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Tuesday, 3 December, 2002, 10:23 GMT
Czechs' hidden revenge against Germans
Busts of President Benes lined up along the border
Expulsions were decreed by President Benes
In 1945, two and a half million ethnic Germans were driven from their homes in Czechoslovakia. Thousands died. Now, as the Czech Republic heads for EU membership, Charles Wheeler reports on how the Czechs made the Sudeten German minority pay for Nazi occupation, and why this is now a hot political issue.
This is a story about Germans as victims of World War II.

It has been suppressed for half a century, ever since Czechoslovakia expelled its three million strong German minority - the Sudeten Germans - at the end of the war.

It is also a story of two communities with a common past, each clinging to diametrically opposed versions of the same event.

Sudeten Germans
Pre-WWI: Citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
1918: Czechoslovakia's largest minority
By 1935: Sudeten German Party was biggest political party in Czechoslovakia
Munich agreement, 29 September 1938, gave Sudeten areas to Germany and later Germany gave some areas to Hungary, while Poland also seized Czech territory
Sudeten Germans supported Hitler's demands over the region
Six months after Munich, Hitler invaded rest of Czechoslovakia
1945: Sudeten Germans expelled under Benes decrees

To the Germans, their expulsion was a war crime, an early case of violent, ethnic cleansing.

To the Czechs, after six years of Nazi occupation, the expulsions were simply retribution.

What cannot be disputed is the brutality of the expulsions, especially during the chaotic transition from war to approximate peace.

Newsreel film shows Germans being beaten up in the streets of Prague, forced to wear the swastika, painted on their overcoats.

There are pictures too of dead and dying Germans in fields.

'Shot for nothing'

Peter Klepsch, then aged 17, claims to have been a witness to mass murder.

He describes how mere boys were shot and killed in front of their fathers after trying to flee from a prison camp.

"People were shot in parties of 30 or 40," says Mr Klepsch.

"They were shot for nothing, just because they were the cream of German society.

"It was genocide.

"I have dreams about it still," he says.

Others have told of mass graves.

Nobody knows how many Germans died.

The total may run into thousands.

Wartime decree

The expulsions were decreed by Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's president-in-exile, during his wartime years in Britain.

One particularly controversial decree granted immunity from prosecution to Czechs who committed crimes against the Germans.

Adolf Hitler
Hitler visits the Sudetenland after occupation

Another ruled out compensation for land and property they were forced to leave behind.

Today's Sudeten German leaders are demanding restitution, a formal apology and the repeal of the decrees before the Czechs join the European Union.

Bernd Posselt argues that "the expulsion of millions of innocent people was unjust and this ideology of ethnic cleansing cannot be part of the European order of tomorrow".

The Czechs say no.

Libor Roucek, a Czech MP and foreign affairs specialist, says that since the decrees do not apply to either the present or future, they could indeed be repealed.

"But we don't want to re-judge history because we could go back to World War I or even to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when the Czechs had no state of their own," he says.

For Zdena Nemcova, a Czech who lived among the Sudeten Germans in the 1930s, going back to her own early life is memory enough.


We hated the Germans so much, we even hated the sound of the German language

Zdena Nemcova
She remembers living among the Sudeten Germans - their devotion to Hitler and the transportation of 300,000 Czech Jews to the death camps.

"Every day we'd hear of someone we knew who'd been executed. Then, after the war, people came back from the concentration camps, dying before our eyes, our very best people.

"At that moment I would have been capable of murder. I, a young girl.

"We hated the Germans so much, we even hated the sound of the German language," she says.

Gassed

In 1942, in retaliation for the assassination of the SS general he had made governor of Czechoslovakia, Hitler ordered the complete destruction of a Czech village called Lidice.

All the males over 15 were shot, 88 girls and children as young as four were transported to Poland, where they were gassed.

The women were sent to a concentration camp in Germany.

Nearly all the women survived. It was not until they were brought home by Czech soldiers that they heard a full account of the German reprisal.

Miloslava Kalibova says: "One of the soldiers told me that three years earlier all the men had been shot.

"I couldn't understand how they could have done such a thing.

"And then I discovered that the children had been gassed in lorries in Chelmno."

Czech President Vaclav Havel
The current Czech president wants to be part of the EU

And so it was that injustice, atrocity and humiliation led to more of the same and to revenge.

Perhaps it is only right that the story of what the Sudeten Germans suffered at the hands of the Czechs in 1945 should be told.

But after 60 years?

In the event, the attempt by contemporary Sudeten German leaders to block Czech admission to the European Community has clearly failed.

Instead, it has served to awaken long-buried antagonisms.

Charles Wheeler's report for A Shadow Over Europe will be broadcast on BBC Four on Tuesday, 3 December at 2100 GMT. It will be repeated on Wednesday, 4 December at 0145 GMT.


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02 Dec 02 | Europe
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