History is too important to be left to politicians

By Blog Admin, on 10 July 2013

Sudeten-Gedenktafel (Linz)

Photo: Christoph Waghubinger/Wikimedia Commons

Czech debates about the forced removal of the Sudeten Germans exercise a powerful fascination, but they are refracted unevenly in historical writing in English writes guest contributor  Martin D. Brown.

 Seasoned Czech Republic-watchers will be well aware of the paucity of coverage provided by English language sources. With some exceptions, on the sporadic occasions when the country does make an appearance it tends to be in stories about political corruption, natural disasters, or the Czechs’ fondness for beer.

 This is nothing new – see Neville Chamberlain’s comments, circa 1938 – and the obvious solution is to read Czech, although, even this approach is not always straightforward, as was revealed by a dispute that arose during the Czech Presidential elections in early 2013.

 The elections, a contest between foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and former prime minister Miloš Zeman (who won), proved ill-tempered, and included a heated televised dispute over the legacy of the forced removal of around two and half million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945. Intriguingly this just happens to be one subject that has garnered a fair amount of English language coverage in recent decades.

 Superficially this was a clash between opposing sides of the Czech political spectrum: Schwarzenberg, on the centre-right decried the ‘expulsions’ as illegal, unjust, against all the accepted norms of international law and argued they had contributed to the success of the communist coup in 1948; while to the left, Zeman defended the ‘transfers’ as a necessary response to the Sudetens’ collaboration with the Nazis, legal under international law and part of the constitutional   foundations of the modern Czech state. Particularly noteworthy was the way both candidates expressed their respective positions through the terms ‘expulsion’ (vyhnání) and ‘transfer’ (odsun)  to denote their approval or disapproval for the process.

 Anyone following this spat would have been left with little idea which position was the more accurate, and turning to Czech sources wouldn’t have offered any immediate answers.

 Two opposed interpretations

These arguments have a long pedigree in Czech(oslovak) politics, having re-emerged in their current form on 15 March 1990, when President Václav Havel expressed regret for the ‘expulsion’ of the Sudeten Germans during a visit by the then West German Chancellor, Richard von Weizsäcker; in 1997 a Czech-German Declaration attempted to resolve the issue, and failed; the topic was resurrected when the Czech Republic applied to join the European Union, and again in 2009 when Václav Klaus initially refused to sign-up to the Lisbon Treaty.

 The contours of this debate had already been shaped by Czech-German exchanges that had began back in the 1950s, when Sudeten German ‘Expellee’ groups in West Germany began raising claims to the land and property they had lost. Predictably the Czechoslovak Communists labelled them ‘revanchists’ and defended the legitimacy of the ‘transfer’ policy, as did many Czechoslovak émigrés in the west. The Prague Spring allowed for some limited re-examination of the subject, soon cut short by the ‘Normalisation’ regime that followed the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968. Then, in the mid-1970s, dissidents began the diskuse o odsunu (discussions on the transfers) and, equally predictably, took a view diametrically opposed to that expressed by the communist authorities. Irrespective of the historical evidence the discourse was highly politicised from the outset.

 As Hans Henning & Eva Hahn’s magnum opus Die Vertreibung im deutschen Erinnern. Legenden, Mythos, Geschichte shows, these Cold War confrontations were themselves moulded by interactions stretching far back into the 18th century. Not least the gradual emergence of rival Czech and German national identities in the ‘Czech lands’, the sudden creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the Munich Agreement and the Second World War.

 The end result has been the creation of two distinct, yet oppositional (a)historical interpretations of the subject: one encapsulated by the term ‘transfer’, which supports the legitimacy of the removals and downplays the associated violence; the other, ‘expulsion’, which utterly rejects any legitimacy and inflates the death toll.

 These then were exactly the positions expressed by Schwarzenberg and Zeman. Their impact on the outcome of the elections is a matter for political scientists.

Academia and the ‘expulsion’ thesis

 What is particularly fascinating, however, is just how thoroughly this ‘expulsion’ thesis has come to dominate English sources, both academic and journalistic.  Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a case in point (pp. 124-57). Similar approaches are identifiable in Mary Heimann’s Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed and in Paul Wilson’s review of R.M. Douglas’s Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War in the New York Review of Books. More nuanced perspectives can be found in Bradley F. Abrams’s The Struggle for the Soul of the Nation or Benjamin Frommer’s National Cleansing.

 So how and why did this come to pass? One of the curiosities of this subject, as it began to re-emerge in English during the 1980s/90s, was the persistent belief that these events were totally suppressed during the Cold War and the ‘truth’ had to be revealed. This simply isn’t accurate. There were always plenty of German language materials available, even if Czech sources were inaccessible.

Indeed, it was largely from these German sources that the subject was re-transmitted back into English, a point easily confirmed by a rigorous interrogation of the relevant footnotes. There was even a wide ranging discussion in English during the 1940s over the morality of employing ‘population transfers’, which Matthew Frank has recently explored, although this aspect is all too often ignored. Nevertheless, this revelatory impulse impelled Alfred De Zayas’s numerous polemical, and influential works on the ‘expulsions’ and it remains a subtext in many works to this day.

 There was also the general impression that if Václav Havel supported a thesis, especially one opposed to the Communist Party line then it had to be ‘true’ – which is perfectly understandable, if rather naïve. Combine all this with a renewed interest in nationalism and ‘ethnic cleansing’ during the 1990s, as well as the ever present academic desire to ‘shift paradigms’, to give a ‘voice’ to the losers in this process and to make an impact and it becomes understandable why one side of the discourse gained more traction than another.

 History is obviously far too important a business to be left to politicians, but anyone hoping to discover which are the more ‘accurate’ argument is will be sorely disappointed to learn that both ‘expulsion’ and ‘transfer’ reflect deeply entrenched, partisan positions, derived from a geographically myopic discourse.

 Neither term is wholly correct (nor wholly incorrect), but a holistic appreciation of the history of these events only emerges from a comprehension of the entire discourse – in German and in Czech, and possibly in English too, as well as parallel discussions in Polish and Hungarian – irrespective of which version one might find the more politically, or indeed morally, persuasive.

 Martin D. Brown is an Associate Professor of International History at Richmond University, the American international University in London:

This post is based on a paper delivered at the Czechoslovakia and the other occupied nations in London: The Story of the Exile Revisited after Seventy Years conference held at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague in June 2013.

 Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.