Edvard Beneš, The Liquidator: Fiend of the German Purge in Czechoslovakia

Review by Eric J. Schmaltz, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History, Department of Social Sciences, Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

Dedina, Sidonia. Edvard Beneš, The Liquidator: Fiend of the German Purge in Czechoslovakia. Translated by Dr. Rudolph Pueschel. Mountain View, California: Ready for Print Publication, 2001.

The phenomena of genocide and ethnic cleansing cast their all too familiar long shadows on a power-packed twentieth century, just as they continue to pay terrible visits and exact a most horrible human and moral price in this still young century. Scholar Arthur Grenke notes that the act of genocide may be characterized as the mass murder of targeted and dehumanized groups for the purpose of some kind of social transformation. Genocide, however, even under most modern definitions, does not necessarily mean the complete physical destruction of a group; it might only be partial. Moreover, genocide might lead to the dissolution of a group’s culture and language for the survivors. The act of ethnic cleansing, often accompanying terror, mass murder and some scheme of social transformation, may be described as the forcible mass population transfer of particular ostracized groups and the taking of their land and property. In living memory, however, some genocidal events, such as the Nazi Holocaust, have gained more attention and notoriety than others, including those in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s Communist China, Pol Pot’s Communist Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. In view of current events in Darfur in Sudan, the topic of genocide and ethnic cleansing remains as relevant as ever.

Dr. Rudolf Pueschel’s English translation of Sidonia Dedina’s book, Edvard Beneš, The Liquidator: Fiend of the German Purge in Czechoslovakia, serves to remind us that property confiscation, forced removals from homelands, and even murder of targeted ethnic groups stained the immediate aftermath of the world’s worst conflict in history, World War II. The plight of Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia adds to the long and growing list of humankind’s inhumanity to fellow human beings.

Until 1945 and 1946, the Sudeten Germans comprised a significant, influential and diverse minority group in Czechoslovakia. About 3.5 million Sudeten Germans lived along the borders of Germany and Austria by 1938, or roughly one-fifth of the country’s total population of 15 million. Only about 7.5 million or half of all Czechoslovakian citizens were Czechs, thus revealing the country’s considerable multi-ethnic character, which in fact mirrored most of Central and Eastern Europe up until that turbulent era. During the initial phase of so-called “wild” expulsions between April and July 1945, which is the primary concern of this study, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans faced ethnic revenge, dispossession, death marches, and removal, including around 30,000 from the community of Brno/Brünn in May of that year. Ultimately, a meager 250,000 ethnic Germans, mostly anti-fascists and those viewed as essential to vital national industries, received permission to stay in the country after 1946.

Dedina calls the events of 1945 and 1946 surrounding the German minority in Czechoslovakia “Europe’s forgotten genocide.” She confesses that historical truth “would have been better served” if the book had been written a half century earlier. She was but a child in Prague at the time, and Czech postwar records had hardly yet been collected during her youth. Until the end of the Cold War, and even more recently, the Prague government has kept many Czechs in the dark about what had truly transpired at war’s end. For Dedina, this refusal to acknowledge the “wild” expulsions or “purge” of the country’s ethnic Germans (as well as its ethnic Hungarians, it should be observed) manages only to forestall truth, justice and genuine reconciliation among peoples. More importantly, history is doomed to repeat itself if the past is mostly forgotten or ignored. Perpetrators, collaborators, and bystanders complicit in such activities hope for such historical amnesia.

Dedina records events transpiring in Czechoslovakia between April and July 1945, namely between the final days of the war and the start of the Potsdam Conference among the Big Three Powers—the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. The mass expulsion of Czechoslovakian citizens of German background occurred before the Potsdam Conference convened, however. Dedina maintains that this mass expulsion was therefore planned in advance and executed by the newly established Prague government under Edvard Beneš through the so-called “Beneš Decrees.” In effect, Beneš sought revenge against the Nazis by waging a war in peacetime against ethnic-German civilians in his country long after the May 8, 1945, capitulation of Hitler’s Germany.

This episode of ethnic cleansing under the Czechs is seen through the eyes of a Czech. Dedina’s own life presents an interesting case of self-discovery and historical reconsideration in light of the experience of Sudeten-German expellees. She only learned of the tragic history in her beloved homeland through a chance encounter in the mid-1980s with human rights activist and author Dr. Alfred M. de Zayas. The outspoken de Zayas was a Cuban-American lawyer from the United States. At the time, he was speaking in West Germany on the subject of forced expulsions of Germans from the community of Folmava/Vollmau in Czechoslovakia.

