Kinkel steps up dispute with Czechs

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The Independent Online
The festering dispute between Bonn and Prague over the expulsion in 1945 of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia intensified yesterday as Germany's Foreign Minister questioned the legitimacy of the post-war settlement of Europe.

"We Germans did terrible wrongs to the Czechs and inflicted wounds which have not healed," Klaus Kinkel told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten. "But the expulsion and dispossession of the Sudeten Germans was also wrong. We must look to our common future without forgetting what happened."

Under the Potsdam agreement, signed by Britain, the US and the Soviet Union in August 1945, 2.5 to 3 million German-speakers, mostly ethnic Germans from the Sudeten hills, were "transferred" to Germany. Last week the wartime allies tried to counter German attempts to rewrite history by issuing a statement from their Prague embassies confirming that the Potsdam agreement did legitimise the expulsions.

Despite the intervention, the Sudeten-German issue, which provided Hitler with the pretext for partitioning Czechoslovakia in 1938, refuses to go away. A long-awaited joint declaration by the Bundestag and the Czech Parliament to end a war concluded 51 years ago is held up as politicians and historians argue over details.

Germans say up to 250,000 of those "ethnically cleansed" from Bohemia and Moravia died on the trek to refugee centres in Germany. The Czechs cite statistics which appear to prove that "only" between 15,000 and 40,000 died.

The numbers game is part of a broader argument about who should pay reparations to whom. While Germany accepts it was the aggressor, Bonn does not want to endanger German property claims in the Czech Republic. Sudeten-German organisations are among the most powerful lobbies in Germany, exerting influence through the Christian Socialist Union, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Bavarian coalition partners.

In Prague too the issue is electorally significant. In May Czechs vote for a new parliament and the right-wing Republican Party is campaigning against a "sell-out" to the Germans. Last year it forged a document purporting to show the present Czech government was preparing to rehabilitate Sudeten Germans and restore their property rights. The party, insignificant until then, surged in the polls, proving that even placid Bohemia was not immune to xenophobia.

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