ethnic Germans

It was inevitable, I think, that Czech President Vaclav Klaus would take his last stand against the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on the Sudeten German issue.  This has been one of the most highly charged themes of Czech politics since the former Czechoslovakia threw off communism in 1989.  By raising it, Klaus aims to break out of the extreme political isolation into which his hostility to Lisbon has pushed him on both the Czech and the wider European stage.  But it is a step that smacks of desperation as much as of calculation.

The Sudeten German question touches a genuinely raw nerve among some Czechs.  It relates to the several million ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of the second world war at the behest of the Prague authorities, who were convinced – with good reason - that large numbers of the German minority had served as a Nazi fifth column.  Some Czech politicians have proved willing to play on the fears of ordinary Czechs that descendants of the Sudeten Germans may one day succeed, through legal action, in reclaiming the property of which their forebears were stripped. 

Predictably, the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war provoked a few rhetorical skirmishes this week between Russia, Poland and Poland’s western allies.  It reminded me of an unusual evening that I spent in 1989 in Waldkirchen, a small town in southern Germany near the Czech border, on the 50th anniversary of the war.

I was the guest of a German friend who in her youth, when I was a young boy, had lived as an au pair with my family in the UK.  She had spent months walking me to school, taking me swimming, reading me stories and fixing meals for me.  As we grew up, we stayed in touch, and now I was staying the night with her and her husband in Waldkirchen.