Subsequently, Dedina’s experience of coming to terms with the past represents a microcosm of the difficulties in overcoming historical amnesia and denial among those in her native Czech homeland. After immigrating to West Germany in 1966, she for the first time gained access to German records and accounts of what had happened in the Sudetenland (Bohemia and Moravia). Following the Cold War, she traveled to the Czech Republic for further investigation on the topic (in 1992, Czechoslovakia broke up, with Slovakia forming a second state).

The crux of Dedina’s story is the attempt to unravel and comprehend the main character and driving political force behind the events of 1945 and 1946: Edvard Beneš (1884-1948). Mostly, Dedina presents the Czech president in a negative light, but at times views him as an ailing and misguided figure. She describes him “not only as a politician and statesman, but also as a human—or rather inhuman being. How did his mind work? Of what and how did he talk to his wife, his associates, and physicians? Was he really as clumsy and pedestrian as he appeared? The answer to the last question is yes, but at the same time he was also cunning and wily, and tremendously industrious and obsessed with his mission; in all, a disaster of a man. Today he would have to stand trial before an international tribunal for war crimes against humanity. That’s how he was, Beneš the liquidator, and even more complex” (p. iii).

This story narrows its examination to the early expulsions of Germans leading up to the Potsdam Conference. Beneš, who had served as Czechoslovakia’s president before World War II, and then briefly again in a fragile coalition government with Soviet-backed Communists until 1948, ordered the removal of his country’s ethnic Germans and the expropriation of their land and property. Beneš believed that the Czechs and Slovaks represented the same national group, while the Germans and Hungarians remained aliens in his land (neighboring fascist Hungary was also for a time Nazi Germany’s ally). He was a longtime member of the Czechoslovakian National Socialist Party (known as the Czechoslovakian Socialist Party before 1925), not to be confused with the National Socialist (Nazi) Party of Germany. He also held power when the West delivered the Sudetenland to the Nazis in late 1938.

Dedina argues that the pogroms and expulsions in Czechoslovakia, even in the opening days, did not simply constitute “spontaneous” or “isolated” outbreaks of vengeance and violence against former Nazi occupiers. Rather such incidents formed part of a much broader, government-sanctioned program from top to bottom encouraging the systematic dispossession of ethnic Germans, military or civilian, accompanied by their transfer across the border to occupied Germany and Austria.

How and why did these tragic events occur, and who was responsible for such heinous crimes? Recall that the Nazis annexed the Sudetenland in October 1938, following the now infamous Munich Agreement signed between Hitler and the West (Great Britain and France). According to Dedina’s account, President Beneš decided to hand over to the Nazis without a fight perhaps the most prized region of his country (including the best fortified frontiers), despite that various Czech military leaders were willing to defend the country while it still held the defensive positions. It indeed proved far more difficult to protect the nation once the Sudetenland was lost, as happened in March 1939 when the Nazis without a shot swallowed the remainder of the rump Czechoslovakian state. Beneš faced criticism for these events at the time.

The new coalition government in Prague, self-appointed in the spring of 1945, was eager to avenge what had taken place at Munich and during the Nazi occupation of the country. It accomplished its goal of purging the nation of “outsiders” by playing up the Nazi card against the ethnic Germans. Beneš and other leading Czechoslovakian statesmen, for instance, gave incendiary public speeches on the radio, poisoning the public discourse further in their calls for revenge against all things German.

Dedina addresses some of the problems with Prague’s approach to the status of Czechs under Nazi occupation. Not until the final days of the war did many ordinary Czechs rise up against their Nazi overlords. Compared with many subjugated peoples under Hitler’s New Order, the Czechs fared relatively better than most European peoples, although they certainly never welcomed the Nazi takeover and certainly suffered cases of Nazi repression and even brutality. Under Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis pursued a “carrot-and-stick” approach toward the Czech population.

Adding complexity to the overall picture was that the Sudeten Germans were composed of a competing array of political and socio-economic interest groups, including aristocrats, farmers, and Communists. Indeed, not all of them took a pro-Nazi stand in the feverish period leading up to Munich in 1938, despite effective Nazi propaganda to the contrary and the Sudeten-German Nazi puppet Konrad Henlein. Not all Sudeten Germans necessarily expressed pro-Nazi leanings during the occupation either.

