As its disintegration in 1992 proved, Czechoslovakia may have been merely an artificial multi-ethnic chimera. But it was also an industrial and military powerhouse.
In the fateful 1930's, its -- mainly heavy -- industry was the 7th largest in the world. Even the Germans were awed by its well equipped and well trained army.
The Sudeten was a region of Czechoslovakia bordering on Germany and Austria and inhabited mainly by Germans. The country incorporated more than 3 million Germans in what used to be Austrian Silesia. These Germans, once members of the ruling majority in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became overnight a minority subjected to subtle forms of discrimination in their new country.
The Germans, a hostile and restless lot, demanded to have an autonomy, which Czechoslovakia refused to grant them. It feared that the Germans would secede and join Hitler's emerging "Great Reich". Such calamity would have deprived Czechoslovakia of important industrial and mineral assets and of its rail links to northern Europe. The Sudeten was also a formidable natural barrier against an imminent German invasion.
Unemployment and inflation further radicalized the Sudeten Germans. Support for Hitler and his pan-Germanic policies increased with every bloodless and bold German victory: the militarization of the Rhineland and the Anschluss (the unification with Austria). The extremist Sudeten German party, led by the Nazi puppet Konrad Henlein, blossomed after March 1938.
Henlein sought the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, "this French aircraft carrier in Europe's midst", in Hitler's words. The Germans demanded to exercise the right to self-determination enshrined in numerous international treaties. The status of the German language was a major issue as was the local participation of Germans in the police forces and army. Hitler instructed Henlein: "You must always demand so much that you cannot be satisfied".
"Spontaneous" demonstrations, protests, and riots erupted all over the Sudetenland. The Czechoslovaks were cast by Hitler and the West as intransigent racists, bigots, and bullies. The economies and armies of France and Britain were pitifully unprepared for war. Western leaders were traumatized by the great conflagration of 1914-8. They were reflexive appeasers and pressured Czechoslovakia into making one unpalatable concession after another.
Britain and France bullied Czechoslovakia by annulling their mutual defense pacts. Georges Bonnet, France's Minister of Foreign Affairs advised the Czechoslovaks not to be "unreasonable." Otherwise, he warned, France will "consider herself released from her bonds." Edward, Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Minister, enlightened his Ambassador in Paris about the "importance of putting the greatest possible pressure on Dr. Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia's president) without delay".
The Sudeten Germans in the meantime established militias and clashed with Czechs in mixed towns. An "independent" British mediator, Walter Lord Runciman was dispatched to arm-twist the Czechoslovaks. His instructions were to prevent war at all costs.
"We will use the big stick on Benes" -- thus Alexander Cadogan, permanent under-secretary in the British Foreign Office.
Henlein kept raising new demands or reviving old ones. On Sept. 4, 1938, an exhausted President Benes accepted all German demands. This was rejected by both Henlein and Hitler as "too late." Even a pro-German idea of referendum in the Sudetenland was rebuffed by Hitler.
Finally, the French and the British presented this ultimatum to democratic, multiethnic Czechoslovakia, on Sept. 22, 1938. As quoted in "On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace" by Donald Kagan:
"One -- That which has been proposed by England and France is the only hope of averting war and the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Two -- Should the Czechoslovak Republic reply in the negative, she will bear the responsibility for war.
Three -- This would destroy Franco-English solidarity, since England would not march.
Four -- If under these circumstances the war starts, France will not take part; i.e., she will not fulfill her treaty obligations."
Benes accepted this ultimatum. Hitler demurred. Now he demanded that German troops occupy parts of Czechoslovakia to protect rioting Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovak retribution. In the Munich Conference of the leaders of the West these demands were essentially accepted and Czechoslovakia was no more. Hitler conquered it, in stages, and assimilated it in the German Reich.
The unfortunate British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain made this radio address to the British people in the heat of the crisis on Sept. 27, 1938: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing ... However much we sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbors, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues that that."
Between 1940, while still in exile in London, and 1946, when Czechoslovakia was reconstituted, president Benes issued a series of decrees, later made law by the Czechoslovak provisional national assembly. The decrees mandated the expulsion of 2.5 million Germans and tens of thousands of Hungarians from Czechoslovakia, expropriating their land and stripping their citizenship in the process. A few German males were subjected to forced labor.
The laws were never repealed and, technically, are still in force. Statutes of restitution enacted after the 1989 Velvet Revolution apply only to property confiscated by communists after the 1948 coup. The Czechs and Slovaks are still afraid of a flood of claims by relatives of the refugees.
Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, repeatedly called on Prague and Bratislava to rescind the decrees. They are incompatible with EU membership, he thundered. The EU seems unofficially to agree with him. Officially, Gunther Verheugen, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement says the decrees were issued long before there was a European Union and, therefore, should have no effect on EU-Czech relations. The European Parliament disagrees. It has called upon the Czech Republic in 1999 to revoke the laws and it has now ordered its foreign policy commission to scrutinize the legality of the decrees.
The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, cancelled a trip to the Czech Republic last month. Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, said the decrees were the biggest obstacle to bilateral relations -- despite a 1997 joint declaration that seemed at the time to have resolved the differences.
The decrees became an election campaign issue in these four central European countries. An association of Sudeten Germans based in Austria is preparing to sue the Czech government in a Czech court, aiming to, as they put it "rectify damages resulting from the decrees' infringement on human rights".
Another, US-based group, is contemplating a similar move, according to "Forward Magazine." A lawsuit was filed by Sudeten Germans located in Germany against the German authorities for failing to act to countermand the Benes Decrees.
Czechs are not unanimous about the decrees either. A former presidential advisor, Jiri Pehe, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: "I think that from the whole package of decrees, [parliament] should repeal those decrees which massively violated human rights and were essentially undemocratic, because not all the decrees issued by President Benes were like that. Decision making through decrees in the first months after the war was a legitimate component of the Czech legal order. To that end, the decrees were ratified by the provisional parliament."
A group of prominent Czechs, including Bishop Vaclav Maly, is circulating a "Stop Nationalism" petition, urging politicians not to exploit the controversy in the run-up to the June elections.
But the Czech Republic's outspoken former -- and possibly future -- prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, suggests to embed the decrees in the country's accession agreement with EU in order to render them tamper-proof. Zeman, the current Czech premier labeled the Sudeten Germans "Hitler's fifth column" and "traitors" in an interview in an Austrian magazine.
The reparations demanded by the Sudeten Germans ever since they filed a petition with the UN in 1975, potentially amount to tens of billions of U.S. dollars. They cover confiscated bank accounts, annulled insurance policies, land, property, artifacts, and compensation for slave labor and wrongful deaths.
(Part 2 of this analysis will appear Friday.)