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Ethnic Discord : Back to Sudetenland? : The pressure is building on Czechs to return homes and property they seized from Germans after World War II or to at least compensate the victims.

July 19, 1994|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHEB, Czech Republic — The Baroque central square of this charming border town is a hub of German tourism and Czech Angst.

Across from the town hall, visiting Germans frequent a bookshop in Haus von Gruener, the home of Cheb's Sudeten German mayor before he was expelled with 38,000 other residents after World War II.

"When they come in and demand maps in German with the local names the way they used to be, that's an indicator of something," bookseller Irena Schulzova said.

For Schulzova, whose hybrid last name is testimony to the region's bicultural history, the sought-after maps are symbolic of Sudeten German desires to take back the Czech borderlandproperties that were confiscated from them after the war. Her answer is to keep only Czech-language maps in stock.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 2, 1994 Home Edition World Report Page 6 Column 5 World Report Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong date--An article in the July 19 issue of World Report carried the wrong date for Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland. The attack occurred on Sept. 1, 1939.

"There were more Germans in this town than Czechs, and if the Germans came back now, where would we Czechs be? It would be absolute chaos," she said.

An estimated 2.5 million Sudeten Germans were stripped of their Czech citizenship and properties and expelled from the country after Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945. Thousands were beaten and killed in a riot of revenge for Adolf Hitler's annexation of the border region preceding World War II.

What was then termed the Sudetenland became the mark of Western appeasement of the Nazi leader, cemented in the 1938 Munich Pact in which Britain and France agreed to the annexation. Six months later Nazi forces swallowed all of Czechoslovakia and in 1940 invaded Poland, triggering the world war.

Since the collapse of communism, Sudeten German representatives in Bavaria have been pressing for the return of their properties. Recently their call was taken up by high-ranking German officials--a worrisome development to the residents of Cheb.

At a Sudeten German congress in Nuremberg in May, German Interior Minister Manfred Kanther said the Czech government should seek reconciliation with the expelled Germans. Finance Minister Theo Waigel linked support for the Czech Republic's bid to join the European Union to concessions on the Sudetens. (The former Czechoslovakia has been split into independent Slovakia and the Czech Republic.)

But the German government has not officially linked the two issues, and many German and Czech officials suggest that the high-level comments were campaign rhetoric to win Sudeten votes for the ruling German coalition in the October federal election. They also say the vast majority of Sudetens have no desire to return to the Czech Republic.

But the issue remains deeply emotional on both sides of the border.

"The question is not whether a hundred, a thousand or a hundred thousand Sudetens would go back," said Franz Neubauer, leader of the Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft, an organization of expelled Sudetens that claims 100,000 members. "What is important is that the Czechs say this was wrong."

Neubauer says his group wants dual citizenship, which neither country recognizes, and to discuss property rights with the Czech government. He is calling on the Czech government in Prague to abolish a 1946 confiscation decree by President Eduard Benes issued to punish Sudeten Germans for their role in the Nazi occupation, and says the Sudetens would consider restitution or compensation.

In a controversial speech on New Year's Day, 1990, Czech President Vaclav Havel actually did apologize for the mass expulsion and said the Sudetens should not be burdened with "collective guilt" for those who fought on the side of the Nazis and helped the occupation of Czechoslovakia.

But he stopped short of raising the land issue, and Czech restitution laws limit return of properties to those confiscated after the Communist takeover in 1948. Sudeten lands are excluded.

In a region that has suffered so much turmoil, many Czech citizens say Havel opened a can of worms and are adamant that the land issue be laid to rest.

"I think no one doubts that the laws we have now for restitution of property confiscated after '48 should be final," said Lubomir Novotny, deputy mayor of nearby Sokolov.

"If we go before that, then we would have to talk about restitution from Germany (for Nazi crimes). And if we went so far back into history, we'd have to go back to 1648 when the Swedes invaded Prague," Novotny said.

After the Sudetens were expelled, most of their houses were occupied by Czechs or torn down; their lands were occupied or confiscated by the government. Like many border residents, Novotny tells a story of a Sudeten German arriving unexpectedly at the door of his house one day in the 1970s.

"A German car stopped, a man and a woman got out. He said he was 9 when he had to leave and wanted to show her where he was born. He said outright he lives in Stuttgart and just came to see where he spent his childhood," Novotny said.

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