Ethnic Germans hail Czech deal for Jews

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The Independent Online
REPRESENTATIVES of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans expelled from the Sudetenland at the end of the Second World War have expressed unqualified delight over the Czech government's announcement that it would return properties expropriated from Jews in the country during the period of Nazi rule.

Konrad Badenheuer, spokesman of the Munich-based Sudeten Germans' Association, described the decision on Jewish properties as a watershed that should open the door to the much more extensive claims of the Sudeten Germans. Government spokesmen in Prague, however, stressed that the return of Jewish properties should be seen as an exception and that there was no question of other groups, particularly the Sudeten Germans, being treated in the same way.

Under the draft law agreed by the government last week, the Jewish community in the Czech Republic, which now numbers just 3,000 compared to its 120,000 pre-war total, will be handed back synagogues, cemeteries, libraries and other community buildings that were confiscated by the Nazis and are still in state hands.

Although not as far-reaching as Jewish leaders had hoped, the draft law, which is expected to be rubber-stamped by parliament, marks a decisive break with the Czech Republic's existing restitution laws, which cover only properties confiscated after February 1948, the date of the Communist takeover.

'If the government has accepted that properties taken from the Jews as early as 1938 should be returned, it will have to accept the validity of our claims,' Mr Badenheuer said. 'We cannot be discriminated against simply because we were Germans born in the wrong place at the wrong time.'

Many Czech politicians, fearful of precisely such arguments, opposed the decision on Jewish properties and the government has been divided over the issue for many months. In addition to the claims of Sudeten Germans, an estimated 3 million of whom were expelled from what was then Czechoslovakia after the war, the new ruling could strengthen the case of the Czech Catholic Church and others seeking compensation from properties taken before 1948.

Announcing the draft law last week, the Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, stressed it was an 'exception' and that it did not in principle alter the country's position on restitution.

'The Sudeten Germans have absolutely no grounds for new hope and this is not an issue on which we are prepared to compromise,' said Jiri Weigl, an adviser to Mr Klaus.

The decision to expel the Sudeten Germans, many of whom actively supported Hitler's claim to the territory, was effectively sanctioned by the Allies meeting in Potsdam in 1945, essentially to compensate for the surrendering of the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany under the Munich Pact of 1938.

Although most of those expelled are dead, the annual Sudeten German rally held in Bavaria still attracts some 100,000 people, and hundreds of thousands of survivors or their descendants have claims on properties in the Sudetenland. While the German government officially takes a low-key approach to the issue, the claims for compensation and a 'right to a homeland' in the Sudetenland have been supported by the far-right Bavarian Christian Social Union, the sister party to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats.