German-Czech Pact Ends a Bitter Legacy of WWII
The declaration of Czech-German reconciliation that Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and Chancellor Helmut Kohl are to sign in Prague today is the last in a series of official peacemaking gestures between Germany and its neighbors.Skip to next paragraph
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The document, criticized as both overdue and superfluous, is not without some practical aspects as well.
And with this accord, the country where it all began has become the country where it all has ended. Hitler's annexation of the so-called Sudetenland of what was then Czechoslovakia, ostensibly to give the ethnic Germans resident there more "living space," was one of the first chapters of World War II.
After the war, the Czechoslovak government forcibly expelled 3 million Sudeten Germans, whose forebears had lived in the region since the 14th century. Tens of thousands of them died in the process, and their homes and businesses were expropriated.
As a result, in a part of the world where there has been no shortage of difficult bilateral relationships, the one between the Czechs and the Germans has been particularly painful.
The expulsion of the Sudetens gave Germans a claim to the status of war-crime victims. "Expulsion equals genocide!" says Fritz Wittmann, a Sudeten German, who is president of the League of Expellees, the organization of Germans driven from their homes as the map of Europe was redrawn after World War II.
"It's been hard for Czechs to hear, after two generations of hearing how awful the Nazis were, that they did something wrong, too," as a Western official in Munich puts it.
Regret and reconciliation
Now both countries have literally come to terms with this chapter of their past. Half a century after the fact, both countries have agreed to a text that expresses Czechs' "regret" for their role in the expulsions and expropriations as well as Germans' regret for their role in "a historical development" that culminated in the Nazi conquest of Czechoslovakia.
The declaration was the fruit of nearly two years of difficult negotiations. As recently as last January, discussions between German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel and his Czech counterpart, Josef Zieleniec, faltered: "The burden of the past is too great," Mr. Kinkel said at the time.
The text ultimately worked out and signed by the two ministers Dec. 20 has drawn sharp criticism from elements in both countries. And yet both advocates and opponents of the declaration speak of a person-to-person reconciliation "that has long since taken place."
Dr. Wittmann was 13 in 1946, when he and his family were forced out of their home in the resort town of Marienbad, near the western edge of what is now the Czech Republic. He denounces the declaration as "superfluous" but hastens to add, "We already practice reconciliation with the Czechs. I have no problem with them - not even with their military people. I have problems only with nationalists and communists."
One of the most frequently mentioned expressions of this person-to-person reconciliation is financial support for the reconstruction of churches and other buildings in the Czech Republic. Last year alone, Sudetens living in Germany contributed 10 million deutsch marks ($6.5 million) for reconstruction in Bhmerwald ("the Bohemian Woods") alone, Wittmann explains, tracing his finger along the map.
His claim to good relations with the Czechs is borne out by other evidence as well: German tourism in the Czech Republic and Czechs who daily go to work in the "50 kilometer zone" on the German side of the border. Sudeten Germans "old enough to remember, but too young to have been responsible," as one observer puts it, are a strong part of the German investment presence in the Czech Republic.