1 OCTOBER 1988, Page 33


Richard Bassett reports from the Sudetenland now

the Germans are gone

FROM Karlsbad, still a fair name for Karlovy Vary, to the Bohemian forests, the road runs south through the heart of Sudetenland, whose future Neville Cham- berlain set off to determine 50 years ago.

Though Chamberlain was to be vilified by Pan-Slays in the British establishment for referring to Czechoslovakia as a 'far- away place' and the Czechs as 'people of whom we know nothing', the term 'Su- detenland', like the equally bewildering Schleswig-Holstein of 75 years earlier was something most Englishmen, as Palmer- ston had said, had heard a lot about but understood little of.

For the purpose of convenience 'Sudeten' was used as a generic term covering all the Germans of the former Bohemian crown lands. But some English- men, 50 years ago, must have been puzzled as to what Germans were doing in the new state of Czechoslovakia in the first place after all the talk of self-determination at Versailles.

Today with Czechoslovakia rightly seen as the heart of Slav culture in central Europe, it is hard to imagine that when Chamberlain flew to Munich, one in every four Czechoslovak citizens was a fluent German speaker. Prague was the seat of the oldest German university of the middle classes. Virtually every town from Pilsen to Kesmark 400 miles to the east spoke as good German as they did Czech or Slovak.

These days it suits communist ideology, even in its present glasnost phase, to deny that these German-speaking Czechoslo- vaks were anything but intruders; a racial as well as a class enemy and of course infected to a man by the swastika. But 50 years ago, many Sudeten-Germans abhor- red Nazism, though inevitably many saw Hitler as salvation. The Sudeten-Germans who were before the collapse of the Habs- burg empire Austrians had always had more than their fair share of fanatical German nationalists. More than the 'Alpine-Germans', geographical proximity to Berlin and the sudden reversal of roles in the Czech lands, with majority and minority changing places in 1918, inevit- ably infected Teutons who would normally have been more disposed towards central

European, easy going tolerance.

Nevertheless, there were many of both races who right up to the bitter end believed that racial loyalty would not conflict with national loyalty and who maintained friendships in both camps. They rightly despised the agitation of Herr Henlein and saw him as the Trojan horse of the whole European tragedy.

The 'infamous' Times leader of the early editions of 7 September discussing the Sudeten problem suggested that it 'might be worthwhile for the Czechoslovak gov- ernment to consider whether a solution should not be sought on some clearly different lines which would make Czechos- lovakia an entirely homogenous state by the secession of that fringe of alien popula- tion . . . '. Though it is deeply unfashion- able to say this, such thinking was not totally worthy of the outraged indignation it provoked. Its timing, coinciding with delicate nego- tiation in Prague was miserably unpolitic and it was a supreme example of the dangers awaiting a leader-writer who, com- ing back from a week on the grouse moors, plunges too suddenly into the intricacies of a delicate situation. But ultimately, some of the Times's thinking was right. After the war, in 1948, the Czechs under Benes, who had been personally humiliated by the Nazis, expelled all three and a half million German-speaking Czechoslovaks and the country became 'an entirely homogenous state'.

Sadly, like the Times, Benes saw the Sudeten-German precisely as 'a fringe of alien population' rather than potentially patriotic Czechoslovaks who, freed from the tyranny of the Nazi criminal, might have then settled down to resuming their contribution to Czechoslovak culture. For as even some party Czechs today discreet- ly, if only in private, admit, Bohemia and its fabulous riches in architecture, music and art were always the product of that precious symbiosis of Teuton and Slays which was the old central Europe's cultural treasury.

One does not have to be accused of revisionism to see that much of Bohemia and Moravia have not recovered from this forced removal of a quarter of the coun- try's population, 'the alien fringe' 40 years ago. In Ceske Krumlov, a jewel of a town in the Bohemian forests, Renaissance and Baroque houses, untouched by war and `liberation' (the American Fifth Army arrived here first) are still falling to pieces because of the authority's policy of filling every empty Germanic house with gypsies. Like the Germans, modern communism has no time for gypsies. The despised gypsies understandably resent their en- forced surroundings whose stucco and plas- terwork, however charming to us, is anathema to those happiest in the caravan.

Other parts of the former Sudetenland have faired equally badly. To the north in Marienbad, it was also American armour which liberated the area in 1945. 'Where are the Czechs?' asked an incredulous tank commander, only to be told imperiously by an aging countess that with the exception of her cook there were no Czechs living in Marienbad and hadn't been any, as far as she knew, for the last 600 years.

Marianske-Lazne, the present Marien- bad, thanks to its spa and German tourism, flourishes a little more than Ceske Krum- lov,'though the old German shop signs can be read with increasing frequency as the later rendering peals off facades with every winter.

In a hostinec, Bohemia's answer to a village pub, a few older Czechs can be found who have de-Germanised their names in order to remain. In the lilting Pragerdeutsch accent, they will explain how in the long run the Germans had to go. There was just too much ill feeling and hatred after the war. Houses were plun- dered on a vast scale — it is still possible to find parts of the late Prince Clary's library in secondhand bookshops in Prague families who had lived for generations in one place were expelled with only a suit- case between them.

Younger Czechs, however, for whom such events are outside their experience, are more resentful of the Germans' depar- ture. Even those who own Sudetenland farmhouses near the East German frontier delight in finding in nearby woods evidence of Teuton industry: an old stone bridge to help cross-country skiers penetrate a deep forest, a magnificent series of steps cut down to a cavernous waterfall. As if tracing the relics of some ancient civilisa- tion, some younger Czechs delight in sear- ching out these pointers to a Bohemia of shared cultures and races.

Glasnost, however, remains out of step. Only in the Party does the official line remain rabidly set against these German Czechoslovaks. For the ideologues, party officials and school teachers of Bohemia, 50 years after Munich, the German- speaking Czechs remain 'people of whom we know nothing'.

Richard Bassett is Eastern Europe corres- pondent of the Times.