Sudeten Ghosts

Sudeten Ghosts

by Derek Sayer

“Years ago we saw No-Man’s-Land, in a film, and because the film took place in 1918, we thought, fools that we were, that it was past history.  We went home from the cinema with a feeling of pride in the free radiant future toward which the people of today walk hand in hand.  At that time we had not yet experienced the strange twists and turns, the detours, dead ends, blind alleys, that history creates.”

Milena Jesenská, “In No-Man’s-Land,” Přítomnost [The Present], 29 December 1938[1]

This was written three months after Germany occupied the Sudetenland following the Munich Agreement.  Three months later Czechoslovakia was dismembered and Bohemia and Moravia occupied and turned into a Protectorate of the Third Reich.  Milena Jesenská was arrested in November 1939.  She died in Ravensbrück concentration camp in May 1943.

Today, almost 100 years after Czechoslovakia declared independence from Austria-Hungary, over 70 years after the country was liberated from Nazi occupation, and 28 years after the Velvet Revolution ended 42 years of communism, history veers off down another inimitably Czech country lane.

Miloš Zeman, who has warned that if the Czech Republic accepts more refugees from Syria (currently it has admitted a grand total of 12) “unfaithful women will be stoned, thieves will have their hands cut off and we will be deprived of the beauty of women, since they will be veiled” was re-elected as President of the Czech Republic.  At least the margin of victory was narrow (51.36% to Jiří Drahoš’s 48.63%) and the major cities of Prague, Brno and Plzeň turned out in force for Drahoš.  But the Sudeten ghosts are walking the land again.


“STOP immigrants and Drahoš. This land is ours! Vote Zeman.”

Election posters all over the Czech Republic, January 2018

“This is the order of the moment for every one of us, it is the historical task of our generation … Our new republic cannot be built as anything other than a purely national state, a state of only Czechs and Slovaks and of nobody other than Czechs and Slovaks! Although our land is beautiful, fertile, rich, it is small and there is no room in it for anybody other than us … Every one of us must help in the cleansing of the homeland.”

Prokop Drtina, Minister of Justice in postwar Czechoslovak National Front Government, 17 May 1945[2]

This refrain is an old one.  Bohemian Germans had lived in the Czech Lands since they were invited in by Czech kings in the 13th century.  The chronicle of František Pražský, written in the 1340s, records that in 1315 Czech lords complained of “these foreigners who are in the kingdom,” requesting instead that the king favor “us, who were born in the kingdom …”[3]

Six hundred years later, Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald echoed the lords’ complaint in a speech delivered in Brno on 23 June 1945, denouncing “the mistakes of our Czech kings, the Přemyslids, who invited the German colonists here” and demanding that Czechs expel “once and for ever beyond the borders of our land … an element hostile to us.”[4]

Between 1945 and 1946 over three million Bohemian Germans (and thousands of Hungarians) were forcibly expelled from Czechoslovakia.  At least 15,000 people, and probably many more, perished in one of the worst examples of ethnic cleansing in 20th-century Europe.  Czechs made up 70% of the population of the Czech Lands of Bohemia and Moravia—the present-day Czech Republic—in 1939.  In 1950 they made up 94%.

The Sudetenland was resettled by Czechs and Slovaks, who showed their gratitude by voting in huge numbers for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the elections of 1946.  To this day, the region remains one of the most desolate and depressed parts of the country.

Needless to say the former Sudetenland voted heavily for Zeman both in the election of 2013 (in which, astonishingly, the events of 1945-6 became a major issue between Zeman and his liberal opponent Karel Schwarzenberg) and again in 2018.




Before the war Prokop Drtina was a prominent member of the National Socialist Party who became Edvard Beneš’s personal secretary and confidant.   He was a member of the London-based Czechoslovak government-in-exile, familiar to Czechs from his BBC radio wartime broadcasts as Pavel Svatý.  He went on to become one of the “bourgeois ministers” in Klement Gottwald’s communist-led coalition government, whose collective resignation in February 1948 precipitated the coup d’état that led to 42 years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia.  Drtina unsuccessfully attempted suicide three days later and was imprisoned until he was amnestied in 1960.  Later he became a signatory of the dissidents’ Charter 77.  He died in 1980, with no end of communist rule in sight.  His autobiography is called Czechoslovakia My Fate.


Moral: history is never past.



[1] Translated by A. G. Brain, in Jana Černá, Kafka’s Milena, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993, p. 201).  The full article is available in English in Kathleen Hayes (ed.), The Journalism of Milena Jesenská, New York: Berghahn Books, 2003, pp. 193-7.

[2] Prokop Drtina, Československo můj osud, vol. 2, book 1, Prague: Melantrich, 1992, pp. 63-4.

[3] František Pražský: Kronika,” in Marie Bláhová (ed.), Kroniky doby Karla IV., Prague: Svoboda, 1987, p. 84.

[4] Quoted in Tomáš Staněk, Odsun Němců z Československa 1945-7, Prague: Academia, 1991, p. 60.