On January 25, 1946, the government of a newly restored Czechoslovakia started the forced deportation of ethnic Germans and Hungarians in what continues to be one of the most divisive and painful episodes in the history of post-war Central Europe.
Putting an abrupt end to centuries of German presence in the Czech lands, plans for the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans were long in the making and started even before the outbreak of World War II.
The “Munich Betrayal” and the German question
Czechoslovak leaders’ desire to deal with the “German question” was fueled from the mid to late 1930’s by growing resentment towards the country’s minority, largely concentrated in Bohemia’s western and northern borderland regions, and their perceived support for Hitler’s plans to incorporate the Sudetenland into the Third Reich.
Their overwhelming support for the pro-Nazi Sudeten German party in the 1938 elections, soon followed by the “Munich Betrayal” through which Western European powers agreed to cede Czechoslovakia’s German-majority regions in an unfortunate attempt to appease Hitler and avoid war, only precipitated matters.
“We know the first plan to deport part of the so-called Sudetenland population was already in place at the time of the Munich Agreement crisis,” explains historian Tomáš Dvořák.
“At the time, the Czechoslovak government, or President Beneš, also considered ceding territory and thus part of the German population. During World War II, plans gradually changed. As the Czechoslovak government-in-exile’s position grew stronger, plans became bigger, more comprehensive. In the end, they called to resettle Czechoslovakia’s entire German population.”
Plans long in the making
The annexation of the Sudetenland was soon followed by the invasion of Bohemia and Moravia by Nazi troops in March 1939, and the establishment of a protectorate in the Czech lands. Slovak leaders had, the day before the invasion, declared their independence from Czechoslovakia to become a Nazi puppet state throughout most of the war.
The idea of ridding Czechoslovakia of what it perceived as its “traitorous” German element gained momentum during the war as more horrific atrocities were committed against Czechs. While initial plans focused on the need to expropriate and deport people – whether ethnic Germans or not – who had actively collaborated with Nazi Germany, plans for a complete deportation would eventually be seen as the only viable solution.
Leader of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London, Beneš secured the support of the US, the UK and the Soviet Union for the mass deportation of ethnic Germans – that of ethnic Hungarians, on the other hand, faced more resistance from Allied countries, resulting in a more negotiated and smaller-scale expulsion.
Adopted in April 1945 in Slovakia’s eastern capital, the Košice Program detailed the plans, which would eventually be sanctioned by the Allied forces at the Potsdam Conference of August 1945.
Wild and state-sanctioned expulsions
But by the time the war’s victors agreed the deportation should be carried out in a humane manner, the situation had long spiraled out of control.
“Wild” expulsions began right after the end of the war in May 1945, as Czechs reeling from nearly six years of oppression and persecution turned their anger towards Germans still living in newly liberated Czechoslovakia. Sometimes helped by military forces, often initiated by local vigilante organisations, or encouraged by local authorities, mobs rounded up ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, as well as in the main urban centers like Prague and Brno.
In the best cases, they were forced out of their homes and ordered to leave the country in extremely rudimentary conditions. Cases of arbitrary violence by military or para-military groups were however also common during the second half of 1945, and thousands of Germans are estimated to have died during this first wave of expulsion, either murdered or due to hunger and illness.
The state-sanctioned expulsion of ethnic Germans started on January 25, 1946, with 2.5 to 3 million people deported to either West or East Germany, or sometimes Austria. Although the overall death toll remains subject to controversy among historians, from 20,000 to 30,000 Germans are believed to have died from 1945 to 1947 because of the deportation. Some assert that real figures are much higher.
The Beneš decrees
The second wave found its legal basis in the controversial Beneš decrees, a series of presidential decrees issued by Czechoslovak authorities from 1940 to 1946 sanctioning the confiscation of the property of ethnic Germans and Hungarians, facilitating the stripping of their citizenship, and ordering their expulsion from the Czechoslovak territory.
Other Central and Eastern European countries took similar steps to expel their German minority, with Czechoslovakia being no exception.
But by far one of the most ethnically diverse countries that emerged from the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1918, more than a third of Czechoslovakia’s interwar population was made up of ethnic minorities, including more than 3 million Germans and over 700,000 Hungarians. By 1950, only about 150,000 ethnic Germans were still living in Czechoslovakia.
As explained by Prague-based historian Karel Jech, the Beneš decrees, which were adopted as laws by a provisional national assembly convened until the parliamentary elections of spring 1946 and have technically never been repealed, are more wide-ranging than people usually think, and cam be seen as key pillars of Czechoslovakia’s post-war legal and constitutional order.
Their ongoing validity, as well as the fact that a Czech amnesty law exempting anyone from prosecution for anti-German crimes committed from May to November 1945 is still in place, has in recent years been at the center of numerous controversies.
Advocates in favour of their suppression argue they have no place in the current Czech legal order and should be left for the history books, while opponents claim the Czech Republic would be faced with waves of property restitution claims from dispossessed German and Hungarian families should the decrees be annulled.
Guilt, denial, and remembrance
“For the Germans, it’s not about their houses, since they’ve been away for 70 years and don’t want to return,” said Tereza Vavrova, head of the Anti-Komplex NGO. “Unfortunately, there is a huge trauma in Czech society. There is no sense that what happened after the war was a mistake or that we are to blame. People just accept the explanation that the German-speaking inhabitants betrayed us and supported Hitler and it’s actually not true.”
The expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia continues to this day to be a source of controversy in domestic politics and a thorn in the side of the Czech Republic’s bilateral relations with some of its neighbours. In the run up to the 2013 presidential election, Miloš Zeman for example accused his opponent Karel Schwarzenberg – a descendant of Austrian aristocrats – of “speaking like a Sudeten German” after the latter said the post-war expulsion violated human rights.
But there have been signs of the Czech Republic willing to face this troubled episode of its past. Vaclav Havel, the dissident turned President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic following the Velvet Revolution, several times attempted to make amends for the post-war expulsions – a position regularly condemned by some of his compatriots and political opponents.
Other initiatives, albeit mostly local, have gone in the direction of historical reconciliation. In 2005, a memorial plaque was unveiled in Usti nad Labem to commemorate the massacre of the Germans living in the north-Bohemian city in July 1945. “This plaque should be an expression of our grief towards these unnecessary victims and at the same time it should be an acknowledgement of what happened,” mayor Petr Gandalovic said, also adding that “we can’t compare the suffering of German citizens to that of Czechoslovak citizens under the German occupation”.
In 2015, Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-largest city in Moravia, also held a “Pilgrimage of Reconciliation” to officially commemorate the so-called Brno Death March, which saw local authorities force 20,000 ethnic Germans out of the country on foot to Austria in May 1945.
Those initiatives – two among others held across the country – have however always faced criticism by those who argue there is no need to apologize for what had happened, and that even if crimes were committed during that period, they could in no way be compared to the suffering of Czechoslovaks during the war.
From denial to remembrance, collective guilt to historical reconciliation, the wounds caused by this painful episode are still open, more than 70 years on.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.