Central Europe Today Ethnic German Minorities in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia

23-04-2002 | David Vaughan

Amid the debate about the millions of ethnic Germans who were expelled from the countries of Central Europe after World War Two, it's easy to forget that there are also many hundreds of thousands of Germans who for various reasons remained in the region. It would be impossible to talk of a concrete figure - sociologists agree that national identity is something that shifts with time and circumstances. In the Czech census of 2001 some forty thousand Czech citizens described their nationality as German, a little under half a percent of the population, but the number of Czechs who have at least partly German roots probably runs into hundreds of thousands. In this programme I shall be comparing the German minority today in three Central European countries, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

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Thomas Mann GymnaziumThomas Mann Gymnazium Czech Radio broadcasts once a week for the country's German minority. It is a largely elderly audience, Germans who remained after the post-war mass expulsions. Amid the atmosphere of bitterness in the years after the Second World War, and the often crude nationalism of the Communist regime, their position was not easy, as Herbert Berger, a German from the mountain village of Pec pod Snezkou, remembers.

"It was tough here after the war. To start with the local authorities refused to include my name on the register of inhabitants of the village. I was only allowed basic education, and was refused a loan when I was building my house. All those years I had a lot of problems and I'd rather have emigrated."

The situation changed dramatically with the fall of communism. Five years ago, after decades of mistrust, the Czech-German Future Fund was established to help foster good Czech-German relations, and part of the fund's work has been devoted to keeping the fragments of German culture in the Czech Republic alive. It has two directors, one Czech and one German. The fund's German Director is Herbert Werner.

"The situation of the Germans here in the Czech Republic is a fairly good one. I think and I see that they have got the same rights. The same rights means that in daily life they have got the same fair chances as everybody else."

Herbert Berger in Pec pod Snezkou agrees that this is also the case at a day-to-day level.

"I don't think there are any problems these days between Czechs and the Germans who stayed - especially up here in the mountains. You'll only find people with those prejudices in places where people never come into contact with Germans."

In neighbouring Poland the German minority is a great deal larger than in the Czech Republic, concentrated mainly in the south-western province of Silesia, where it was estimated at around 200 000 in 1990. When Poland was moved westwards after World War Two up to 10 million Germans were uprooted, but the area of Opole Silesia was an exception. Here there was a significant population of Germans who were Slav by origin and Catholic by faith. They spoke both German and the Silesian dialect of Polish. Many were allowed to stay, although the German language was officially banned, and the authorities adopted a policy of "repolonising" the minority, that is - making them Polish again. The policy caused resentment and the Polish sociologist, Danuta Berlinska, argues that, paradoxically, it probably weakened their identification with the Polish state. She also thinks it is one reason why so many have left to work in Germany since the opening of the Iron Curtain. But she says that in today's democratic Poland the position of the minority is gradually returning to normal.

"Silesians were discriminated and they could not continue their cultural identity, so it was a very hard situation in 1990, but now the relations are much better. But I think that the key question is the participation of the German minority in public life and the fact that they take responsibility for development of our region and their local community."

Under the Polish constitution minorities are guaranteed political representation, without having to cross the 5% threshold otherwise required by political parties. As a result there are currently two members of parliament from the German minority.

As in the Czech Republic, the minority is no longer a taboo, or forbidden subject. After decades when the teaching of German in Opole Silesia was effectively banned, schools are now being set up where German is taught.

"Now the German language is taught in about 150 elementary schools and we have high schools with bilingual classes. Children from the German minority can learn the German language from the first class of elementary school and then in the high schools they can continue in bilingual classes."

Here in the Czech Republic education has also been a factor in attempts to keep the culture of the dwindling German minority alive.

Thomas Mann GymnaziumThomas Mann Gymnazium I'm in the Prague district of Prosek in the modest 19th century building that houses Prague's bilingual Czech-German grammar school, the Thomas Mann Gymnazium. The school was established in 1995 on the impulse of the German minority in Prague. It is private, but, with state subsidies and support from a number of mainly German-based foundations, the annual fees are extremely low. Eva Maresova is headteacher:

"The German minority had the idea of offering their children the chance to revive their language and culture, but they soon found out that the idea of a minority school in Prague couldn't be realized as there simply weren't enough German-speaking children. So they opened the school to all children, whether they were Czech or German. Most pupils now are Czech."

Herbert Werner from the Czech-German Future Fund is not surprised that most Czech Germans have gradually lost their identity:

"I think it's a quite natural development that young people more or less try to adapt themselves into the surrounding where they live. So they try to behave, to move, to speak like young Czechs. That's quite natural."

This is also confirmed by Herbert Berger in Pec pod Snezkou.

"Most of the grandparents who used to speak German with their children have died out. With time, the Germans who live here in the Czech Republic will only speak Czech and they will become Czech."

Carla Tkadleckova, who teaches at the Thomas Mann Gymnazium reckons that even if the school doesn't fulfill its original function as serving a minority a minority, it does have a role to play in Czech-German relations, which are still far from perfect.

"There are still tensions. Maybe sometimes they are natural, maybe they are artificial, but I think to spread the idea of understanding between both the nations is very important."

We've spoken so far about Poland and the Czech Republic. Given their common history you might expect the situation in Slovakia to be similar to that here in the Czech Republic. But there are fundamental differences. Slovakia's German minority first settled in the country some 800 years ago and before the Second World War there were around 150 000 so-called Carpathian Germans. Today, in the wake of the war and the post-war expulsions, the minority amounts to a mere 5 000.

But the kind of tension that exists between Czechs and Germans is largely absent in Slovakia. The current Slovak President, Rudolf Schuster, is himself of ethnic German origin, he speaks fluent German and his roots have never caused him political problems within the country. Herbert Werner again:

"The gulf between the Slovaks and the Germans had never been as deep as it was here, between the Czechs and the Sudeten Germans who had been forced to stay here or who could stay here. I think one interpretation lies in history, because Slovaks had to fight for their survival against the Hungarians, historically seen. So they more or less got used to a situation where a minority has to fight for survival. And you shouldn't forget that Slovaks and Germans had been for a certain time during the war, partners and allies [RP: albeit in a rather negative sense...]. Of course, yes, but you know, that was the Hlinka and the Tiso time."

As memories of the Second World War gradually fade, and as European integration continues, the position of the German minorities in Central Europe is gradually returning to normal, but at the same time, it is clear in all three countries that I've glanced at in this programme that only tiny fragments remain of what was once a rich thread in Central European culture.

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