When the Loose Ends are People

In September/October 1938, Hitler, with the active connivance of the cowards in Downing Street, dismembered a sovereign neighbor state, Czechoslovakia.  This despite the very specific French treaty with Czechoslovakia which had been signed for the very express purpose of thwarting German aspirations against the Czechs’ territory.  Had Chamberlain been willing to support the French by watching their backs on the Rhein, the French were willing to honor their treaty commitments to the Czechs.  But Chamberlain was a coward, and his ruling Conservative Party had so neglected (under the circumstances, one might with some justice say “subverted”) the Empire’s defenses that Neville backed down, leaning on the French to do the same, and thereby selling out France’s treaty partner.

As only became known five years later, when the July 20 conspirators were in the process of being liquidated, had Chamberlain not chickened out in fall, 1938, there were armed groups of assassins literally gathered within blocks of the government district in Berlin, with detailed plans to kill or capture the entire Nazi senior leadership and liquidate the National Socialist state.  They were standing by for orders which their leaders expected to be able to give them at any moment.  Most of the senior military command was on board with the plot; Czechoslovakia had extremely formidable defenses and a very-highly-regarded self-defense capacity.  But when Chamberlain caved and the military realized they were going to be handed the Czech defenses without a fight (I can’t recall which of the senior German commanders it was who, upon touring those defenses later, opined that there was no way they’d have taken them by assault), leaving the balance of the country indefensible, they were unwilling to move forward and the whole thing fizzled.  The armed men stowed their weapons and went home.  Many of the top players later were hanged for their parts in the July 20 conspiracy, or for their associations with those folks, or, in the case of Admiral Canaris and his assistant, Major General Hans Oster, when their parts in the 1938 conspiracy came to light in consequence of the post-1944 purges and investigations.

In March, 1939 Hitler completed his liquidation of the rump Czechoslovakian state.  The Western powers looked on in fear.  Britain’s response was to issue the unilateral guaranty of Polish territory which then was called on September 1, 1939, when Hitler sent his armored columns swarming into that country.  With eventual results as known.

Hitler’s pretext for his initial assault on Czechoslovakia was the Sudeten Germans, who had settled in Bohemia centuries before, as early as the 12th Century, at the invitation of the then-kings of Bohemia (this was even before the Habsburgs acquired the franchise, so to speak).  What is important to understand is that the areas in which they principally settled never were part of any of the lands which later went to make up the German Reich.  The Germans who settled there occupied precisely the same relationship to their land of origin as the Chinese who settled in Manhattan.

All that notwithstanding, the Nazis cooked up this “heim ins Reich!” movement among the nationalistic elements of the Sudeten Germans (although they’d also settled elsewhere — Franz Kafka was a German Jew born and raised in Prague — they were concentrated in the Sudetenland).  I’ve never read a specific history of that era in that place and among those specific actors, but what is pretty easy to glean is that Hitler was using the Sudeten Germans to de-stabilize the Czech government, both from within (via the usual 1930s-vintage political thuggery) and from without, as Dear Concerned Führer stepped forward to offer himself as their protector.

Suffice it to say Hitler got everything he could have dreamed of, and more.  The Sudeten Germans went heim ins Reich, all right, and a fat lot of good it did them.  And then of course Hitler loses the war and offs himself, leaving the Sudeten Germans to their fate.  And what a fate it was.  Gentle Reader must understand that Reinhard “Hangman” Heydrich earned his nickname as the deputy “Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia,” which is to say, a good chunk of what had been Czechoslovakia before the war.  The Czechs took him out in mid-1942, using explosives dropped to them by the British.

When the war was over, Edvard Benes (sorry: can’t rig the diacritic over the final “s”; Churchill, by the way, pronounced his name “Beans”), the Czech president so viciously sold down the river in 1938, resumed his office, and promptly set about giving the Sudeten Germans their stated wish, insofar as that conformed to what they’d allowed to be done in their name seven years before.  He expelled them en masse, back to the dear ol’ Reich.

Seventy years ago today, in a town then called Aussig (now called Usti nad Labem), there was an explosion in town, in a former sugar factory (must have processed sugar beets there).  In the time-honored tradition — think principally of what happened to towns’ Jewish populations from the 14th Century onward every time the plague, or the cholera, or a swarm of locusts, or whatever passed through — the locals decided it must have been the work of the (newly declared) outsiders, viz. the Sudeten Germans.  And the pogrom began.  Their homes were ransacked, their businesses trashed, they were herded into the streets — men, women, and children indiscriminately — and beaten, or shot.  Quite a number of German workers on their way home after shift were crossing a bridge over the Elbe on their way home.  They were thrown into the river and shot as they swam.  Total dead may have been over 200.  No information about the total injured, or the extent of the property destruction.

The bridge the workers were thrown from was at the time, and to this day remains, named after Edvard Benes.  It was Benes and his administration who crafted the expulsion statutes.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain there has been some movement of reconciliation between the Czechs and the Germans.  But from this write-up about the pogrom at Aussig in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, it seems to be of extremely modest extent.  In fact it seems that the Czechs have held, more or less, to a philosophy of good riddance.  They certainly didn’t ask for the war.  In truth, in 1945-48 as the new political and ethnic polarities of post-war Europe were taking shape, can you really blame someone who was born and grew up in a Wilsonian hell-hole of “self-determination” among the crazy-quilt patchwork of Eastern and Central Europe for deciding that he was going to lance, once and for all time, that particular ethnic boil?

The Sudeten Germans were a loose end in July, 1945.  And they got tied up.  The dead among them as well must be reckoned with the war’s casualties, as must the dead in Poland, where the killing also extended for months past the war’s nominal end.

As with so many other things, I confess myself ambivalent about what happened to the Sudeten Germans.  It was unspeakably cruel, of course, forcibly and with no compensation at all, to uproot an entire people from what had been their homeland for up to 700 years.  On the other hand, so long as they were there they were available for further exploitation by future unscrupulous madmen, uses which the Czechs had just watched play out on their own home soil.  Gentle Reader might protest, “But the war was over.  Everyone could tell that would never happen again.  Those days were over and done with.”  To which the only reply is that no one could tell anything of the kind.  “It’ll never happen again,” is precisely what was said in 1918-19, exactly the promise that goofy megalomaniac Wilson made to the peoples of the old Habsburg Empire.  Remind me how that worked out, again?

I’m paraphrasing here, but I recall running across a quotation from Winston Churchill, from when he was First Lord of the Admiralty.  He presided, as Gentle Reader will recall, over one of the most portentous arms races in human history, the naval capital ship race between Imperial Germany and Great Britain.  Someone tried to downplay the necessity of Britain’s engaging in and winning that race by pronouncing that of course Germany would never dream of attacking Britain and destroying its existence by intercepting its sea lines of communication.  Churchill pointed out that at the Royal Navy it wasn’t their job to see that Germany wouldn’t do it, but rather that it couldn’t.  I will submit that in the immediate post-war years, Edvard Benes was faced with similar considerations.  Gazing out over his bleeding, war-torn land, his job was not to see that groups like the Sudeten Germans wouldn’t again be used to destroy the country he was sworn to defend, but that they couldn’t be so used.

And so the Sudeten German question got finally resolved.

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