Bavarians stir up Sudeten-German row

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The Independent Online
IN A speech certain to have set alarms bells ringing in Prague, Edmund Stoiber, Prime Minister of the powerful south German state of Bavaria, yesterday called on the German government to step up pressure on the Czech Republic to enter direct talks with representatives of three million Sudeten Germans forcibly expelled from what was then Czechoslovakia after the Second World War.

To loud cheers at the annual Sudeten-German rally in Nuremberg, Mr Stoiber said it was high time the Czechs faced up to the gruesome events of 1945 and 1946 and admitted their guilt. 'If the Czechs want good relations with us, they have to make an attempt to come to terms with their past - as we have - rather than simply sweeping it all under the carpet,' he said. 'I think the Foreign Minister should now put this on the agenda in our bilateral relations.'

With Germany one of the main champions of the Czech and East European attempt to join the European Union and Nato, Prague can hardly afford to allow the Sudeten- German issue to cast a permanent cloud over its relations with its most powerful neighbour.

Mere mention of any kind of a dialogue with Sudeten Germans, however, sends most Czechs into a rage. Vaclav Klaus, the Czech Prime Minister, described as an outright 'provocation' the fact that he had been invited to attend the Nuremberg rally this weekend, which attracted a crowd of more than 100,000, many dressed in traditional Sudeten-German folk costumes. Government spokesmen in Prague describe the Sudeten-German issue as 'a closed chapter'.

Historians estimate that more than three million from a total of three and a half million Sudeten Germans were expelled from their homes concentrated in the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia after the war, while their properties and businesses were confiscated. An estimated 40,000 died as a result of disease and in lynchings carried out by Czechs exacting revenge for what they regarded as the treacherous role played by the Sudeten Germans in bringing about the break-up of their country under the Munich Agreement in 1938.

Sudeten Germans, the majority of whom subsequently settled in Bavaria, admit that wrongs were committed, but they object that they were punished collectively for the sins of the Nazi regime.

'We did not all want Hitler but we were all punished in the same way,' said Ingeborg Schultz, a woman in her seventies who, like most of those in Nuremberg for the rally, had personally experienced the vertreibung (expulsion). 'We have all heard about the terrible crimes committed by the Nazis, but what about those committed by the Czechs against us?'

In addition to acknowledgement of the injusticies they suffered, many Sudeten Germans are pressing for a loosely defined 'right to a homeland' in the Czech republic: for the few that would still want it, they should have the right to return and to acquire property there. Hardliners suggest they should be given their old properties back or compensated for them in full.

Given the scale of the expulsion and the time that has passed, few on either side realistically think they can be reversed or that there could be any financial compensation. But many Czech officials believe that any kind of dialogue with the Sudeten Germans could be the thin end of the wedge.

In the immediate aftermath of the 'Velvet' revolution of 1989, President Vaclav Havel tried to open up a wide-ranging debate on what had happened after the war and personally described the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans as 'morally defective'. His attempt failed, however, with most Czechs showing no inclination to discuss the issue.

'The suffering of the Sudeten Germans was connected to the Second World War,' said Jiri Weigl, an adviser to Mr Klaus. 'All over Europe people had to bear hardships. But what we should remember is that dozens of millions lost their lives and their property. This group only lost their properties.'