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Beneš Decrees

By Peter Haslinger (Collegium Carolinum, Munich)

The "Beneš Drecrees" were ordinances which had the status of law and which the President of post-war Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš (1884-1948), used to govern his country between the end of World War II and October 28, 1945. The contemporary term for the decrees was "Decrees by the President of the Republic". Nominally, the decrees were based on proposals made by the Czechoslovak government, with the first ones dating back to the time when the government still was in its London exile from 1940 onwards.

In the time immediately after the war, the 143 decrees, some of which had a constitutional status, were intended as a general regulation for major political, economic, social, and legal issues (e. g. the nationalization of the large-scale, heavy, and mining industries or the regulation of domestic migration). Nominally, they were designed as an interim arrangement, because they were supposed only to remain in force until the first post-war parliament convened, which then would be able to amend the decrees by means of laws. On March 28, 1946, the Provisional National Assembly subsequently endorsed all decrees as per constitutional law.

Depending on the interpretation, up to 13 out of the total of 143 decrees contained provisions which specifically targeted ethnic Germans and Magyars, not all of whom were Czechoslovakian citizens. The measures were justified with a reference to the disloyal behaviour that both ethnic minorities had displayed from 1938 onwards. Therefore, in principle, the decrees affected all members of the two minority groups and thus were based on the principle of collective guilt, even though certain individuals - such as open anti-fascists - were to be exempt from some of the decrees. The Slavic minorities (Poles and Ukrainians) were not touched by the decrees. For this reason, the Beneš Decrees can be quite reasonably considered as part of a policy which aimed at the Slavonization of the Czech Republic's population. Only comparatively rarely were individual cases examined in accordance with the exception rules laid down in the decrees. The expulsion and deportation of Germans and Magyars, however, was not the object of the decrees - a corresponding draft did not enter into force at the wish of Great Britain. Neither was the often quoted exemption from punishment for "actions, which were related to the fight for the recovery of freedom for Czechs and Slovaks" part of the decrees. This exemption from punishment was passed into law by the Provisional National Assembly on May 8, 1946 for the time following the Munich agreement of September 30, 1938.

Some of the key decrees were:

  • Decree No. 5, dated May 19, 1945, stipulated fundamental pecuniary restrictions for Germans and Magyars which are to be considered as de facto expropriations (the decree only came into force in the Czech part of the country; the Slovak National Council enacted a similar ordinance on June 5, 1945).
  • Decree No. 12, dated June 21, 1945, provided for the non-compensatory confiscation and distribution of the agricultural property owned by persons of German and Magyar nationality (regardless of their actual citizenship) and by "traitors and enemies to the Czech and Slovak peoples". Again, this decree only entered into force in the Czech half of the country, because a similar ordinance passed by the Slovak National Council was already in effect.
  • Decree No. 16, dated June 19, 1945, laid down the "punishment of Nazi criminals, traitors and their accomplices" as well as the creation of special people's courts. In the decree, former membership in National Socialist or fascist organisations was punishable by prison sentence.
  • By order of Constitutional Decree No. 33, dated August 2, 1945, all Czechoslovakian Germans and Magyars were stripped of their Czechoslovak citizenship, in most cases counted from the time when the respective settlement area was annexed to the German Reich or Hungary. Explicitly exempt from this rule were those, according to the decree, who "never did the Czech or Slovak peoples any wrong and who actively participated in their struggle for liberty or who suffered under the Nazi or fascist terror." (Article 2).
  • Decree No. 35, dated July 31, 1945, contained rules concerning the confiscation of savings accounts and the valuables deposited in Czechoslovak banks by Germans and Magyars.
  • Decree No. 71, dated September 19, 1945, which only entered into effect in the Czech part of the country, stated that Germans and Magyars were forced to work to clear up war damage - in Slovakia, provisions with a comparatively more general wording were in force.
  • Decree No. 108, dated October 25, 1945, contained the order for non-compensatory confiscation of all "enemy assets" - and German and Magyar assets, down to furniture, were considered to fall under this term. In the report detailing the motives underlying this decree, the expropriation was identified as part of German and Hungarian reparation payments to Czechoslovakia.


BRANDES, Detlev: Der Weg zur Vertreibung 1938-1945. Pläne und Entscheidungen zum "Transfer" der Deutschen aus der Tschechoslowakei und aus Polen. [The Path to Expulsion 1938-1945. Plans and Decisions on the "Transfer" of Germans from Czechoslovakia and Poland.] Munich 2 2005.
COUDENHOVE-KALERGI, Barbara and RATHKOLB, Oliver (Editors): Die Beneš-Dekrete. [The Beneš Decrees.] Vienna 2002. GÖRLITZ, Niklas / NEUMANN, Philipp: Europarechtliche Aspekte der Debatte um die so genannten Beneš-Dekrete. [Aspects of the Debate on the so-called Beneš-Dekrete from a perspective of European Law.] In: Jahrbuch für Ostrecht 44 (2003), p. 45-72. JECH, Karel and KAPLAN, Karel (Editors): Dekrety prezidenta Republiky. 1940-1945. Dokumenty [The Decrees by the President of the Republic. 1940-1945. Documents]. 2 Volumes, Brno 1995.
KUKLÍK, Jan: Mýty a realita tak zvaných Benešových dekretu. Dekrety prezidenta republiky 1940-1945 [Myths and Reality of the so-called Beneš-Dekrete. The Decrees by the President of the Republic 1940-1945]. Praha 2002.
SLAPNICKA, Helmut: Die rechtlichen Grundlagen für die Behandlung der Deutschen und der Magyaren in der Tschechoslowakei 1945-1948. [Legal Bases for the Treatment of Germans and Magyars in Czechoslovakia from 1945 to 1948] Munich 1999.


Literature out of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation Library

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