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National Mythologies and Ethnic Cleansing: The Expulsion of Czechoslovak Germans in 1945

  • Eagle Glassheim (a1)

Beginning in January of 1946, trains filled with Sudeten Germans—forty wagons, thirty passengers per wagon—left Czechoslovakia daily for the American Zone of occupied Germany. By the end of 1946, the Czechoslovak government completed the “organized transfer” of almost 2 million Germans, and it did so in a manner that in many respects fulfilled the mandate of the Potsdam agreement that the resettlement be “orderly and humane.” But a focus on these regularized trainloads of human cargo obscures the extent of the humanitarian disaster facing Germans during the summer months of 1945, immediately after the Nazi capitulation. By the end of 1945, Czech soldiers, security forces, and local militias had already expelled over 700,000 Sudeten Germans to occupied Germany and Austria. As many as 30,000 Germans died on forced marches, in disease-filled concentration camps, in summary executions, and massacres.

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1. Radomír Luža, The Transfer of the Sudeten Germans (New York, 1964), 279–86.

2. Though historians disagree widely on the number of deaths, a recent report from a Czech-German “Joint Commission of Historians” agreed on a range from 19,000 to 30,000 dead. The commission's collective conclusions appear in Konfliktní společenství, katastrofa, uvolnění: Náčrt výkladu německo-českých dějin od 19. století (Conflictual Community, Catastrophe, Detente: An Outline of an Interpretation of Czech-German History from the Nineteenth Century) (Prague: Ústav mezinárodních vztahů, 1996). The commission's figures included “more than 6,000 victims of acts of violence” and 5,000 estimated suicides.

3. See in particular Alfred de Zayas, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 1944–1950 (New York, 1994).

4. See in particular Wenzel Jaksch, Europe's Road to Potsdam, trans. Kurt Glaser (New York, 1963 [1958]). Also: Alfred de Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam: The Expulsion of the Germans from the East (Lincoln, 1989 [1977]).

5. Luža devotes ten of the fourteen chapters in his book to building a case for Sudeten German responsibility for the breakdown of Czech-German relations and for Nazi atrocities. Only three chapters deal with the expulsions themselves. See Luža , Transfer.

6. The foremost advocate of the documentary approach is Tomáš Staněk. See his Perzekuce (Persecution) (Prague, 1996) and Odsun Němců z Československa 1945–1947 (The Transfer of Germans from Czechoslovakia, 1945–1947) (Prague, 1991).

7. Václav Havel made this point on a number of occasions since 1989. See for example his speech during the visit of German President Richard von Weizsäcker on 15 March 1990. Reprinted in The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, trans. Paul Wilson (New York, 1997), 2128. For the Czech (and Slovak) dissident debate on the morality of expulsions, see Bohumil Černý, Jan Křen, Václav Kural, and Milan Otáhal, eds., Češi, NĚmci, Odsun [Czechs, Germans, Transfer] (Prague, 1990). Bradley Abrams summarizes and evaluates that debate in Morality, Wisdom and Revision: The Czech Opposition of the 1970s and the Expulsion of the Sudeten Germans,” East European Politics and Societies 9, no. 2 (1995): 234–55.

8. The concept of a “cognitive model” comes from Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1997).

9. Philipp Ther, “The Century of Ethnic Cleansing: Forced Migration in Central and Eastern Europe between 1912 and 1995,” conference paper, presented at the American Historical Association Annual Convention, 9 January 1999.

10. Ibid.

11. Final Report of the Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992), 27 May 1994, par. 129. My thanks to Roy Gutman for providing me with this reference.

12. Czechs tended not to destroy German property, because they expected to get legal title to it. Czech settlers and so-called gold-diggers (zlatokopové) began moving into the Sudetenland within weeks after the German capitulation, and a series of presidential decrees in the summer of 1945 confirmed their claims to German property.

13. Czechoslovakia was officially a state of the Czechs and Slovaks, referred to collectively as Czechoslovaks. Though a small minority of interwar citizens accepted this amalgam as their national identity, the vast majority was either Czech or Slovak. The two languages are closely related and mutually intelligible, but they are clearly not two dialects of one language.

