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ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
24. 2. 2004

The Sudeten German Problem

The misuses of propaganda

BBC Radio Four has recently broadcast a surprisingly unbalanced documentary by Misha Glenny, about the deportation of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945. Historian Martin D. Brown uses this programme as a point of departure for the following essay:

It is not generally known that one of the best organised, and effective, propaganda organisations during the Second World War belonged to the Czechoslovak government in exile. During its six years in London, under the leadership of Dr Edvard Beneš, an efficient program was enacted to help define and promote the government's political objectives.

Most famous of all were Jan Masaryk's radio broadcasts to the Protectorate, but in addition the work of Dr Hubert Ripka, Edward Táborský and the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) Czech section helped generate widespread support for the exiles' policies.

It is a mark of the sophistication of this operation that many of the texts produced by these activities were donated to the London Library in St James's Square; located in the heart of the capital's club-land and regularly used by key figures of the British establishment. These remain on the shelves, stacked under the heading of `Bohemia', as a testament to the acumen of these propagandists.

The exiles knew full well that the key to the promotion of their aims was the dissemination of the `right' message to the `right' people in London, Washington and Moscow. Balance and objectivity were eschewed in preference of Beneš's ultimate aim of re-creating Czechoslovakia within her pre-1937 frontiers. As part of which process the country's Sudeten German minority were increasingly identified as being responsible for its demise, something for which they would have to pay a price.

London Library HERE

Coincidentally, just a few doors down from the library stands Chatham House, home to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, which had played an important role in the formation of British foreign policy in the late 1930s, had published Elisabeth Wiskermann's Czechs and Germans in 1938 (still widely regarded as one the most authoritative texts on the subject) and that later produced the first proposals for the widespread ejection of ethnic Germans from Central Europe after the war, written by the philosopher J.D. Mabbott in May 1940.

See M. D Brown, `Forcible Population Transfers -- A flawed legacy or an unavoidable necessity in protracted ethnic conflicts? The Case of the Sudeten Germans'. HERE (subscription)

Although the Czechoslovak authorities eventually secured international support for the removal of the Sudeten Germans at the Potsdam Conference in the late summer of 1945, not least because of the success of a dedicated propaganda campaign, Czechs have been far less successful in defending their position since 1989. Indeed, the repercussions of these events continue to have an important effect on the Republic's present relations with her neighbours, long after the conclusion of the Czech-German Declaration of 1997 that was supposed to resolve the issue.

But this situation is itself the result of a fierce propaganda battle waged across the media by Czechs and Germans from the1940s up until the present day. Our current understanding of these events comes from these competing polarised and politicised accounts.

Somewhat ironically the Czech's greatest propaganda coup came with their homeland's greatest tragedy; the obliteration of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky in 1942, in retaliation for the assassination of Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. The resulting `Lidice Lives' campaign galvanised international support for the liberation of the Czech lands and became a byword for Nazi brutality in occupied Europe. Equally it helped solidify Allied support for the evolving plans to `transfer' a proportion of the Sudeten German population from Czechoslovakia.

In the United States members of the Lidice committee included James F. Byrnes, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. On 13 June 1942, Colonel Frank Knox, the American Secretary of the Navy announced, "If future generations ask us what we were fighting for in this war we shall tell them the story of Lidice..." But sixty years later the contemporary impact of Lidice has largely been forgotten in the west. Instead, over the past 15 years the Czechs have been increasingly associated in western minds with the brutality and violence of the transfer (or expulsion) of the Sudeten Germans.

In part this is the consequence of the effective campaign waged by the Sudeten German `Expellee Organisations' in west Germany and their supporters to promote their `expulsion thesis' -- which claims that more than 200,000 Germans died in the expulsions and that rejected the legality of this act on the basis of collective guilt. The opposing `transfer thesis' downplays the violence committed against German civilians and stresses the international co-operation and support for the transfers, a position taken by the current Czech government.

