Sudeten Germans Still Want to Go Home

Acerbic border disputes are not isolated to East Europe; Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II want compensation, and some politicians are listening

AS Europe tries to forge an unprecedented era of unity, some interest groups threaten to disrupt the process by reviving lingering grievances.

The Sudeten Germans are one such community embroiled in controversy. A vocal minority of Sudetens, now concentrated in the southern German state of Bavaria, is agitating for compensation for the post-World War II expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia. Some want their old land returned, but most would be happy with a financial settlement.

Some powerful politicians in both Germany and Austria support the calls for compensation. Meanwhile, the Czech government steadfastly refuses to discuss the matter.

At the heart of the issue is the notion of collective responsibility. Sudetens complain they were unjustly held responsible as an ethnic group for the horrors committed 50 years ago by the Nazi dictatorship - acts over which they had no influence.

Many Czechs, including President Vaclav Havel, admit Sudetens were treated unfairly. But few Czechs feel the past injustice entitles Sudetens to compensation.

Dangerous reaction

If Europe in the future is to avoid its traditional trap of nationalism, its citizens must give up the destructive tendency to dwell too much on the past, says Jiri Musil, a Czech sociologist and director of the Prague College at Central European University.

Reconciliation between Sudeten Germans and Czechs ``should be done on an individual level. It shouldn't be a collective bargaining process,'' Mr. Musil says.

Such a process would be ``disastrous and dangerous for both sides because it would start to create a nationalist reaction,'' he warns.

For centuries the Sudeten Germans and Czech lived together in relative harmony. The current rift opened following Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933.

In 1938, Sudetens figured greatly in the infamous Munich summit, during which Britain assented to Nazi Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland, the area of northern Czechoslovakia in which ethnic Germans lived.

Shortly after Germany's defeat in World War II, Czechoslovakian authorities sought revenge for the Nazi wartime occupation, and the Sudeten Germans proved an easy target. Retribution was carried out ruthlessly.

Prague issued decrees that labeled the ethnic Germans collectively responsible for the annexation of the Sudetenland. The government ordered confiscation of the property of about 2.5 million Sudetens between 1945-47, and they were expelled from the northern Czech regions to Germany and Austria. Thousands died during the forced move.

Decades of postwar communism in Czechoslovakia ruled out discussion on the Sudeten issue. The revival of free speech following the Communists' 1989 ouster, however, reopened the matter.

Today the 100,000-member Sudetendeutsche Landmannschaft, a civic organization representing the Sudetens, is pushing for the repeal of the postwar expulsion order, opening the way for a broad restitution settlement.

No specific compensation plan has yet been advanced. Sudeten leaders admit that few Sudetens wish to live in their ancestral homeland, but that doesn't diminish their desire to see the region retain its Germanic influence.

``Czech silence [on the issue] is nothing short of a second banishment,'' Sudeten leader Franz Neubauer told the annual gathering of Sudeten Germans, held in late May in the Bavarian city of Nuremburg. At the same meeting, government ministers from both Germany and Austria backed Sudeten claims.

``The cruel banishment of the Sudeten people occupies a high place on the long list of unjust actions that darkens European history in this century,'' Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock told the gathering.

Meanwhile, Theo Waigel, Germany's finance minister, hinted that the Czech Republic's application for membership in the European Union (EU) should be linked to Prague's willingness to satisfy Sudeten claims.

Mr. Waigel is also a leader of the Christian Social Union, the Bavaria-based sister party of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union. The CSU is fighting to retain its outright majority in the Bavarian parliament during upcoming state elections in September. Sudeten support for the CSU could enhance its election prospects.

An attempt to link Sudeten compensation to Czech integration into the EU would contrast with Germany's goal of rapidly incorporating the newly democratic states of Central Europe into the West. The Czech Republic has made the biggest reform gains of all Central European states and figures to be among the first for full EU membership.

East's troubles spreading

Germany now sits in a somewhat vulnerable position on the border between the relatively stable West and tumultuous East, which is struggling to overhaul its economy and politics following communism's collapse in 1989.

The longer Central European states remain outside the Western security system, the greater the possibility that troubles buffeting the East - particularly migration and nationalism - could spill over to the West, some European political analysts say.

Since 1989, the Sudeten question has been a source of constant, if sensitive debate in the Czech Republic. In Germany, the topic is largely contained to within the Sudeten community.

Entrance into the debate by officials such as Finance Minister Waigel could increase tension between Germany and the Czech Republic, some experts warn. ``The Sudeten Germans are pushing too hard,'' says sociologist Musil. ``Some Czechs feel the Germans are now trying to make an already tough situation more difficult for them.''

With the Czech Republic struggling with the wrenching transition from communism to a market democracy, the Sudeten issue can inflame passions among Czechs, Musil says. He points out that most Sudetens enjoy higher living standards today than most Czechs, an unforeseen byproduct of the Sudetens' expulsion to the capitalist West.

In late July, a group of Czech nationalists disrupted a reunion of Sudeten Germans in Terezin, north of Prague. The Czechs threw eggs and chanted, ``Go home, murderers.'' Police did nothing to intervene.

If the Sudetens continue to press their case, Musil warns it could invite a knee-jerk response to reopen discussions about Nazi atrocities against Czechs and Jews. It ``could begin an impossible game of comparing brutalities,'' he says. ``A chain of new wrongs could be unleashed.''

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