Sudeten Germans Continue Fight for Right of Return

Descendants trying to obtain a right of return and restoration of property after expulsion from Czechoslovakia during WWII will try their luck in the European Court. A response to their claims may set a precedent for others.

PRAGUE - The division of Czechoslovakia and the prelude to World War II began 65 years ago, in the Sudetenland, the mountainous region along its northeastern border with Germany. During the war, with the support of the Third Reich, a Nazi party was formed in the Sudetenland. It had the support of a large majority of the three million or so German-speaking Czechoslovakian citizens and it demanded "a return home" to the "German homeland." Upon the capitulation of Britain and France in the 1938 Munich Agreement, the Sudetenland was annexed to Hitler's Germany. The Nazis conquered all of the divided and exposed Czechoslovakia in 1939.

After liberation in 1945, Czech president Eduard Benes issued an order expelling all Sudeten Germans (except those who were anti-Nazi activists) and their assets were transferred to the state. A large number of those expelled settled in Bavaria, not far from Czechoslovakia, and immediately formed organizations that demanded "the right of return" and the return of their property. The expellees had - and still have - considerable political influence in Bavaria and through it also have influence in the parliament of the federal republic and in the Christian Democratic party. Their demands to cancel Benes' expulsion order for a long time prevented the full normalization of ties between Germany and the Czech Republic. After the reunification of Germany, they tried to make the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union contingent on canceling the expulsion orders and restoration of their property. With the Czech Republic slated to join the European Union next year, the Sudeten German organizations have renewed their efforts, and may also try their luck with the European Union's legal institutions.

The matter of the Sudetenland Germans is of interest to Israel for several reasons. Although the situations and circumstances are very different, every discussion of the right of return and return of property affects similar discussions in other places. To this day, the property of individual Jews and even entire Jewish communities has yet to be returned, because of concern over how generous treatment of them will affect the claims of Germans expelled from the Sudetenland. It is apparently one of the reasons for the difficulties in returning Jewish property. Like the claims for the return of Jewish property in most eastern European countries, the matter is further complicated by the fact that the lost property has already been transferred to other owners, sometimes two or three times over and sometimes in forced sales arranged by the Czech authorities.

The invading Germans confiscated the property of Jews, as well as of other citizens who fled. After the war, when the Benes government in turn confiscated German property, it often also included property that the Germans had stolen from Jews, so the government began returning these assets to Jews. But before the effort was completed, the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia took place in 1948 and a new series of confiscations began. After Vaclav Havel's Velvet Revolution, the return of Jewish property was resumed, after Jewish organizations waived the right to most of the property that had belonged to communities that did not revive themselves after the Holocaust. However, sometimes it is very difficult to get back an asset that was destroyed and replaced, for example, by a high-rise building.

In any case, the expulsion of the Sudetenland Germans has yet to be canceled. It seems also that the Prague government is not particularly moved by the claim that the descendants of those expelled have no intention of leaving their homes and jobs in Germany in order to return to the Sudetenland, and basically just want financial compensation for the property left behind by their parents and grandparents in 1945 and 1946.

Another chapter that has been reawakened as a result is the matter of property that belonged to aristocratic families in the reign of the Austro-Hungarian empire in Czechoslovakia, which was part of the empire until the end of World War I. Some of these families were German and also collaborated with the Nazis, but not all of them did so. Among the prominent families are the Schwarzenbergs and Kinskis, whose histories are closely connected with Czech history.

Their descendants are claiming their assets, including large tracts of land, palaces, castles, factories and art collections worth billions of Czech korunas. These assets were confiscated after the war and were used to provide compensation to victims of the Nazis. However, the Schwarzenbergs and Kinskis, who made their fortunes in the 17th century, were not Nazi collaborators. The head of the Schwarzenberg family, for example, fled during the war to England and was active in the Czech government in exile in London. His cousin, who was captured in Czechoslovakia, was sent to and died in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

During the Communist government, there was no possibility of demanding the return of the vast assets. But since the Velvet Revolution some 13 years ago, the aristocratic families have been waging battles in the Czech courts trying to get back their assets, so far unsuccessfully. Now they are moving their cases to the court of the European Union, which the Czech Republic will join next year.

Whatever decisions this court makes, they will serve as a kind of international precedent that is likely to affect how the issue of the Palestinian refugees' right of return and property is decided. That is why Israel should carefully follow the discussions on the fate of the confiscated properties in the Czech Republic.

There are naturally several essential differences between the Palestinians' demand for the right of return to Israel and the fate of their property and the rights of the Sudetenland Germans. The Czech courts acknowledge, for example, "possession of a building purchased in good faith," i.e., the current owners bought the asset in the honest belief that the seller was the legal owner and had been for at least 10 years. However, attorneys for the aristocrats respond that the state cannot argue good faith ownership of a property that it itself confiscated. It is highly doubtful that someone who acquired assets from the government did not know that this was property that it had confiscated. If the European Union court accepts the Czech Republic's arguments, it may be possible to use a similar argument against those who purchased assets from the office of the custodian of absentee Arab property.

On the other hand, while Israel claims that most Arab refugees fled at the initiative of their leaders, the Czech Republic does not deny that the Germans were expelled and forced to leave their property behind. Israel can even counter the Palestinian refugees' property claims with the property claims of Jews who were forced to leave Arab countries. The Czech Republic has no comparable counterclaims against Germany.

However, the most important difference between these two cases is not legal, but political. The German government absorbed with considerable financial aid, all of the Germans expelled from eastern European countries and the refugees were successfully integrated into the country, receiving citizenship automatically. The Arab countries, on the other hand, have now for a third generation maintained Palestinian refugees in "temporary" camps and apart from the kingdom of Jordan, not a single country has granted citizenship to the refugees and their children.

While the Sudetenland refugees are trying to use their political power to prompt the German government to move against the Czech Republic, the Arab governments deprive the Palestinian refugees of political rights and use them as a weapon against Israel. Various German governments, especially the Social Democratic ones among them, have already made it clear on several occasions that they are not willing to serve as an instrument of the Sudetenland expellees. This was again emphasized in recent weeks by the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who came out unequivocally against the establishment of a "national center for expellees" initiated by the "union of expellees" from the Czech Republic, Poland and other countries. The Berlin government declared that the expellees' suffering should be recognized, but the proposed center would serve as an undesirable propaganda tool of the expellees' organization.

At the end of this month, Chancellor Schroeder will visit Prague to attend memorial ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, which led to the division of Czechoslovakia and the outbreak of World War II. According to recently published reports, the U.S. government supports the proposal to have a declaration rejecting revisionist claims of the right of return and return of property read at this ceremony. Such a declaration many not help the negotiations still underway with the Prague government for the return of property that belonged to Jewish communities in the Czech Republic destroyed by the Nazis, but undoubtedly such an international declaration would help Israel face the claims of Palestinian refugees calling for the right of return.