Prague: Saints and sinners

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri May 30 14:34:45 UTC 2008

Saints and sinners
A proper study of human rights abuses should include Masaryk and Beneš

May 28th, 2008 issue
By Peter Josika

One of the key ingredients of any modern democracy must be a critical
and unbiased evaluation of history. While nations like Germany, Italy
and France have been busy coming to terms with their past in recent
decades, the Czech Republic has so far been conveniently shifting all
guilt for the dark chapters of its history on to "foreign invaders."
The story of the good and peace-loving Czechs, who have always been
the victims of their "evil neighbors," remains a popular and deeply
ideologized belief. Hence it is hardly surprising that a new Institute
for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes is limiting its research to the
period of Nazism and communism. The basis of modern Czech identity is
a nationalist and pan-Slavic ideology introduced in the 1920s and '30s
by the political leaders of the time — Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and
Edvard Beneš. Both are mentioned in the Constitution as persons of
great importance. Masaryk, especially, enjoys an almost godlike status
in the country today. A critical evaluation of Masaryk's role after
World War I remains a taboo. However, there were a number of
totalitarian aspects to the nationalist policies of Masaryk and Beneš
that disadvantaged large population groups, cost many innocent people
their lives or livelihoods and impacted negatively on the historic
cohesion in Central Europe.

With a German-Moravian mother and a Slovak father, Masaryk was in fact
more Central European than Czech. His mother tongue was German and he
only learned to speak proper Czech as an adult. In some respects,
Masaryk was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time. He adopted his wife's
surname, Garrigue, which was groundbreaking in the late 19th century.
His work as a critical scholar, and his resolute — and, at the time,
rather unpopular — intervention against racist and anti-Semitic
tendencies in Czech and Austro-Hungarian society must also be
commended. At the same time, Czechs need to be more critical of his
obsession with Czech nationalism. When Emperor Charles called for the
reorganization of Austria-Hungary into a federation at the end of
World War I, Masaryk could have become one of the leading progressive
figures of a powerful new Central European state. This, in turn, could
have laid the foundation for a much more painless transition to a
United Europe, without the perils of Nazism and communism. However,
instead of utilizing his multi-ethnic background to assist the
reconciliation process in Central Europe, he began to lobby for the
breakup of the Habsburg Empire and the creation of new artificial
boundaries.On the one hand, Masaryk fought for the incorporation of
majority German-speaking areas into his new state on the basis of the
historic boundaries of the Bohemian lands. On the other hand, he
lobbied for the complete dismemberment of historic Hungary, with new
boundaries based on ethnicity and geographical features. While he
demanded "self-determination" for the Czechs and Slovaks, he repressed
any attempt by Germans and Hungarians to exercise the same. Czechs
today know very little about the massacres committed by Czechoslovak
militia in German and Hungarian towns after World War I. These
massacres, and the coercion of German and Hungarian opponents into the
forceful incorporation of their territory into Czechoslovakia, should
become part of the research conducted by the new government institute
investigating totalitarian crimes. It should also be mentioned and
condemned in Czech schoolbooks.After its founding, Czechoslovakia
started to minoritize and disadvantage its German and Hungarian

Although Germans and Hungarians constituted 40 percent of the
population, Masaryk and Beneš refused to invite them to the country's
constitutional assembly. Representatives of almost half the population
had no input when the country's new constitution was drawn up. This
was certainly undemocratic, and it casts a big shadow over the current
Constitution and its democratic legitimacy.   In the 1920s and '30s,
Masaryk and Beneš continued a policy that strongly disadvantaged the
large German, Hungarian and Polish minorities. One of the most
controversial pieces of legislation was the introduction of
"Czechoslovak" as the national language. German, Hungarian and Polish
became minority languages, even in areas where they were spoken by the
overwhelming majority of people. Signage in these areas had to first
list place names in Czech or Slovak, and only second in the native
language. Worst of all, thousands of German, Hungarian and Polish
government officials lost their jobs, as they could not speak the "new
official language" and were replaced by Czechs, causing strong
anti-Czech sentiment in all affected areas.Masaryk and Beneš also
deceived the international community and the country's large ethnic
minority groups when they promised to turn Czechoslovakia into a
Swiss-style federation during the Paris peace conference after World
War I. Instead they turned the country into a Centralist monolith,
even abolishing the three traditional regions — Bohemia, Moravia and
Silesia. If they had stood by their word, giving some autonomy to the
Germans, Hungarians, Poles and Slovaks, these population groups would
have been substantially less prone to irredentist propaganda.

Masaryk and Beneš therefore share responsibility for the rise of
separatism and Nazism among the non-Czech population.The post-World
War II expulsion of more than 3 million Germans from Czechoslovakia
remains one of the biggest cases of ethnic cleansing in history. The
architect of this crime was Edvard Beneš, Czechoslovak president at
the time, who lobbied tirelessly for his plan while in exile during
World War II. No doubt there was legitimate hatred against the Nazis,
given the enormous magnitude of atrocities they committed. However,
the collective expropriation, mistreatment, resettlement or even
murder of people — most of them unquestionably innocent — based only
on ethnicity is a major case of ethnic cleansing, and any attempt to
even partially excuse this crime must be rejected. The current Czech
policy of brushing this atrocity under the carpet is at variance with
all human rights standards. The laws that legalized this crime are
still in place today. If the Czech Republic wants to become a genuine
advocate of human rights on the international stage (a declared goal
of the modern Czech state), it needs to deal with all the dark
chapters of its history, including human rights violations committed
by the Czechoslovak state in the interwar and postwar period. The most
important aspect of this is a more critical and balanced re-assessment
of the roles and policies of people like T.G. Masaryk and Edvard

The author, a resident of Biel, Switzerland, is coordinator of the
Network of European Bilingual Cities project and a correspondent for
Eurolang, the news agency of European minorities (

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