Berlin, Germany – All four Central European countries decided, last week, to boycott the emergency meeting called at the behest of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to find a solution to the migration crisis. One might – quite reasonably – argue that now was not the best time to reopen old wounds between Germany and its Eastern neighbours.
Then again, one might be wrong. Talking last Wednesday on World Refugee Day, Angela Merkel argued that there was “no moral or political justification” to the post-war expulsion of ethnic Germans from Central European countries, including 3 million from Czechoslovakia. Unsurprisingly, Czech politicians strongly condemned the comments, with Prime Minister Andrej Babiš accusing her of reopening “old wounds” due to “some domestic political struggle”.
This wasn’t, surely, the most tactful thing to say a few days away from a critical EU summit. Calling these remarks “revisionist”, as Sputnik reported, might however be slightly exaggerated: in her speech, Angela Merkel also acknowledged that these expulsions were an “immediate consequence of the war and the national-socialist dictatorship’s horrible crimes”.
This controversial issue keeps resurfacing from time to time and commented upon with variable historical accuracy. So, what exactly are we talking about here?
The Beneš decrees and the Potsdam Conference
Historians estimate that at least 12 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Central and Eastern European countries in the post-war period. In Czechoslovakia, around 3 million of them were forced to leave the country – along with ethnic Hungarians, mainly established in current Slovakia – following the Beneš decrees. Except… the now-(in)famous Beneš decrees made no mention of such measure.
Czechoslovak president-in-exile Edvard Beneš signed, during the second half of 1945, more than 140 presidential decrees. Only a dozen of them regarded the situation of ethnic Germans and Magyars still living in Czechoslovakia. The most controversial measures enforced the expropriation and seizure of their property and goods, while another decree stripped them of their Czechoslovak citizenship.
Their expulsion isn’t mentioned anywhere. However, on the same day the aforementioned decree was published – August 2nd, 1945 – the leaders of the U.S., the Soviet Union and Great-Britain signed the Potsdam Agreements, acknowledging, among other things, the need to transfer in an “orderly and humane” way ethnic German populations established in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to Germany.
A plan already in the making
Advocates of the expulsion’s legal justification, like Czech President Miloš Zeman, like to remind that the Potsdam Conference sanctioned it. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Interviewed by Radio Prague, historian Tomas Dvorak reminds that “the first plan to deport part of the so-called Sudetenland population was already in place at the time of the Munich Agreement crisis”, in 1938. “As the Czechoslovak government-in-exile’s position grew stronger [during the war], resettlement plans became bigger”, he added, eventually leading to the decision to force the entire ethnic German population out. The Potsdam Agreements provided them with the legal framework to do so.
Moreover, “wild” expulsions of ethnic Germans had already begun well before. Vigilante groups conducted violent expulsions in the Sudetenland as early as May 1945, resulting in the murder or death by starvation and illness of between 15.000 and 30.000 German civilians. The Potsdam declaration therefore recognizes what was already a reality in a probable attempt to favour a peaceful relocation process instead of violent and “unsupervised” evictions.
A divisive issue
This topic remained largely taboo under Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. However, both Germany (1952) and Austria (1974) agreed not to make any claims against Czechoslovakia regarding seized goods, and both countries gave out financial compensations to those who were wronged. The 1997 Czech-German Declaration was also instrumental in each side agreeing to put the matter to rest, with Germans accepting responsibility for the Nazi regime’s crimes and their consequences, and Czechs expressing public regret regarding the violence which resulted from the expulsions.
The topic, however, always eventually resurfaces. The most striking example can be found in the lead-up to the EU’s 2004 enlargement. In 2002, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said it was “unimaginable” for the Czech Republic and Slovakia to join the EU unless they first abrogated the Beneš decrees. At the same time, the Austrian Parliament claimed the decrees were “incompatible” with European law – a claim later refuted by the European Parliament. To this day, and despite having lost their “applicability”, the decrees have never been abrogated, and are still part of the Czech legal system.