Meanwhile, after May 1945 some ardent Czechs who had befriended the Nazis turned on anything that was remotely German. It was equally true that not all Czechs expressed enthusiasm for the Beneš Decrees in the period that transpired. All these facts suggest a far more complicated political picture at the time, all the while raising a disturbing portrait of human nature and the phenomenon of ethnic conflict erupting among former neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. Dedina notes how quickly many Czechs changed sides during the first week of May 1945. Complicity and denial soon followed. Many collaborators later received promotions in the new government. Thus we find in Czechoslovakia a double tragedy: Nazi occupation and at times brutality toward the Czechs, followed by the Czechs’ postwar revenge against Germans—a vicious circle of victimization indeed.

Dedina rightly points out that the Potsdam Conference sanctioned the removal of the Sudeten Germans and Hungarians from Czechoslovakia at the request of the Prague government, but the Big Three had never initiated the transfer policy. The purge was well underway before the powers met outside of Berlin in mid-July 1945. The Allies had in mind the orderly and humane removal of German nationals from parts of Germany to be annexed by other states, such as Poland. At Potsdam, the Allies never called for the removal of remaining German communities in Hungary or Romania, some of them still quite sizeable, and thus it is conceivable that they would not have necessarily called for the complete transfer of Germans from Czechoslovakia. In short, Dedina argues that the responsibility for the pre-Potsdam events in Czechoslovakia—the public calls and subsequent laws designed to remove the Germans—rests with the Beneš government. Later, she maintains, Prague tried to make it appear that the Allies at Potsdam had ordered the mass evacuations and that the Czechs had carried them out in a humane and orderly fashion. According to Dedina, the Soviets, who were long experienced with deporting nationality groups en masse, also advised the new, self-appointed Czech government on how best to conduct its own forced population removals. It might have also served in the Kremlin’s interests to deport the ethnic Germans in order to make the new Prague government dependent on it for future national security.

Between 1939 and 1946, about 12 to 16 million Germans from Central and Eastern Europe experienced mass population removals under Nazi Germany and other countries, including German nationals who had to leave lands annexed by postwar Poland. From 1945 to 1946 under the Allies, between 500,000 and one million of these died during the expulsions, although estimates vary among scholars, with some claims as high as two million deaths, if one accounts for war-related losses. Sudeten-German deaths range from a few ten thousand to a couple of hundred thousand. Statistics vary, and disagreements remain.

Even under the best circumstances, mass population transfers, including legal ones, prove most difficult, both on logistical and moral grounds. For example, by comparison the great population exchanges between Muslims and Hindus, following the British partition of newly independent Pakistan and India in 1947, witnessed a similar level of human suffering. Hundreds of thousands died during that process, despite the oversight of committed humanitarians and civil rights activists like India’s Mahatma Gandhi. Seeking to uphold notions of an orderly and humane transfer, the Western Allies in Central and Eastern Europe perhaps eased somewhat the physical, if not the emotional, conditions of mass German removal from January to October 1946, following the initial “wild” expulsions under Beneš. The general course of action remained painful ethnic cleansing nonetheless.

There might never be an adequate or single answer to why the Western Allies allowed these actions to take place. At least with respect to Czechoslovakia, especially once the Beneš purge was underway, the Allies might have been interested in establishing a relatively more homogenous nation-state to avoid future conflicts and to prevent Germany from making future territorial or irredentist claims. The Allies also might have sought to punish ethnic-German minorities for their previous support of Nazi policies, and the population transfer and confiscation of property could offer a degree of compensation to a formerly Nazi-occupied country. Of course, the mass removal of highly productive segments of Czechoslovakia’s population appears counterproductive. Then there remains the overarching problem that not all Sudeten Germans were committed Nazis.

The legacy of forced removal went far beyond the confines of 1945 and 1946. Pueschel and other scholars have remarked that the destruction of historic German communities in Czechoslovakia, notably in Bohemia and Moravia, led to an economic, architectural and cultural downgrading of much of the region. Well-established and vibrant eight-hundred-year-old communities vanished almost overnight, never to return, leaving the region for the worse—a human resource drain, and ultimately a hollow victory for the country.

Unwittingly, Beneš seemed to have served his purpose of removing remaining obstacles to the gradual encroachment of Communism in his country. Shortly before his death, he resigned from office in June 1948 in opposition to the complete Communist takeover of the country a few months earlier under Prime Minister Klement Gottwald (1896-1953), one of his early accomplices in the “liquidation” of the ethnic Germans. The first “purge” victims in Czechoslovakia were ethnic Germans and Hungarians, but Beneš and any political opposition to the Communists soon shared the same fate.

