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Expellee Scholarship on the occupations of czechoslovakia and the sudetenland, 1918-1945

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HOW TO CITE THIS SCHOLARLY ESSAY: Mayfield, James. "Expellee scholarship on the occupations of Czechoslovakia and the Sudetenland." Institute for Research of Expelled Germans. http://expelledgermans.org/sudetenoccupation.htm (accessed Day-Month-Year).

ABSTRACT: This is a scholarly article that analyzes the scholarship of Sudeten German expellees on the history of Czechoslovakia, of the Munich Conference, and of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It interprets the events that led up to their expulsion from the Sudeten German perspective.

DISCLAIMER: This paper is not intended to in any way question the validity of their data or the reality of their experiences. The seemingly sceptical use of words like "extermination camp" is not intended to dismiss or criticize their memories, but to show how powerfully the feelings of atrocity and suffering have embedded into their memories and their senses of belonging.

*The parentheses refer to the bibliography below.*


On September 30, 1938, Germany, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom signed the Munich Agreement that sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia and its Sudeten German minority. As a result of repeated occupations, the Czechoslovak state ceased to exist. In response to Hitler’s threats of war if Prague did not stop its “oppression of three and a half million [Sudeten] Germans,” the Allies pressured the Czechs to cede the Sudetenland to the Third Reich (Davidson, 217). The treaty ordered the Czech government to “evacuate” the region and allow it to be “occupied” by German troops (§2 and §4). As a result, most of the country’s industrial capacity was seized by Germany (Lukes, 252). The strongest Czech fortifications were in the Sudetenland and were now abandoned, leaving the nation prostrate. Only a month later, Hungary occupied Southern Slovakia, and Poland annexed Záolší in Czech Silesia. Although the treaty guaranteed “the new boundaries of the Czechoslovak State against unprovoked aggression,” Germany then occupied the remainder of the country without firing a shot, ruling it until May 1945. After Czechoslovakia was liberated with Soviet assistance, the Czechs re-occupied the Sudetenland, Slovakia, and Silesia. Accusing their German minority of collaborating with the Nazi occupiers, Prague expelled nearly all of their three million ethnic Germans (Barkan, 133). In less than seven years, Czechoslovakia endured multiple occupations with very distinct political, cultural, and historical experiences.

Such is the most accepted history of Czechoslovakia. These events have been researched extensively, particularly in the contexts of integral nationalism, ethnic cleansing, and identity formation. They are embedded in the cultural memory of both Czechs and Sudeten Germans. Most Czechs recall their national traumas caused by Nazi imperialism, Sudeten irredentism, abandonment by the Allies in the “Munich Betrayal” (Mnichovská zrada), and the massacres of civilians at Lidice and Ležáky. According to this history, the Czechs are a victim of repeated occupations initiated by separatism in the Sudetenland. Although this is quite valid, there is an under-analyzed body of work written by Sudeten Germans that interprets the occupations from a very different perspective. Survivors of the expulsions and their descendants have compiled an abundance of original research, historical analysis, and personal memoirs that reflect on their role in Czech history. In fact, they write their own alternative versions of history. Their narratives see “liberation” where Czechs see occupation and, contrarily, they perceive occupations that many Czech histories omit. Since they were charged with treason and subsequently expelled, Sudeten histories are intended to absolve them of collective guilt over the occupations and assert German victimhood. They downplay Sudeten irredentism, sanitize the Czech experience under Nazi rule, emphasize Czech abuses against minorities, and divert blame onto “Great Power politics” and the Third Reich. In order to access these voices, this project analyzes the histories published by Sudeten expellee organizations and the personal memoirs of individuals. It investigates history as they see it. Although not all of their works are the same, they express similar images of the past. This article does not focus on the details of the occupations. Instead, it is a survey of how they are represented in Sudeten memory and how they are framed in the histories they write for their community.