14. Joseph Rothschild, East Central Europe Between the Two World Wars (Seattle, 1992 [1974]), 80. By Bohemia, I mean the traditional “Lands of the Bohemian Crown,” that is the former Habsburg provinces of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austrian Silesia (the territory of the current Czech Republic).

15. Contrary to Czech national mythology, White Mountain was more a religious than a national dispute. Czechs and Germans—noble and commoner alike—served on both sides of the conflict. See Evans R. J. W., The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy 1550–1700 (Oxford, 1979), 195216.

16. Jiří Rak, Bývali Čechove: české mýty a stereotypy (Czechs of Old: Czech Myths and Stereotypes) (Prague, 1994), 107.

17. Nancy Meriwether Wingfield, “Conflicting Constructions of Memory: Attacks on Statues of Joseph II in the Bohemian Lands after the Great War,” Austrian History Yearbook 28 (1997): 149.

18. See Cynthia Paces, “Religious Images and National Symbols in the Creation of Czech Identity, 1890–1938” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1998), 157–58.

19. In the years following Czechoslovak independence, crowds and local governments attacked or removed numerous statues of Joseph II, who was “generally considered the personification of Germandom.” Zdeněk Hojda and Jiří Pokorný, Pomníky a zapomníky (Memorials and Forgettings) (Prague, 1997), 133, 142. Hojda and Pokorný also document a wave of attacks on Marian columns in the Czech countryside (p. 30). See also Wingfield , “Conflicting Constructions.”

20. See the debate on land reform in the National Assembly on 16 April 1919 (session 46). Text at Elektronická knihovna—Český parlament: dokumenty českého parlamentu (Electronic Library—Czech Parliament: documents of the Czech Parliament) <> (23 February 1999).

21. Modráček, National Assembly, Meeting 46 (16 April 1919).

22. Ladislav Holý, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation (Cambridge, 1996), 121.

23. On the relatively favorable conditions in the Protectorate and the lack of serious Czech resistance, see Vojtěch Mastný, The Czechs under Nazi Rule: The Failure of National Resistance, 1939–1942 (New York, 1971).

24. “Dopis člena Politického ústředí informující o růstu radikálních postojů vůči Němcům” [Letter from a member of the Political Headquarters (PÚ) informing on the increase of radical views toward the Germans], 16 November 1939, in Jitka Vondrová, ed., Češi a sudetoněmecká otázka 1939–1945 (Czechs and the Sudeten-German question 1939–1945) (Prague, 1994), 35.

25. Zdeněk Peška, “Pamětní spis o výměně obyvatelstva” (Memorandum on the exchange of populations), October 1939, in Vondrová , ed., Češi, 2123.

26. Stephen Ladas, The Exchange of Minorities: Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey (New York, 1932).

27. Peška , “Pamětní spis,” in Vondrová , ed., Češi, 22.

28. Edvard Beneš, “Depeše pro ÚVOD s programem řešení německé otázky v Československu” (Dispatch for ÚVOD with a program for the solution of the German question in Czechoslovakia), 26–27 November 1940, in Vondrová , ed., Češi, 7779.

29. Vladimír Krajina, “Depeše pro P. Drtinu se vzkazem Z. Bořka Dohalského k Benešovu plánu tří německých žup” [Dispatch for P. Drtina with a message of Z. Bořek Dohalský concerning Beneš’s plan for three German counties], 3 December 1940, in Vondrová , ed., Češi, 79.

30. Bruce Lockhart, memorandum marked “Secretary of State,” 14 June 1942. Columbia University Special Collections, Jaromír Smutný papers, box 22, folder 7.

31. In a 1992 article on ethnic cleansing, Hans Lemberg shows how the idea of population transfer had gained legitimacy in Europe and America well before World War II. See “Ethnische Säuberung: Ein Mittel zur Lösung von Nationalitätenproblemen?” in Lemberg , Mit unbestecklichem Blick … Studien von Hans Lemberg zur Geschkhte der böhmischen Länder und der Tschechoslowakei (Munich, 1998), 377–96.

