The expulsion of more than two million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II has long remained a source of tension in Czech-German relations and one of the most controversial chapters in Czechoslovakia's post-war history. On Wednesday, for the first time, the Czech government expressed a symbolic apology and regret over the post-war victimisation of thousands of Sudeten Germans, who had remained loyal to the Czechoslovak state and had been active in the anti-Nazi resistance. The gesture, approved unanimously by the government, has already stirred controversy. Some, like the Czech president, view it as redundant, while others will inevitably feel that it doesn't go far enough.
Wednesday, August 24th: Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek describes the government's gesture: regret over Czechoslovakia's treatment of countless German antifascists expelled without discrepancy after the war. Although support for Hitler in the Sudetenland was overwhelming, among the 2.5 million Germans deported were thousands who had always remained loyal to the Czechoslovak state. They included Social Democrats, church representatives, and members of the Communist Party. Even 60 years after the end of the war, some see the government's declaration as highly problematic. President Vaclav Klaus, alarmed he had been consulted neither by the prime minister, nor the Foreign Ministry on the formulation of the text, released a statement through his spokesman.
"It is an empty gesture because a number of historians and experts have also already concluded that it is impossible to track down most of those the apology addresses, and in many respects they are part of a problematic group."
But, others see the gesture as necessary and valid, even if it comes late in the day: Berlin-based journalist Jaroslav Sonka:
"On the one hand it a very delayed decision to do something with former citizens of Czechoslovakia, on the other hand it's a gesture which is needed. To show that 'collective guilt' is no longer the motivation for dealing with Sudeten Germans as it was 60 years ago."
His view - shared by many historians - is that especially complex chapters like the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans can never be fully closed.
"I think that from an ethical point of view we have to re-open numerous questions in Czech history. Why post-war Czechoslovakia so rapidly became a communist country, for example, to reopen the question of this does not have something to do with first steps after war, including the expulsion of Sudeten Germans. So, this is an opening. On the other hand, if you would like to keep some things 'closed', you have to be an active participant in the discussion. If they simply closed the whole story it will still continue to develop outside their 'playground' and hit them at an unexpected moment."
In practice the government's apology will only apply to a few hundred people - as well as their descendents - since most anti-fascists victimised by the Czechoslovak state are no longer alive. But, that doesn't mean the issue shouldn't be addressed. Opponents of the gesture like President Klaus and the opposition right-of-centre Civic Democrats will most likely continue to say that the apology will be abused by more militant Sudeten German groups, for whom an apology without financial compensation can never be worth its salt.
But, the government has ruled any financial compensation out.
The only funds that will be set aside will be for documentary purposes: 30 million crowns - a little more than 1 million US dollars - to map the stories and lives of those Sudeten Germans who suffered unjustly under the Czechs.