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Forced Migrations in Europe, 1938-48

German Occupation Policy in Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakia was one of the first victims of National Socialist expansion policy, the long-term objective of which was to conquer Eastern Europe and to turn it into part of an ethnically homogeneous German empire. After the annexation of Austria in spring 1938, the country became the focus of German power politics. In these, the existence of a large ethnic German minority was the pretext for Germany demanding border changes in favour of the German Reich.

Czechoslovakia to 1938

From the 16th century to World War I, the territory of what later was to become Czechoslovakia had been part of the Habsburg Empire. During the 19th century, a Czech nationalist movement emerged, which first led to the creation of modern Czech language and literature. The second half of the century saw an increase in the political demand for equality of the Czech language and more autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire for the Bohemian lands. The conflict with the Czech nationalist movement and similar emancipation endeavours in other crownlands placed great strains on the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the last decades of its existence.

If one takes the ethnic-linguistic definition of the term 'nation' as a basis, several nationalities existed in Czechoslovakia, which was founded after World War I. Czechs made up roughly half of the population, Slovaks accounted for some 15 per cent. The share of the German-speaking part of the population amounted to more than one fifth, while other minorities (mostly Hungarians) together constituted roughly one tenth. The minorities in the Bohemian lands lived in the border regions which were economically and industrially most developed.

It was hard for the members of the German-speaking minority to bring into line their perceived identity as Germans - in the ethnical sense - and their new Czechoslovak citizenship. However, they and their ancestors had lived in the same state system with Czechs for centuries and never had had German citizenship before 1938. The supporters of the German nationalist movement, which had gained a toehold with part of the German-speaking minority, in particular felt a closer link to Germany than to Czechoslovakia and thus sported a decidedly negative attitude towards the Czechoslovak state. The creation of that state and, consequently, the ethnic Germans' status as a national minority were regarded as an injustice which went hand in hand with the loss of a fairly privileged situation which the Germans had enjoyed during the Habsburg Empire due to the fact that German had been the official language then. Even though there had only been few connections between the German-speaking inhabitants from the various regions before the establishment of Czecholslovakia, a new, joint identity as ethnic Germans developed after the founding of the state. In the 1920s, the term 'Sudeten Germans' was coined for this group, an expression which gained widespread usage in the 1930s. The common term for Germans in Slovakia was 'Carpathian Germans'.

As early as 1919, violence broke out at demonstrations - which back then were held in favour of annexing the mostly German-speaking territories to Austria - during which 54 people lost their lives. In the following years, the conflicts continued on a political level. Many measures (land reform, school reform, language policy), considered discriminatory by the German minority, actually in part meant emancipation for Czechs and Slovaks.

Not the entire German minority was as fundamentally negative in its attitude towards the Czechoslovak state as was the German nationalist right. Some parties such as the German Social Democrat Workers' Party (DSAP) or the German Christian Social People's Party finally showed themselves willing to participate in the new republic's politics, and in 1926 the first German ministers joined the Czechoslovak cabinet.

Influenced by the Great Depression, national socialist ideas found increasing breeding ground among the Sudeten Germans. The landslide success of the German nationalist 'Sudeten German Party' (SdP), which had been founded by Konrad Henlein under the name 'Sudeten German Home Front' in 1933 and which captured two thirds of the Sudeten German vote in the parliamentary election of May 1935, meant a radicalization of Sudeten German demands. Influenced by the circle led by the person who would later hold actual power in occupied Czechoslovakia and who planned massive liquidation and resettlement activities, Karl Hermann Frank, the party in the end openly subscribed to National Socialism and, by arrangement with the German Nazi leadership, pursued the so-called Anschluss of the Sudetenland (i.e. the annexation of the mostly German-speaking border territories of Bohemia, Moravia, and Bohemian Silesia to the German Reich). In 1938, the SdP was integrated into the NSDAP. Relative to the population, the Sudeten district had the highest NSDAP membership rate in all of Hitler's Germany.

The Munich Agreement

The alleged oppression of the Sudeten Germans, loudly proclaimed before the international public by Henlein's party and the Reich Propaganda Ministry, constituted the pretext for Hitler to press ahead with the disruption of Czechoslovakia - a country which had remained one of the few democracies in Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe despite all its inner conflicts. After pronouncing threats of war and an ultimatum ('Sudeten crisis'), Hitler forced Great Britain and France to agree to cession of the Sudetenland, about one fifth of Czechoslovak territory, to the German Reich. The main settlement areas of the other minorities were also annexed to Czechoslovakia's neighbouring states shortly afterwards. Acts of violence against Jews began; many Czechs, Jews, social democrats, and communists fled to the interior of the country.

The settlement between Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy was reached without the participation of Czechoslovakia. The guarantees of continued existence given for what remained of the Czechoslovak state only held until March 1939, when Hitler implemented the rest of his original plans for the "disruption" of Czechoslovakia and founded a separate Slovak state depending on Germany and the 'Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia' under the control of a German 'Reich protector'.

The Occupation and War Period

German occupation in Czechoslovakia was marked by violence and terror, in particular against the Czech intelligentsia and bourgeoisie. The protectorate constituted a significant location for the German arms industry and was exploited economically. The Czech workers required for the labour were comparatively little disadvantaged compared to the Germans. One of the objectives of this particular policy was to keep Czech resistance under control.

After the deputy Reich protector, Reinhard Heydrich, who played a leading role in planning and implementing the extermination of the Jews and who was one of the most unscrupulous and most feared Nazi leaders, was assassinated by the originally not very active Czech resistance in 1942, the villages of Lidice and Ležáky were razed to the ground, and their entire populations were either murdered or deported. Lidice became a symbol for the Nazi policy of violence and occupation.

Mass resettlements were also part of German occupation policy in Czechoslovakia. There were plans to turn millions of 'racially pure' Czechs into Germans. Whoever was not deemed fit for that purpose was to be either deported or murdered.

At the same time - within the context of the "Back to the Reich" programme "Heim ins Reich"-Programms amongst others - Germans were settled in territories which still were not predominantly German in character. Once there, they often were given the farms, houses, or shops that had belonged to Jews or Czechs who had been expropriated, expelled or deported. Very many Czechs were carried off to the German Reich for forced labour purposes. According to estimates, some 350,000 people (Jews, Czechs and Slovaks, Sinti and Roma) were murdered on the territory of former Czechoslovakia or otherwise met a violent death during the occupation period.

Events leading up to the Expulsion of the Germans

The Nazi policy of conquest, occupation, and extermination and the conditions of total war was one of the major reasons why the belief that an ethnically homogeneous nation state would prevent the nationality conflicts of the prewar period from occurring in the future played an increasingly significant role in the postwar planning conducted by the Allies and the Czech government-in-exile. When the plans for an expulsion of the Germans took shape, first among the Czech resistance, later also among the Czech government-in-exile in London, explicit reference was made to both the Nazi resettlement policy as to earlier population shifts. The German minority was collectively accused of "treason" against Czechoslovakia, including those who had not supported the Nazi policy or even had put up resistance against it. Thus, the expulsion plans grew increasingly radical. The exceptions which had been provided for German anti-fascists were mostly ignored after the war. Thus, the price for the National Socialist policy was not only paid by its supporters amongst the Sudeten Germans, but by all German-speaking inhabitants of Czechoslovakia.