Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[REVIEW] Sidonia Dedina, The Liquidator

After Kosovo's declaration of independence, a Czech diplomat was quoted on the English-language news site of Serbia's B92 as saying that his country would find it difficult to recognize Kosovo for various reasons, particularly because of what he saw as the similarity to the international mediation that led to the 1938 German annexation of the Sudetenland. As well, he said, unlike the wild expulsions visited on Kosovo Serbs after 1999 Czechoslovakia had handled the transfer of the Sudeten Germans in a relatively humane fashion.

Yes, I know what you're thinking, too.

Sidonia Dedina's Edvard Benes: The Liquidator (RFP Publications: Mountain View, CA, 2001) is a powerful historical novel centered on the plight of the Sudeten Germans between April and July 1945. This time period, after the defeat of Nazi Germany but before the Czechoslovak state officially adopted the Benes Decrees in full, is a key period in Czechoslovak and central European history. When they were fully implemented, the Benes Decrees would decree the forcible denaturalization of ethnic Germans and Hungarians, the confiscation of their property, and their deportation to their titular homelands. Czechoslovakia's Hungarians, overwhelmingly concentrated in Slovakia, survived as a community; Czechoslovakia's Germans, overwhelmingly concentrated in the Czech lands, did not. As she follows the sufferings of individual Sudeten Germans (even the low estimates suggest twenty thousand Sudeten Germans were killed out of three million people), Dedina also takes on a second narrative strand following Edvard Benes, who she argues was quite willing to deliver Czechoslovakia to the Soviet sphere of influence if it meant that the Czech lands would become ethnically homogeneous. Finally, Dedina follows a group of modern-day human rights workers as they try to navigate the aftermath of Czechoslovak communism and the reemergence of Sudeten Germans in history.

This book is valuable inasmuch as it is one of the first fictional narratives I've read in any detail about the Sudeten German expulsions. Dedina's novel graphically mines the territory of Alfred-Maurice de Zayas in his A Terrible Revenge, one of the first books in the popular press of the Anglophone world to have explored the expulsion of ethnic Germans from central and eastern Europe in any detail. The Liquidator's arguments about Benes also have a certain plausibility to it. Leaving aside dubious allegations that Benes was a Soviet spy of some kind, he does seem to have been playing a dangerous game, trying to draw equally on Soviet and Western support while securing Czechoslovakia's independence, trying to placate the strong pro-Soviet Communist current in Czechoslovakia while associating himself with the west. Benes' project did fail, but his Soviet alliance did facilitate the emptying-out of the country's German population at an appalling cost, in the forms of vast amounts of property lost and lives taken or ruined.

The Liquidator also has very serious problems. The editing is very flawed, the lack of proper paragraphing leading to the cramming of entire conversations alongside a translation that somehow doesn't seem idiomatic. Perhaps more importantly, the content of The Liquidator is biased strongly towards the Sudeten German perspective, in so doing reproducing the sharp divisions between Czech and Sudeten German perspectives described in 1996 in The New York Times.

In his book-lined study here, Ivan Klima, the Czech author, recalls the days a half-century ago when surviving Jewish families like his finally fled the concentration camps to find their land awash in killing and chaos. He was then 14 years old and, even in the final days of the Second World War, he said, so many Czechs were shot by their Nazi German occupiers "for nothing" that humanity seemed lost.

Karl-Heinz Wunderlich, a psychologist from the ethnic German minority in Czechoslovakia, remembers that period, too.

In his mind's eye, he still sees the Czech soldiers who, when he was 8, came to his family's door in what was then the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, which Hitler had annexed in 1938. Now living in Mainz, Germany, Dr. Wunderlich recalls how Czechs toting submachine guns loaded people onto freight trains -- the lucky ones, that is, who endured what he called ethnic cleansing rather than massacre as the Czechs purged their land of three million Germans.

For the century and a half before the expulsions of the Sudeten Germans, ethnic conflict between Czechs and Germans was endemic. Early 19th century Czech writers like Jan Palacky saw the Czechs as being under constant threat of Germanization. This fear sparked, towards the middle of the 19th century, the Czech national revival, characterized by a strong push towards mass education and economic development that, coupled with mass migration from the countryside, helped produce a vigorous urbanized Czech population as skilled and as prosperous as the Germans of Bohemia-Moravia. This intrusion on traditionally German domains, like cities with German majority populations or as workers and owners of industrial enterprises, contributed to a growing antagonism for Czechs that spread beyond Bohemia-Moravia throughout the German-speaking areas of Austria-Hungary, as evidenced by the suspicion and hostility visited upon the large population of Czech immigrants in Vienna. Germans in Bohemia-Moravia were strongly opposed to the extension of institutional bilingualism in the Czech lands, perhaps fearing that the Czechs--more likely to be bilingual than Germans--would outcompete the Sudeten Germans. The collapse of Austria-Hungary in 1918 saw the German-majority districts of Bohemia-Moravia join the Republic of German Austria, only to be reconquered by the nascent Czechoslovakia where the Sudeten Germans were diminished by Czechoslovakia's new customs regime and were hampered by the need for fluency in the Czech language. The Czech-German hostility in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia went both ways.