A central theme in their “history-writing” is the trauma of repeated occupation that they supposedly endured from 1918 to 1945. This frustrates our understanding of not only World War II and Czech victimhood, but of occupation in general. Rather than creating the “occupied” and the “occupier,” the occupations created multiple layers of victimhood for both Czechs and Germans. In coming to terms with their expulsion, Sudeten literature responds to three different “occupations:” their rule by the Czechs from 1918-1938; the absorption of the Sudetenland into the Reich after Munich in 1938; and the Nazi conquest of Czechoslovakia from 1939 to 1945. Most of their writings depict a systematic domination by Czech “chauvinists” against the Sudeten homeland (Heimat) that increasingly felt like an “occupation” by their own government. Most interpret the Munich Agreement as liberation from this subjugation. Many completely bypass the Nazi occupation. Contrarily, others emphasize its criminal nature against both Sudetens and Czechs in their shared homeland. This simultaneously presents the Sudeten Germans as an integral part of the Czechoslovak nation, absolves them of guilt for undermining national sovereignty, and asserts the victimhood of their community. By writing their own histories of occupation, Sudeten expellees cultivate what Robert Moeller called a “usable past” to legitimate their identity of suffering and loss (Moeller, 178).

This project contributes to scholarship on several points. It is also informative for the study of occupation as a general phenomenon. Sudeten writings reveal how communities write their own narratives to make sense of their experiences and outline their grievances. They exemplify that societies sanitize and even omit aspects of their history that are “inconvenient.” They show that there is no clean dichotomy between occupier and occupied or between victim and victimizer. One group can portray an experience as occupation while another praises that same event as self-determination. Their literature exemplifies that occupation does not require a foreign power, since many Sudetens grew to understand their own government as an occupying hegemon. A process that lacks many of the traditional criteria of an occupation can still be internalized as one. So too, it can inflict all of its traumas onto the “occupied.” In essence, this case study gives us a rather direct definition of occupation: however affected groups imagine it. In Sudeten historical consciousness, it is the denial of self-determination. Whenever a community’s homeland and autonomy are revoked—as with the Sudeten Germans—the victims can frame their history in the context of “foreign” domination. For these reasons, we must recognize that there are many actors in each occupation and multiple victims created by it. Regardless of Sudeten German guilt, they imagine themselves as victims of repeated occupations that ended with their ethnic cleansing. Perhaps most importantly, Sudeten writings demonstrate the power of occupation in shaping the historical memory of all affected identities.

The first “occupation” in Sudeten German literature is the period from 1918 to 1938, beginning with the incorporation of the Sudetenland into the new state of Czechoslovakia and ending with its cession to the Third Reich in 1938. This period is also the most complicated, since its nature as an occupation is unclear. The Sudetenland was an integral part of Czechoslovakia and the industrial hub of the entire economy (James, 113). It was not ruled by an external military force or government. Prior to the Munich Conference, most Sudetens did not consider themselves citizens of Germany or Austria. Although they identified as German, they did not claim a foreign nationality that could in turn be “occupied” by Czechoslovakia. Because of these factors, it is difficult to refer to an occupation. Oppression—pervasive in Sudeten writings—is not synonymous with occupation. However, over time, Sudetens grew to interpret their relationship with Prague as one of victimization by a foreign nationality. Increasingly, they perceived their government as a vehicle for Czech nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, and disenfranchisement of national minorities. At 23.36% of the population, there were more Germans than even Slovaks, but Germans were more than half of those unemployed during the economic crisis of the 1930 (Luza, 3 and Preusler, 183). Government policies were supposedly designed to serve the Czech nation within this multinational state. Prague allowed few ethnic Germans into the civil service and gradually scaled back minority rights (Naimark, 112). To the Sudetens, it was not simply the government that discriminated against its minorities, but the Czech nation. Sudetens were allegedly forced to safeguard their community from the confiscation of German land, the closure of German schools, the compulsion to speak Czech, and the resettlement of their lands by Czech farmers (Bryant, 18). In doing so, they transferred their national consciousness from Czechoslovakia to their Sudeten homeland (Heimat). The government—indeed Czechoslovakia—became a “foreign” oppressor. It is under this context that we must interpret Czech rule as the “occupation” of the Sudetenland.

Sudeten writers have a very distinct rendition of interwar Czechoslovakia. They do not accept the traditional history of a radicalized German minority that orchestrated the destruction of a democratic nation-state. In documenting the first “occupation,” most begin by denouncing how their homeland was awarded to Czechoslovakia without any plebiscite. They supposedly lacked control over their own society. At the Treaty of Saint-Germain of 1919, the Western Allies partitioned the Austro-Hungarian Empire and demarcated a new state for Czechs and Slovaks. This abstract space included significant Hungarian, German, and Ruthenian populations. They were not given the self-determination that Woodrow Wilson and the Allies proclaimed for other minorities in East-Central Europe. Their homeland was “forced in” a state that never existed (Exner, 225). In essence, the nationality of the Sudeten Germans was dictated by outside hegemons. The prominent Sudetendeutscher Atlas of 1954 asserts that the Sudetenland was actually designated for the Czechs because Prague “refused” to allow any referenda. According to their first “official” history compiled in 1952, the Sudeten Germans were among the first victims of international diplomacy after World War I. Czechoslovakia was to be a “pure national state” for the Slavs. The political fate of the Sudetenland was determined using British maps that intentionally skewed demographics to the disadvantage of German communities. This limited any coherent voice in municipal and national politics to address their grievances. This was the denial of self-determination that is so central to occupation. The “dictated peace of 1918” created the conditions for foreign domination that would “lead to catastrophe” (Turnwald 1954, 9). According to this version of history, it was the Czechs who violated the sovereignty of the Sudetenland, rather than vice versa (Eibicht 1991, 25).

After 1918, Sudeten literature almost universally depicts broken promises, denied self-determination, and “systematic oppression” by the increasingly chauvinistic Czech government. For the Sudeten Germans, Czech hegemony not only justifies their “liberation” at Munich, but absolves them of any nefarious, pan-German conspiracy. Early incendiary texts warned that the existence of the Sudetenland was endangered by Czech intrusion. One was even entitled Heimat in Ketten (Homeland in Chains). Although these were only the most outspoken voices of a radical fringe, their underlying perceptions of Czech domination pervade the publications of the last eighty years. The “extreme chauvinist nationalism” of the Czechs proved that they violated their promises of a multinational democracy. Their claim to be the “Switzerland of Central Europe” was neither actualized nor intended. Czechslovakia was “built on a lie” of ethnic autonomy (Diwald 1993, 57). Sudetens claim that Prague configured its domestic policies to sideline minorities and give unequal advantage to Czechs. As a result, Sudetens became disenfranchised in their own country. Ethnic Germans suffered disproportionate unemployment and received little social relief from Prague (Kern, 78). The Czechs responded to the financial concerns of their minorities with passivity. Any gesture of support or referendum for policy change was “purely a formality” (Diwald 1993, 60). At a time of severe economic depression, the Sudeten Germans felt less and less like constituents of the Czechslovak nation. They lacked the self-determination to alleviate their own social and economic problems. Rather than mere mismanagement, this was supposedly the subjugation of their Sudeten homeland by a foreign nationality.

This perception of occupation was exacerbated by more intrusive government policies after 1930. Prague responded to its financial decline through agrarian and economic reform. Most controversial was the redistribution of agricultural shares from wealthy landowners. Because of the Habsburg legacy, ethnic Germans formed a significant bulk of the upper class. Prague seized over four million hectares by the time of the Munich Agreement. Of these, 239,330 were given to Czechs in 1937. Only 600 were awarded to Sudeten Germans in their own homeland. According to one Sudeten writer. the so-called agrarian reform was simply “the expropriation of German landholdings” (Turnwald 1954, 25). The government subsidized ethnic Czechs and Slovaks to resettle in these “German” lands. In addition, Prague instated measures of assimilation by requiring the Czech language and by closing German institutions after 1926. The Czechs began targeting German schools “with the intention to hinder the education of Sudeten German children and therefore to threaten the existence of an ethnicity” (Hamperl, 29). These policies offset the ethnic composition of the Sudetenland, turning Sudeten Germans into minorities in many of their own communities. Since the constitution only allowed German as a co-official language in regions with a German majority, this directly undermined the political and cultural integrity of the Sudetenland.

