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Post Czechoslovakia and the Expulsion of the Germans post-WWII
Created by John Eipper on 01/16/19 1:14 PM

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Czechoslovakia and the Expulsion of the Germans post-WWII (Paul Pitlick, USA, 01/16/19 1:14 pm)

JE's comment to Eugenio Battaglia's post of January 15th brings to mind a question I've been wondering about. It's a simple question, but some background is required.

I'm a dismal historian, but I've spent some time in the Czech Republic the past few years. Some or all of the next statements may be inaccurate, and if you know Central European history, feel free to correct me. My understanding is that the peoples of the land which became known as Czechoslovakia began asserting their identity toward the end of the 19th century as not fitting in with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and movement toward independence continued into the early 20th century. As a result of WWI, this happened (I was there in October when they celebrated their 100th anniversary as an independent country). When one thinks of that country, two ethnic groups jump out at you, which is why the name was selected, but there were many other ethnic groups, some very small. While the Czechs were the largest group, there were more folks of German descent than there were Slovaks. My sense is that the groups lived fairly well together and there were certainly intermarriages, but their separate identities were somewhat maintained.

Hitler used "discrimination" against the Germans as the reason to invade, but my sense is that was more made-up than real (an alternative explanation advanced by a Czech friend was that Hitler wanted the Czech industrial base for his war machine). We all know how the war went, and at the end, given the events of the years 1938-1945, the Czechs and Slovaks felt that the German population could always be a reason for their larger neighbor to invade them, so the Germans were expelled. The expulsion was clearly inhumane (apparently more than 3,000,000 were expelled, with as many as 16,000 deaths), as the people were basically forced out of their homes and across the border, never to return. So, that's the end of my interpretation of history.  Fee free to correct any of my "facts."

The question I have is: What happened to those folks? There are several parts to that, a few of which are: 1. Did they go to East or West Germany? 2. Were they welcomed where they went-- i.e. was there housing? education? discrimination? jobs? 3. More germane to this discussion--might their descendants experience "alienation and economic marginalization" (JE's words) which might push them toward the AfD?

JE comments:  Paul, everything sounds correct to me.  Poland's experience was similar to the one you outline here, except entire cities (Breslau, Stettin and others) were "cleansed" of Germans.  (Breslau/Wroclaw is a fascinating case, as the city was re-populated by Poles who had been thrown out of Lwow/Lviv.  They even re-settled their works of art:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rac%C5%82awice_Panorama )

The expelled Germans did not have an easy go of it, and many died.  It's safe to say that few were welcomed in their new homes.  Several WAISers could definitely give us more details.

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  • Fate of Sudeten Germans after WWII (Nigel Jones, -UK 01/17/19 4:24 AM)
    Paul Pitlick's post on the history of the Sudeten Germans (January 16th) is completely correct, except that his figure of 16,000 deaths during their forced expulsion after 1945 is probably too low.

    According to my friend the historian Giles MacDonogh's 2007 book After the Reich, a quarter of a million Sudeten Germans died. That figure may be too high, but it is beyond doubt that a high proportion of the three million Sudeten Germans perished, along with their ethnic German compatriots expelled from Poland, the Baltic states, Silesia and Rumania. MacDonogh claims the total death toll to be three million.

    While these are shocking figures, it should be remembered that after the bestialities of the Nazis during WWII in eastern Europe, a sort of rough justice revenge was inevitable and fell on communities who may have been individually innocent, but who did collectively mainly support Hitler's Reich.

    Regarding the Sudeten Germans specifically, as Paul says, they composed the second largest ethnic group in the newly created state of Czechoslovakia in 1919 after the Czechs themselves. There were three million of them, or around 18% of the total national population. They were largely clustered in an arc around the western frontiers of the state, mainly in rural villages, but including such cities as Eger and Marienbad. There was also a sizeable German population in the capital Prague.

    It is important to remember that the Sudetens had never been part of Germany, but until 1918 had been subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In the 1920s they formed their own political parties, Social Democrats and Nationalist, advocating greater autonomy within Czechoslovakia.

    With the rise to power of Hitler's Nazis in neighbouring Germany, the Sudeten National party became more and more extreme. Led by Konrad Henlein and the fanatical Karl Frank, they were soon acting under Hitler's direct orders, and making ever more extreme demands that they knew the Czechs could never accept.

    Hitler had a special animus against the Czechs arising from his own childhood in Austria, when his schools were split between ethnic Austrian Germans and Czechs. His deliberate ramping up of largely fictitious Sudeten grievances led to the crisis in autumn 1938 which culminated in the Munich conference, the ceding of the Sudetenland to his Reich, and six months later to the forced Nazi occupation of the ethnically Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia and the creation of a puppet Slovak state under the Nazi Catholic priest Joseph Tiso.

