What Israelis Didn't Learn From the Sudetenland Saga

The question of historical justice - punishing the Sudeten Germans for their open support of Hitler - appears more complicated when we realize the effect this 'justice' had on Czech society.

Ofer Waldman
Ofer Waldman
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Ofer Waldman
Ofer Waldman

A few years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared Israel to Czechoslovakia in 1938, when Germany annexed the Sudetenland. Gideon Levy discussed that strip of land in an op-ed piece last week; to him, "the Sudeten region is holier than the Benjamin region,” Levy wrote after visiting his father’s birthplace, a visit he had described in an article a few days earlier. I'm not sure the Czechs are aware of the historical comparisons we're making using the border districts of Bohemia and Moravia.

The comparison is very tempting. Both here and there, aggression and expulsion took place. Both here and there, historical scores wait in the darkness to be settled once and for all, and the “always” seems temporary and fragile. Here, some people say “Judea and Samaria,” while others say “the West Bank.” There, some people say “the Sudetenland” (the name was outlawed during the Communist regime), while others say “the border districts.”

The Sudetenland is misleading: Its landscape of hills, mountains and forests hides a scarred past. Families of Roma and Sinti tribes have been living in dilapidated village houses there since the turn of the 20th century, their laundry waving on lines stretched between crumbling statues of German saints and lampposts from the Communist era. Brothels operate in the palatial homes of Sudeten German captains of industry who were expelled and their property confiscated; the houses' neon signs in cheap pink flash across the German border.

The Sudetenland is also misleading for those who seek to use it as an example to resolve other historical conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, those who seek to see Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) as Hebron. And the story of the Sudetenland seems to embody the dream of transfer in a way that would make assassinated right-wing minister Rehavam Ze’evi dance in his grave. Most of the region’s German residents wanted the German occupation and supported Hitler’s annexation policy – the infamous call for the area to come home to the Reich. Upon Nazi Germany’s defeat, the Sudeten Germans' wish was granted, but not in the way they had expected.

While 3 million Germans had lived in Czechoslovakia in 1944, roughly 300,000 were left by late 1946. The Czechoslovak parliament — still democratic, not yet under Soviet influence — held a session to mark the end of the expulsion of elements they had declared disloyal to the state. While that was happening, the last train carrying 1,200 Germans crossed the western border. So ended a thousand years of German settlement in Bohemia and Moravia.

But as sometimes happens in such dreams, the awakening from the joy of throwing the Germans out was particularly painful. The expulsion of such a large group based on collective criteria whetted the appetite of the Czechoslovak state. The undermining of constitutional and legal protections that started with the expulsion of German citizens didn't stop there. Other groups were stripped of their rights quite rapidly until the Communist regime was established in 1948.

The torments of the Czechs did not end there. Warsaw Pact troops, who suppressed the Prague Spring in 1968, remained on Czechoslovak soil and justified their presence by citing the need to “protect the state from the vindictive desires of Sudeten Germans across the border.” The pyrrhic victory of the expulsion was complete — the Czechs found themselves stripped of their own rights and sovereignty.

The gloomy situation in the Sudetenland is a mirror image of the German expulsion. The abandoned homes in villages and towns, the crumbing churches and abandoned cemeteries, like the ugly Communist buildings Levy is familiar with, reflect a break that never healed.

Over the past few years, young Czech activists have been trying to challenge a taboo — the debate on the expulsion and its outcome. They meet with the descendants of Sudeten Germans across the border and discuss the right of return, lost property and compensation, and questions of identity. All this is within the framework of the European Union, which connects the Czech Republic to today’s Germany.

The question of historical justice – punishing the Sudeten Germans for their open support of Hitler – appears more complicated and less unequivocal when we realize the effect this “justice” had on Czech society. These questions symbolize the Sudetenland of today, wrote a Czech activist years ago about the region where historical truth becomes less absolute and more human.

This is also the legacy and lesson of the Sudeten people for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those who seek absolute answers regarding expulsion and return, confiscation and compensation, justice and truth will get lost on the convoluted paths of the liberated border areas. Oh, excuse me — I was talking about the Sudetenland.

The writer, who is studying for an MA at Hebrew University, is researching how Germans and Czechs dealt with the expulsion of Germans from the Sudetenland.

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his personal representative Rudolf Hess, right, during a parade in Berlin, Germany, on Dec. 30, 1938.Credit: AP

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