According to these historical narratives, the Czech nation was now in direct opposition to the German community. Resettlement and assimilation efforts demonstrated that the Sudetenland was being occupied by a foreign nationality. The Sudeten Germans were supposedly forced into a “naked fight for the right to live (Lebensrecht)” (Eibicht 1993, 55). As soon as they protested against this discrimination, their “peaceful demonstrators” were shot by the Czech military throughout the Sudetenland and Bohemia. Under the guise of protecting national security, Czechs unleashed “police terror” against “the entire Sudeten Germandom.” Any expression of their own “political will” was met with “armed force.” “In fact, Prague consciously “impeded” equal rights “with violence and intrigue.” Institutional discrimination by the Czechs denied them self-determination over their historical destiny. As these narratives demonstrate, Sudeten Germans write history very differently. Despite their active participation in Czechoslovak society, they were subjugated by a foreign nationality (Turnwald 1954, 39, Exner, 225).

The second occupation in Sudeten historiography is the annexation of the Sudetenland by the Third Reich in 1938. It is instructive because they do not interpret this process as occupation at all, but liberation from occupation. They reject the version of history that depicts a fascist minority that opened the gates for Nazi invasion. According to their narratives, they gravitated towards Nazi Germany solely in response to the Czech occupation. By the time of the Munich Agreement, most Sudetens supported the Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei, or SDP) under Konrad Henlein. Although it defined itself as an expressly Czechoslovak political party, it gradually transformed into a pan-German irredentist movement with support from Berlin. As late as April 1938, Henlein demanded minority rights and reform within the multinational system through his Karlsbad Program (Rönnefarth, 231). Publicly, they advocated “autonomism” rather than subversion of national sovereignty. Many scholars are suspicious of their claims of autonomism, arguing that they intentionally pressed for demands that Prague could not possibly meet. They agitated the Czech government to pressure an international resolution and incorporation into Hitler’s Germany.

The oppression that they supposedly endured in the first “occupation” made cooperation with Prague unpopular. Their petitions for autonomy were rejected, including formal complaints to the League of Nations (Neville, 85). Many Sudetens saw the near elimination of unemployment in Germany as a solution to the economic hardships they faced in their homeland. These factors made irredentism preferable to the abuses supposedly inflicted under Czech rule. By the final elections, over 75% of ethnic German voters chose a more radicalized SDP emboldened by Berlin. By 1938, Hitler and Konrad Henlein were in a precarious partnership over the transfer of the Sudetenland to the Third Reich. That October, the German army marched into their homeland with tremendous applause from the local Germans celebrating their “liberation” from Czech hegemony. From the Czech perspective, their blatant complicity in the Nazi occupation proves that they orchestrated a conspiracy to undermine Czech sovereignty (Schickel, 67). Since the Sudetenland was Czechoslovak territory, it was Germany and their Sudeten agents who carried out occupation. This set the stage for the eventual domination of the entire country by the Nazis.

By contrast, Sudeten histories insist that any irredentism, radicalization, and successionism resulted from Czech intrusion into their homeland. Their pan-German sentiment derived from desperation, rather than National Socialism or ethnic nationalism. One writer even emphasized the delays in correspondence between Henlein and Hitler as proof that they were not involved in an active conspiracy. The Sudeten German Party was not a radical fascist party, but a “defender of rights” for all oppressed national minorities. Most contemporary sources strongly contradict this notion. Modern narratives insist that the Munich Conference was the liberation of an occupied nation, as opposed to betrayal. It was simply the “best solution for both parties.” This political crisis “had nothing to do with dictatorship versus democracy, but everything to do with the fulfillment of the right to self-determination” (Eibicht 1991, 20.). They exhausted their options within the boundaries of the Czechoslovak system. Konrad Henlein and the Sudeten German Party supported autonomy and rejected subversion “uncompromisingly.” The ethnic Germans were “always ready for a compromise” until they could no longer endure being dominated “in their own house.”

Many Sudeten writers deflect guilt off of themselves by pointing out the grievances of other minorities like the Slovaks and Ruthenians. Both declared independence almost immediately after the Sudetenland. The Slovaks, too, were occupied and “wanted nothing to do with the Czechs and felt themselves to be an independent people.” Like the Germans, they were “simply cheated on their autonomy.” Czechoslovakia was no democracy, but a “prison of nations.” Seeking independence from such subjugation was not Nazi fanaticism, but mere self-determination in the face of injustice. The “unthinkable suffering” of the “non-Czech groups” supposedly “led the Czech people themselves to the abyss” (Turnwald 1954, 9). One memoir described Czechoslovakia as a “geopolitical timebomb” that was destined to split along ethnic lines from the beginning (Helfert, xvi.). The Sudeten Germans did not carry out any nefarious Nazi plot, since they cared little who ruled them so long as that nation “promised to free them from the Czechs.” They had “no one to hear their cries and complaints.” With their “backs to the wall,” they had no alternative but to seek liberation from abroad. It was a “fight for survival” that supposedly forced Sudetens to petition Hitler for relief (Diwald 1993, 58, 62).

