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The Beneš decrees is a current popular term (officially they are called Decrees of the President of the Republic dekrety presidenta republiky) for a series of laws enacted by the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile during World War II in the absence of the Czechoslovak parliament (see details in German occupation of Czechoslovakia). Today, the term is most frequently used for the part of the decrees that dealt with the status of ethnic Germans and Hungarians in postwar Czechoslovakia. The Beneš decrees have become a symbol for historical debates over the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia and its ramifications in today's politics.

Overview

The decrees were issued by President Edvard Beneš. The decrees can be divided into three parts:

  1. 1940–1944
  2. :These decrees were issued during the government's Londonmarker exile. They were mainly related to the creation of Czechoslovak exile government (including its army) and its organization.
  3. 1943–1945
  4. :Issued in exile. The main theme was the transition of control of the liberated area of Czechoslovakia from Allied armies and the organization of a post-war Czechoslovak government.
  5. 1945 (ending October 26)
  6. :A new post-war government was created in Košicemarker, Slovakia, consisting of parties united in the National Front, with a strong influence of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. As a new parliament had not been organized, the will of the government was implemented by decrees of president. Beneš signed decrees created by the executive government. The decrees included controversial laws connected with the nationalisation without compensation of businesses hiring more than 500 employees, and confiscation of property of ethnic Germans and Hungarian.


All of the decrees were retroactively ratified by the Provisional National Assembly on March 5, 1946 by constitutional act No. 57/1946 Sb.

List of more controversial decrees

  • 5/1945 Sb. Dekret presidenta republiky ze dne 19. května 1945 o neplatnosti některých majetkově-právních jednání z doby nesvobody a o národní správě majetkových hodnot Němců, Maďarů, zrádců a kolaborantů a některých organisací a ústavů ("Decree of the President of the Republic of May 19, 1945 concerning the invalidity of some transactions involving property rights from the time of lack of freedom and concerning the National Administration of property assets of Germans, Hungarians, traitors and collaborators and of certain organizations and associations")
  • 12/1945 Sb. Dekret presidenta republiky ze dne 21. června 1945 o konfiskaci a urychleném rozdělení zemědělského majetku Němců, Maďarů, jakož i zrádců a nepřátel českého a slovenského národa ("Decree of the President of the Republic on June 21, 1945 concerning the confiscation and expedited allotment of agricultural property of Germans, Magyars, as well as traitors and enemies of the Czech and Slovak nation")
  • 16/1945 Sb. Dekret presidenta republiky ze dne 19. června 1945 o potrestání nacistických zločinců, zrádců a jejich pomahačů a o mimořádných lidových soudech ("Decree of the President of the Republic on June 16, 1945 concerning the punishment of Nazi criminals, traitors and their accomplices and concerning extraordinary people's courts")
  • 27/1945 Sb. Dekret presidenta republiky ze dne 17. července 1945 o jednotném řízení vnitřního osídlení (Decree of the President of the Republic of July 17, 1945 concerning unified management of domestic settlement)
  • 28/1945 Sb. Dekret presidenta republiky ze dne 20. července 1945 o osídlení zemědělské půdy Němců, Maďarů a jiných nepřátel státu českými, slovenskými a jinými slovanskými zemědělci (Decree of the President of the Republic of July 20, 1945 concerning the settlement of Czech, Slovak or other Slavic farmers on the agricultural land of Germans, Hungarians and other enemies of the state)
  • 33/1945 Sb. Ústavní dekret presidenta republiky ze dne 2. srpna 1945 o úpravě československého státního občanství osob národnosti německé a maďarské (Constitutional decree of the President of the Republic on August 2, 1945 concerning modification of Czechoslovak citizenship of persons of German and Hungarian ethnicity)
  • 108/1945 Sb. Dekret presidenta republiky ze dne 25. října 1945 o konfiskaci nepřátelského majetku a Fondech národní obnovy (Decree of the President of the Republic on October 25, 1945 concerning confiscation of enemy property and concerning Funds of national recovery)


Post-war settlement in Europe and the Beneš decrees



The Beneš decrees are most often associated with the forcible "population transfer" (deportation) in 1945-47 of about 2.6 million former Czechoslovak citizens of German ethnicity to Germany and Austria, although they do not directly refer to it. Advocates of the decrees argue that the German exodus from Eastern Europe was agreed upon by the victorious Allied powers at the Potsdam conference.

Among the four Allies, the Soviet Union urged their British and US allies to agree to the expulsions of ethnic German citizens and of allegedly German-speaking Poles, Czechoslovaks, Hungarians, Yugoslavs and Romanians into their zones of occupation. France was no party to the Potsdam Agreement and never accepted exiles arriving after July 1945 into its Zone of Occupation.

