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.

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.

But at the state-to-state level, official reconciliation remained a matter of unfinished diplomatic business, and both governments clearly felt a need for the declaration. "The text as formulated is a step forward," says Jiri Pehe, analyst at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague. "Both sides had to make concessions.... It's a balanced document and more forceful than could have been expected."

Borek Severa, the Czech-born, German-raised director of the Prague office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a centrist think tank, says he hopes the accord can help bring an end to the "who did what to whom" postwar accounting. "But the real reconciliation has to happen inside people's heads. There's no magic wand that can do this overnight."

A 'pesky issue' out of the way

Arguably, the Czechs get more out of the deal: explicit assurances that Germany will not pursue property claims against them or block their entry into NATO or the European Union (EU), although many observers feel that would never have happened anyway. The declaration grants no war reparations as such, but calls for a joint Czech-German fund to foster ties between the two countries, from which payments to former concentration camp inmates, for example, could be made.

For Germany, the accord means "a pesky issue is out of the way," as the Western official puts it. Germany has no interest in having unfinished business from World War II hanging over its international relations. The Czech expression of "regret" for the expulsions is significant for the Sudetens, too.

Paradoxically, parliamentary ratification appears more problematic in Prague than in Bonn. The declaration is to go before the Bundestag at the end of this month and is assured of approval by a resounding majority. In Prague, Mr. Klaus will need support of at least some of the opposition Social Democrats to get the declaration approved - and they have charged that it did not go far enough.

Within Germany, the domestic politics of the Sudeten issue have been tricky, somewhat analogous to the Cuban issue in the United States. The Sudeten expellees and their families in Bavaria are a key constituency of the Christian Social Union, part of Kohl's coalition government. But the Bavarians' rhetoric was widely seen as political posturing.

And even the Sudeten German leaders are coming to see that their demands for return of property no longer resonate much even within their own community.

And so, some months after Kinkel's cri de coeur about the burdens of history, Kohl mentioned in a speech that an accord was needed, and in the end, one was reached. A typical Kohl achievement: He seems to get things accomplished by sheer Sitzfleisch, the ability to sit still while his opponents wear themselves out with their own arguments.

Germany seeks regional balance

The declaration is not seen as a sign of Germany more dominant in Central and Eastern Europe, at least not any more dominant than it already is. Karsten Voigt, foreign-policy spokesman of the opposition Social Democrats in the German Bundestag and a supporter of the accord, speaks delicately of the "asymmetry of power" between his own country and the Czech Republic.

He adds that because of the inherent imbalance in bilateral relations with all its neighbors, it is in Germany's own interest to support a strong NATO and a strong EU, which Czechs will be able to join.

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