Germania Irredenta

Renouncing a provision of the 1945 Potsdam Declaration, Germans are looking more than wistfully at lands they lost in the war -- and suing to get them back. Do some things never change?


I CLEARLY remember a newsreel of the state memorial ceremony for Reinhard Heydrich, which I saw in late 1942, when I was a very young sergeant in the British army. (Germany exported movie news to Sweden and Switzerland, and some got to England.) Heydrich, the German governor of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic), had been killed by two Czech resistance fighters that spring. The service was in a dark hall in Berlin, lit by torches; a heathenish, Valhalla-like effect had been achieved. In his oration Hitler screamed that if the Czechs would not "co-exist peacefully" in the German Reich, they would at some future date be resettled in the Polar Circle. His audience shouted its approval. Earlier Hitler had picked the small town of Lidice, near the spot where the Czechs attacked Heydrich's car, as the focal point for immediate vengeance. Its adults were killed, its children shipped to camps and German orphanages and given German names.

Heydrich had not only been the ruler of Bohemia and Moravia; he had also been given the task of organizing the extermination of the Jews of Europe. The invitations to the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, where the logistics of the gas chamber were worked out, had been sent out by him from Prague. "Mit anschliessendem Frühstück," his letters said -- "With breakfast to follow."

Hitler's Polar Circle plans have, fifty-four years later, attracted unexpected new interest. Several Sudeten Germans have sued in Czech courts for the restitution of lands and property that were appropriated after the Sudetens were expelled from what is now the Czech Republic, at the end of the Second World War. The government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which wants an apology from the Czechs for those expulsions, announced last year through its Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, that approval of the expulsions as part of the 1945 Potsdam Declaration by the Big Three (the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) did not make them legal. Kinkel sided with the Sudeten Germans, who assert that the declaration is in conflict with the United Nations Charter. (He uses the more circumspect phrase "in conflict with international law.")

A shiver must have gone through Germany's neighbors at this argument, which questions the very foundation of their states. Last February the ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia published a statement in Prague reaffirming the Potsdam Declaration. But a feeling persisted that, just maybe, we were going back to square one.

As far as I could see, the U.S. media gave very little attention to this. It made me decide to take a trip, early this year, to southern Germany.

THE Second World War really started with those Sudeten Germans. Some two to three million of them lived in "the Sudetenland,"as the Germans called a Czech region along the border. In 1938 Hitler declared that the Sudetenland was Germany's last irredenta -- the last foreign territory that really belonged to Germany -- and that to get it was his "last demand" in Europe. All through the summer he fought a war of nerves against the West, raving about the perfidious Czechs and their "stage actor President," Eduard Benes, who were terrorizing Germans, beating German women and children who wore white stockings (the German "uniform") and murdering Germans in isolated villages. The circus of provocation was orchestrated for him by the leader of the Sudeten Germans, the Nazi Konrad Henlein. The United States was looking away at that time; England and France caved in and forced the Czechs to cede the Sudetenland. This was "Munich" -- the shameful surrender led by the English Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, in the fall of 1938. Czechoslovakia lost its fortified border with Germany and its important armaments factories, and some six months later the rest of the country was taken by the Germans without a shot. Hitler came to Prague and slept in the government Hradcany Castle under the swastika flag. "I saw our enemies at Munich," he told his followers later. "They are little worms."

When one rethinks this story and the terror of the six-year German occupation that followed, in which some 350,000 Czechs lost their lives, one cannot be surprised that after the German surrender in 1945 there were numerous acts of local vengeance in which Sudeten Germans were killed. The bulk of those who remained were deported by the Czech government with a minimum of consideration -- not to the Polar Circle, though, but back to their fatherland. These Germans and their descendants now want their lands and houses back. Meanwhile, the Czech survivors of the German concentration camps, some 17,000, still have not received any compensation from Bonn.

I learned on my visit that there is a specifically political angle to this: the Sudeten Germans have a pressure group within Germany, the Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft, with political clout that the millions of German deportees from Poland never had. Bavaria, where most of them live, is one of the sixteen Länder (states) in reunited Germany; it has a lot of autonomous power. A 1954 act of its government established the Sudeten Germans as one of the four population groups that make up Bavaria (with the Swabians, the Franconians, and the Old Bavarians) and guarantees them Schirmherrschaft -- "high protection"or "guardianship." This gives the Sudetens a direct channel to the Bavarian government and through that to Bonn. Bonn's conservatives are particularly nervous right now about being outflanked on the right.

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