The first of some 4,500 remains of German soldiers and several hundred civilians, who died on Czech territory during the Second World War, were buried in the west Bohemian town of Cheb last week. The local cemetery will become the last of several German military burial grounds in the Czech Republic. For some this is a sign of true reconciliation but others feel that the soldiers, who once invaded Czechoslovakia on Hitler’s command, should not be buried in Czech soil.
The large and somewhat derelict cemetery in the town of Cheb in the westernmost tip of the Czech Republic became last Wednesday the final resting place for 450 unknown German soldiers, killed on Czech territory during WWII. Their remains in small, coffin-shaped boxes were laid in graves not far from the large tombstones of the town’s German-speaking inhabitants, whose families were expelled to Germany after the end of the war. These were the first of some 4,500 soldiers of the Nazi Wehrmacht who, together with several hundred German civilians, will be buried in the Cheb cemetery. The German Ambassador to the Czech Republic Helmut Elfenkamper was one of the officials present at the ceremony.
“We have had a situation when these more than 4,000 dead had to find a final resting place. It was let’s say technically difficult because of a number of legal reasons. But we have had a very constructive attitude from the city council of Cheb here. Generally speaking, I think this is very well accepted. It’s not the first German war cemetery, in the area of Karlovy Vary there are two more and there are others in other parts of the country.”
The soldiers’ remains were exhumed in the 1990s from various sites around the country, but it took the German War Graves Association five years to reach an agreement with the local authorities on giving them a burial site here in Cheb. The head of the Association Reinhardt Fuhrer explains what the problem was.
“You see, it’s a very big problem. There are political differences between Germany and the Czech Republic – not official, but the people who live here cannot understand why we want to establish the cemetery here. Germany is not so far, so why here? But I say that the soldiers and their Kamaraden in the past, the veterans, they say that they should be buried where they fell. That’s the reason why the cemetery should be here.”
And Mr Führer believes the cemetery could also become a sort of memorial of times that will never return.
“The other reason is that people in the Czech Republic can say, ‘the Germans soldiers were here, and this time will never come back’. So I think that it’s a good thing that the cemetery for the German soldiers is here in the Czech Republic.”
The agreement between the town and the War Graves Association would not have been possible without the consent of Cheb’s mayor, Jan Svoboda. I asked him if it was difficult to convince the opponents of the project that it was a good idea.
“We didn’t try to persuade them. We just responded to a petition from the German association. As is common in politics, four years ago, when we were in coalition with the Social Democrats, they were not against the plan. Now that they are in opposition, they are suddenly against it. So as things stand the ruling coalition was for it, and the opposition didn’t agree. But I was debating the matter with MP Pavel Hojda on TV and he had no rational reason why they shouldn’t be here.”
Pavel Hojda is an MP for the Communist Party, and a member of the Cheb town council. He is one of the people who are strongly opposed to the idea. He says he is worried that the cemetery with thousands of soldiers who took over Czechoslovakia in a quest for world domination could become a different kind of memorial. Mr Hojda says he doesn’t mind the fact that there are German war cemeteries around the country, but since the remains were exhumed, they should not be re-buried in the Czech Republic.
“What I do mind is that these remains were exhumed and reburied in a place that might become a sort of pilgrimage site for some people. Once these remains were exhumed, they should have been taken back to where those soldiers came from, to the country they fought for. There is no reason at all why the soldiers should be buried on Czech territory, and especially in Cheb.”
Cheb was one of the largest towns of what was known as Sudetenland, an area around the Czech borders inhabited by ethnic Germans. In 1938, these regions became part of the German Reich, and after the war, some three million Germans were expelled from the country. Pavel Hojda says he personally has no problems with the Germans, but some things are just better left alone.
“Precisely because it’s 63 years after the war, these issues should not be stirred up. I think that our cooperation with Germany is absolutely trouble free, I see it everyday. We have no problems here with the Germans, except for the sex tourists of course. So we have standard good neighbourly relations which are only disturbed by the so-called unsolved issues.”
In the streets of Cheb, I asked several people how they felt about the German military cemetery in their town. One woman says she is not happy about it; she believes that the remains should be moved to Germany, because the soldiers were not welcome here. Another person said they didn’t mind in principle, but were concerned there might not be enough room in the cemetery for the people of Cheb. But most people I talked just didn’t care.
But German Ambassador Helmut Elfenkamper believes the military cemetery could be an opportunity for reconciliation of past wrongs between Czechs and Germans.
“I think those I’d say rather marginal circles that might have had objections against it will now see that a positive effect in the sense of further-going reconciliation will come out of this place here. As some of the speakers here said at the ceremony, we mustn’t forget the past of course, and November is a good time to recall that fact. But we must let the dead rest in peace.”
This year, the German War Graves Association exhumed 38,000 German soldiers in central and eastern European countries. The head of the Association Reinhardt Führer says they sometimes face similar problems as they did in Cheb, but he says military cemeteries from Europe’s past wars are important – for the future.
“Jean Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, said during a
ceremony in a German cemetery, that if in Europe you cannot understand one
another and fight, go look at a soldiers’ cemetery. There’ll you see
what a Europe that’s not united can be like.”
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