Europe's great luck is that Germany wants less, not more, power

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THE OLD concentration camp at Theresienstadt, in the Czech Republic, is still a place of ghosts. It was once a Habsburg fortress, a labyrinth of moats and brick casemates which was later turned into a prison. In one of its cells died Gavrilo Princip - the man who murdered Archduke Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo in 1914.

In the Second World War, the German occupiers used it as a camp. It was not, strictly, a death camp. More than 30,000 people were murdered there by the Nazis, but by the standards of Himmler's empire this was not a particularly large total. The main purpose of Theresienstadt (now Terezin) was to serve as a huge holding centre, where European Jews - mostly Czech - were interned while they awaited transport to the gas chambers. The novelist Ivan Klima was a child there, and the drawings and paintings left behind by children were rescued after the war and made into an exhibition.

Two weeks ago, this horrible place became again the scene of violence. A ceremonywas going on. A delegation of Sudeten Germans, survivors of Bohemia's 3.5 million Germans expelled after the Second World War, had arrived to lay wreaths. The ribbons were inscribed 'To the Victims of Violence', or simply 'Reconciliation'. This seems blameless enough. But there was a subtext. The wreath-layers intended to draw a deeply tactless parallel. They were trying to say that there was little to choose between the Nazi murder of Czechs and Jews and the brutal Czech expulsion of Sudeten Germans in 1945-46.

But they were attacked by a group of Czechs, members of theultra-nationalist Republican Party. They threw eggs at the Germans and then seized their wreaths and trampled them in the dust, shouting: 'Go home, you murderers]', and 'This is our country, not Germany]'. The Czech police stood by and did nothing.

However you look at it, this was a revolting scene. The Czech extremists behaved . . . well, like German skinheads (who had tried to wreck the concentration camp memorial at Buchenwald a few days earlier). But the Sudeten Germans, who were accompanied by a few upright Czechs devoted to telling their own nation the truth about the expulsions, also have much to answer for.

This is Europe in 1994, still pretending to be civilised but still at heart barbarous and deceitful. Even now, five years after the Velvet Revolution and the Wall's overthrow, a beautiful word like 'Reconciliation' (Versohnung) can turn out to be carrying concealed weapons when it is searched at the frontier.

During and after the defeat of theThird Reich, something like 13 million Germans lost their homes. Nearly 10 million were driven from the eastern provinces which became part of Poland or the Soviet Union, and more than 3 million 'Sudeten Germans' from Czechoslovakia. Most Europeans - including most Germans - hoped that the unification of Germany would bring an end to their ominous assertion of a 'right to the homeland'. It has not. Many of the original 'expellees' are now dead, but they have passed on their grievances and claims to the next generation. Almost all the Sudeten Germans landed up in Bavaria, where they became an interest group so big that no politician dared to offend them. When I lived in Germany, their annual rallies could gather a million people. This year's rally at Nuremburg still brought 100,000 Sudeten Germans together. They remain a force.

The Sudeten Germans have a list of demands, which they have been vainly pressing for almost 50 years. Above all, they want the right to return to their 'homeland' in northern Bohemia. They want their confiscated property restored. They want the so-called 'Benes Decrees', the laws passed under President Edward Benes after the war which ordered their expulsion, to be rescinded. They regard the 1938 Munich Treaty, which transferred the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Hitler's Germany, as still legal and binding.

Most Czechs think these demands monstrous. But since the 1989 revolution, there has been a mood of contrition among Czech intellectuals about the savagery of the expulsions. Thousands of German civilians were murdered: in the Brno 'death march', in the 'Usti massacre' of 1945 when Czechs threw an unknown number of Germans off a bridge into the river Elbe, and in vengeful atrocities all over Bohemia and Moravia. President Vaclav Havel went as far as to beg forgiveness from Germany for the cruelties of the expulsion. This brought a tempest of abuse down on him from patriotic Czechs.

Since then, the Sudeten German problem has returned to plague Czech-Germanrelations. German politicians still feel it necessary to flatter the Sudeten German vote, and last year the Bavarian premier, Edmund Stoiber, told their annual rally that the project for an oil pipeline from Ingolstadt to Bohemia might be cancelled if the Czech government made no concessions to them. Even the opposition Social Democrats have said that the Benes Decrees ought to be revoked.

This is a sinister affair. All Germany's eastern neighbours want a happy relationship with the most powerful nation-state in Europe. At the same time, bad memories fester. There is no chance that western Poland or northern Bohemia will be returned to Germany, or even that old German property will be returned to the expellees and their heirs. Yet in a free- market continent, especially when Poland and the Czech Republic join the European Union, there is nothing to stop the Germans buying their way back into their old homes. It is all too easy to predict how ordinary Poles and Czechs will see that: the new frontiers of 1945 being changed not by war or treaty but by cheque book.

And yet these tensions with Czechs and Poles must not blind us to the fact that this is the best of all possible Germanies. For the moment, those who govern it still believe that united Germany is too big and powerful for the stability of a Europe of nation-states. They conclude that Europe must push ahead towards full political integration, so that the sovereignty of nation-states is pooled. Stripped of its power to act alone, Germany could no longer overshadow and disturb its neighbours.

Thisis the great window of opportunity for our times: the overwhelming argument for European union. The ghost of the 'German problem' can be laid for ever. Especially in Britain, we do not understand our incredible luck in having men and women with such ideas in charge of Germany.

But windows can close. The opportunity could be missed, through short-sighted obsession with our own sovereignty or sheer xenophobia. And then ugly happenings like the riot at Theresienstadt would cease to be marginal exceptions which prove a rule. They would become a nightmare for the Europe of our children.