Although both terms are accurate in a purely linguistic sense, careful examination of the use of `transfer' and `expulsion' by commentators is needed for any understanding this debate as each carries its own implicit meanings and define the user's position on the issue.

In a manner not dissimilar to the contest between the competing interpretations over the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as examined by the historian Benny Morris, there exist two rival histories that are mutually exclusive. Consequently any attempt to understand what actually occurred, as opposed to repeating the opposing mythological interpretations, must acknowledge that these two accounts exist side by side and that they are both the result of propaganda rather than historical scholarship.

Yet as a consequence of the Cold War the `expulsion thesis' has predominated in the west, not least as the Communists in Prague became defenders of the `transfer thesis' first outlined by Beneš and his colleagues. This position has now been re-enforced by the growing body of literature that portrays German civilians as the forgotten victims of the Second World War: The bombing of Dresden, the crimes committed by the occupying Soviet army and most of all the `expulsion' of some 10-12 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe.

This problem has been further compounded by the fact than several leading Czech dissidents, most notably Václav Havel, took up a position in support of the `expulsion thesis' during the period of `normalisation' in the 1970s that they then carried with them into government in 1989.

Yet the bulk of the Czech population seem far less inclined to apologise or compensate the Sudeten Germans, or to annul the so-called Beneš Decrees (the Presidential Decrees) prior to their accession to the European Union (EU). The abolition of the Decrees has been a key demand of Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft [Sudeten German National Union formed in 1950] and attempts have been made by the European Peoples Party (EPP) to disrupt Czech accession to the EU until this has been done (albeit unsuccessfully).

The effects of this long running clash of rival propagandistic interpretations can be clearly identified in two recent documentaries on the subject aired by the BBC. Two British journalists, Charles Wheeler and Misha Glenny, both focused on what they regarded as the `forgotten' nature of these events and the killing of German civilians. Revealingly both opted to use the term `expulsion'.

Czechs' hidden revenge against Germans HERE
The Sudeten Germans' forgotten fate HERE

In particular, Glenny's program on BBC radio 4 spent much time focusing on the `death march' from Brno in 1945, but almost no mention was made of the fact that the bulk of Germans were removed in a fairly brutal, but organised fashion, after January 1946 under international supervision. The impression given to the causal listener was that this was ethnic cleansing on a level seen during the recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, which he himself covered.

Violence undoubtedly occurred; thousands of German civilians were murdered by Czechs, but there is little evidence that it was systematic or that the numbers killed matched the claims of the Sudeten Germans. Moreover these events must be examined within the context which they occurred; a time when killing Germans was regarded by many as duty rather than a crime.

Indeed the bombing of Dresden and western support for Tito's partisans was based on that concept. Moreover, when the Czechs were kicking out Brno's Germans the British were also busily repatriating large numbers of former Soviets citizens who'd fought with the Nazis back to Russia and almost certain death.

This is not to obfuscate or excuse these acts, but rather to place them in context of a war that killed tens of millions and that saw many tens of millions of Europeans forced from their homes -- not just Sudeten Germans. War and its aftermath is by definition a violent process and to artificially separate out one atrocity from the many that occurred muddies our understanding of what happened.

The journalist's role should not be the promotion of propaganda, be it German or Czech, any more than it should be the job of the historian. Propaganda has a vital role to play in conflict but our subsequent understanding of historical events, however brutal they may seem to us today, must clearly demonstrate a measure of `joined-up thinking'. In essence this means an ability to separate propaganda, however passionately it is felt, from an objective understanding of the past.

Although it's now a rather unfashionable concept perhaps this is best expressed by Leopold von Ranke's desire, `Wie es Eigentlich Gewesen' [to show how it actually was]. Thus the resolution to this problem, if that's not too optimistic a phrase, lies in the acceptance that rival histories exist and not in the further replication of one side's propaganda in preference to another's.

© Martin D. Brown, February 2003

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