Sudeten Germans Still Want to Go Home Acerbic Border Disputes Are Not Isolated to East Europe; Germans Expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II Want Compensation, and Some Politicians Are Listening

Article excerpt

AS Europe tries to forge an unprecedented era of unity, some interest groups threaten to disrupt the process by reviving lingering grievances.

The Sudeten Germans are one such community embroiled in controversy. A vocal minority of Sudetens, now concentrated in the southern German state of Bavaria, is agitating for compensation for the post-World War II expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia. Some want their old land returned, but most would be happy with a financial settlement.

Some powerful politicians in both Germany and Austria support the calls for compensation. Meanwhile, the Czech government steadfastly refuses to discuss the matter.

At the heart of the issue is the notion of collective responsibility. Sudetens complain they were unjustly held responsible as an ethnic group for the horrors committed 50 years ago by the Nazi dictatorship - acts over which they had no influence.

Many Czechs, including President Vaclav Havel, admit Sudetens were treated unfairly. But few Czechs feel the past injustice entitles Sudetens to compensation. Dangerous reaction

If Europe in the future is to avoid its traditional trap of nationalism, its citizens must give up the destructive tendency to dwell too much on the past, says Jiri Musil, a Czech sociologist and director of the Prague College at Central European University.

Reconciliation between Sudeten Germans and Czechs "should be done on an individual level. It shouldn't be a collective bargaining process," Mr. Musil says.

Such a process would be "disastrous and dangerous for both sides because it would start to create a nationalist reaction," he warns.

For centuries the Sudeten Germans and Czech lived together in relative harmony. The current rift opened following Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933.

In 1938, Sudetens figured greatly in the infamous Munich summit, during which Britain assented to Nazi Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland, the area of northern Czechoslovakia in which ethnic Germans lived.

Shortly after Germany's defeat in World War II, Czechoslovakian authorities sought revenge for the Nazi wartime occupation, and the Sudeten Germans proved an easy target. Retribution was carried out ruthlessly.

Prague issued decrees that labeled the ethnic Germans collectively responsible for the annexation of the Sudetenland. The government ordered confiscation of the property of about 2.5 million Sudetens between 1945-47, and they were expelled from the northern Czech regions to Germany and Austria. Thousands died during the forced move.

Decades of postwar communism in Czechoslovakia ruled out discussion on the Sudeten issue. The revival of free speech following the Communists' 1989 ouster, however, reopened the matter.

Today the 100,000-member Sudetendeutsche Landmannschaft, a civic organization representing the Sudetens, is pushing for the repeal of the postwar expulsion order, opening the way for a broad restitution settlement.

No specific compensation plan has yet been advanced. Sudeten leaders admit that few Sudetens wish to live in their ancestral homeland, but that doesn't diminish their desire to see the region retain its Germanic influence.

"Czech silence {on the issue} is nothing short of a second banishment," Sudeten leader Franz Neubauer told the annual gathering of Sudeten Germans, held in late May in the Bavarian city of Nuremburg. …

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