32. On administrative chaos, see Emilia Hrabovec, “Neue Aspekte zur ersten Phase der Vertreibung der Deutschen aus Mähren 1945,” in Nationale Frage und Vertreibung in der Tschechoslowakei und Ungarn 1938–1948, ed. Richard Plaschka, Horst Haselsteiner, Arnold Suppan, and Anna Drabek (Vienna, 1997), 117–40.

33. Beneš speeches at Brno and in Prague, 12 and 16 May 1945, and in Tabor, 16 June 1945. Printed in Edvard Beneš, Odsun Zěmců z Ceskoshvenska (The Transfer of Germans from Czechoslovakia), ed., Karel Novotný (Prague, 1996), 138–39, 148. Politicians and newspapers from across the political spectrum regularly used the term “liquidate” in reference to the Germans in 1945. Though the term may have had domestic roots, it was likely an appropriation of Nazi terminology.

34. Speech at Plzeň, 15 June 1945, in ibid., 146.

35. Provincial National Committee, Prague (ZNV Praha) to District National Committees (ONV), 12 June 1945, Státní ústřední archiv (SÚA) Prague, Ministerstvo vnitra-Noskův archiv (MV-N), carton 254, #160.

36. Stanislav Biman and Roman Cílek, Poslední mrtví, první živí: české pohraničí květen až srpen 1945 (The Last Dead, the First Living: The Bohemian Borderlands, May to August 1945) (Ústí nad Labem, 1989), 116.

37. See Tomáš , Odsun, 61.

38. “Naše půda bude vyrvána z cizáckých rukou” (Our Soil Will Be Snatched Away From Foreign Hands). Rudé právo, 7 June 1945, 1.

39. Zdeněk Fierlinger, 1 July 1945, in Odčiňujeme Bílou horu [We Are Rectifying White Mountain] (Prague: Jednotný svaz českých zemědělců, 1945), 12.

40. Quoted in Andrei Bell, “The Expulsion of the Sudeten Germans: A Breakdown in the Ethnic Boundary Maintenance Mechanisms” (Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1997), 317.

41. Expulsion and flight figures are from Theodor Schieder, ed., Documents on the Expulsion of the Germans from Eastern-Central-Europe, vol. 4 (Bonn: Federal Ministry for Expellees, Refugees, and War Victims, 1960), 127. Czech and German sources have long disagreed on the number of deaths. German historians, many of them Sudeten expellees, have claimed upwards of 200,000 deaths during the expulsions from Czechoslovakia. See, for example, Friedrich Prinz, Geschichte Böhmens 1848–1948 (Berlin, 1991), 468. A recent joint report of the Czech-German historians’ commission has settled on the range of 17,000 to 30,000 dead, a more reasonable figure. See Konfliktní společenství, 29–30.

42. For a particularly nationalist and anti-Semitic take on the census of 1930, see Moravská Orlice (Moravian Eagle), 8 January 1933 and 2 April 1933.

43. Wingfield , “Conflicting Constructions,” 154.

44. Beneš speech, Brno city hall, 12 May 1945, Beneš , Odsun, 138.

45. Benjamin Frommer, “Retribution against Nazi Collaborators in Postwar Czechoslovakia” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1999), 5152. See also Karel Kaplan, Poválečné Československo: národy a hranice (Postwar Czechoslovakia: Nations and Borders) (Munich, 1985), 140.

46. This narrative and the quotes in this paragraph are from three internal Interior Ministry documents. SÚA, MV-N, carton 254, #160. Dates are 1 and 2 June 1945 and undated (June, 1945). See also Staněk , Perzekuce, 8790.

47. Ibid., 88.

48. Staněk , Odsun, 75.

49. Jaroslav Stránský was a leader of the Czech National Socialists, a left-wing nationalist party unrelated to the Nazi Party in Germany.

