Czechoslovakia was one of the first victims of the Nazis, with the march into the Sudetenland in I938 followed by the occupation of the rest of the country in March 1939 and an increasingly oppressive regime for most of the population. The backlash at the end of WWII was harsh and violent. And that backlash against the Nazi occupiers, Sudeten Germans and Czechs believed to have collaborated in some way is the subject of US historian Benjamin Frommer’s book “National Cleansing: Retribution against Nazi Collaborators in Postwar Czechoslovakia.”
The book, which was recently published in Czech after its release in English, looks at the wild acts of revenge in the immediate weeks after the war, mostly against Sudeten Germans, and the attempt over the longer term to bring both them and Czech citizens before special courts and tribunals. The picture the author paints is of the initial reprisals being less haphazard than they have sometimes appeared, of an astonishingly high number of executions and number of Czechs brought before regional courts and local tribunals on charges of collaboration. I asked Mr. Frommer how the subject had been treated before he got there.
“Before 1989 or before the mid-1990’s there had been virtually nothing written about the trials, a few sentences here and there in some general books written about the trials. There were also a couple of commentaries by people who had been involved in the trials and a very slanted book from the 1960’s by a Slovak prosecutor. But the regional treatments that were done and very in-depth analysis actually came about later about the same time I was doing my own research.”
And some of the findings of your book are quite, well maybe not explosive, but astonishing in putting the Czech trials in the context of what was happening in the rest of Europe?
“In terms of the numbers (of trials) it is a quite high number. But the numbers alone are not so different from the other occupied countries. There were hundreds, tens of hundreds of trials in Western Europe. But what is remarkable about the Czech trials – and the Czech trials were governed by a different set of laws from the Slovak trials – is the number of people executed. It was extraordinarily high compared with the number of people living in Bohemia and Moravia at that time and especially high for the number executed from those sentenced to death. Whereas in most European countries there were a large number of death sentences, relatively few of them were carried out. In the Czech lands, 95 percent of the executions were carried out. It leads to an extraordinary number of executions, around 700, which is roughly the same as the number which took place in France, a country many times the size.”
And what was the main reason for this high number?
“The main reason was this extraordinary aspect of the retribution law which was written in London by Edvard Beneš' government in exile that executions had to be carried out within two hours of the sentence. If the person sentenced to death asked for extra time the sentence would be put off for an hour but otherwise it went ahead as planned. So the executioner was on call whenever there was a capital trial and very quickly it moved to the death of the convicted.”
Also one of the findings seems to be that the wild events in the weeks and months after the end of WWII, the wild retribution, was not so wild and unplanned as previously thought?
“Certainly not. In fact, there is good evidence that Edvard Beneš and his government in London expected there to be a good deal of violence and actually welcomed it because they wanted to get rid of the Germans in Czechoslovakia and were happy that as many as possible would simply flee out of fear of the violence in the spring of 1945. They also hoped that people would get their anger out, their passions out of the way, that they would let off steam in the spring of 1945 and that it would therefore be easier to establish a government thereafter. There was very much a sense that this would happen anyway and there was no need to stand in the way of it. In addition, people like Klement Gottwald and Communist leaders, but not only them, Prokop Drtina and Beneš himself spoke in very inflammatory language in the spring of 1945 when they knew very well what their encouragement of revenge against the Germans was going to lead to or was already leading to at that time.”
Much of your book deals with the people’s courts which existed for about 18 months in the post war period. What were the conclusions that you drew about them? Were they fair and balanced? Were they used as a weapon by the Communists or not? Were they independent?
“As originally envisaged they were supposed to be a very harsh justice. And the structure seems to indicate that because they were people’s courts with people’s judges. Four out of the five judges were actually not legally trained. They were supposed to be drawn from the resistance or those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. My conclusion is that there was an evolution over time. One can’t look at the people’s courts in 1945 and those in 1947 and see them as the same. At the beginning they ruled very harshly under the influence of the war and the passions and handed down quite a lot of death sentences and convictions in the fall of 1945. But as time went on they became more judicious, you could say, more deliberate and over time more lenient. And as time went on they increasingly handed down judgements that were at odds with collaboration and guilt and innocence. One example of this was the national court, the highest level of these courts in Prague, which gave only eight months in prison for the man who was formerly the head of the Czech legion against Bolshevism, the Nazi-allied anti-Communist, anti-Soviet group. He essentially got time served.”
