What's Behind the Fuss Over the Benes Decrees?

George Anthony reports on the hidden agenda motivating those who call for the revision of an important instrument of post-war justice.  

The Benes Decrees: that’s the laconic name used today for the laws issued by Czechoslovakia’s President Edvard Benes (1860-1948) while he was in exile during WWII and after the liberation, before the country’s post-war parliament took over his functions and endorsed the decrees.

There were 142 of them altogether. They served as the foundation of Czechoslovakia’s legal order during the Nazi occupation and as the country rid itself of its legacy.

Not surprisingly, many of the decrees relate to Czech-German wartime and post-war history. But now they are being talked about far beyond the borders of the Czech Republic and Germany. Their critics include the leaders of Austria and Hungary, and even the European Union is discussing them.

Some people are blaming the Benes Decrees for the transfer (or resettlement) in 1945-47 of about three million former Czechoslovak citizens of German nationality from the Czechoslovak Republic to Germany.

I have to disappoint them. Not a single one of the decrees is about the transfer (the so-called expulsion). It was the Potsdam conference in 1945 which ordered the resettlement of 11 million Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.  The victorious big powers  resettled Czechoslovakia’s German population in the “occupation zones” which they set up in post-war Germany.

About 10% of the decrees concerned the property of wartime traitors and collaborators accused of treason. They ordered its confiscation. Those affected included about the 90% of the German population of the Czech borderlands. In 1938 they had supported the Nazis and affiliation to the “Third Reich”.

It is claimed that the decrees were based on the concept of “collective guilt”. This is not true. Almost every decree explicitly stated that the sanctions did not apply to anti-fascists. Some 250,000 German anti-fascists remained Czechoslovak citizens after the transfer.  

The property confiscated was regarded as war reparations. It involved mainly industrial premises, buildings and land. These were the only reparations Czechoslovakia ever received from Germany.

All the nonsense which is being talked about the Benes Decrees has one specific purpose: to force the Czech Republic to pay compensation for the property confiscated, even though international treaties expressly prohibit Germany from making such claims against  states which, like Czechoslovakia, were part of the anti-Hitler coalition.

On another level, it is an attempt to revise the post-war settlement in Europe. When President Havel took office, he flouted public opinion by “apologising” for the transfer. The German revanchists saw this as a sign of weakness on the part of the Czech state. If someone says sorry, then in their view it is necessary to say sorry.

Czech politicians are beginning to realise this now, and even Havel has said that he regards the Benes Decrees as an enduring part of the legal order, even though most of them have only a symbolic significance since objectively their function has become extinct.

In other words,  sorry is not on Prague’s agenda.

This article was specially written for the English-language monthly Postmark Prague. You can obtain a free sample copy by writing to: Postmark Prague, PO Box 42, 18221 Prague 8, Czech Republic (e-mail: postmarkprague@cmail.cz)