    The Nazi occupation of the Czech lands was brutal in the extreme, and Henlein and Frank were among the SS officials who enforced it. The most notorious episode followed the assassination in Prague of the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, "Protector" of Bohemia and Moravia, in 1942 by Czech and Slovak agents trained and parachuted in by Britain. As is well known, the village of Lidice (falsely suspected of harbouring the assassins) was literally wiped from the face of the earth by the SS in revenge. Of the 340 villagers, all the men were shot, while the women and children were sent to concentration camps. Only 153 women and 17 children survived the war. Hitler had originally demanded that 30,000 Czechs be exterminated, but this figure was reduced when it was pointed out to him that it would adversely affect Czech industrial production for the Reich. Nevertheless, up to 2,000 Czechs were executed in reprisal for Heydrich's death alone.

    Revenge after the war was only to be expected. The Czech pre-war President, Edvard Benes, returning from exile in Britain, ordered the total expulsion of the Sudeten Germans. Upwards of two and a half million of them were expelled to West Germany, where they chiefly settled in Bavaria. For many years their associations were a significant force in German politics, demanding a return to their homes and/or compensation, but as they became absorbed in the general German population these demands dwindled.

    The Sudeten villages remained largely empty into the 1960s until they were repopulated by the Czechs. I am unaware of whether there are current moves afoot for any return of the Sudetens' descendants to their ancestral homes .

    Of the two original Nazi Sudeten leaders, Henlein committed suicide in an Allied Internment camp, while Frank was publicly executed in Prague. There is a gruesome film of his hanging on YouTube. It was well deserved.

    I append a link to a review I wrote of After the Reich. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3664526/How-three-million-Germans-died-after-VE-Day.html

    JE comments:  Excellent overview, Nigel; thanks.  You sum up the situation perfectly in your MacDonogh review:   "This unhappy story has long been cloaked in silence since telling it suited no one."  The suffering of millions of Germans after the war is a profound case study into collective guilt.  Is it ever justifiable to punish the many for the crimes of the few?  Time and again, history gives its sad answer:  yes.

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  • Sudeten Germans and Other Displaced Nationalities of WWII (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 01/19/19 4:18 AM)
    Very good post from Paul Pitlick, 16 January, and very good comments from JE. However a few observations can be made.

    As the great multi-ethnic empires failed in the early 20th century, the criminal victors created smaller multi-ethnic empires such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland and in a certain way Italy too, as some territories inhabited by Italians were not given to Italy while some territories inhabited by Germans and Slavs were annexed to the Italian state.

    The victors of WWII, being even more criminal, did not create small ethnic empires but embarked on a horrible ethnic cleansing with millions of displaced or killed Germans, Poles, Italians, and Hungarians, plus all those from the enlarged USSR, including from the tiny Italian minority in Crimea.

    Probably it was a greater tragedy than the Holocaust itself, but it is taboo to talk about this.

    It is noteworthy to remember the first criminal who wanted ethnic cleansing: Franz Josef of Austria, who on 12 November 1866 ordered energetic action against the Italians of Trentino-Alto Adige/Sud Tyrol, Trieste, Istria and Dalmatia, pushing them out and proceeding with the Germanization or Slavization of these areas.

    In Czechoslovakia the Czechs numbered about 7 million.  They were democratic for themselves, but at the same time they were oppressors of the Germans, Slovaks, Poles, Ruthenians and Hungarians.

    The 1938 Munich Accords brought the liberation of the Germans of the Sudetenland, the Poles of Teschen and the Hungarians of South Teschen. The last two groups are never remembered.

    Then on 15 March 1939 the Slovaks proclaimed independence followed by the Ruthenians, who however were annexed to Hungary. At the same time the cowardly Czech President Emil Hacha asked for the protection of the Third Reich, becoming the chief of an autonomous Protectorate within the Third Reich. Therefore except for the last two episodes of Ruthenia and the Protectorate, everything went according the wishes of the concerned peoples, no matter what may be said now.

    Regarding the refugees in their new areas, they always had difficult conditions. Let us not forget about the peoples in the newly enlarged USSR, who ended up in Kazakhstan or Siberia. As for the Italians, those who were expelled or escaped from Dalmatia, Fiume and Istria were not welcomed, and many ended up in former concentration camps. I just want to mention the "Shame Train" at Bologna station of 18 February 1947. A train full of refugees from Pola was directed to Ancona, but at the Bologna station the Communists organized a strike to stop it, threw stones at the refugees while the food and milk for the children prepared by the Red Cross was denied to them and thrown on the tracks.

    In 2007, "only" 60 years later, a politically correct but nonetheless significant plaque was placed by the Municipality and the Association of Refugees.

    JE comments:  This week we've been discussing "received wisdom."  Eugenio Battaglia rarely fails to challenge our assumptions and expectations for European history. 

    It's hard for me to conceive of liberation by Nazi Germany, instead of liberation from it.  Did the Sudeten Germans think differently?  I wonder how many of them regretted being absorbed by Germany, when they had previously lived in an ethnically divided but liberal democracy.  By 1945, probably all of them did (regret it).

    Eugenio, what motivated the Communists to attack a refugee train?  Sheer hooliganism?

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