the German population. During the Second World War, plans gradually changed. As the Czechoslovak government-in-exile’s position grew stronger, resettlement plans became bigger, more comprehensive. In the end, they called to resettle Czechoslovakia’s entire German population.”

Expulsion of Sudeten Germans,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1985-021-09 / CC-BY-SA
In the first few months after the Second World War ended, so-called “wild” expulsions were orchestrated by vigilante groups throughout Czechoslovakia. Thousands of German civilians were murdered during the expulsion while countless more refugees died from hunger and illness.

The regular transfer of ethnic nationals among nations, authorized according to the Potsdam Conference, proceeded from 25 January 1946 until October 1946. The post-war Beneš Decrees both sanctioned the expulsion of Sudeten Germans, as well as Hungarians and the confiscation of their property.