Rather surprising and intriguing details appear in the book concerning the Czech government’s concealment of the truth. Thus the book dispels a number of historical myths or misunderstandings about the events of 1945 and 1946. If anything, Dedina’s study should prompt serious historians to look closer at some of her findings and reported allegations, as the story of the Sudeten Germans demands greater worldwide attention.

The first surprising revelation concerns the Russian Liberation Army’s heroic struggle to liberate Prague from the Nazis on May 6-8, 1945. General Andrej A. Vlasov led this force. Originally, the Nazis toyed with the idea of using these former Russians POWs and anti-Soviets to fight Stalin, but in the final days of the war, Vlasov and his men decided to change sides in hope of getting special consideration from the Western Allies. Ultimately, the Red Army received credit for the liberation of Prague, while Vlasov and his men were abandoned by the Czech-Soviet alliance and repatriated to the Soviet Union. Vlasov and other leading officers faced immediate execution.

As for the second surprise revelation, the Czechoslovakian government in the late 1970s leased to a Hollywood production team the nearly abandoned northern Bohemian city of Most/Brüx, which had been purged of its German inhabitants by Czech regular army forces more than thirty years earlier. With an all-star cast, the producers filmed the big-budget World War II spectacle, A Bridge Too Far. The epic movie documents the stalled Allied offensive at Arnhem, Holland, in September 1944. During the filming, artillery barrages leveled the heart of the historic city. Dedina learned the background to the movie from her husband years after watching the film: “This was because the state-controlled mining operator saw a need to expand the operation, and the city stood in its way. It was in decay and half-empty, the Germans were gone and the Czechs preferred to live in the prefab houses. A lease to movie producers to blow up the old place not only was cheaper than leveling the city, it even filled the government’s coffers” (p. 141).

A third surprise revelation perhaps stands as one of book’s most controversial and thought-provoking, as it concerns the Nazi liquidation of the village of Lidice in June 1942. In late May of that year, Czech commandos under Allied directive carried out the successful assassination of Reich Protector Heydrich, one the most powerful and ruthless men in Nazi Germany. In retaliation, the Nazis wiped the village and many of its inhabitants off the map for supposed complicity in hiding the partisans, with only some women and children surviving the concentration camps when the war finally ended.

On the Lidice question, Dedina talked with Slovak writer and historian Jan Mlynarik, whose pseudonym is Danubius. She quotes Danubius: “Beneš may have anticipated and accepted the possibility of reprisals after Heydrich’s elimination. The Allies were reproaching him for the Czechs’ unchallenged and willing support of the Reich war effort. Beneš and his exile government felt they needed a show of defiance against the Reich in order not to lose support from the Allies” (pp. 129-130).

At first, Dedina doubted Danubius’ assertions that the exile government in London would have risked sacrificing so many lives in such a daring raid. Was the Heyrich assassination designed to generate Czech revenge later on? Do Beneš and his associates shoulder the blame for ordering the hit or for later taking advantage of the incident? This extreme measure certainly antagonized the Czech populace, for which the Sudeten Germans later had to pay dearly. Or was this action a sincere way of demonstrating to the Allies the Czech determination to help contribute to the war effort? That certainly could be the case, too.

Some historians have speculated that Heydrich was about to be reassigned to handle security in occupied France, thereby possibly jeopardizing resistance and espionage efforts in that key part of Europe. Perhaps the Allies made the initial push for the assassination in order to prevent him from taking the new post, and the Czech exiles perhaps were simply well-intentioned in assisting them in this risky covert operation. Interestingly, the Allies reacted to the Lidice incident by never again calling for the assassination of a high-profile Nazi, as they deemed it not worth risking additional innocent civilians.

To say the least, Dedina’s publicized findings have proved controversial on both sides of the political aisle in Germany and the Czech Republic. Part of the ongoing debate concerns the official Czech government version of events versus the historical truth. For decades, some Czechs also have been understandably wary of some Sudeten Germans’ calls for compensation and for reclaiming homelands across the border, despite that West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in the early 1970s recognized and affirmed the postwar boundaries, with similar guarantees coming from Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the wake of German unification in 1990.