According to Sudeten historiography, annexation by the Reich was not only necessary for their self-determination, but morally justified. Many texts make clear that this “occupation” was sanctioned by international diplomacy. The conference itself proved that the Allies and prominent members of the League of Nations endorsed Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland. The participants of the conference did not destroy Czechoslovakia; they simply give an oppressed minority its sovereignty. The Sudeten German Party was no criminal agent of the Reich, since even the British accepted Konrad Henlein as the legal and political representative of the Sudeten community. Any damage inflicted upon the Czechs was, therefore, only a justified response to Czech policies that fomented international crisis. Many publications include quotations by Western officials who deplored the disenfranchisement of the Sudetenland and advocated their “understandable” aspirations for liberation. One article even points out that the British assured Hitler that they “would force” the Czechs to accept the Munich Agreement if they refused to capitulate to international will. By depicting a legitimate struggle for self-determination with international sanction, Sudeten histories distance the Sudeten Germans from Nazi atrocities. So too, this strategy presents them as victims of human rights abuse, Czech hegemony, and geopolitical competition by forces beyond their control.

Most literature explicitly deplores the war crimes committed by Adolf Hitler after Munich. The Sudetens may have been liberated by the Reich, but they was not complicit in the subsequent atrocities in the course of occupation. Most frame the eventual conquest of Czechoslovakia as a totalitarian crime perpetrated by Berlin that was neither known nor desired by the Sudeten community. One memoir reflected that the Sudetens “had no fear of the Czechs [after Munich], since we Germans had done no wrong to them all the years.” The Sudeten Germans were unaware of Hitler’s “true political intentions” (Turnwald 1951, xii, Ressel-Johannsen and Eichert, 53.). Their “legitimate demands” for self-determination were only a “chess piece in Hitler’s diplomatic power struggle.” Despite their genuine grievances of human rights, Konrad Henlein and the Sudeten Germans were manipulated by the Third Reich as a “simple tool of Hitler.” Since they were a mere pawn in larger Nazi schemes, they are supposedly absolved of the subsequent occupation.

The third period is the total conquest of Czechoslovakia by the Third Reich from 1939 to May of 1945. In strict violation of the Munich Conference, the Third Reich occupied the remainder of the country without resistance. Czechoslovakia endured German occupation for six years. The Sudeten homeland was absorbed into Reichsgau Sudetenland, and rump Czechoslovakia was administered separately as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Reich governed the country as an “autonomous” entity under the Czech lawyer Emil Hácha and SS police chief Reinhard Heydrich in a state of martial law. In retaliation for Heydrich’s assassination by the Czech resistance in 1942, the German military strengthened restrictions on the public life of the occupied nation. They incinerated the villages of Lidice and Ležáky, executed almost all men and children, and deported the women for compulsory labor. The ocupation ended in May of 1945 in the wake of German collapse, the Prague Uprising by the Czechs, and Soviet military assistance.

Like the Sudeten Germans, scholars have somewhat conflicting interpretations of the Nazi occupation. Cynthia Paceš analyzed a cultural dialogue between Germans and Czech collaborators. Michael Burleigh and many others agree that the occupation was extremely benign compared to other German conquests. A quarter-million may have died, but Prague was no Warsaw, Minsk, or Sevastopol. Stanley Payne and Giles MacDonough recognized that there was very little resistance to German rule. Most scholars write that the Czech economy improved, Czechs were widely employed in German factories, and rationing was often on par with parts of Germany. Sudeten Germans are anxious to point out these two points. Ben Frommer describes the pragmatism of the occupation as “frighteningly effective.” By contrast, historians are more negative on many aspects. MacDonough pointed out the systematic confiscation of 70,000 Czech properties for ethnic Germans from the Reich and the Sudetenland. Chad Bryant studied the apparatus of state control that separated racial categories and facilitated mass violence, homogenization, and ethnic cleansing by both Germans and Czechs. Tara Zahra documented the German campaigns to manipulate children into sustaining Nazi hegemony and perpetuating “previously unimagined brutality.” Radomír Luža recognized the distinction between the Sudeten Germans and the more than 400,000 colonists who resettled from the Third Reich. These Reichsdeutsche supposedly treated the Sudetens with chauvinism, viewing them as less reliable than even the Slavic Czechs. This interpretation is maintained by most Sudeten narratives. The two groups allow the Sudeten Germans to deflect blame onto “the Nazis” and off of the Sudeten community. From the Czech perspective, the German occupation destroyed Czech sovereignty and violated of international law. The Sudetens supposedly profited from the suffering of the Czechs during foreign rule. Since these traumas were initiated by the Sudeten Germans, the occupation justified the expulsion of all ethnic Germans after liberation. Many Czechs homogenize Munich and the Nazi takeover into one pernicious occupation. They unite the Sudeten Germans and the German army into a single occupying belligerent.

The Sudeten interpretation of the Nazi occupation is strikingly oppositional. Paradoxically, their histories either discuss the period in detail or ignore it completely. Many publications literally skip from 1938 to the ethnic cleansings of 1945. The narratives that do engage the occupation use two distinct strategies. One approach downplays Czech suffering and insists that the occupation was beneficial for Czechs. By contrast, the second emphasizes the atrocities of totalitarian conquest and the destruction of sovereignty. These two methods of history-writing fulfill the same function. Downplaying Czech suffering makes the Sudeten traumas of expulsion more severe, disproportionate, and unjust. Some literature even challenges Czech suffering directly by lamenting “the hundreds of Lidices [massacres]” during the expulsions (See Kern, and Siegfried Zoglmann, 90). . This strengthens their claim to victimhood, since the Czechs had little justification to carry out ethnic cleansing against their German minority.

The first “official” Sudeten history (Dokumente zur Austreibung der Sudetendeutschen) makes it clear that there was very little resistance during occupation because the Czech experience was so beneficial. The Czechs were supposedly well-fed under German rule, and even ate better than the citizens of the Third Reich. Czechs did not receive punishment that was any different than any other subject of National Socialism, including Germans (Turnwald 1951, xix.). The Czech experience was “extraordinarily positive.” The standard of living of all inhabitants—German or Czech—grew “ever higher.” Czechs embraced German music and read German literature. Their cultural autonomy was not disrupted. The social welfare of occupied Czechoslovakia benefited considerably, harvests were bountiful, and no resistance was necessary or desired (Kern, 6, Hamperl, 65). Not one ethnic Czech from the previous government was sacked or replaced by ethnic Germans. Nationalists like Edvard Beneš, who later instigated the expulsions, abdicated voluntarily. Millions of Czechs volunteered to serve the German industry that benefited Czechs, Sudeten Germans, and Nazis alike. No Czechs were conscripted into the German armies. Unlike the Sudeten Germans, who had to serve in the military and suffered “an unbelievably high amount of bloodletting [Blutzoll],” the Czechs “enjoyed only the economic advantages of the war effort.” The Sudeten Germans and the Nazis were not occupiers, but “breadgivers” (Kern, 6 and 88). Even though the Sudetens had little involvement in the occupation of Czechslovakia proper, Czechs had little reason to complain of wrongdoings in the Sudetenland.

Most Sudeten narratives insist that any atrocities were committed by German colonists from the Third Reich (Reichsdeutsche) or the Nazi army, rather than the native German minority. They depict the Reichsdeutsche as greedy, racist, and chauvinistic. The Nazis were barbaric and totalitarian. Norman Naimark noted correctly that Sudetens have difficulty understanding why the Czechs carried out any “retributive justice” like expulsion since they claim to have done no wrong (Naimark, 116). Since the Sudeten Germans were allegedly only a chess piece in Hitler’s geopolitical ambitions, they are supposedly absolved of any transgressions that occurred during the occupation. They were not the same as their kin in the fascist Third Reich. The Sudeten struggle for peaceful cooperation with Prague “came too late,” since “Hitler wanted to conquer the whole of Czechoslovakia in his glorious war” (Hamperl, 40). One writer recalled his family’s fear that the Sudeten Germans, like the Czechs, were now “at the mercy of the Germans, and Lord knows what they’re up to, with that fanatic inciting them” (Helfert, 20). After wresting themselves of Czech hegemony, the Sudetenland would “again be ruled by people other than our own kind.” One survivor of the expulsions reflected that as soon as the Nazis arrived, the Sudetenland was sadly to “once again become a part of German-occupied territory” (Langer, 64). Hitler inflicted great “inhumanities” on both Czechs and Germans, but the Sudeten Germans were “among the first bereaved of the Hitler system.” Rather than subverting Czech sovereignty through Nazi occupation, the Sudeten Germans were its victims. Yet again, they had lost their self-determination.

Other authors write history very differently by emphasizing the victimhood of Czechoslovakia as a whole. Rather than being a positive experience, the Nazi occupation was a catastrophe for all citizens of Czechoslovakia. One writer even paralleled the Sudeten victims with the Jewish and Czech internees in concentration camps, calling the Jews “Hitler’s first expellees” (Hamperl, 56). The Sudeten Germans may have struggled for liberation, but they did not desire the six brutal years of occupation of the homeland they shared with Czechs, Slovaks, and Jews. This technique further distances the Sudetens from Nazi crimes, asserts their victimhood, and cements this uprooted community to its lost Sudeten homeland. They did not intend to inflict “National Socialist terror” on either themselves or the Czechs (Grünwald, 41 and Knorr, 12). The conquest of Czechoslovakia by Adolf Hitler “was a blatant violation of the concept of liberation and cooperation of all Germans” (Kern, 5). Supposedly, Sudeten Germans anxiously formed resistance movements to “fight against the Nazi occupation” as soon as they realized the gravity of their crimes. Sudetens fought alongside Czech revolutionaries for “the just cause” of combating fascism. Many writers depict Czechoslovakia as Hitler’s second victim (after Austria). The Sudeten Germans, like the Czechs, “gave Hitler another opportunity to further his territorial ambitions” (Helfert, xvi.). A broken Czechoslovakia was a “Trojan horse for Hitler’s expansion and war planning” (Knorr, 92.). Nazism was the tragedy of Germany, Czechslovakia, and the Sudetenland alike. According to one writer, the Nazi conquest fomented ethnic hatred that would soon result in mass expulsions. As a result of the occupation, “700 years of sustained cohabitation of Germans and Czechs, who often intermarried, came to an end" (Karl, 172). In Hitler’s total war, the “lives of men were made into a game.” According to this version of history, the Sudeten Germans—like the Czechs and Jews—were unwilling participants in total war, geopolitical competition, national chauvinism, and totalitarianism.

As their publications demonstrate, Sudeten Germans cultivate a historical memory of victimhood, unattained self-determination, and the loss of homeland. By sanitizing their history, they construct an identity of suffering and absolve it of Nazi atrocities. Central to this history is the phenomenon of occupation. Occupation entails the greatest traumas of both Czech and Sudeten consciousness. With each occupation, it both returned sovereignty and took it away. It brought both humiliation and liberation. Occupations exacerbated ethnic tensions and revanchism that allowed for subsequent occupations. It both rescued the Sudetenland from Czech oppression and gave justification for their removal in 1945. How a society writes its history of occupation has the power to determine its guilt and its victimhood. Occupation is central to victimhood because it revokes the self-determination that is so often upheld as a universal paradigm. This case study raises several historical questions for further study. Do other German expellees make similar rationalizations of the Nazi occupation of Poland, Yugoslavia, and even Austria? How do other victims of ethnic cleansing sanitize their participation in occupation? How do Slovaks come to terms with their break from Czechoslovakia, their participation in the Holocaust, and their alliance with the Third Reich? Having been expelled from Czechsolovakia alongside the Germans, do Hungarians write similar narratives of Hungary’s occupation of southern Slovakia? Considering the central role of occupation in Sudeten histories, a further investigation into the cultural memory of other societies during wartime is an informative endeavor.


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