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Villains or Victims?

By Peter Josika

Two different messages about the Sudeten Germans confront Czechs in their day-to-day lives. They are still taught about the German colonialists who turned Nazi and wanted to destroy the country. And yet one cannot escape reports of postwar death marches, expulsions and mass graves, where Sudeten Germans were victims not perpetrators.

While some politicians prefer to talk about gestures of reconciliation, others stress the irrevocability of the postwar order, and with it, the country's No. 1 taboo issue: the Beneš Decrees.

In a state that wanted to completely eliminate memories of Czech-German coexistence, it has become difficult to form a balanced view about the Sudeten Germans, their history and contribution to the country — and also the importance of the German language and culture to the modern-day Czech Republic. Various myths and prejudices about those people that T.G. Masaryk referred to as "our Germans" persist, while there is very little unbiased and complete information about them.

Here some myths versus the facts:

Myth: The Sudeten German minority consisted of narrow-minded "Bavarian-style" country people

Until their expulsion in 1945, Sudeten Germans formed the majority of the population in west, north and south Bohemia, as well as in parts of north and south Moravia. There were also large German-speaking populations in Prague, Brno and Olomouc. Towns with German majorities included Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), Český Krumlov (Krumau), Znojmo (Znaim) and Liberec (Reichenberg).

The 3.5 million Sudeten Germans were not a homogenous group — they were intellectuals, scientists, aristocratic landowners, members of the urban middle class, farmers, government officials and laborers.

They were Catholics, Protestants, Jews and even Hussites. They spoke Frankish-Egerlandish in west Bohemia, Saxon in north Bohemia, Silesian German in Silesia and north Moravia as well as Bavarian-Austrian in south Bohemia and Moravia. Many dialects of the German language became extinct as a result of the postwar expulsion.

Myth: The Sudeten Germans came to the Czech lands as colonialists

Germanic tribes actually lived on modern-day Czech territory well before Slavic tribes arrived around 500 AD. However, neither the Germanic nor the Slavic populations of the fifth century would have qualified as German or Czech in the modern sense. While from the second to the fifth century the population was probably mainly Germanic and Celtic, it is generally acknowledged that Slavic settlers became the majority by the seventh century. Most of the remaining populations assimilated with the newly arrived Slavs, although west and northwest Bohemia remained mostly Germanic due to strong Frankish influence. German and Latin remained the prevalent language of the Royal House and the aristocracy, even among the Přemyslid dynasty.

Between the 11th and the 16th centuries, Germans and Dutch were called into the country by Bohemian kings to establish modern forms of agriculture, develop urban centers and introduce new trades. During this period, German also became the prevalent language in south Bohemia and Moravia, as well as in parts of north Moravia and northeast Bohemia. Major cities such as Prague, Brno, Olomouc, Plzeň and the former Budweis flourished in the late Middle Ages due to trade and arts.

Myth: The Sudeten Germans all voted for the Nazi Party

Sudeten Germans supposedly all voted for the Nazi puppet Sudeten German Party (SdP) of Konrad Henlein with the sole purpose of destroying Czechoslovakia, Central Europe's last island of freedom and democracy at the time.

These accusations are based on the theory of collective guilt, or, as the Constitutional Court argued in defense of the Beneš Decrees, the principle of collective responsibility. The current state uses historic events like the 1935 election to defend and justify the forced expulsion of one-third of the country's historic population and the resulting disappearance of one of the country's historic languages.

Although much literature contains detailed analyses of these elections, few facts have become public. A close look reveals that a substantial part of the Sudeten Germans did not vote for the SdP, despite the enormous anti-Czech propaganda coming from Nazi Germany. Henlein received around two-thirds of the votes of the four main German parties but a strong communist vote also marked the highly industrialized north Bohemia.

Also, some Sudeten Germans did not vote, while others supported Czech or Hungarian parties. The SdP is likely to have received 50 percent to 55 percent of the Sudeten German vote. Among all the German-speaking population, Henlein received only 35 percent. And those who voted SdP voted for an official party program calling for Sudeten German autonomy within a democratic Czechoslovakia.

Myth: When Hitler marched into the Sudetenland, he was greeted with flowers and all Sudeten Germans screamed "Heil Hitler"

The pictures of Hitler's triumphal arrival are shown regularly here. However, can pictures of a few thousand people screaming "Heil Hitler" really be considered an indication of collective responsibility by an entire ethnic group?

The Nazis were masters at staging events. Every Hitler speech was accompanied by a folk fest with music, food and giveaways. It wasn't difficult to draw the masses to give the impression of unreserved support. In reality, most Catholic Sudeten Germans surely felt as outcasts in Centralist and Czechophile interwar Czechoslovakia, but were equally critical and suspicious of atheist Prussian-style Nazi Germany.

Films about events staged by the pro-Nazi Czech fascists in the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia remain mostly hidden away in archives, such as those of the German Wochenschau. Do thousands of Czechs participating in regular political demonstrations of the Czech Fascist Party in Prague prove widespread support for fascism?

German guilt is black and white

European politicians today agree that we must defend pluralist democracies and prevent the re-emergence of dictatorships in Europe. We must also overcome the simplistic theories that make it easy to whitewash collective responsibility.

The victorious powers of World War I — including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Italy — carry their distinct share of responsibility for the emergence of Nazism in Europe. The tough and uncompromising peace terms forced upon Weimar Germany created a fertile ground for radical nationalism in Germany. And multi-ethnic interwar Czechoslovakia failed to let Sudeten Germans identify with their new homeland.

All occupied territories collaborated widely with the Nazis. In a landmark speech in 1998, French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac conceded France's joint responsibility for many crimes committed during the war.

One can only hope that issues like the controversy surrounding the Czech-run concentration camp at Lety will help to start a thorough self-reflection in the Czech Republic. Perhaps one day a Czech president will dare to follow Chirac with an apology — though it will undoubtedly not be the current one.

— The author, a resident of Biel, Switzerland, is coordinator of the Network of European Bilingual Cities project and a correspondent for the news agency Eurolang (

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