According to the translator Pueschel, seventy German, Austrian and Swiss publishers refused to accept Dedina’s book. Whether their refusal stemmed from political or stylistic reasons or both, it remains unclear. Eventually, it took a German expellee organization to publish the first German-language edition in 2000 and find a wide audience. The book constitutes the Czech version of “coming to terms with the past,” something which postwar Germany had to accomplish regarding its Nazi legacy. Dedina writes that at this time “both the German and Czech peoples have become part of my life, and I feel I belong to both of them.” The book is “written for Germans and Czechs alike, and anybody who stands for human rights and values the truth” (p. iv). On matters of genuine reconciliation, truth and justice, this English translation edition embodies such a noble goal. Her translator Pueschel is a Sudeten German born before the war and a victim of that same ethnic cleansing. He now lives in the United States and continues to promote her book and publicize the history of this event.

Few know that the “Beneš Decrees” remain on the books in the Czech Republic, fueling the controversy on both sides. In the preface, Dedina notes: “The fall of Communism in 1989 yielded no softening of the harsh anti-German expulsion laws created to legalize the 1945/46 genocide. However, the opening of the iron curtain permitted personal visits and exchanges of ideas that are also presented in this book” (p. i). Since Vaclav Havel’s time as prime minister during the early 1990s, the Czech government has assured the European community and expellees that the anti-German legislation no longer applies. The European Commission and the European Parliament have accepted this explanation in recent years, but passionate discussions among Germans and Czechs of various political stripes endure. Perhaps it will take the passing of older generations to set aside the disagreements and thus pave the way for a genuine reconciliation.

Dedina’s writing style falls into the genre of what she describes as a “historical novel.” This literary device seeks to place a story within actual historical events. Often the events predate the author’s lifetime. Sometimes the author may create fictional characters alongside historical ones, or even create scenes and dialogue that would have been appropriate in actual circumstances. Essentially, the author in this way attempts to present an honest account based on thorough research to relate a story to contemporary audiences. Since the nineteenth century, this approach has enjoyed much popularity in Central and Eastern Europe. Many Germans from Russia books follow this tradition, too. The genre walks a fine line, however, with a similar popular writing style in the West called “historical fiction.” That approach often portrays historical events and characters with alternative accounts. Although paying particular attention to historical details and trying not to stray too far from documented history, “historical fiction” takes some liberties in portraying people and events in ways not recorded in history. By contrast, Dedina attempts to tell a story based on what we do know, in the process adding some dialogue and scenes to help recreate what happened.

The book possesses a certain journalistic or documentary quality in its organization and layout. Dedina has worked for years as a reporter, novelist, writer, and human rights activist, and here she combines her many trades. In addition, her personal background offers a different angle to these events described in the book. The author takes numerous snapshots in time and place and thus paints a montage of key events and personalities to help describe and propel a multifaceted story. Meanwhile, she inserts short accounts of her evolving personal odyssey through this almost forgotten dark chapter of European history.

The English-language edition of the book contains several historic photographs, along with several illustrations by artist Gerfried Schellberger of stark clay sculptures depicting the human and moral cost of this mass expulsion. At the back, a couple of useful detailed maps and a list of Czech-German place names assist the reader in following the narrative of events. In the bibliography, Czechs, Germans, Americans, Russians and others contributed to Dedina’s investigations over many years. She consulted a variety of individuals, above all historians, politicians, military officers, survivors, human rights activists, and even her family members. She also made sure to incorporate the memoirs of Beneš. Her knowledge of the Czech language and her personal and family contacts made it possible to capture the Czech side of the story, namely her country’s attitudes and motivations from high officials to ordinary people on the ground.

Before tackling the more personalized narratives within this book, it is highly recommended that general readers familiarize themselves with the basic facts, dates, events, and locations concerning the removal of the Sudeten Germans. In particular, a number of academic studies can provide background information and a straightforward historical analysis to let readers grasp better the deeper human story related in this book. Among others, helpful reference works include: Alfred M. de Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam: The Anglo-Americans and the Expulsion of the Germans: Background, Execution, Consequences, 2nd rev. ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979); and Philip Ther and Ana Siljak, eds., Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East Central Europe: 1944-1948 (Lanaham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).

The Sudeten-German experience is part of a great storm of hatred and tragedy that ravaged the heart of mid-twentieth-century Europe—an age of national revenge and territorial purging on all sides, including the Nazis and Communists and all those caught in-between. Dedina’s historical novel adds a human face and dimension to one of many unnecessary national tragedies in modern memory. A similar problem of coming to terms with the past haunts German survivors of the former Soviet Union who found themselves divided between Nazism and Communism during the 1930s and 1940s. Thus Beneš, the Liquidator should come as a welcome addition to the Germans from Russia disapora community, which, too, can still claim members who identify with many of the travails of the world’s lost and dispossessed. This story of millions should encourage us to look more carefully at what shook Europe only six short decades ago.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller