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Benes's Electoral Second Coming

A cross-border dispute over history colors this week's election in the Czech Republic

PRAGUE--Like their peers in recent elections in France and the Netherlands, some politicians in Central Europe have stirred up nationalism to win votes. But the burning issue isn't immigration. It is a painful historical event that lay politically dormant for over five decades.

The history itself isn't even in dispute. In 1945 and 1946, just after the war, Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes stripped Germans and Hungarians of citizenship and confiscated their property. Some 3 million "Sudeten" Germans and thousands of Hungarians were victims of one of the biggest acts of ethnic cleansing in modern European history. Even after the fall of communism, Czech leaders maintained the expulsions were a just response to Nazi atrocities. Sudeten German groups in Bavaria and Austria condemned the Benes Decrees, without conveying visible regret for their collaboration with Hitler.

And so it went, until a few months ago, when this ghost came back with a vigor just in time for elections in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Germany. Austrian populist Joerg Haider threatened to block the Czech Republic's accession to the EU unless Prague abolished the Benes decrees. Hungarian candidates took up the issue in their recent campaign, as have the two leading candidates for German chancellor. Ahead of the parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic this Friday and Saturday, all the major parties keep talking about the need to defend "national interests", clearly alluding to Benes and his decrees. The Communists, in particular, brought their support up to 6-8% in recent polls by wooing voters with the fears of "German revenge."

Few politicians have risen above the fray. Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, in fact, seized on Mr. Haider's early comments by calling Sudeten Germans "a Fifth Column and claiming they were lucky they weren't executed as traitors. Mr. Zeman's undiplomatic words caused an uproar in Germany and Austria. To Germans especially, Mr. Zeman appeared to breach a 1997 joint declaration in which Germany and the Czech Republic agreed to set aside painful questions from the past. Following those remarks, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder cancelled his visit to the Czech Republic.

Propaganda Tool

It is now fairly clear that Mr. Zeman was playing electoral politics. Other Czech politicians quickly realized they could not stay far behind him in a country where some 80% of voters still think that expelling the Sudeten Germans was the right thing to do. An unprecedented wave of nationalist passions that engulfed the Czech Republic didn't pass without response in Germany and Austria, which are also gearing for elections. German conservative Edmund Stoiber, who's married to a Sudeten German, pressed the Czechs to renounce the decrees and to offer at least symbolic gestures to Sudeten Germans. Yet, he and others have been careful not to tie the fate of the decrees to Czech membership in the EU.

All the same, some Czech politicians responded by accusing Germany, Austria and Hungary of forming "an axis of evil" and putting Czech EU hopes in jeopardy. Vaclav Klaus, chairman of the opposition Civic Democratic Party, even demanded the EU guarantee the Benes decrees will not be revised. Unless his demands are met, his party promises to oppose membership. In April, the Czech parliament unanimously declared that the Benes decrees were untouchable--even if, as parliament also acknowledged, the decrees are legally "extinct."

For its part, the EU has requested a legal analysis of the decrees, and the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding any discriminatory provisions be abolished by the Czechs.

As the Benes decrees become electoral propaganda, all attempts at discussing this complex problem quickly degenerate into political muscle-flexing. It is probably inevitable, however, with the EU on the cusp of a far-reaching enlargement that these outstanding issues from the past will continue to hit raw nerves. How these Central European countries wind up resolving this problem will not only be instructive for other European countries. It may also tell us whether a wider EU can really work together.

More than just an eventual abolition of some controversial provisions in the 50-year old decrees may be needed. The organized transfer of Germans from Czechoslovakia to Germany and Austria had been preceded by wild expulsions, during which thousands of Germans were killed. The millions of expelled Germans included people who were Nazi symphatizers and committed crimes during the war. But there were also people who fought against Hitler. Even some Jews returning from concentration camps who had in various Czechoslovak censuses declared their nationality as German were expelled too. Over 60% of all the expellees were children under 15 years of age. The Czechs have never officially apologized or offered compensation, even for those excesses.

President Vaclav Havel, a former dissident, did issue what could be considered an apology at the end of 1989. A few months later, when German President Richard Weizsacker visited Prague in 1990, Mr. Havel said: "Six years of Nazi rule was enough for us to allow ourselves to be infected with the germ of evil. 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 was not punishment. It was revenge."

The Czech Burden

Mr. Havel's was a solitary voice in Czechoslovakia. It is now clear that the Czechs must reevaluate their uncompromising attitude. Even if the decrees are legally "extinct," they are not extinct politically and morally.

What can be done? The Czech Republic is in no position to return the confiscated property and land to Sudeten Germans on a large scale. Such a step would cause great economic turmoil in the country. Most assets confiscated from the Sudeten Germans have changed hands several times, and taking them away from their current owners, 57 years later, would simply bring more injustice.

The Czechs could offer symbolic gestures, apologizing for indiscriminately applying the principle of collective guilt. The country might compensate at least those Sudeten Germans who actively fought against Hitler. Mr. Zeman recently mentioned this might be possible.

The Czechs would also risk very little if they declared the decrees officially invalid from now on, stressing at the same time that the Czech Republic cannot for legal, economic and political reasons renounce the decrees retroactively. In fact, no reasonable German and Austrian politician demands these retroactive measures, as they could cast doubt on all post-war arrangements in Europe.

Today's Czech Republic, aspiring to become a modern democracy and an EU member, would certainly benefit by distancing itself officially from the Stalinist methods that post-war Czechoslovakia used to "solve" the problem with its large ethnic German minority. The Czechs and the Sudeten Germans will most likely live under a common European roof in less than two years. Symbolic gestures and a dialogue between them now could alleviate fears of what will happen when the borders that separate them disappear in 2004.

The burden of dealing with the past is not only on the Czechs. Both the German and the Austrian governments need to assure the Czechs that gestures of goodwill, such as declaring the decrees legally invalid from now on and apologizing to the Sudeten Germans, will not trigger large government-sponsored restitution claims in Austria and Germany.

World Street Journal - 11. 6. 2002