Longing for home Decades later, expelled Germans want Czech lan

Saturday, July 27, 2002

KLEINSCHWEINBARTH, Austria -- Hildegard Nuss wasn't even 10 years old when she was forced to leave her home, but she says time hasn't diminished the empty feeling inside of her.

She was among 3 million ethnic Germans who were expelled from what was then Czechoslovakia. Now, 57 years later, some of those still alive want their property back and their honor restored, posing an awkward problem for a continent striving to heal the wounds of World War II and unite into a borderless Europe.

In 1938, when Hitler seized Czechoslovakia, many in its German-speaking Sudetenland region welcomed the Nazis as liberators. Just seven years later, with the Nazis defeated, they were declared enemies of the Czech and Slovak peoples, exiled and their property confiscated.

Nuss settled in Austria, but says she has never recovered from the trauma. "I feel like a tree that has had its roots chopped off," she says.

She and many other Sudeten Germans are fighting to have the decrees nullified. The battle has turned fiercer as the Czech Republic -- which split peacefully from Slovakia in 1993 -- edges closer to its goal of joining the European Union.

Sudeten Germans and Austria's right-wing Freedom Party say the Czech Republic should not be allowed into the EU unless it nullifies the decrees. Otherwise, say exiles such as Johann Ludwig, the 15-nation union would be morally weakened. Ludwig, 78, fears the issue will be forgotten once the country joins the EU. In fact, EU officials have already said the issue will not hinder the admission of the Czech Republic.

The rumblings are coming not just from Austria, but from Germany, where most of the Sudeten Germans were resettled.

'Hitler's fifth column'

But there seems to be little sympathy for the Sudeten argument among Czechs, for whom the Sudetenland evokes memories of their country being dismembered to appease Hitler, and then swallowed up by the Third Reich.

In January, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman referred to the Sudeten Germans of the 1930s as "traitors" and "Hitler's fifth column," prompting Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to call off a planned visit to Prague. While EU officials anxiously begged all sides to bury the past, the Czech Parliament's lower chamber voted unanimously to keep the banishment decrees in effect.

Czech politicians argue that all compensation issues were settled after World War II, and that annulling the decrees would expose them to new and costly restitution claims.

Poland, which expelled about 2.5 million ethnic Germans after the war, is also facing claims for restitution, but the Sudeten campaign is the loudest.

"Why should a crime not be atoned for?" said Gerhard Zeihsel, president of the Austrian chapter of the Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft, a group fighting for the rights of those expelled.

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