Monday, January 4, 2016

Luxarazzi 101: Beneš Decrees

In 1937, at the funeral of the first Czechoslovak President, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, six soldiers carried the founding father’s coffin. Each of them represented the six largest nationalities residing in pre-war Czechoslovakia: Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, German, Polish and Ruthenian. Already a year later, the coexistence of the various ethnic groups in the country had been changed drastically by the Munich Agreement. The Agreement, signed by Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy, gave Nazi-Germany the right to annex parts of Czechoslovakia along the German border with a predominantly German-speaking population, also known as Sudetenland.

Czech districts with 25% or more ethnic German population in 1935
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
As a result of the Munich Agreement, under the first Vienna Award, Czechoslovakia was forced by Germany and Italy to cede southern Slovakia, about one third of Slovak territory, to Hungary, while Poland invaded Zaolzie territory shortly after. The much smaller Second Czechoslovak Republic, established in late September 1938 and composed of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and the autonomous regions of Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia, only lasted 169 days. On March 14, 1939, the  independent Slovak Republic, a client state of Nazi Germany, was established. The very next day, the Germans occupied the remainder of the country and yet another day later (March 16), they established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia by a proclamation of Adolf Hitler from Prague Castle.

For the Czechs of the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia, German occupation represented a period of brutal oppression as the aim of the Nazis was to "germanize" the Protectorate. An estimated 36,000 to 55,000 ethnic Czechs lost their lives due to political persecution and deaths in concentration camps. Two of the worst autrocities were the massacres of Lidice and Ležáky, two villages that were razed to the ground and their adult male inhabitants killed with women and children deported to concentration camps as a reprisal for the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. It is said that up to 360,000 living in the Protectorate, about 270,000 Jews and 8,000 Romani people, were killed until 1945.

Meanwhile while in exile in London, the Czech government drew up a series of laws which dealt with various aspects of the restoration of Czechoslovakia and its legal system, denazification and reconstruction of the country. Officially the Decrees of the President of the Republic but better known as the Beneš Decrees, they were drafted by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile under President Edvard Beneš between 1940 and 1945. The Decrees were later retroactively ratified by the Interim National Assembly of Czechoslovakia on March 6, 1946.

President Edvard Beneš
While there were some 143 decrees, the - to this day - most talked about are the ones dealing with the ethnic Germans (and Hungarians). In fact, they were also applied to the Princely Family of Liechtenstein and all other Liechtenstein citizens who owned properties in Czechoslovakia on the basis that they spoke German and were thus considered German.

The "Decree of the President concerning modification of Czechoslovak citizenship of persons of German and Hungarian ethnicity" stripped all Czechoslovaks of German or Hungarian ethnicity who had gained German or Hungarian citizenship of their Czechoslovak citizenship. The only way they could stay a Czechoslovak citizen if they had declared Czech or Slovak ethnicity after May 21, 1938, or prove that they remained loyal to the Czechoslovak Republic, did not commit offenses against the nation and either took part in the liberation of Czechoslovakia or were subject to Nazi or fascist terror - one of the people who would have actually been able to prove that was Prince Adolph of Schwarzenberg, husband of Luxembourg's Princess Hilda, though once the courts decided in his favour, a special law, the Lex Schwarzenberg, to strip him of his properties.

Another decree, the "Decree of the President concerning the confiscation and expedited allotment of agricultural property of Germans and Hungarians, as well as traitors and enemies of the Czech and Slovak nation", confiscated all agricultural property owned by, among others, Germans and Hungarians, notwithstanding citizenship, with exception of those who actively took part in the fight for preservation and liberation of the state. This one was the decrees that was applied to the Liechtenstein family as well as some of their relatives, such as the Kinskys.

Source: The Economist
While none of the Beneš Decrees actually deal with the topic of expulsion of German and Hungarian nationals from Czechoslovakia, they are still associated with the displacement of about 3 million Germans and Hungarians in the months and years following the Second World War. The Potsdam Agreement between the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union actually stated, "The Three Governments, having considered the question in all its aspects, recognize that the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, will have to be undertaken. They agree that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner."

However, when the Potsdam Conference began, the expulsion of the Germans and Hungarians had already started, some of the violently. There are a number localised massacres of the German population recorded especially for the summer of 1945. A joint German and Czech commission of historians estimated that there were around 15,000 Germans who died during the time caused by violence or abnormal living conditions. Estimates say that around 300,000 Germans were at one point or the other interred in "concentration camps" by the Czechoslovak, one of those was Princess Marie of Liechtenstein.

To this day, the Beneš Decrees cloud international relations. Back when the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the European Union, it was a much discussed topic. And only in 2009, the Principality of Liechtenstein took up official relations with both of these countries. A year later, a commission of Liechtenstein and Czech historians was formed and have sinced published a number of reports. It is still a topic though when Prince Hans-Adam II visits the Czech Republic, and it is likely to stay that way for many years (and thus posts) to come.

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