50. Telephone report of Bedrich Pokorný, Velitel Národní bezpečnostní stráže pro Moravu v Brně, to Ministry of Interior, 2 June 1945. SÚA, MV-N, carton 254 #160.

51. Ibid.

52. Staněk , Perzekuce, 89. That means that between 5,000 and 6,000 Germans of the original 30,000 were able to return home.

53. Referát plk. Bartíka p. ministru vnitra, undated (June 1945). SÚA, MV-N, carton 254 #160.

54. Staněk , Perzekuce, 8990.

55. See the accounts of the march reproduced in Schieder , Documents on the Expulsion. Maria Zatschek reported that “hundreds” died during the march (Schieder, 484).

56. As reported in Interior Ministry memo #Z-379/45, 1 June 1945. SÚA, MV-N, carton 254 #160.

57. The Czech National Socialists were unrelated to the German party of the same name. Founded in the 1890s as a socialist alternative to the nationalist Young Czechs, the party evolved during the interwar period into a nationalist alternative to the Social Democrats. The party's most prominent member, at least before his election as president in 1935, was Edvard Beneš.

58. Staněk , Perzekuce, 8788.

59. Staněk , Odsun, 82.

60. Zdeněk Radvanovský, “Nucené vysídlení a odsun Němcůz města a okresu Ústí nad Labem v letech 1945–1946” (Forced Resettlement and the Transfer of Germans from the Town and District of Ústí nad Labem from 1945–1946), in Studie o sudetoněmecké otázce (Studies on the Sudeten German Question), ed. Václav Kural (Prague, 1996), 132–33.

61. Jeremy King documents a similar “switching” in the south Bohemian town of České Budějovice (Budweis) during the Nazi occupation. Around 11 percent of Czechs in the Budweis district made the switch in 1939. See King's “Loyalty and Polity, Nation and State: A Town in Habsburg Central Europe, 1848–1948” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1998), 331.

62. A. Piffl, Kronika města Ústí nad Labem za válečná léta 1938–1945 (Chronicle of Ústí nad Labem During the War Years 1938–1945), 1947. Quoted in Radvanovský , “Nucené vysídlení,” 137.

63. Radvanovský , “Nucené vysídlení, 137–38.

64. Ibid., 139–40. Radvanovský puts the official total of internees at 5,458, but adds that many more were interned before official records began in late June. The official death count of 286 included some violent deaths immediately following liberation and many from malnutrition and disease, including 160 deaths from typhus in late 1945.

65. Ibid., 140–43. Around 1,600 Germans remained in concentration camps in the region at the end of July. Ministry of Information report to Ministry of Interior, 4 August 1945, p. 5. Archiv Ministerstva vmtra [Archive of the Ministry of Interior] (AMV), Prague, LM:11873.

66. Bohmann A., Die Ausweisung der Sudetendeutschen dargestellt am Beispiel dcs Stadt- und Land- kreises Aussig (Marburg, 1955), 50. Quoted in Radvanovský , “Nucené vysídlení,” 141.

67. Staněk , Perzekuce, 131.

68. In a recent dissertation, Andrei Bell (a.k.a. Andrew Bell-Fialkoff) documents the common image in Czech periodicals in 1945 of Germans as “dangerous guests.” See Bell , “The Expulsion of the Sudeten Germans,” 293.

69. “Jed werwolfu v duši každého Němce” (The Poison of the Werewolf is in the Soul of Every German), Svobodné slovo, 1 August 1945, 1. The Communist press made a similar argument in a number of articles in July of 1945. See “Očistíme nemilosrdně naše pohraničí od německých vlkodlaků: Bezpečnost republiky vyžaduje rychlého vystěhování Němců” (We Will Cleanse Mercilessly Our Borderlands of German Werewolves: The Security of the Republic Demands the Rapid Removal of the Germans), in Rudé právo, 11 July 1945, 1.

70. Staněk , Perzekuce, 138–52.

71. Ministry of Information report to Ministry of Interior, 4 August 1945, p. 2. AMV, Prague, LM: 11873.

72. The Ministry of Information report claimed that the bridge violence began when a German cried out “Germany lives! Long live Germany!” Ibid., p. 2.

