Central Europe’s Memory Hole

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary have failed to reckon with the darker chapters of their pasts — and helpless migrants are paying the price.

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European leaders and commentators have reacted to the migrant crisis in a variety of ways. But it is striking that some of the least tolerant responses have come from the countries of Central Europe. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has drawn particularly sharp criticism for alternatively neglecting the migrants and treating them like criminals. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has refused to accept the migrant quotas recently set by the EU and wants to sue it for attempting to impose them. Czech President Milos Zeman — who has compared the crisis to a tsunami — responded by congratulating Fico on his “courage.”

Germany, on the other hand, has distinguished itself by its relative tolerance, which has made it the promised land for the twenty-first century’s huddled masses. Hundreds of thousands are expected to arrive this year alone. The German army has been called in to help build accommodation centers and erect tents, while volunteers have welcomed the new arrivals at train stations with food, tea and toys for the children. It is true that volunteer organizations in Hungary and the Czech Republic have assisted the newcomers — and that even in Germany, facilities for immigrants have been attacked. At the level of government policy, however, the difference has been stark.

This difference can be traced to the way these countries have come to terms with — or failed to come to terms with — their wartime pasts. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have preferred to view themselves exclusively as victims of Nazi cruelty, failing utterly to reckon with their own contributions to the toll of human misery both during and after the war. So it is not surprising that, in these countries, nationalism and intolerance are once again rearing their ugly heads. On the other hand, the Allied occupation and the sheer weight of history have forced Germany to address its crimes — and, by and large, to reject the forces of destructive nationalism and xenophobia.

Every time a wartime anniversary crops up, leaders across Europe solemnly utter the phrase “never again.” Nowhere, though, this exhortation been more taken to heart than in Germany. There is even a uniquely German word for the process: Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“overcoming the past”) refers to the painful process of coming to terms with Nazism that began in the 1960s and continues today. Education about the Holocaust is a compulsory part of the German school curriculum, with many classes taking field trips to former concentration camps to see first hand where their own nation perpetrated unspeakable horrors. Germany has come to see nationalism as a destructive force, and works hard to instill tolerance of other cultures in its citizens. The results are evident in the country’s reaction to the migrant crisis, both within the government and among the population.

Meanwhile, the harsh treatment of migrants by authorities in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia has starkly exposed these countries’ historical amnesia. Needless to say, their populations did suffer terribly during World War II, enduring conflict, repression, and displacement. But the resulting narrative of victimhood has enabled the nations of East Central Europe to avoid atoning for their own wartime crimes — and these were egregious. However large the current migrant crisis, it pales in comparison to the population transfers that followed World War II, which were the largest in history. After the war, an estimated 12 million German-speaking civilians were forced to leave their homes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland and resettle in Germany. Between 500,000 and 1 million of these refugees are estimated to have died from hunger, disease, and maltreatment.

Three million ethnic Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia alone, representing roughly one quarter of the country’s population. Whole villages were left deserted. In Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city, at least 300 ethnic Germans were rounded up and shot. A further 28,000 were forced to walk to the Austrian border. Survivors’ testimonies speak of rape, abuse and maltreatment during what has become known as the “death march.” The expulsions put an end to seven centuries of German-Czech cohabitation in the Czech lands.

Seventy years on, there has been little recognition among the Czechs of this tumultuous post-script to the war. In 1997, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the Czech President Vaclav Klaus signed a joint declaration in which both sides acknowledged the suffering they wrought on each other’s people. Nevertheless, both sides agreed that the past will not be re-opened and “both countries will look to the future.” The Czech Republic has never undergone a national soul-searching about the crimes its citizens committed. Tellingly, the populist Czech President Milos Zeman remarked in 2013 that the Czechoslovak Germans ought to have been grateful for having been expelled, as opposed to executed.

In an attempt to bring some order to the so-called “wild expulsions,” the victorious allied powers — Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union — officially sanctioned the “population transfers,” so long as they were conducted in an “orderly and human” manner. Naturally, in the chaos of post-war Europe, they were anything but. And in today’s unfolding migration crisis, Britain and the U.S. have once again exploited the blessings of geography, all too happy to leave the Central Europeans to handle the situation themselves. The United Kingdom has opted out of EU plans to distribute 120,000 asylum-seekers among member states. David Cameron announced in September plans to accept up to 20,000 Syrians over the next five years, but they are to be taken from camps bordering Syria, offering little relief to the Central Europeans.

In Hungary, the Orban government’s harsh response can likewise been linked to a failure of historic perspective. The country’s Arrow Cross regime played an active role in deporting almost half a million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and dissidents — including many to Auschwitz. Members of the far-right Jobbik party, which received almost 20 percent of the vote in the last election, have made a number of overtly anti-Semitic statements, and researchers at Budapest’s Central European University have noted a rise in anti-Semitism that tracks the party’s increasing popularity. So it was particularly noteworthy that a sculpture commemorating the “victims of the Nazi occupation” unveiled in 2014 depicted Hungary as an innocent, helpless victim of Nazi brutality. The controversy surrounding the monument was such that it was eventually built under the cover of night and never formally inaugurated. We should not be surprised that a government that unveils monuments to its own past in secret has drawn outrage from across the world for its treatment of asylum-seekers that dare to cross its border.

It’s one thing to ask how the nations of Europe have not learned from their own periods of national suffering. But if the German example is anything to go by, what we really should be asking is not whether nations learn from what happened to them — but rather, from what they did themselves.

In the photo, migrants in Hungary walk the final four kilometers to the Austrian border on September 22, 2015. 

Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Jan Čulík, a former journalist for the Czech service of Radio Free Europe, now teaches Czech studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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