It’s not often that a 70-year-old political dispute plays a role in a contemporary political campaign. But that’s precisely what is happening in the race for president of the Czech Republic—the first time the position will be directly elected by the citizenry, rather than Parliament—being held this weekend.
The issue at hand is the Benes Decrees, named after the post–World War II Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes, which stripped some 2.5 million German-speakers of their Czechoslovak citizenship, confiscated their property without compensation, and forcibly expelled them from the country. This organized, mass transfer followed a series of “wild expulsions” in which thousands of people—including women and children—were killed. They were part and parcel of a broader forced transfer of German civilians—some 12 to 15 million—from across Central and Eastern Europe, in which some 500,000 to 2 million died, all under the watchful and approving eye of the victorious Allied powers.
Czechs, understandably, had little sympathy for their Sudeten German countrymen, the vast majority of whom supported the Third Reich and whose grievances against the government in Prague Hitler exploited to achieve Western acceptance of the fateful Munich Pact that led to his conquest of Czechoslovakia. Though the postwar Decrees stipulated that those Germans who had resisted the Nazis would be spared, in reality, the actual expulsions—more accurately described as ethnic cleansing—were not so discriminating. Many opponents of the Third Reich, including, most ironically, Jews who had declared German ethnic background on Czech census forms and had just been released from Nazi concentration camps, were expelled from Czechoslovakia. More than 60 percent of the expellees were children younger than 15.
According to Richard Evans, the preeminent historian of 20th-century Germany, rather than being the “inevitable consequences of mass popular hatred against Germans triggered by the brutality of Nazi rule,” the expulsions were in fact “the product of political machinations and government policies that could have been prevented or reversed.” In February 1945, George Orwell, no softie on the question of Nazism, referred to the pending expulsions as an “enormous crime.”
The question of the Benes Decrees arose in a debate last week between presidential candidates Karel Schwarzenberg, the current foreign minister, and Milos Zeman, who served as a Social Democratic prime minister from 1998 until 2002. Schwarzenberg faulted the expulsion policy for its reliance upon “the principle of collective guilt,” and went onto say that Benes and other members of the postwar Czechoslovak government “would probably find themselves in The Hague today” for their implementation of the population transfers.
No people like hearing that their nation’s founding fathers were responsible for gross injustices, particularly against people—in this case, ethnic Germans—widely viewed as traitors. But there is no contradiction in admiring Benes and his colleagues, understanding the extreme difficulties they faced in rebuilding a country devastated by six years of Nazi occupation, while also criticizing their inhumane treatment of German civilians. Just as Americans can appreciate the heroism and brilliance of individuals like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson while also taking into account their ownership of slaves, so too can Czechs venerate men like Benes while also acknowledging their faults.
But deviating from a line of absolute Czech innocence on the expulsion of Germans is political heresy in the Czech Republic, and doing so may cost Schwarzenberg the election. His entirely reasonable statements have been met with a round of petty, ethnic chauvinism from his opponents, who are attempting to portray Schwarzenberg—a prince descended from a royal house of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—as an outsider. Zeman, who as prime minister claimed that the expulsions were a more “benign” way of dealing with the Sudeten Germans given that treason was punishable by the death penalty, replied that Schwarzenberg spoke Czech like a Sudeten German.
Vaclav Klaus, the outgoing president, essentially endorsed Zeman, even though Schwarzenberg sits in his government. In an interview after the debate, Klaus claimed that Schwarzenberg’s statements were “contemptuous towards the Czech people.” The next president, Klaus added, should also be someone who spent their entire life in their homeland. (After the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, Schwarzenberg’s family escaped to Austria. He devoted his time in exile to the anti-Communist cause and went onto serve as Vaclav Havel’s chief of staff). For good measure, Klaus’s wife indirectly attacked Schwarzenberg by saying that she could not support a man whose wife does not speak Czech (Schwarzenberg’s spouse is an Austrian national) and Klaus’s son mocked Schwarzenberg’s singing of the Czech national anthem.
The Czechs would do well to recognize that as much as they had a right to resent ethnic Germans after the war, the Benes Decrees set a horrible precedent that likely contributed to the Communist seizure of power just three years later and bred a deeper, long-lasting spiritual corruption. After all, a country that so wantonly disregards individual rights and enacts collective punishment on civilians is priming itself for the onset of a Communist dictatorship. Moreover, had the Czechs allowed the Germans to stay in the country, their votes in the 1948 parliamentary elections would have very likely diluted the power that the Communists—who achieved a plurality at the ballot box—achieved.
Unfortunately, the issue of the postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans has long been seized upon by nationalists on both sides, whether it be revisionist German historians seeking to portray their brethren as the true victims of World War II, or Czech and Polish nationalists who stoke xenophobic sentiments for political gain. Rare is the political figure, like Schwarzenberg, who seeks a reasonable middle ground on what is obviously a sensitive topic. In so doing, he is merely following in the footsteps of his friend and colleague Havel, who went against the tide of Czech popular opinion in making it a point to apologize, quite publically, for the Decrees. In March 1990, five months after the Velvet Revolution peacefully overthrew Communist rule and on the 51st anniversary of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, Havel welcomed then German President Richard von Weizsäcker to Prague. “Six years of Nazi rule was enough, for example, for us to allow ourselves to be infected with the germ of evil,” he said. “We informed on one another, both during and after the war; we accepted in just, as well as exaggerated, indignation the principle of collective guilt. Instead of giving all those who betrayed this state a proper trial, we drove them out of the country and punished them with the kind of retribution that went beyond the rule of law.”
This weekend’s election will be more than just a vote for president. It will demonstrate whether the Czechs are willing to make their country the open, tolerant, and cosmopolitan place that Havel always hoped it could be.
James Kirchick is a Berlin-based fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and was formerly the Prague-based writer at large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.