Ondřej Matějka on the uncomfortable issue of the Sudetenland

Ondřej Matějka

In this week’s One on One, Dominik Jůn talks with Ondřej Matějka, a young man with a passion for a historically significant region of the Czech Republic.

Ondřej Matějka is the 29-year-old co- author of the book “Zmizelé Sudety” or “Lost Sudetenland” a book that chronicles in great detail the post-war fate of the Sudeten border region of the Czech Republic. He is also a member of an organization called “Antikomplex” which seeks to increase awareness about this area. The Sudeten region has a particular notoriety in Czech history. With the rise of Hitler’s Germany, some, but not all Sudeten Germans began to agitate for closer relations with the Fatherland. In 1938, the notorious Munich Agreement essentially allowed the Sudeten territories to be annexed by Germany. Following the end of World War II, these territories were returned to Czechoslovakia, but the troubles did not end there. Millions of Sudeten Germans were subsequently expelled from the country (under the authority of the Beneš Decrees) – the region was thus left devastated. This controversial expulsion still remains a sore point in Czech history. I began by asking Ondřej Matějka to tell me a bit about his organisation.

“Antikomplex is a small civic organisation and this spring we celebrated our tenth anniversary. Our main aim has always been to present a reflection of the German history in the Czech lands.”

And just for the sake of our listeners and readers, what makes the Sudeten region of the Czech Republic so interesting?

“The Sudeten region is quite a big part of the Czech Republic – about a third of the entire area. Around 3 ½ million Germans were expelled into Germany, and around 2 ½ million Czechs settled, or resettled this region. And that means that many people in the Czech Republic have their own experience with this area; the experience is that this area is somehow disturbed. It has been disturbed by a huge change in the population in a period of two short years after WWII.”

Now this remains quite a sore topic for Czechs even to this day.

“Yes, but I think it has changed a lot in the last, say, ten years, where now this issue isn’t only discussed in a political way. Nowadays we have a far more interesting and critical discussion of this issue in Czech society, and I think that it is very important to say and to know that ten or fifteen percent of Sudeten Germans didn’t accept Hitler’s policies at the time.”

You’ve written a book called “Lost Sudety” which goes into great detail about various places – what they looked like then and what they look like now. Why did you decide to undertake this project?

“From the very beginning, it was an attempt to present this issue in a less political way – to find a way to discuss this issue in a way that was acceptable for most of Czech society. One of the things we did was to take old pictures of areas in the Sudetenland, and then to take new pictures from the same point-of-view, so that we have a pair of photographs that compare the changes that have taken place in a particular area of the Sudetenland. And I think that these pictures have enabled people to speak more openly about their experiences with this region, and their experiences that the change of population brought about after the War.”

Now even today, when you’re in the Sudeten region and you’re walking through the forest, you can sometimes stumble upon the ruins of a house that was there years ago and there’s no-one there now. So tell us something about the post-war development of the Sudeten region. What happened after all these Sudeten Germans were expelled?

“Those were very difficult times, because in the first weeks after the Germans were expelled, Czech settlers already were moving to the area. And very often, it wasn’t very well co-ordinated, so sometimes Czechs came sooner than the German population had left their villages. Very often, they had to live together under one roof. And of course, there were very many brutal acts committed against the Germans – mainly by the Czech military and by Czech adventurers who had come there with the idea of easily obtaining property, and so on. The first months after the War were very hard and they caused many bad feelings and experiences, and I think that this is a period that we should research more.

What happened next?

After this first period, things were a little bit more organised, and more newcomers came to the region – the kind that really wanted to settle there. And even Czechs that had left the country during the 19th century, to settle in Ukraine, Romania or Croatia were invited to settle this area. Several thousand Czechs came from France and Germany as well – there never was a huge Czech Diaspora, but there were a good several thousand that were invited to settle in the Sudetenland. There were also some more curious settlers, like Greek communists, who came there after losing the civil war in Greece. But the big problem was the fact that 1948 came along and the communists seized power in the country and the vision of many of the newcomers that they will manage their own farms or other enterprises was essentially dead. So the main motivation for why people would want to go to the Sudetenland and settle there was lost. But most of the houses stayed empty, and it was mysterious and even dangerous, so many people just left, because it wasn’t really comfortable to live there.”

Photo: European Commission
When the Czech Republic entered the European Union, there was a law, wasn’t there that Germans could still not buy property in the Czech Republic? So is there still a widespread fear among Czechs that Germans would still like to repopulate this area where they lived for hundreds of years beforehand?

“I don’t think that there is any genuine fear that these expelled Germans could come back. Everybody knows that those Germans who were involved are old and really have no interest in returning. There are already some that returned, but they did it without having to wait for some new law, anyway. But politicians like [Czech president] Václav Klaus have tried again and again to play this game with the fear of the Germans. He tried it during the election campaign of 2002 [a general election], but it didn’t work and he lost. My family members that live in Sudetenland are not afraid of this; my family members that live in Prague are afraid. I suppose that it is typical that the people that don’t have a personal experience with this area or this issue are easier to scare with such political statements.”

And I notice that your book is written both in Czech and German. So do you see it as a book that is building bridges between the two countries?

“We hope so. But most of our books have been sold in the Czech Republic and mostly Czechs are buying our books. Ten percent of our sales have been in Germany, though – maybe two-thousand books, with another sixteen-thousand sold in the Czech Republic, which is nice. Of course, we travel once a month to the Sudeten areas to visit the people there and tell them what is new here and so on. And it is also part of our mission to have a dialogue with expelled Germans too. But we are mostly concerned with Czechs, and we are pleased that Czech society is taking an interest in our work.”

Ondřej Matějka, co-author of “Zmizelé Sudety” – “Lost Sudetenland”, thank you very much for joining us.