SUDETENLAND.NATIONALITY AND ETHNICITY
Originally a geographic expression used for the central parts of the Sudeten mountain range that stretches along the northeastern border of what in the early twenty-first century is the Czech Republic and Poland, the term Sudetenland became highly political when after the Munich treaty of 30 September 1938 most of the German-speaking parts of the former Czechoslovakia were ceded to Nazi Germany. Signed by the British premier Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), the French prime minister Édouard Daladier (1884–1970), and the fascist dictators Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) and Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), the Munich Treaty stipulated that the so-called Sudeten Germans should become part of the Third Reich, where they were incorporated under the official political and administrative status of Reichsgau Sudetenland. The Munich Treaty lost validity only six months later, when Adolf Hitler reneged on its terms by occupying the remainder of Czechoslovakia, which was broken up into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the Nazi puppet state of Slovakia. Referred to in historical circles as the "Rape of Czechoslovakia," the Hitler government's conquest of this industrialized and well-armed nation opened the path to the official outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, when German forces invaded Poland. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 the Reichsgau Sudetenland was returned to Czechoslovakia, and the largest part of the German-speaking population was expelled. Although this action was sanctioned by the Allied leaders in the Potsdam Treaty of August 1945, spokesmen for the Sudeten German Homelands Associations (Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft) in the early 2000s continued to insist on the validity of the Munich Treaty, adding to the instability then undermining the process of political consolidation within the European Union.
The term Sudeten Germans, like Sudetenland, was highly politicized. Its origins go back to the peace-making process after World War I, when nationalism and the demand for "nation-states" was at its height, and when political thought, demands, and ambitions had to be couched in nationalistic terms. It was then that the German-speaking people of the former Kingdom of Bohemia, the Duchy of Silesia, and the Margravate of Moravia, who had all been part of the Cisleithanian part of the now defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, were confronted by the fact that the peace treaty following World War I made them "minority citizens" in the newly founded nation of Czechoslovakia. To counter the sudden creation of a Czechoslovak nationality, a new concept with little historical tradition behind it, these German people—or rather their political leaders and spokesmen—created from their diverse regionalism their own artificial nationality: that of the "Sudeten Germans." Until then, in addition of course to being subjects of the Habsburg Monarchy, the dialects and customs of the Nordböhmer, for example, or the Egerländer, or the Südmährer, or people from the tiny Kuhländchen, all related culturally and ethnically more closely to their Austrian and German neighbors than to one another.
Before the catastrophes and tragedies of the twentieth century, Czechs and Germans had been living together harmoniously in a bilingual community sometimes referred to as a Zweivölkerland—a two-peoples' country—or a Zweivölkerstaat—a two-peoples' state. The Bohemian and Moravian lands, of course, were not spared the great turbulence that marked late-medieval/early-modern European history, but—with the partial exception of the fifteenth-century Hussite Rebellion—conflicts were not fought on ethnic grounds. The religious, political, and socioeconomic conflicts that characterized the Reformation period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw Czechs and Germans fighting for or against Catholicism. And ethnic rivalry played little part in the confrontations between the estates and the centralized government, the nobility and the Crown, or the towns and aristocratic landholders that put their stamp on the beginnings of modernity. Ethnic rivalry did not arise in any significant way until the nineteenth century with the spread of modern nationalism that arose from the French Revolution of 1789 and which seems to have gripped many sections of the educated middle classes throughout Europe, including the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Attempts by the Habsburg rulers to stem the tide fell on deaf ears. And so did voices warning that the end of the transnational community might only too readily have fatal consequences.
Notwithstanding the bickering and rampaging of political extremists, however, parties advocating the dissolution of the empire were by 1914 still a small minority in the Bohemian lands. This did change as the war, which had a devastating impact on the people of the Habsburg Monarchy, dragged on into its final phase. In the end the chief advocates for Czech independence, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937) and Edvard Beneš (1884–1948), managed to rally the support of the majority of the Czech population behind the creation of Czechoslovakia, a step that was sanctioned by the Allied Powers in the peace treaty signed at St. Germain on 10 September 1919.
For the German people in the Bohemian lands the collapse of the Habsburg Empire led to a loss of identity, and they felt apprehensive about their minority role in the newly formed Czechoslovak Republic. They had hoped to become part of Germany or Austria, but these hopes had no chance of becoming reality. Having fought the German Empire for four years and having sustained horrendous losses, the last thing the Allied Powers would have agreed to was an enlarged Germany. Moreover, loss of the German-settled part of Bohemia and Moravia would have rendered the newly formed state nonviable. But the attempt to create nation-states in the checkered multiethnic landscape of east-central and southeastern Europe was bound to run into stumbling blocks. In Czechoslovakia the Czechs and Slovaks became the "Staatsvolk"; they constituted the actual "nationality" while the other ethnic groups—including approximately 3.3 million German-speaking people—became "minority citizens." These "minority citizens" had minority rights—a lopsided concept that found little appeal among the non-Czechoslovaks. Prague governments throughout the 1920s were coy to tackle this issue, that is, to take steps that would bring the "minority citizens" closer to the state. Yet the Czechoslovak Republic granted its citizens full civil rights—political and legal equality, liberty of expression, and freedom of association, press, and religion. This meant that if the large German minority would unite behind a single movement or party, the state's democratic setup would ensure that they could wield enormous political power.
