|Czech Republic Table of Contents
The most intractable nationality problem in the interwar period--one that played a major role in the destruction of democratic Czechoslovakia--was that of the Sudeten Germans. The Sudetenland was inhabited by over 3 million Germans, comprising about 23 percent of the population of the republic. It possessed huge chemical works and lignite mines, as well as textile, china, and glass factories. To the west, a solid German triangle surrounded Cheb (Eger) and included the highly nationalistic Egerland. The Cesky Les (Bohemian Forest) extended along the Bavarian frontier to the poor agricultural areas of southern Bohemia.
Moravia contained patches of "locked" German territory to the north and south. More characteristic were the German "language islands"--towns inhabited by important German minorities and surrounded by Czechs. Extreme German nationalism was never typical of this area. The German nationalism of the coal-mining region of southern Silesia, 40.5 percent German, was restrained by fear of competition from industry in Germany. Early policies of the Czechoslovak government, intended to correct social injustice and effect a moderate redistribution of wealth, had fallen more heavily on the German population than on other citizens. In 1919 the government confiscated one-fifth of each individual's holdings in paper currency. Germans, constituting the wealthiest element in the Czech lands, were most affected. The Land Control Act brought the expropriation of vast estates belonging to Germans. Land was allotted primarily to Czech peasants, often landless, who constituted the majority of the agricultural population. Only 4.5 percent of all land allotted by January 1937 was received by Sudeten Germans, whose protests were expressed in countless petitions.
According to the 1920 constitution, German minority rights were carefully protected; their educational and cultural institutions were preserved in proportion to the population. Local hostilities were engendered, however, by policies intended to protect the security of the Czechoslovak state and the rights of Czechs. Border forestland, considered the most ancient Sudeten German national territory, was expropriated for security reasons. The Czechoslovak government settled Czechs in areas of German concentration in an effort to mitigate German nationalism; the policy, however, often produced the opposite effect. Minority laws were most often applied to create new Czech schools in German districts. Sudeten Germans, in possession of a large number of subsidized local theaters, were required to put these at the disposal of the Czech minority one night a week.
Sudeten German industry, highly dependent on foreign trade and having close financial links with Germany, suffered badly during the depression, particularly when banks in Germany failed in 1931. Czechs, whose industry was concentrated on the production of essential domestic items, suffered less. Tensions between the two groups resulted. Relations between Czechs and Germans were further envenomed when Sudeten Germans were forced to turn to the Czechoslovak government and the Central Bank (Zivnostenka Banka) for assistance. These authorities often made the hiring of Czechs in proportion to their numbers in the population a condition for aid. Czech workmen, dispatched by the government to engage in public works projects in Sudeten German territories, were also resented.
Sudeten German nationalist sentiment ran high during the early years of the republic. The constitution of 1920 was drafted without Sudeten German representation, and the group declined to participate in the election of the president. Sudeten German political parties pursued an "obstructionist," or negativist, policy in parliament. In 1926, however, Chancellor Gustav Stresemann of Germany, adopting a policy of rapprochement with the West, advised Sudeten Germans to cooperate actively with the Czechoslovak government. In consequence, most Sudeten German parties (including the German Agrarian Party, the German Social Democratic Party, and the German Christian Socialist Party) changed from negativism to activism, and Sudeten Germans accepted cabinet posts.
By 1929 only a small number of Sudeten German deputies--most of them members of the German National Party (propertied classes) and the Sudeten Nazi Party (Deutsche Nationalsozialistische Arbeiterpartei)--remained in opposition. Nationalist sentiment flourished, however, among Sudeten German youth, who belonged to a variety of organizations. These included the older Turnverband and Schutzvereine, the newly formed Kameradschaftsbund, the Nazi Volkssport (1929), and the Bereitschaft.
Sudeten German nationalists, particularly the Nazis, expanded their activities during the depression years. On January 30, 1933, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. The Czechoslovak government prepared to suppress the Sudeten Nazi Party. In the fall of 1933 the Sudeten Nazis dissolved their organization, and the German Nationals were pressured to do likewise. German Nationals and Sudeten Nazis were expelled from local government positions. The Sudeten German population was indignant, especially in nationalist strongholds like Egerland.
On October 1, 1933, Konrad Henlein, aided by other members of the Kameradschaftsbund, a youth organization of romantic mystical orientation, created a new political organization. The Sudeten German Home Front (Sudetendeutsche Heimatfront) professed loyalty to the Czechoslovak state but championed decentralization. It absorbed most former German Nationals and Sudeten Nazis. In 1935 the Sudeten German Home Front became the Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei--SdP) and embarked on an active propaganda campaign. In the May election the SdP won more than 60 percent of the Sudeten German vote. The German Agrarians, Christian Socialists, and Social Democrats each lost approximately one-half of their following. The SdP became the fulcrum of German nationalist forces. The party represented itself as striving for a just settlement of Sudeten German claims within the framework of Czechoslovak democracy. Henlein, however, maintained secret contact with Nazi Germany and received material aid from Berlin. The SdP endorsed the idea of a fuhrer and mimicked Nazi methods with banners, slogans, and uniformed troops. Concessions offered by the Czechoslovak government, including the transfer of Sudeten German officials to Sudeten German areas and possible participation of the SdP in the cabinet, were rejected. By 1937 most SdP leaders supported Hitler's pan-German objectives.
On March 13, 1938, Austria was annexed by the Third Reich, a union known as Anschluss. Immediately thereafter almost the entire Sudeten German bourgeois activist movement threw its support to Henlein. On March 22, the German Agrarian Party, led by Gustav Hacker, fused with the SdP. German Christian Socialists suspended their activities on March 24; their deputies and senators entered the SdP parliamentary club. Only the Social Democrats continued to champion democratic freedom. The masses, however, gave overwhelming support to the SdP.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress