The transfer of the German-speaking minority from Czechoslovakia after the end of the Second World War remains the topic of discussions between Czech politicians and their counterparts and pressure groups in Germany and Austria. It is also a subject of extensive historical research. Much less is known about the mass exodus of the Czech population from the border regions of Bohemia and Moravia, surrendered to Nazi Germany following the Munich Agreement in 1938.
"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing."
The words of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, pronounced on the radio ahead of the final round of talks with Hitler, Daladier and Mussolini in Munich.
Sixty-five years ago, on September 29th, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy met in Munich to sign an agreement which would have lasting consequences not only for Czechoslovakia but also the whole of Europe. Under the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia's German-speaking border regions were sliced off and ceded to the Nazi Third Reich. Overnight this had a huge impact on millions of Czechoslovak citizens.
The process of the departure of the population from the frontier regions actually began already in May 1938, after the first mobilisation, but it became massive after October 1st when the German army entered the border regions surrendered in accordance with the Munich Agreement. In the first wave, the refugees fleeing inland were mostly people who feared persecution because of their activities in Czechoslovakia before Munich, among them Social Democrats, Communists, Jews and also antifascist Sudeten Germans. In the second wave came government employees, followed by those who simply did not wish to live in a foreign country and were uncertain about what the future might hold for them. A Czechoslovak law from February 1939 defined a refugee as anybody who left territory ceded to Germany, Poland, or Hungary after May 20th, 1938 and was a Czechoslovak citizen.
The refugees from the frontier regions quickly filled up towns and villages in the interior of the country, often carrying a lot of freight. At first, charitable organizations such as the Czechoslovak Red Cross and regional youth organisations reacted to the humanitarian crisis. In some places, district and municipal offices also helped. At the beginning of October 1938, refugees were accommodated by relatives or friends and sometimes even by complete strangers. Groups of fugitives stayed in schools, guesthouses, old factory halls or warehouses. The number of refugees steadily rose.
Six months after Munich, in March 1939, Nazi Germany occupied what remained of Czechoslovakia. In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and Europe went to war.
Even less known than the post-Munich exodus from the border regions of Bohemia and Moravia is the forced evacuation of Czech inhabitants from a large area in central Bohemia which happened five years after Munich, in the middle of the war. The Nazi occupants forcibly deported a large part of the population from the town of Sedlcany and the surrounding area. David Hroch is the director of the Municipal Museum in Sedlcany which put up an exhibition commemorating the 60th anniversary of the deportation.
"The deportation of people from the Sedlcany district was a part of a bigger plan of evacuation of a larger area, between the Vltava river on one side and the town of Benesov on the other. The area stretched to Sedlcany and up to Road number 18. The idea came from the occupants, from their political top, on the assumption that Central Bohemia was part of Germanic territory. They wanted to germanise the old Slavic territory, seen as Germanic by the German side. The plan was just an idea in the 1930s but in the 1940s it was put into practice, really in 1943, after Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich came to office. The area was meant to be a training and exercise ground and a rear for the SS units. The deportation started in 1943 and they very cleverly managed it because they used a bylaw issued by the Protectorate Government in line with an old Czechoslovak law on military property. Like that it could be presented to the public as something organised by the puppet Protectorate Government and not by the Germans."
Which specific areas were most affected and was everybody forced to leave?
"It affected mainly the town of Sedlcany itself, which had a little over 2000 inhabitants, and then the surrounding villages - there were several dozen of them. We can't say that the whole village was deported, not everybody was forced to leave. It depended on the person's usefulness for the Protectorate regime. So basically, farmers were needed to produce food and manufacturers and craftsmen were vital too at that time. About a third of the people stayed in the Sedlcany district but even those were often made to move out of their houses or villages. Many farmers and craftsmen were moved to different villages where the so-called "SS Hoefe" or SS farms were founded where they were forced to work."
Similar to the exodus from the Sudetenland after the Munich agreement in 1938, many of the displaced from the Sedlcany district stayed with their relatives and friends. David Hroch from the Sedlcany Municipal Museum.
"The question for the displaced was where to go. But their compatriots were very helpful. The Czech population at that time had very close family relations, especially within one region, so many people could stay with their relatives. But nobody knew for how long. Already in 1943 when things started to look uncertain for the occupants, the displaced felt it wasn't for good. In 1945 they gradually started returning home. Because the area was turned into a training ground for the SS units, much of the property was destroyed, many valuables disappeared and often people returned to demolished homes."
The question of refugees from the occupied territories of Czechoslovakia was, particularly in the autumn and winter months of 1938, a serious logistic and economic problem for the Second Czechoslovak Republic. According to the Institute for Refugee Assistance, the actual count of refugees on March 1 1939 stood at almost 150,000. In the case of the Sedlcany district, no concrete figures are available, but the number of deportees was in the thousands.