Saturday, September 12, 2009

Czech Town Divided over How to Commemorate 1945 Massacre: Revenge on Ethnic Germans

By Hans-Ulrich Stoldt

More than six decades after the end of World War II, long-suppressed information about a massacre of around 2,000 Sudeten Germans in June 1945 is dividing the Czech town of Postoloprty. Supporters of a memorial to the incident are clashing with those who want to forget all about the murders.

Nobody could really say why the five boys had joined the fatigue party of men on that fateful summer's day in 1945. Some thought they were hungry, others that they were trying to flee the wrath of the Czechoslovakian army.

Hundreds of Germans had been herded together on the parade ground in the Czech town of Postoloprty (known in German as Postelberg) on June 6, 1945, just a month after the end of World War II in Europe. They could clearly see the fatigue party heading off. The five boys who had hidden among the men were discovered and led back.

"Mr Marek wanted the boys to be flogged," recalls 81-year-old Peter Klepsch, an eye-witness. "But Captain Cerny, the commander of the Czech troops, said the boys should be shot."

The boys' names were Horst, Eduard, Hans, Walter, and Heinz. The oldest was 15, the youngest 12. They were flogged and then shot dead -- in full view of the others, who were held back at gunpoint. The Czechs didn't use machine guns, but their rifles, so it took a long time to kill all five. "One of the boys who hadn't been mortally wounded by the gunfire ran up to the marksmen begging to be allowed to go to his mother," recalls 80-year-old Heinrich Giebitz. "They just carried on shooting."

A Series of Tragic Events

Fully 64 years later, Czech prosecutors have now pinned the blame for this terrible atrocity on policeman Bohuslav Marek and Vojtech Cerny, an army captain. The two men are long dead, so the boys' murders will remain unpunished. And yet this was only one chapter in the brutal massacre of some 2,000 Sudeten Germans in the space of a few days in 1945 in Postoloprty and nearby Zatec, about 60 kilometers northwest of the capital, Prague. "This was undoubtedly the worst in a series of tragic events that took part in Bohemia in May and June 1945," wrote Czech historian Tomas Stanek in the mid-1990s.

The truth was long in coming to light, and even cautious attempts to look into the crimes by legal means proved fruitless. The matter was only addressed in earnest in 2007 when prosecutors in the Bavarian town of Hof asked their Czech colleagues for assistance in investigating the killing of the five boys.

Survivors, bereaved family members, and conscientious Czechs now want to erect a monument to the victims of this post-war massacre -- but are meeting stiff resistance from many of Postoloprty's 5,000 inhabitants. "Most of the locals are completely opposed to it," says historian Michal Pehr, a member of a German-Czech committee set up by the municipal authorities. The committee was supposed to put forward its suggestions for a compromise this week. "The entire story was taboo for many people for decades," Pehr says.

'Let Nobody Survive'

It all began in the weeks and months after the end of the war. It was the time of the so-called "wild expulsions," when ethnic Germans were being hunted down in various parts of Czechoslovakia. The fascists had been beaten. Now the Czechs wanted to rid themselves of their despised countrymen as quickly as possible. Though most of the Nazi perpetrators had long-since fled, the rage and the lust for revenge knew no bounds.

Ethnic Germans had lived on the Czech side of the border for centuries, so when Hitler annexed the area in 1938, they had lined the streets to cheer the soldiers. The rest of Bohemia and Moravia was soon a brutal Nazi protectorate, and in the years that followed more than 300,000 Czechs died at the hands of their German overlords. Theresienstadt concentration camp and the village of Lidice, which was burnt down by the SS, will forever serve as symbols of Nazi barbarism.

At the Potsdam conference in August 1945, the Allies authorized the expulsion of more than 3 million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, albeit on the proviso that "any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner." But by that time people had already taken matters into their own hands in many areas.

As early as October 1943, Edvard Benes, who would become the president of Czechoslovakia after the war, had threatened from exile in London that "what the Germans have done in our lands since 1938 will be revenged on them multifold and mercilessly." And speaking during a radio broadcast in November 1944, Sergej Ingr, the commander-in-chief of Czech forces in England, issued his fellow countrymen with the following order: "Beat them, kill them, let nobody survive."

Forced to Run and Sing

Demands such as these were eagerly received in places like Postoloprty and Zatec. When the Soviet army pulled out of the newly-liberated area, soldiers of the 1st Czechoslovakian Corps moved in and immediately set about "concentrating" the region's ethnic German population.

On Sunday June 3, 1945 the army ordered some 5,000 ethnic German men in Zatec to assemble on the market square, from where they were marched the 15 kilometers to Postoloprty to a hail of threats, beatings, and gunfire.

"On Monday evening we were all forced to run around the square and sing Nazi songs or whatever passed as such," Peter Klepsch recalls. "All those who didn't run or sing right were flogged."

The next night he saw a group of men being led off for execution. It wasn't to be the last. He also repeatedly heard volleys of gunfire during the day.

Part 2: Made to Dig Their Own Graves

Klepsch, who had opposed the Nazis and finished the war in prison for trying to help three Frenchman flee, was eventually permitted to leave the scene of the atrocity on the fifth day. An unknown number of men remained behind. Most were methodically and systematically shot dead, many near the barracks, others by the local school.

The largest mass grave, containing almost 500 bodies, was later discovered in the Pheasant Garden, a former pheasant farm out of town.

"Two hundred and fifty men were taken one day, another 250 the next, and a layer of earth was thrown in between," a policeman told a parliamentary inquiry in 1947. "They weren't all executed in a single night, but rather in stages." Often enough the condemned men were given a pick and shovel, and made to dig their own graves.