But was the legal process mostly fair. There seems to have been gender issues where women got more harsher treatment for sleeping with Germans or Nazi officers. Also the treatment of informers seems to be different between various courts?
“In a sense of absolute fairness or absolute justice the trials certainly were not. Trials of Germans essentially tended to be rushed affairs. In the border lands they sometimes took five minutes and it sufficed to say that the person had been a ranking member of the Nazi party for them to be convicted. Trials of Czechs tended to be fairer, take longer and involve more witnesses. And again, as time went on, these became more deliberate affairs. But there were definite differences. The example that you gave earlier that women were far more likely to have a less favourable hearing before the court for instance. Though in fact they were more likely they would be indicted unjustly and tried unjustly but it has been shown that they more likely to be acquitted. Their cases in instances of denunciation were far less likely to hold up in court. Much of the injustice, the horrific injustice, torture and beatings and fabrication of evidence occurred long before the trials when the police – who were far more Communized by that point in time and far more self-selective than the judges – carried out horrific acts in the spring and summer of 1945 and the preparation of the trials was more flawed. The trials themselves were far more likely to be an attempt, a fair attempt I would say, despite all the problems within them.”
Coming back to the book and the research you did, you drew a lot on the archives, maybe some of the archives that had not been drawn on before?
“1989 and the 1990’s opened up a huge amount of material all over Eastern Europe that allowed one to completely rewrite the history of the region. I used the archives from the central authorities, like the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Interior, which controlled the police. And I also used the regional people’s courts and those which were less fair, and I think you referred to them when you mentioned the treatment of Czech women who fraternized, and these were the local tribunals for offences against national honour. And there were over 150 of these in the country and they were local, haphazard affairs. Many regional records were not studied. But especially in this book, which does not appear in these other histories, is this local level where up to 180,000 people, mostly Czechs not Germans, were investigated and many of them tried and punished for so-called offences against national honour.”
One thing that puzzles me a bit about this period in the immediate aftermath of WWII to the Communist takeover in February 1948 is the fact that it maybe has not been dealt with better by Czech historians over recent decades, let’s say the last 15-20 years. Would you agree or say that is unfair?
“To some extent I would say it is unfair to the degree that coming out of 1989 there was an unlimited number of topics that had not been dealt with before and so to some extent it was difficult to get complete coverage in any sense. And I do rely on Czech historians like Tomáš Staněk who is the number one historian on the expulsion of the Germans and Mečislav Borák who has written on court and other issues. But to some extent you are right that what has been lacking is a more generally comprehensive and more broader investigation of the larger topics. For example, there is still not a good biography of Klement Gottwald 20 years after 1989. Some of this is changing, but Czech historians have traditionally, with some important exceptions, tended to write more focused studies of individual areas or certain movements. A good history of Czechoslovakia, for example, is sorely needed by a Czech historian because many of them that have been written abroad have serious flaws. So to some degree this is true but there is some very important work that is going on.”
Are you working on another book about Czech history or have you branched out into something else?
“I just finished up the past year working as a Fulbright scholar in the Czech Republic working on research for a book on the persecution of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia during the war, during the Nazi occupation. And in particular I am interested in an aspect that has not been investigated and that is what happened to the Jews before they were deported to Terezín and eastern spots in Poland and so on. What happened between the Munich pact of 1938 and what happened before the deportations of 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1944 to what was one of the most intermarried, integrated and secular as well as bilingual Czech and German parts of general society. How it was separated, how it was removed almost totally by a series of moves that I investigate. How the Jews had their rights to ride public transport restricted, could no longer go into certain streets, were removed from certain neighbourhoods and could not go to the movie halls or stock exchanges. I am mostly interested in coming up with an idea of how these were implemented and to what extent they were enforced not just in Prague but in towns and villages in the Protectorate.”