‘Our Germans’: Czech exhibition maps a millennium of peaceful coexistence, decades of strife

'Our Germans'

Following a decade of preparation, a permanent exhibition on the history of ethnic Germans in the Czech lands opened at the City Museum of Ústí nad Labem this week. The exhibition, entitled “Naši Němci” (or “Our Germans” in English), explores relations between Czech and German communities dating back to the Middle Ages.

For the better part of a millennium, “German Bohemians” comprised a large part of the population in what is today the Czech Republic. Before the outbreak of a second world war in 1945, they made up well over a quarter of the population of Bohemia and Moravia.

'Our Germans' | Photo: Jiří Preclík,  Ústí nad Labem Museum

On display over two floors of the Ústí nad Labem museum are a wide range of historical artefacts documenting how German Bohemians enriched the cultural, scientific and economic life of the Czech lands over the centuries.

One exhibit comprises a literal (or at least literary) barricade – of books. Petr Koura, director of Collegium Bohemicum, the non-profit group behind the exhibition, explains the concept.

“It’s an expression of how Czechs and Germans long understood each other– they knew each other’s languages.

“But, since the emergence of modern nationalism, it is necessary for most of us to take a dictionary into our hands in order to understand the other nations.

“And books? They can both foster understanding and build barricades between people – if they are nationalistic.”

'Our Germans' | Photo: Jiří Preclík,  Ústí nad Labem Museum

In the late 12th and 13th centuries, the ruling Czech dynasty, the House of Přemyslid, invited Germans from the adjacent lands of Bavaria, Franconia, Upper Saxony and Austria to settle parts of their duchy (and later kingdom) of Bohemia.

The Přemyslids valued the Germans’ know-how, in mining and other skilled trades, and welcomed them to settle especially forested foothills and thinly populated areas of the Highlands.

Over the centuries, inter-ethnic relations were tested by history – the Hussite Wars, the occupation of Bohemia by the Czech Brethren, the Thirty Years’ War, and son on  – but relations, as the “Our Germans” exhibition attests, were marked more by “peaceful coexistence” than tension.

That is, of course, until, Hitler’s rise to power, annexation of the Sudetenland region, occupation of Czechoslovakia and the horrors inflicted by Nazi Germany over six years of war.

'Our Germans' | Photo: Jiří Preclík,  Ústí nad Labem Museum

Perhaps the most valuable exhibit on display can be found in a room dedicated to Charles IV, the first King of Bohemia to become Holy Roman Emperor. It is a Madonna from the 13th century, and, in a sense, emblematic of the shattering of centuries of “peaceful coexistence”. Collegium Bohemicum director Petr Koura again:

“It’s on loan from the National Gallery. It was made in the 13th century, somewhere in the Rhineland. She got to Bohemia with the court of Charles IV, but we don’t know much about her further history. The Madonna was found in May 1945 in the apartment of the most important agent-provocateur of the Prague Gestapo, Jaroslav Nachtmann. We don't know how it got there. It is highly probable that the original owner did not issue it completely voluntarily.”

'Our Germans' | Photo: Jiří Preclík,  Ústí nad Labem Museum

The exhibition also presents the post-war period, when millions of “Sudeten Germans” where forcibly expelled, viewed as collaborators or a potential fifth column. Among the first visitors to the newly opened Our Germans exhibition was Minister of Culture Lubomír Zaorálek.

“For the first time, there is an attempt to show coexistence going back up to the 13th century. I think that there is a great need to realise that we have lived together here for hundreds of years and that enriched us immensely, and created the very culture of this country – despite the tragedies of the 20th century.”

Authors: Brian Kenety , Gabriela Hauptvogelová
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