My last blog was on the German genocide in Poland, this one is going to talk about the one that happened in Czechoslovakia. I learned about it in the same documentary, but decided to split it into two blogs so I can focus on the horrendous crimes committed in each country. Even though the crimes were not different from one another, the brutality in Czechoslovakia happened to be caught on film. And I think part of what is so frightening about this story, is that prior to World War II Czechoslovakia was in incredibly advanced culture and industry. It seems that the war just brought out terrible hatred, fear and the need to place blame.
How it Began
At one time, Czechoslovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who decided it wanted to know what ethnicity the people of the area were. But what I find a bit comical, is that the people were not always “honest” about it. I put honest in quotes because the people decided that it was easier to identify with whatever group in their city, town or village was the largest. So, if you lived in a village that was mostly Hungarian, you would say you were Hungarian even if you were actually Jewish or Czech. The people made ethnicity a choice.
After World War I, Czechoslovakia became its own nation and was officially recognized as such by the United Sates on October 28, 1918. The boundaries were set at the Danube river in the south, Carpathian Ruthenia Region on the East and a portion of what would become Poland to the north. Through all the bitter compromise with other nations at setting boundaries, Czechoslovakia added 1,350,000 Hungarians, Ukrainians and Poles to its population, along with 13 million Germans in the portion known as the Sudetenland.
The Sudetenland had tried to break away from Czechoslovakia and join Austria, however Austria didn’t want them. By the 1930’s and the rise of the Nazi’s to power, it became very a important area to the Nazis because of the high concentration of Germans in it.
Between the time it became a country and World War II, Czechoslovakia became a model of democracy. In 1920 women gained the ability to vote in elections. Elections were fair at all levels. They had a parliamentary democracy, that allowed minorities to become cabinet members and had a free independent press. By 1930 it was ranked as the tenth most industrialized nation on the planet.
Not only did it have a wonderfully functioning democratic government, it had spectacular benefits for its citizens, such as: paid schooling from first grade though university, eight-hour work days, disability pay, health insurance and retirement pensions. Czechoslovakia had attained a truly great culture and country for all its citizens.
By 1936 Hitler had begun to remilitarize the Rhineland along the Belgian border. With 13 million Germans in the Sudetenland and its industrial might, Hitler wanted Czechoslovakia as part of his “Thousand Year Reich”. And with his building up of the military close to Belgium, the members of the Czech government were well aware of where Hitler would soon be heading.
For those Germans living in the Sudetenland, it became a bit of walking a tight rope. Some Germans were loyal to Hitler, while others remained loyal to Prague. However, a number of Hitler supporting Germans began to use grievances, such as lack of Germans in the postal service and military, along with jobs going to Czechs first to cause strife between Germans and Czechs. However, this was not the real reason the Sudetenland Germans began to have problems, it was Konrad Henlein.
Konrad was the founder of the Sudetenland German Heimat Front (the local Nazi party). He began to stir up hatred and propaganda by telling the Sudetenland Germans that they belonged to a superior race and by leading a campaign to show that the Sudetenland Germans supported the Third Reich.
When the Nazi army took over Czechoslovakia, Jews faced severe discrimination, as they had in Germany and Poland. However, for some reason the Nazi control of Czechoslovakia was very relaxed, and that allowed for the formation of an underground movement, until the Nazis sent in Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich immediately began to impose martial law, tortured thousands of Czech citizens, executed Prime Minister Alois Elias for his ties to the underground, and the families of those he had executed were forced to pay the Gestapo for the cost of the execution of their family member. It is easy to see why he became known as the “Butcher of Prague”.
To cause further tension between the citizens of Czechoslovakia, Heydrich raised the pay of those working in defense plants, made payments to Czechs who informed on other Czechs and gave promotions to police officers who co-operated with the Nazis.
Hatred Grows and Comes to a Head
After Germany surrendered, life for Germans in the Sudetenland went back to normal, they were unaware what was going to be happening to them. Once Czechoslovakia was free of Soviet rule, its citizens began to loot the homes of Germans and to assault them on the street. Any German that did not flee with the German military faced forced labor, loss of property, internment camps, with those who had been a SS or SA member being executed. Soon the Czech government began passing laws to restrict German movement such as:
Wearing a white armband that identified them as German.
Allowed to shop only during certain hours.
Not allowed use of public communication.
Not allowed to change residency
By the end of 1945, all German schools had been closed, and many Germans were sent to work as forced labor on Czech farms. The government also passed a series of decrees, some of the worst ones were:
- First decree that targeted Germans based on nationality
- Fifth decree that placed the property of “unreliable people” into the hands of the national administrator’s
- Twelfth decree that targeted German agriculture property and defined Germans and Magyars as “unreliable people”, it doesn’t matter if they had Czech citizenship or not.
- Thirty third decree stripped them of Czech citizenship
Those who faced the greatest persecution were those who had backed the Third Reich or obtained German citizenship. If they had Czech citizenship, they lost it and its protections. The only Germans that escaped persecution were those that had no involvement with the Third Reich, or they suffered because of the Third Reich and/or they had completely backed the Czechs. Germans who did not fall into this category faced loss of property with no compensation (the Czech government encouraged Czech citizens to take over the places of the Sudetenland Germans), if they owned as business it would become nationalized and Czech traitors were treated as badly as the Germans. On May 4, 1947 713 people were sentenced to death, 475 of them German. 741 people were sent to prison, 443 were Germans and 19,888 were imprisoned.
During May-July of 1945 the Czech government began expulsions of the Germans. Many were marched to the border and left, others were placed on trains and sent east to Austria and Germany. In each case they were given only hours notice to pack and to leave their homes. They had little to no food and water for the journey. These expulsions did not stop until August of 1945 after the Potsdam Agreement was signed.
There were Germans that were allowed to stay, if they chose too. Those who fought with the Czechs against the Nazis and those in German/Czech marriages. Yet, many of those allowed to stay, still fled the country. As they could no longer celebrate their heritage and German schools were closed. Of the 3.32 million Germans in Czechoslovakia, there was still 2.5 million remaining in the country.
The Czechs began to set up assembly camps for those leaving with 1,000 per train. Each person was screened, given a medical exam, classified based on their skills and then sent to a displaced persons camp. On May 30, 1945 the Czechs force marched 20,000 Germans from Brno to the Austrian border, a distance of 30 km (18.6 miles). The march claimed hundreds of lives and when they arrived, the Austrians didn’t want them either and put them into displaced persons camps. Somehow, 373,000 Germans still found a way to get to American or Soviet controlled areas.
The United States Steps In
In January 1946 American and Czech officials held a meeting to discuss the expulsion of the Germans. By now, the Americans were well aware of what was going on. The first agreement they reached was that each train would contain 1,200 people. Families were not to be split up and each must have adequate clothing for the journey. Each person was allowed to take 30-50 kg of belongings and 1,000 Reich Marks. Within one month, the trains doubled and by April 1946 they had tripled. There were now 7,200 passengers a day (50,400 each week).
By April 1946 each passenger was given 500 RM by the Czech government, families continued to be moved as a unit, they were allowed 100 kg of belongings and food and if they could not afford to make the trip then the Czech government gave them the money for the trip and were to ensure they had adequate food and clothing for the journey. By the end of 1946 1,859,541 Germans had been sent back to Germany.
In the 1940’s there was no CNN or text alerts of news happening, people heard radio reports or saw newsreels in the movie theater. The Czechs had expelled 3 million Germans, yet newsreel footage showed Germans being beaten on the streets of Prague with white swastikas painted on their coats. Pictures of dead and dying Germans in fields begin to surface in international press.
Witnesses tell stories of seeing boys being shot in front of their fathers because they tried to flee prison camps. The Czech government made it known that there would be no punishment for those who killed a German, and Germans would not be given any compensation for land or property they had to leave behind.
In 2010 seven minutes of film footage surfaced after being hidden away for 65 years. The film was shot in the Prague district of Borislavka by a Czech citizen wishing to capture on film celebrations of the freedom of his country after a terrible war, however what he captured was a horrid site of murder.
The seven minutes of film shows German citizens being forced from their homes and into the streets by the Red Army and Czech militiamen, there are also Germans being taken out of a movie theater and added to the group. As the camera pans, you see the backs of forty men and at least one woman. In the background you can see a meadow. Then, shots are fired and each body crumples to the ground. Injured can be seen begging for mercy, however the next frames show a Red Army truck driving over them and crushing them to death. Then the film shows Germans being forced to dig a mass grave, and it ends.
This is the first footage that ever captured the executions of Germans in Czechoslovakia. The U.S. Air Force camera team had captured footage of dead and dying Germans in a field in Plzen but it doesn’t show the executions from start to end. The man who shot the film knew that one day it would become important to show the world what had happened, thus he hid it away. Only his family knew what was on it. At one point the communist police learned of its existence and cam for it, threatening the family, but they did not give it up. The footage must be seen.
When I think of all the things I have learned by studying history, I am reminded of the saying that “an eye for an eye leaves the world blind”, because it is true. Violence never solves anything. Wars have been fought over a woman choosing one man over another, because someone doesn’t worship the same God as you, because someone has a different color skin than you and they have been placed in bondage and because someone takes his hate out on an entire population. When you hear hate, show love. When you see hate, show love. When you feel hate, give love. Love is the only way. The Beatles said it the best “Love is all you need”.
I will continue to share these stories with the world so that they are never forgotten, because they should never be forgotten. I feel for everyone who has lost someone they love because of violence, any kind of violence. We, as a people, need to continually find the ways that bring us together instead of driving us apart. I hope that you enjoy this blog and will consider following it.
See you again in two weeks!