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Every single act of genocidal aggression is couched in the language of human rights and the need for self-determination for minorities. One of the most infamous began as a supposed struggle to defend the human rights of an oppressed minority group, as an innocent demand for self-determination. All Hitler wanted was to achieve self-determination for the Sudeten Germans, to free them from oppression and mistreatment at the hands of democratic Czechoslovakia.
Never mind that the ethnic Germans living under Czechoslovak rule were being treated infinitely better than were Germans living under German rule. In fact, the Sudetens were arguably the best treated minority in all of Europe. Never mind that Germans already had achieved self-determination in the form of nation states – Germany and Austria – to which Sudeten Germans could freely move. Never mind that the ONLY reason Germany was demanding self-determination and independence for the Sudetens was as a ploy to destroy all of Czechoslovakia and then to carry out genocide. Sound familiar?
The modern Czechoslovakian state came into existence in 1918; in the first of many parallels with modern Israel, it was a country recreated after centuries, having been destroyed and absorbed by others over the years. In the Middle Ages, Bohemia and Moravia had been separate Czech kingdoms, enjoying varying degrees of independence, generally within the framework of the Holy Roman Empire.
Modern Czech nationalism emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. During World War I, Czechs participated in resistance and espionage against the Axis powers, and their leaders lobbied in European capitals for independence. After centuries of persecution, the Czechs reestablished their sovereignty following World War I and linked up with their Slovakian cousins in the new state of Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia contained a diverse and heterogeneous population, like the Habsburg Empire from which it emerged. In particular, about 23 percent of its citizens were ethnic Germans, concentrated in the Western section known as the Sudetenland. Most Sudeten Germans were violently opposed to incorporation within the Czechoslovakian state. Instead, they identified openly with larger neighboring countries and fundamentally opposed the very existence of the new state. On October 21, 1918, German deputies from all parts of the former Austrian Empire convened and issued a call for national “self-determination” for the Germans of Czechoslovakia, using the term President Woodrow Wilson had recently added to the international lexicon. In the following year, Sudeten Germans launched a wave of violent demonstrations and terrorism in opposition to the inclusion of their lands in the Czech state. In addition, thousands of Sudeten Germans fled from the new state to the neighboring countries of Germany and Austria.
The new Czechoslovakia thus included a large element with questionable loyalty to the state. Czechoslovakia was ruled by social democrats committed to social reform and egalitarianism; they made attempts to resolve this problem by winning over the hostile minority through economic integration, tolerance, freedom, and liberal social reform. The first Czechoslovakian president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, a powerful, strong-willed, charismatic, and progressive politician, proposed a comprehensive program of equality for all national groups in the new state.
Czechoslovakia quickly developed in the 1920s into a stable parliamentary democracy with protection for all the freedoms found in modern Western states. A large number of political parties contested elections and gained representation in the parliament. The country passed legislative programs that were among the most progressive in the world. Trade union activism and power bloomed, and widespread experimentation with cooperative agriculture took place.
The German minority was permitted to operate its own schools in its own languages and control its own local affairs. German was an official national language in the German areas of Czechoslovakia. Sudeten Germans voted and were elected to parliament. On the whole, the Sudeten Germans enjoyed better treatment than any other national minority in Europe.
However, by 1937 the Sudeten Germans found themselves at the center of escalating tensions. The radicalization of nationalist movements in neighboring countries, where power was seized by revolutionary and xenophobic leaders, led to growing international conflict. Specifically, the pan-German ideology and imperialist ambitions of the Third Reich inflamed the Sudeten conflict. Adolf Hitler saw Czechoslovakia as an integral part of the German national homeland, an area to be absorbed and integrated into the Reich.
As international tensions grew, Berlin complained more and more about discrimination and mistreatment of the Sudetens. In response, Sudeten Germans moved away from peaceful coexistence in favor of polarization and extremism. Their growing nationalist movement was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, and authoritarian. The Nazi Party was formally banned in Czechoslovakia but support for the Sudeten German Party (SdP), the Nazi surrogate party, soared; in 1935 it received 63 percent of the German vote in Czechoslovakia (a higher percentage than what the Nazis received in Germany in 1933), and 78 percent in 1938. The SdP never outlined a political or social program of nation-building beyond demanding “self-determination.”
The SdP used violence to suppress other competing nationalist parties and asserted its own position as sole spokesman for the Sudeten Germans. It organized Sudeten refugees who had fled to Germany when Czechoslovakia became independent and recruited them into the Heimatbund, a paramilitary organization. This group later formed the basis of the Sudeten German Freikorps, a terrorist organization to which 34,000 Sudetens living in Germany were recruited. These terrorists raided Czech border areas and carried out atrocities until late 1938. The SdP and other Sudeten political organizations openly identified with the Nazi Party in Germany.
After coming to power, but especially beginning in 1937, Hitler turned the issue of Sudeten national rights into his main instrument for aggression against Czechoslovakia. Self-determination served him as a means to destroy and annex the country. The most important Nazi assault on Czechoslovakia was its propaganda machine’s denunciation of the supposed torture and physical abuse of Sudeten Germans at the hands of Czechoslovakia—this from the regime that had already built concentration camps.
By mid-1937, Hitler simultaneously pressured Prague to make concessions on the Sudeten issue and completed a military plan for the conquest of Czechoslovakia. In 1938 the SdP adopted the Carlsbad Eight Points, a manifesto that essentially called for the partitioning of Czechoslovakia and the secession of the Sudetenland to Germany.
The internal problem of minority “rights” quickly assumed international dimensions. Responding to Nazi protests, the Western powers received Henlein with an official welcome of a kind usually reserved for a head of state. In contrast, as Czech historian Radomir Luza notes, Czechoslovakia’s president Benes was treated “more cavalierly than if he had been the chief of a tribe in Africa.”
This symbolism revealed a deeper outlook as the Western states pressured Prague to accede to Sudeten demands. In July 1936, Britain’s Foreign Minister Anthony Eden urged Czechoslovakia to grant the Sudeten Germans full autonomy. Responding to these pressures, Czechoslovak leaders agreed to negotiate with the SdP and proposed a program for limited Sudeten autonomy. The SdP, acting under orders from Hitler, peremptorily rejected the plan. (Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop advised the Sudeten Nazis: “Always negotiate and do not let the thread break; but always demand more than the opposing side can offer.”)
Henlein escalated his rhetoric, denouncing the Prague regime as “Hussite-Bolshevik criminals,” even as threats from the Third Reich assumed a more ominous tone. Reports arrived of German troop concentrations near the Czechoslovak frontier. At the same time that Berlin prepared for war, it denounced the Czechs as “the real disturbers of peace in Europe.”
Prague from the beginning argued that the issue of Sudeten self-determination was a red herring, that the real cause of crisis was the Third Reich’s aggressive intentions. The few Western voices that agreed with this analysis were generally ignored. Although Czechoslovakia had always maintained that the Sudeten problem was an internal affair and no business of the world community, in August 1938, London demanded and Prague had to accept a British mediator. Chamberlain and French prime minister Edouard Daladier accused Prague of ill-treating the Sudeten minority and so being responsible for conflict. The European press routinely painted Czechoslovakia prime minister Benes as a warmonger.
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