73. Radvanovský, “Události 31. července 1945 v Ústí nad Labem” (Events of 31 July 1945 in Ústí nad Labem) in Kural , Studie, 120–22.

74. Staněk , Perzckuce, 136.

75. Ironically, Minister of Interior Nosek and Minister of Defense Svoboda concluded that the Ústí “pogrom” happened because the Czech authorities had not dealt harshly enough with Germans in the previous weeks. “As long as we and the general public act firmly [toward the Germans],” Svoboda said the day after the explosion, “then the street will not rule.” The assembled officials pledged a new wave of intervention to “liquidate werewolves” and the acceleration of the expulsion of the remaining two million “unreliable” Germans. Ministry of Information report to Ministry of Interior, 4 August 1945, p. 8. AMV, Prague, LM:11873.

76. In a perceptive article on genocide in history, Jared Diamond shows an interesting pattern in genocidal activity since the fifteenth century. Before 1900, most genocides took place as a result of colonial encounters, with Europeans (or descendents of Europeans) destroying aboriginal peoples. From 1900–1950, the locus of genocide moved to Europe, and the pace accelerated. Since 1950, there have been no fewer than seventeen genocides, predominantly in Third World countries in Africa and Asia. Diamond blames the twentieth-century increase in genocides on denser populations, improved communications, and improved technologies. See Diamond , The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (New York, 1992), 284–97.

77. There is a sizable literature on the relationship of “modernity” to the Holocaust and other twentieth century cases of human engineering. See in particular the stimulating Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, 1989) by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. For a critical view of the modernization theories, see Michael Burleigh, Ethics and Extermination: Reflections on Nazi Genocide (Cambridge, 1997) 169–82.

78. On technology and genocide, see Alan Beyerchen, “Rational Means and Irrational Ends: Thoughts on the Technology of Racism in the Third Reich,” Central European History 30, no. 3 (1997): 386402. Beyerchen makes the argument that bureaucracy, by shaping possibilities for action, functions as a kind of technology. Incidentally, the case of Rwanda suggests that old-fashioned methods (machetes) can be just as destructive as newer technologies.

79. The founding father and first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, raised and rejected the idea of a transfer of minorities in a 1918 book on the postwar shape of Europe. His reason seems quaint in retrospect: it would be impossible to convince them to move! Masaryk Tomáš Garrigue, Nová Evropa (New Europe) (Brno, 1994 [1918]), 107–9.

80. Václav Havel, address on Czech-German relations, 17 February 1995, reprinted in the Newsletter of the Embassy of the Czech Republic 3, no. 3 (03 1995): 4.

81. In fact, American academia is still producing the occasional work that proposes population transfer as a legitimate solution to minority problems today. See Andrew Bell-Fialkoff's troubling book, Ethnic Cleansing (New York, 1996). Bell-Fialkoff considers “the transfer of Germans from Czechoslovakia by the Allies [sic] in 1945–47 [sic]” a paradigmatic case of justified expulsion (p. 220). He draws on a similar argument by the American political scientist Joseph Schechtman in the 1960s. See Schechtman , Postwar Population Transfers in Europe, 1945–1955 (Philadelphia, 1962).

82. Making a slightly different argument, Jan Gross cites “wartime experience of spiritual crisis, crisis of values, and normative disorganization” as a precondition for the Communist seizure of power in East Central Europe. Gross , “War as Revolution,” in The Establishment of Communist Regimes in Eastern Europe, 1944–1949, ed., Norman Naimark and Leonid Gibianskii (Boulder, 1997), 24.

83. “Směrnice pro Národní výbory o nejnutnějších opatřenich v zemědělství” (Directives for National Committees Concerning the Most Pressing Measures in Agriculture), Ministry of Agriculture, 10 May 1945, p. 2. SÚA, Ministerstvo zemědělsrví (Ministry of Agriculture) (MZ-S), carton 372, #195.

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