THE spectre of central Europe’s bloody past bringing troubling tales of revenge, murder and ethnic cleansing have made an unwanted appearance over the Czech Republic this month.
The catalyst has been the premiere of a Czech documentary film, Stone Games, which concentrates on a spat in a small town near the German border over a memorial to eight murdered Germans. Some in Nowy Bor want the stone memorial removed. Others insist it should stay.
Its presence touches on a raw historical nerve, felt not just in the Czech Republic but across central Europe. The problem is that the Germans did not die in the war, but were slain in the months following VE Day on 8 May, 1945 – and they were not alone.
Czech historians estimate that 19,000 people died during the mass expulsion of 2.4 million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia under the Benes Decrees. Across the border in Poland, millions more Germans were kicked out, and thousands died either as result of violence or suffering caused by indifference.
The expulsions and the violence, to an extent, were justified or excused by the simple line that the Germans had brought it upon themselves. Before the war the Czechoslovak Germans were some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Hitler, and gave a rapturous welcome to the Wermacht when Hitler’s troops marched across the prostrate body of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1938.
For Poles, the unholy levels of destruction and bloodletting Nazi Germany inflicted on Poland made the post-war suffering of German civilians a trifling issue.
The “Germans deserved it” line still holds true in Poland, which is understandable, given its experiences in the war. Any attempt by Germans – and attempts are made – to bring attention to the plight of expelled Germans is met with passionate indignation in Poland.
But in the Czech Republic, the situation is more nuanced. While Nazi rule in the Czech lands could be, at times, brutal, it never reached the levels and scale of the savage violence that characterised the German treatment of Poles and Poland. The Czech suffering was less and, therefore, the post-war violence and ethnic cleansing more morally troubling and harder to defend.
Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, has defended the Benes Decrees in the face of international criticism. But he also expressed fears that nobody will offer the same robust defence after he steps down from office on 13 March: a statement indicating that others in the republic hold a perhaps softer view on the decrees.
Also, the unearthing of the remains of dead of Germans provides tangible evidence of suffering and crime, and plenty for Czechs to consider when it comes to their country’s past. Just how to deal with this past is far from being set in stone.
• Matthew Day writes on eastern Europe for The Scotsman.