Sunday 3 January 2010

Two wrongs

If I wanted to raise the hackles of my Czech friends and family, I could rename my lap of the Czech perimeter the "Tour of the Sudetenland". Certainly if I was doing this trip before 1945, stages 1-6 of my route would pass almost entirely through German-speaking regions. Only stage 7 would be on ethnic Czech territory.

Map of German-speaking territories in today's Czech Republic before 1945

Today, however, all these border areas are inhabited almost solely by Czechs. So why this historical discontinuity?

The mountainous frontier country of much of the present-day Czech Republic had been part of the Kingdom of Bohemia since the Middle Ages and had never been a separate political entity. However, ethnic Germans had long made up a large majority of its population. Nationalist tensions between the Czech and Germans in the region began rising in the 19th century. After World War I, the Sudetendeutsche - as they were now known - were made citizens of the new nation state of Czechoslovakia.

In the mid-1930s, the Sudeten German Party, led by Konrad Henlein, was formed and quickly rose to prominence. Despite initially declaring allegiance to the Czechoslovak state, it became increasingly aligned with the aims and ambitions of the German Nazi Party.

Under the 1938 Munich Agreement, the Sudetenland was ceded to Nazi Germany. At the stroke of a pen, Czechoslovakia was deprived of a broad swathe of territory equivalent to about one-third of the area of the Czech Republic today. The next year, the remainder of the country was invaded and proclaimed the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia" by Adolf Hitler. Here is a map of the changes.

A large majority of the Sudeten Germans supported the annexation. In elections held in December 1938, 97.32% of the electorate voted for the Nazis. Membership of the Nazi Party was more than twice as high in the Sudetenland than in the Reich as a whole. Czech and Jews, along with German antifascists, were violently persecuted and forced to flee.

Soon after the War, some 2.5 million Sudeten Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia under decrees signed by President Edvard  Beneš. Many died in the process. Their confiscated property was transferred mostly to ethnic Czechs, who settled/resettled the area. The word "Sudeten" and its derivatives were banned in Czechoslovakia; from now on the region was to be referred to officially as pohraniční území (border territory). German place names were replaced by Czech ones.

These two rounds of ethnic cleansing had a profound effect on the region and remain a political hot potato to this day. Indeed, the current Czech president, Václav Klaus, initially refused to sign the EU's Lisbon Treaty partly over concerns that ethnic Germans would try to reclaim their confiscated property.

One thing is for certain, I'll be making far more use of my Czech than my (virtually non-existent) German on my lap of the Czech Republic over the next couple of years. But not so long ago - within living memory - things would have been very different.

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