04 June 2021

Sudeten Germans in 1930s Czechoslovakia

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 11-12:

When the ailing and elderly Masaryk stepped down from the presidency in 1935, he carried away much of the Sudetendeutsch community’s goodwill with him. In contrast to the charismatic Father-Liberator, Edvard Beneš, his long-time heir apparent, seemed a colorless and uninspiring replacement. Across the political spectrum, Czechoslovaks paid tribute to Beneš’s intelligence, diligence, and efficiency. In administrative ability he stood head and shoulders above his peers. But if his talents were those of the skilled bureaucrat, so too were his flaws. Thin-skinned, intensely self-righteous, cold, and prone to bearing grudges, he was to prove an unfortunate choice as Masaryk’s successor. His own secretary, Jaromír Smutný, acknowledged that although a “brilliant master of tactics and strategy, the greatest Machiavelli of our time … he is unable to awaken the enthusiasm of the masses…. People leave him persuaded, but not feeling entirely with him, full of confidence but without affection.” Beneš also had a tendency toward political idées fixes that would twice prove disastrous for his country. An ardent Francophile, between the wars he placed his complete trust in the relationship between Prague and Paris, only to be abandoned by the French at Munich. A similar disillusionment lay in his future, after he transferred his unquestioning and unrequited confidence to the Soviet Union. The Sudeten German population’s attitude to Beneš, hence, was at best one of reserve. It was suspicious of his efficient public relations network that ceaselessly reiterated to Western Europeans what they wanted to hear about Czechoslovakia’s and its president’s exemplary liberal and democratic credentials—an image it knew to be more than a little rose-colored. It recognized him as a committed Czech nationalist, whose regard for minority rights owed more to pragmatism than conviction. And it had little confidence that in any situation in which Czechoslovak and Sudetendeutsch interests were in conflict, Beneš would treat the two communities even-handedly and impartially. When the resolution to confirm Beneš in the presidency was put before the Prague parliament in 1935, not a single Sudetendeutsch deputy voted in favor.

The differential impact of the Great Depression on Czech and German communities intensified the Sudetenland’s sense of alienation. As one of the most export-dependent parts of the country, the Sudetenland was hard hit by the contraction in international trade. But the Prague government added greatly to the region’s distress by its practice of preferring Czechs for public-sector jobs, dismissing thousands of Sudetendeutsch workers in the process. Germans, more than 23 percent of the population in the 1930 census, five years later made up only 2 percent of the civil servants in ministerial positions, 5 percent of the officer corps in the army, and 10 percent of the employees of the state railways. Not a single ethnic German was to be found in Beneš’s own Foreign Ministry. State contracts, even for projects in the German-speaking districts, were steered toward Czechoslovak firms. By 1936, more than 60 percent of all Czechoslovak unemployment was concentrated in the Sudetenland. No less injurious to German sensibilities was Prague’s dismissive response to their complaints of discrimination. It was unreasonable, Czech leaders argued, for the Sudetendeutsche to complain about their exclusion from public-sector employment while they remained equivocal in their loyalty to the very state that they expected to pay their wages. Germans, on the other hand, recalled that Czechoslovakia had come into existence as a result of Czech and Slovak soldiers deserting from the Austro-Hungarian army during the Great War and forming a Czechoslovak Legion to join the conflict on the Allied side against their former comrades in arms. For Beneš and his followers, with their record of disloyalty to the Hapsburg Empire at a moment when it was fighting for its life, to preach to anyone else about minority nationalities’ duty of fidelity to countries to which they had been unwillingly attached seemed to most Sudetendeutsche the epitome of hypocrisy.

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