In the anguished aftermath of World War II, almost 3 million ethnic Germans were forcibly expelled from what was then Czechoslovakia because of the majority's overwhelming support for the Nazis. The Sudeten Germans, as they have become known, lost their homes, land and livelihoods, and between 20,000 and 200,000 people depending on which source you believe died in internment camps and on the long march to Germany and Austria. Now the Sudeten question is once again stirring controversy in Central Europe, with fresh calls for reparations and demands that the Czech Republic be barred from the E.U. unless it makes amends.
The latest furor was ignited when Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman told the Austrian magazine profil that the Sudeten Germans were "Hitler's fifth column." "According to Czech laws," Zeman said, "many Sudeten Germans committed treason, a crime which at that time was punishable by death. If they were expelled or transferred, it was more moderate than the death penalty." The reaction from neighboring countries was swift. "Zeman's statement filled me with consternation," responded Edmund Stoiber, the conservative candidate for German Chancellor in the September elections. Stoiber is premier of Bavaria, where many Sudeten Germans settled, and his wife is from a Sudeten family. "The expulsion of the Sudeten Germans cannot be justified under any circumstances." In Austria, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel said the Czech government should voluntarily compensate the Sudeten Germans. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also joined the fray. Noting that tens of thousands of ethnic Hungarians had also been expelled, from what is now Slovakia, he said: "This was another shameful event in the 20th century where Hungarians were on the painful, losing side."
The controversy over the Sudeten Germans comes at a critical time. Germany is in pre-election mode, and the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary all face extremely close elections this year, in all likelihood the last national polls before accession to the E.U. Candidates are looking for an edge as campaigning heats up, and good old-fashioned populism is back in style. "There hasn't been this degree of populist rhetoric since 1989," says Jonathan Stein, an independent political analyst based in Prague. "Politicians are trying to show they are capable of defending national identity, but E.U. integration limits the scope for this to symbolic battles."
That symbolism still means a lot in Central Europe. Although the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans was approved by the Allied Powers at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, a legal basis for the expulsions was charted by a series of decrees issued by Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes. dealing with such things as loss of citizenship and expropriation of property, and those decrees remain on the books to this day.
Survivors among the Sudeten Germans want to see the decrees repealed, and they're backed by Jörg Haider, governor of Austria's Carinthia province and a major force in the far-right Freedom Party, part of Austria's ruling coalition. "The Benes Decrees should no longer exist," Haider said. Erika Steinbach, head of Germany's Association of Displaced Persons, agrees: "Who in the year 2002 cannot distance himself from a political event that contradicts all norms of international law and questions the E.U. suitability of his country? Chancellor Schröder is urgently called upon to link the question of Czech E.U. entry to the abandonment of the Benes Decrees."
Zeman retorted that the Czechs would not consider removing the laws, the underlying fear being that their repeal would open the floodgates to demands for restitution. "Why should we single out the Benes Decrees?" Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan told Time. "They belong to the past and should stay in the past. Many current members of the E.U. had similar laws." German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder admitted that "in this heated debate, a rational discussion of such questions is much more difficult," but also doubted there would be any long-term damage to German-Czech relations.
E.U. accession might help resolve the dispute. Once the Czech Republic and Slovakia join, all E.U. citizens including former refugees in neighboring countries will have the right to live in their former homelands. The emotional wounds may take longer to heal.