Czech students' lessons on Nazi-era ethnic hatred

Five decades after Germans were expelled, a Czech town reexamines past to help pave the way to EU integration.

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Jaroslav Klenovsky's bushy eyebrows sink as he recalls the spring day 55 years ago when he made his way back to Brno after months in hiding with the anti-Nazi resistance.

World War II was over, and Hitler's stranglehold on what was then Czechoslovakia was broken.

But as young Mr. Klenovsky approached his shattered hometown, he encountered a sight that remains seared in his memory. Armed young men were escorting thousands of women, children, and elderly people out of the city. The German population of Brno was being expelled.

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"If you had seen that, you would never forget it," says Klenovsky, his blue eyes flashing. "Can you imagine? They were herding women with whips."

In all, some 26,000 ethnic Germans from Brno were sent on a 50-mile march to the Austrian border. Hundreds, if not thousands, died along the way.

Hitler had used the pro-German leanings of ethnic Germans in the west of the country, an area known as the Sudetenland, to justify his demand to annex the region. After Britain and France agreed at a historic summit in Munich in September 1938, he annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia the following March.

When the Third Reich collapsed in May 1945, Czech retribution was swift - within a few years of the war's end, the 3 million ethnic Germans who once inhabited Czechoslovakia were deported to Germany and Austria.

What may seem like a closed chapter in history is eerily reminiscent of recent Balkan conflicts, where the persecution of one ethnic group often has provoked retaliatory terror from the former victims.

And while young Czechs today can set an example of reconciliation, their efforts also show that confronting ethnic hatred often takes more than a generation - plus a strong dose of democracy.

For decades, most Czechs viewed the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans as an inevitable consequence of Nazi occupation. In addition, the deportations were sanctioned by the 1945 Potsdam Conference and enshrined in law by Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes.

The deportations still hang heavily over attempts at Czech-German reconciliation. Extremists on both sides link the issue to the Czech Republic's effort to join the European Union.

Only now, after 40 years of communism and a decade of freedom, are young Czechs questioning the morality of their grandfathers' actions. As in Austria, France, and Switzerland - countries that have long seen themselves as victims or nonparticipants during World War II - inquisitive voices here are raising troubling, unpopular questions.

In Brno, students at the university started a campaign in May, appealing to the mayor to apologize for the deportations. The town's able-bodied German men had previously been sent to labor camps, and high Nazi functionaries escaped before the town's liberation by the Soviet Red Army at the end of Word War II. The deportation came months before the Potsdam Conference and the Benes Decrees, which gave the banishment of Sudeten Germans a certain legality.

The city of Brno has formed a committee to examine the town's archives and question eyewitnesses to draw up a full account of the expulsion. "This is an unprecedented committee," says chairman Jiri Low. "We want to know our history." Mr. Low adds that before the city can take a position, all the facts must be on the table.

Ondrej Liska, a political science student who founded the initiative, says while he welcomes the committee's work, he worries it could simply become a way of avoiding an apology. "It's not a historical issue but a moral issue: It's about rejecting behavior that's unacceptable, not about how many people died," he says. "Injustice remains injustice. This is what the politicians should acknowledge: Killing someone because of their language or beliefs is a crime."

Eyewitness Klenovsky admits that he was ambivalent when he saw the bedraggled columns of Germans leaving the town. On one hand, he lost his fiancee and many friends in the Nazi gas chambers. But the city he remembers from his childhood was a mix of Czechs, Germans, and Jews. Children of all ethnicities played together in the town's medieval alleyways, he says, jabbering away in the town's argot, a blend of Czech and German.

"I always knew to make the difference between Nazis and people," says Klenovsky.

One of his friends is Gerda Skalnikova, who as a five-year-old limped out of the city with her mother and three younger siblings. Her German father was a top Nazi official in Prague, but the family later returned because of her Czech mother.

"To this day, they know I'm German," she says.

Nationalists here thunder that when the Czech Republic joins the EU, descendants of the expelled Germans will return, reclaiming - or simply buying up - old properties. Likewise, the powerful Sudeten German lobbies in Germany and Austria have demanded that EU accession be tied to compensation and a retraction of the Benes Decrees. Efforts at reconciliation, led by Czech President Vaclav Havel and his German counterparts, have been difficult.

"I'm not speaking for Germans, I'm speaking for young Czechs," says Mr. Liska, the student activist. "If we don't take a clear, sincere attitude to events that happened 55 years ago, then we cannot have a sincere attitude to problems we face today."

Liska draws a direct link from the deportation of Sudeten Germans to ongoing discrimination against the Roma (Gypsy) minority, or the tendency to repress four decades of communism. "A healthy mind doesn't repress what is negative," he says. "If these issues are not worked out, then there is a huge danger that these events can be repeated."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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