In the Potsdam Agreement, the other three Allies agreed that they would accept the exiled persons, expelled from a number of eastern Central European countries, in their zones of occupation in Germany. The three Allies never demanded nor did it forbid the government of Czechoslovakia expel anyone, since feeding, clothing, and housing millions of refugees, meant a heavy burden for the Allies. In fact they asked the government to reduce the deportations. While the Czechoslovakian government could increase its popularity by a large redistribution of wealth expropriated from millions of its citizens, the British government had to tell its war-impoverished electorate that they had to spend more on ethnic German refugees.

For the Soviet Union the atrocities and mass expropriation along ethnic alignments were just a beginning for later so-called class actions. The perpetrators and profiteers blundered into the situation, that they became dependent on a perpetuation of the Soviet rule in their countries in order not to be dispossessed again of their booty and to stay unpunished. Furthermore the mass expropriations loosened legal standards as to property rights of other Czechoslovaks, which was clearly intended for the future of Czechoslovakia as a state under Soviet influence.

Both advocates and opponents of the decrees generally believe that by their enforcement, Czechoslovakia collectively punished ethnic German and Hungarian minorities by expropriation and deportation to Germany, Austria, and Hungary for their alleged collaborationism with Nazi Germany and Hungary against Czechoslovakia. This occurred during their struggle for secession from Czechoslovakia and annexation by Nazi Germany and Hungary. Advocates of the decrees describe that struggle as irredentism while opponents claim that the right of self-determination of minorities was denied after World War I and that their ethnic areas were made part of Czechoslovakia against their alleged wishes.

Some of the decrees concerned the expropriation of the property of wartime "traitors" and collaborators accused of treason, but were applied to all Germans and Hungarians collectively. The government revoked citizenship for all peoples of German and Hungarian ethnic origin. (In 1948 such provisions were cancelled for the Hungarians.) This was then used to confiscate their property and expel around 90% of the ethnic German population of Czechoslovakia.

The Germans were collectively accused of having supported the Nazis (through the Sudeten German Party a political party led by Konrad Henlein) and the Third Reich's annexation of the German-populated Czech borderland in 1938. Almost every decree explicitly stated that the sanctions did not apply to anti-fascists, though the term anti-fascist was not explicitly defined. Some 250,000 Germans, some anti-fascists and others judged people crucial for industries, remained in Czechoslovakia. Many of the anti-fascists of German native language emigrated under a special agreement stipulated by Alois Ullmann.

Revocation of Decree No. 33/1945

On April 13, 1948, the Czechoslovak government issued decree No. 76/1948 allowing those Germans and Hungarians still living in Czechoslovakia, to reinstate Czechoslovak citizenship that had been revoked by decree No. 33/1945. The Slovakian Commissioner of the Interior also revoked the latter decree by issuing decree No. 287/1948.

Status today

With two exceptions, 89 of the Beneš decrees, edicts, laws and statutes, along with extensive pages of instruction for their enforcement, are kept valid by their continued existence in the statutes of the Czech Republic (1993) and the Slovak Republic (1993). These two successor states of the restored Czechoslovakia remain unwilling to revoke the edicts and laws so as not to contradict the results of WWII.

Impact on today's political relations

Since the decrees have not been repealed, they have affected the political relations between the Czech Republicmarker and Slovakiamarker and their neighbours Austria, Germany and Hungary.

Those expellees organised within the Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft (part of the Federation of Expellees) and associated political groups call for the abolition of the Beneš decrees as based on the principle of collective guilt. European and international courts have refused to rule on cases concerning the decrees, as most international treaties on human rights took effect after 1945/46.

Former Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman insists that the Czechs would not consider repealing the decrees because of an underlying fear that doing so would open the door to demands for restitution. According to Time Magazine, former Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan argued, "Why should we single out the Beneš Decrees?... They belong to the past and should stay in the past. Many current members of the E.U. had similar laws."

On 20 September 2007, the Slovak parliament confirmed the decrees. All ethnically Slovak members voted for the decision; only Hungarian minority leaders voted against it. Hungarian President László Sólyom thinks that it will put a strain on Hungarian-Slovak relations. Due to the decrees and postwar confiscation of property from the Prince of Liechtenstein, Liechtensteinmarker does not recognise Slovakia.

References

  1. "Visegrad Four dispute over Benes Decrees"
  2. Rubicon, történelmi folyóirat, 2005/6 (in Hungarian) Rubicon Hungarian History Magazine, 2006/6.
  3. Finally Social Democrats of German native language, 9,165 of them had suffered in Nazi concentration camps and jails, 13,536 experienced other persecutions, and their relatives were spared the harshest atrocities, by interning them in separate special camps. 73,125 were deported under preferential circumstances, of course expropriated, a mere 45,779 of them was allowed to take at least their chattel.
  4. Meinungsseiten: Benes-Dekrete und tschechischer Irak-Einsatz by Daniel Satra, 04. 06. 2004, Radio Prague, http://www.radio.cz/de/artikel/54618
  5. "Putting The Past To Rest" - TIME
  6. Beneš Decrees confirmed in Slovakia in Hungarian
  7. Sólyom: Slovak decision unacceptable in Hungarian


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