That might be why Czechs and Sudeten Germans were both generally impervious to the sufferings of the other group. Several characters in The Liquidator comment that the Czechs had hardly suffered. That's certainly not the case. Leaving aside the 150 thousand refugees who fled the Sudetenland after the 1938 annexation and the privations caused by wartime austerities, if the Czech Statistical Office's estimate of the Czech lands' 1948 population of nearly 8.4 million (presumably almost all Czechs) is correct and--as one estimate has it--between 36 and 55 thousand Czechs died, something on the order of one-half percent of the pre-war population of ethnic Czechs died. That's far from the holocausts visited on Poland, but it's certainly severe enough: The latest estimate of 150 thousand casualties in Myanmar as a result of Cyclone Nargis calculates as roughly one-third of a percent of Myanmar's population and is used to justify claims of autogenocide. For Czechoslovakia as a whole, something like 2.25% of the total pre-war population died, a figure roughly midway between France's 1.35% and the Netherlands' 2.82%.

Those death rates provoked extreme anti-German reactions in France and the Netherlands as well. France wanted to make the Saarland, at least, a protectorate, while the Netherlands was interested in annexing large amounts of northwestern Germany. In both cases, pressure from the United States and Britain kept those two countries from going beyond their borders to achieve those goals. In the case of Czechoslovakia, a country with a strong Communist Party and a suspicion of the Western powers dating from 1938 that had been liberated from the Nazis by the Soviet Union, there were few factors restraining Czechoslovakia for punishing an ethnic group within its frontiers that had enthusiastically welcomed Czechoslovakia's destruction and assented to the immiseration of the Czechs. It's not surprising that, immediately after the collapse of Nazi rule, the wild attacks and bloody expulsions visited on Sudeten Germans by Czechs happened--the spontaneous killings of people believed to be Nazi collaborators in the post-war épurations are estimated to have claimed approximately ten thousand victims out of a total French population of some 42 million. In the context of an exceptionally nasty ethnic war, of course victims of mob attacks out for wild "justice" would be chosen on ethnic grounds. It's equally unsurprising that Czechs and Slovaks, already accustomed to seeing Germans (and Hungarians) as historic enemies, would support significantly larger expulsions of those populations, and that countries allied with Czechoslovakia like the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union were willing to countenance these expulsions. (British reluctance seems to have been precipitated more by concerns about how the expellees would be fed than by humanitarian concerns.) The only surprise in all this seems to be the thoroughness of the expulsions of Sudeten Germans: The Czech Republic no longer has a German minority at all.

Brown and Hahn make the point in their very compelling 2001 dialogue at Central Europe Review (1, 2) that Czechs and Germans (including Sudeten Germans) have been consistently talking past each other about subjects in their common history, that for generations if not centuries the major students of the history of central Europe were willing to make use of false assumptions, mistakes, and outright misrepresentations in talking about out-groups for their own political purposes. Worse, major schools of thought, organizations, or states were willing to promote these falsehoods. This tendency poisoned inter-ethnic relations in the past--one 1937 observer noted that outside the zones of greatest ethnic conflict Czech-German interethnic relations were good, suggesting that they could have been good throughout Czechoslovakia if things were different--and continue to complicate Czech-German relations to the present day.

The end result of these terrible conflicts is that the territory of the modern Czech Republic, lands which could be described for most of their history as possessing "an ethnically and denominationally heterogeneous population," is now just another high-income ethnically homogeneous central European nation-state, its main ethnic problems relating to the immigrants who have come to the Czech Republic from lands as distant as Vietnam. The Sudeten Germans and their descendants, concentrated in adjacent Bavaria, still care about what happened. By and large, their necessary interlocutors the Czechs don't.

The Czech government [. . .] dampened the hopes of the Sudeten Germans for an early dialogue, saying it saw no need for such discussions.

"There is no change in our position. If the Sudeten Germans see things differently it might be linked to a change in their relationship to the Czech Republic," foreign ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Opletalova was quoted as saying by the Czech news agency CTK.

Dedina's The Liquidator provides a valuable presentation of the sufferings of Sudeten Germans during the expulsions of 1945 and should receive due credit for that, and for the author's passionate engagement with her subject. The Liquidator fails, however, despite the author's best efforts to include a Czech perspective, as a definitive statement on the atrocities inflicted during and after the Second World War in the various lands of the Bohemian Crown. If there is to be a final reconciliation between Czechs and Sudeten Germans, it must be a very complete one.
Tags: book reviews, central europe, czech republic, ethnic cleansing, germany
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