onsdag 17. november 2010

Sedmnáctý listopad

Today is November 17, the 21st anniversary of the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, which put an end to Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Anyone old enough to remember those days, and the amazing, even miraculous events leading up to them, will never forget. I am not going to blog about the Velvet Revolution per se, or even Václav Havel.

(Havel fans, never fear: here is a clip from Czech Television from a documentary series that ran this summer entitled "Democracy: The First Year". At about ten minutes into the clip Havel enters the hall at Prague Castle to the presidential fanfare (from the Smetana opera Libuše) and takes the oath of office. Yes, that's Alexander Dubček right behind him, the newly elected president of the parliament, who is reading the proclamation (in Slovak: pan prezident, not pane prezidente). If this clip doesn't move you, you have a heart of stone, though being at least part Czech helps).

I am blogging about the other significance of this date. November 17 is a state holiday in the Czech Republic, "Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day" (Den boje za svobodu a democracii). That struggle did not begin 21 years ago, though the demonstrations held that day were the spark that brought down the Communist regime--since the Soviet army stayed in its barracks when the Berlin Wall fell, there were no tanks on their way to save the apparatchiks in Czechoslovakia either). No, the first November 17 was in 1939, and it was a very different occupation.

Under the 1938 Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia was forced by its supposed allies, Britain and France, to cede portions of Bohemia and Moravia to the Third Reich in the interest of "peace in our time". Of course, despite protestations that this would be the last territorial claim Hitler would make in Europe, the Wehrmacht marched in to Rump-Bohemia and incorporated it into the Reich, its Czech residents reduced to a status lower than even the worst of the Habsburgs had imposed on them. On November 17, 1939, nine Czech students were executed for the "crime" of organizing protests against the occupation of their country by the Nazis to be held October 28, which would have been the 21st anniversary of their country's founding.

The reason for the dismemberment of Bohemia and Moravia was that its fringe, the so-called Sudetenland, was populated by German-speakers. Though they had lived there for centuries, once the Austrian Empire was gone, the Sudeten Germans were no longer privileged subjects of a benevolent monarch, but foreigners in their own country, now run by people the Sudeten Germans were used to looking down on. And while Czechoslovakia weathered the 1930s in better shape than most countries (no hyperinflation either), its Sudeten fringes had higher unemployment than its Czech and Slovak regions during the slump. This explains the fervor with which the Sudeten Germans heiled Hitler. They heiled and they heiled. Oh, how they heiled! To go home to Germany, Heim ins Reich (in truth for Germany to come to them) was what they pined for. And in 1938 they got their wish, at least temporarily.

After the war, the vast majority of ethnic Germans were expelled from the Czech lands, without compensation, under the so-called Beneš decrees. Some people say that "collective punishment" is unjust, and I suppose it is, but Czechs would argue that the Sudeten Germans had their chance, but at the first opportunity they connived to dismember their country. Besides, didn't they want to go "home to the Reich"? Fine; that is exactly where they were sent, along with the East Prussians, West Prussians, Pomeranians and Silesians, I might add. Later, it was reported that the expulsion was not peaceful, and many Czechs took the opportunity to settle scores by taking vengeance on the fleeing Germans, many of whom lost their lives.

As it happens, the current Czech president, Václav Klaus, made a statement today at a ceremony honoring the nine Czech martyrs of 1939 to the effect that the violence by the Czechs against Germans cannot compare to the crimes of the Nazis. This is not a controversial statement at all, and there is not a single Czech who doesn't agree with it. The Czechs are all too aware of the fact that once all the Jews had been gassed and cremated, that they were next, with non-Arianizable first in line. I suppose I knew this vaguely, but since the Germans ran out of oil and the Red Army rolled into Berlin before they could kill all the Jews of Europe, we can never be 100% sure. Still, the first time I read these words in Hans-Jörg Schmidt's frank and painful book, Tschechien,, quoting Hitler's secret speech outlining his plans for the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia", I felt a fury that I had never felt before in my life (pp. 61-62):

Man dürfe aber nicht das Endziel aus den Augen verlieren, "dass dieser Raum einmal endgültig deutsch besiedelt werden muss. (...) Wir werden nicht nach der alten Methode versuchen, dieses Tschechengesindel deutsch zu machen." Nach einer rassischen Bestandsaufnahme müsse man sagen können, "so und so sieht die Bevölkerung aus. (...) Die einen sind gutrassig und gut gesinnt, das ist ganz einfach, die können wir eindeutschen. Dann haben wir die anderen, das sind die Gegenpole. Schlechtrassig und schlecht gesinnt. Diese Menschen muss ich hinausbringen. Im Osten ist viel Platz. Dann bleibt nun eine Mittelschicht, die ich genau durchprüfen muss. Da sind in dieser Schicht schlechtrassig Gutgesinnte und gutrassig Schlechtgesinnte. Bei den schlechtrassigen Gutgesinnten wird man wahrscheinlich so machen müssen, dass man sie irgendwo im Reich einsetzt und nur dafür sorgt, dass sie keine Kinder mehr kriegen. (...) Dann bleiben die gutrassigen Schlechtgesinnten übrig. Das sind die gefährlichsten, denn das ist die gutrassige Führungsschicht. (...) Bei einem Teil der gutrassigen Schlechtgesinnten wird nur eines übrig bleiben, das wir ersuchen, sie im Reich anzusiedeln, einzudeutschen und gesinnungsmäßig zu erziehen, oder - wenn das nicht geht - sie endgültig an die Wand zu stellen."

Now I knew exactly how my Jewish friends felt about Germany. And here I was, who had lived in Germany, liked it, taught German, feeling the same anger (and sadness) that they did. Even the cast of characters at Wannsee, who let euphemisms and unrecorded winks do their dirty work for them, were more circumspect in what they actually said about their plans for the Jews than Hitler was here.

It is true that Havel, at great political cost, sought reconciliation with Germany and was fortunate that his counterpart was Richard von Weizsäcker, probably the greatest Bundespräsident in the history of the Federal Republic, if a man elected to so modest, and yet so morally powerful, an office can be great. However, the Sudeten Germans and their descendants, aided and abetted as always by the cynical CSU, wanted to dictate terms. The answer was and always will be Ne.

But since it is November 17, I will end this blog entry with a link to a moving slide show commemorating the Velvet Revolution, accompanied by Marta Kubišová's "A Prayer for Marta", the anthem of the resistance to the August invasion in 1968.