For a short time it looked as though the post–World War I setup for the Bohemian lands might have a chance of survival. More favorable economic conditions meant that by the mid-1920s so-called activist parties—parties that advocated a cooperative approach and that participated in the Czechoslovak Republic's political life—found the support of the majority of the Sudeten Germans, as they were now starting to be called. Regrettably this process was not able to consolidate itself. By the mid-1930s, when Czechoslovak governments did attempt to bring in legislation that addressed the country's German population, the tide had already turned. The calamitous economic instability that followed the 1929 Wall Street stock market collapse and the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany led to a huge election victory of the fascist and irredentist Sudeten-German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei, or SdP) under the leadership of Konrad Henlein in May 1935. With two-thirds of the Germans' vote, the SdP became the largest party in the Czechoslovak parliament. For the next three years Henlein and Hitler worked toward the destruction of the country, which was achieved with the Einmarsch (entry) of German troops in March 1939.
For the Czechs, who were hurled together in the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia," this meant six bitter years of brutal Nazi occupation. For the Germans, who in their Reichsgau Sudetenland became now part of the Third Reich, it was the first step toward final catastrophe. They soon became aware that they were not accepted by the Reichsdeutsche on equal terms, economically their position improved little, and above all, a year after the creation of the Reichsgau Sudetenland they found themselves at war. But now there was no way back. Neither the fact that close to two hundred thousand of their men had died at the front nor the first dropping of Allied Powers bombs on Sudeten territory in December 1944, nor the appalling sight of refugees fleeing from the advancing Czech army, could entice the Sudeten Germans to change course. Added now to the traditional dislike of the Czechs, whether due to a belief in German superiority or to a conviction, however justifiable, that the German community had been victimized under Czech rule, was a new fear of reprisals for events leading up to and since Munich. With news coming in from London of plans for large-scale expulsion, it is not surprising that the Sudeten Germans were the last to leave the sinking ship. It was not until Soviet and U.S. troops literally had arrived at their doorstep that the people realized their Reichsgau Sudetenland was little more than a bursting bubble.
When the dream of an Aryan "Thousand Year Empire" had finally ended, a terrible punishment descended on many German people, including three million Sudeten Germans. Intense far-embracing Germanophobia, coupled with an equally staunch determination on the part of the victorious Allied Powers to once and for all eliminate the threat of future attempts to establish German hegemony in Europe, saw millions lose their homes and subjected to pitiless and often savage ejections from their Heimat (homeland). About thirty thousand Sudetens lost their life. Yet accounts of these tragedies that fail to highlight the carnage inflicted on Europe by Nazi Germans during the World War II as the chief reason for the postwar catastrophe lack credence.
The immediate post–World War II governments of the Federal Republic (West Germany) under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967) supported the demands of the Sudeten German Homelands Associations and other expellee organizations to have the "stolen lands" returned—but this was only for domestic consumption. Internationally the victorious Allied Powers never left any doubt that the Potsdam agreement of August 1945 between the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), the U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), and the British prime minister Clement Richard Attlee (1883–1967), which had officially sanctioned the expulsion of eleven million Germans from their homelands, would remain unaltered. When the center-left government of Willy Brandt (1913–1992) in the late 1960s ended conservative rule in West Germany, there were also far-reaching changes in foreign policies. By entering into treaties with the Soviet Union, Poland, and Czechoslovakia the Brandt government officially accepted the post–World War II political setup, a decision that by now had the support of the majority of the country's population.
By the late 1980s the "Sudeten issue" had seemingly run its course. The slender hope on part of the Sudeten German associations' officials and some members that the return of a center-right government in 1982 would reverse the previous Ostpolitik (eastern politics) proved illusory. There were still strongly worded articles in the associations' periodicals and equally strong speeches at their annual gatherings, but only in Bavaria did the Sudetenland issue arouse any significant interest. Most Sudeten Germans had settled there and the ruling CSU in this state was greatly critical of the normalization process between Germany and the Czech Republic that commenced after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber has voiced strong demands for Sudeten German compensation. If his intention to become German foreign minister in a center-right government under Chancellor Angela Merkel had succeeded, he indeed would have been in a position to present the demands of the Sudetens more forcefully. As German-Polish relations were already under great strain in the early 2000s, Stoiber's partisanship would have placed Germany's policy toward its eastern neighbors under additional pressure. His plans were thwarted by the outcome of the 2005 federal election, which led him to remain in Munich.
Understandably, Czech governments and the majority of the Czech population have been greatly irritated by the relentless attempts on part of the Sudeten German associations and their supporters to have the alleged injustices of the postwar era corrected, the more so as the leaders and spokesmen of these associations bar out the years from 1938 to 1945 from their accounts. It is true that the Czechs tend to overlook that there is much more to Germany in the early twenty-first century than Bavaria and that German foreign policies are made in Berlin and not Munich. But Bavaria is economically and politically one of the most influential German states, and so the ghost of Sudetenland and Sudeten Germans is likely to haunt European politics for some time.
Cordell, Karl, and Stefan Wolff. Germany's Foreign Policy towards Poland and the Czech Republic: Ostpolitik Revisited. New York, 2005.
Tampke, Jürgen. Czech-German Relations and the Politics of Central Europe: From Bohemia to the EU. Houndmills, U.K., 2003.