The perpetrators didn't have many scruples. After all, they were sure they had high-level military backing. Jan Cupka, the head of the defense intelligence service, remembers General Spaniel, the commander of the 1st Czechoslovakian Division, recommending they "clean" the region of its ethnic Germans. "The general told us, 'The fewer of them that remain, the fewer enemies we'll have.'"

'I Gave the Order'

But enough people survived to tell the world about the massacre. Survivors exiled to Germany reported what they had witnessed, and even in Postoloprty and Zatec the stories and rumors about the horrific goings-on refused to go away.

In July 1947 the Czech parliament in Prague felt obliged to launch an official inquiry into the matter. Countless soldiers and local residents were interviewed, including Captain Vojtech Cerny, who immediately assumed responsibility for the killing of the five boys on the parade ground. "I gave the order for their execution," he declared.

The statements from witnesses were all documented together with the findings of an Interior Ministry delegation, which investigated on site and promptly declared that "members of the army were primarily to blame for this bestiality and these executions." However it added that the soldiers' actions had met with widespread approval from the local population, who considered them "justified retribution for German brutality."

The officials sent a report back to their minister recommending that the bodies be exhumed and burnt so that "Germans should have no memorials to which they could point as a source of suffering by their people."

In a top-secret operation in August 1947, several mass graves were dug up, and 763 bodies were removed, most of which were then cremated. There is little doubt that there were more victims whose bodies were never found.

Asked to Drop the Story

Meanwhile, the official documents about "the events in Postoloprty" were classified as confidential and disappeared into the Interior Ministry archives.

That suited the postwar residents of Postoloprty and Zatec, who now lived in the houses of the killed or displaced former inhabitants. They weren't the only ones who feared a reassessment of the past. Quite a few non-Germans first willingly collaborated with the occupying forces, only to then reinvent themselves as the great avengers of Czech maltreatment when the time was right. Silence therefore became the order of the day.

As a result, it was only by chance that Czech reporter David Hertl stumbled upon the crime in the mid-90s when he and a colleague were putting together a series of portraits of local towns for his regional newspaper. The plan was to write about past and present-day life in these communities, but when they got to Postoloprty, they hit a brick wall.

"People either didn't know anything about their past or didn't want to talk about it," Hertl says. "And when we asked them about the Germans, they simply said they'd ended up in the Pheasant Garden."

Their suspicions aroused, the two reporters began investigating -- and met mainly with opposition. "If at all, people would only speak to us anonymously," Hertl says. "They were afraid, and asked us to drop the story."

'You're Going to Hang for This'

When the regional newspaper printed a couple of articles on the matter, with headlines such as "Where are the thousands of Germans from Zatec and Postoloprty?" and "We know the names of the murderers," the threats started pouring in. Anonymous letters with swastikas scrawled across them arrived at the editorial offices, and every morning the answering machine was full of insults like "You're going to hang for this, you swine."

Some things have changed in the time since then, Hertl says today. "More people now know that this crime really took place. Nonetheless most still believe the Germans deserved it."

People would prefer this dark chapter of their past to finally be forgotten once and for all. After all, what if the former inhabitants began returning and claiming their houses back? Hertl calls this fear "a kind of paranoia." Yet it persists -- which is why the project to erect a monument is such a touchy issue.

Split over Wording

"We already decided against building a monument four years ago," says Ludvik Mlcuch, a communist member of the Postoloprty town council. "I see no reason to change our minds. End of story."

Petr Riha runs a small electrical goods store in Postoloprty. He has nothing against a monument. "The important thing is what's on the inscription," he says. Riha would like a memorial to all the victims of the Nazi era and its aftermath, not just to the Germans.

"That wouldn't be enough for me," says Walter Urban, who was born in Postoloprty in 1942 and is one of the few ethnic Germans still living there. His house is in the side street on the edge of town that leads toward the Pheasant Garden. Urban doesn't know whether his father was killed there, by the barracks or by the school. All he wants is a memorial where he can lay some flowers. And that's what he's been doggedly promoting in the small committee that must now present its proposed compromise to the municipal authorities in Postoloprty.

Everyone agrees that the town needs a monument. But the committee is split on the wording for the plaque.

Opponents of a memorial to the murdered Germans always point to the context, namely that the postwar excesses would not have happened were it not for the Nazi terror that preceded them.

"That may be true, but every crime has its origins and its causality," says Otokar Löbl, president of Friends of the Town of Saaz/Zatec, a Frankfurt-based association that has long campaigned for an investigation of the crime. "However it's also true that most of the Germans living in Zatec at the time supported the Nazis." Even so, their murder was a crime that should not only be acknowledged as such but for which people must also accept responsibility.

'A Mental Balancing Act'

Löbl comes from a Jewish German-Czech family. His father's family was killed in a concentration camp. Löbl was born in Zatec in 1950, but left the country in 1970 following the Soviet Union's crushing of the Prague Spring. He has long campaigned for better understanding between Germans and Czechs, and he is the initiator of the "Saaz Way," a declaration of reconciliation signed by people from both sides.

"No future without the past" is the motto of the Saaz Way. It's a statement that Peter Klepsch wholeheartedly agrees with. Klepsch now lives in Spalt near Nuremberg, where he chairs the Heimatkreis Saaz, an association for Sudeten Germans from Zatec. The association's Web site contains the formerly confidential reports and statements of the 1947 parliamentary inquiry.

Once or twice a year the Czech exile travels to his former home, an activity he describes as "a mental balancing act." "People often ask me if we've come to take their houses away from them," Klepsch says. "But I could never expect anyone to leave their home."

His family's former home is now used by the criminal investigation bureau; the same police department that has now finally solved the case of the murder of Horst, Eduard, Hans, Walter, and Heinz on the parade ground in Postoloprty on June 6, 1945.

Source: Spiegel Online

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