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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Regionalism, autonomism and the minority identity-building narratives

Sudeten German history

Josef Pfitzner
Traduction de Derek Paton

Texte intégral

1Title: Sudetendeutsche Geschichte (Sudeten German history)

2Originally published: Reichenberg (Cz. Liberec), Sudetendeutscher Verlag Franz Kraus, 1935

3Language: German

4The excerpts used are from Sudetendeutsche Geschichte (Reichenberg: Sudetendeutscher Verlag Franz Kraus, 1937), pp. 9–20.

About the author

5Josef Pfitzner [1901 Petersburg near Zuckmantel (Cz. Petrovice near Zlaté Hory, Austrian Silesia) – 1945, Prague]: Bohemian German historian and politician. He was born into a shoemaker’s family. After attending grammar school in Opava (Ger. Troppau), he studied history at Prague’s German university. Here, in 1930, he became Professor of East European history. Among his interests were the regional, administrative and economic history of Silesia and the history of German settlement in Bohemia and Eastern Europe. He was fluent in Czech and during his studies he attended the lectures of Josef Pekař, who later regularly reviewed his works. During the 1920s, he was appreciated by prominent Czech politicians and historians, including Tomáš G. Masaryk and Josef Šusta, as an influential Sudeten German historian actively supporting the Czechoslovak Republic and striving to create a conciliatory Czech-German historical consciousness. In the mid 1930s, however, he joined the Sudetendeutsche Partei of Konrad Henlein, and, as his book Sudetendeutsche Einheitsbewegung proves, he aspired to become its leading ideologist and theorist. In keeping with the party line, he turned towards Nazism in the late 1930s, rising to the rank of SA Standartenführer in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. In 1939– 1945, he was Deputy Mayor of Prague and was instrumental in preparing the deportations of Prague Jews to concentration camps, controlling the Czech city administration and introducing various Germanization policies in the capital city. As the epitome of the pro-Nazi Sudeten German, he was tried and sentenced to death by an ‘extraordinary peoples’ tribunal’ in September 1945, and was executed in what became the last public execution on Bohemian territory.

6Main works: Besiedlung-, Verfassungs- und Verwaltungsgeschichte des Breslauer Bistumes, vol. I [The history of the settlement, constitution, and administration of the Breslau bishopric] (1926); Das Erwachen der Sudetendeutschen im Spiegel ihres Schrifttums bis zum Jahre 1848 [The Sudeten German awakening in their literature up to 1848] (1926); Grossfürst Witold von Litauen als Staasmann [Vytautas the Great of Lithuania as a statesman] (1930); Bakuninstudien [Studies on Bakunin] (1932); Sudetendeutsche Geschichte [Sudeten German history] (1935); Sudetendeutsche Einheitsbewegung. Werden und Erfüllung [The Sudeten German unification movement. Its making and fulfilment] (1937); Das Sudetendeutschtum [Sudeten Germandom] (1938); Kaiser Karl IV. [Emperor Charles IV] (1938); Das tausendjährige Prag [Prague of a thousand years] (1940); Reise in ein “Paradies.” Erlebtes und Erkanntes aus der Sowjetunion [Journey to ‘Paradise’: Experiences and learnings from the Soviet Union] (1942); Die Hauptstadt Prag ehrt das Andenken Reinhard Heydrichs [Prague, the capital city, honors the memory of Reinhard Heydrich] (1943); Die tschechische Jugend und der Reichsgedanke [Czech youth and the idea of the Reich] (1944).


7In October 1918, the majority of the German inhabitants of the Bohemian Lands refused to recognize the newly declared Czechoslovak Republic as legitimate, and with reference to the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination they instead voted to join the Republic of Austria. At the Peace Conference in Versailles, however, the Czechoslovak representatives asserted their claims to the entire territory of what they viewed as the historical lands of the Bohemian Crown. Consequently, the Czechoslovak army suppressed German anti-Czechoslovak demonstrations in the borderlands. The new Republic did not succeed in winning the active support of its German and Hungarian inhabitants, who were declared minorities separate from the ‘political nation of Czechoslovaks.’ Nevertheless, especially in the prosperous 1920s, the ‘activist’ parties among this population (the agrarians, Christian socialists, and social democrats), in favor of pragmatic collaboration with Czechs and Slovaks, grew quite strong. The Great Depression of 1929, however, had a strong impact especially in the German-inhabited borderlands and radicalized politics in these regions. In 1933, Konrad Henlein founded the Sudetendeutsche Heimatsfront (Sudeten German Homeland Front), the core of which was formed by members of German nationalist parties that had been banned in the same year due to their openly irredentist activities. In 1935, the party was renamed the Sudetendeutsche Partei and came out with a program advocating full German autonomy in Czechoslovakia. The party was strongly supported by the Third Reich. In the 1935 elections, it won two thirds of all the German votes and was the second strongest political party in the National Assembly. In the following years, it served as a fifth column for Nazi Germany in Czechoslovakia and after the 1938 Munich Agreement, it was incorporated into the Nazi Party.

8The identity of the Germans in the Bohemian Lands was transformed considerably in the interwar period from ‘Bohemian Germans’ to ‘Sudeten Germans.’ At the beginning of the century, the majority of Germans living in Bohemian Lands expressed their identity in regional terms such as Deutschböhmen, Deutschmährer or Deutschschlesier, that implied their allegiance to Germany, Austria or both, though there were few ties between the various individual regional groups. Their becoming Czechoslovak citizens, however, united these various groups into a Schicksalsgemeinschaft (community of fate), and they adopted a new name, they became ‘Sudeten Germans.’

9This process was mirrored and also enhanced in the academic sphere, most notably in the human sciences and historical research. There was an important liberal conservative Bohemian German school of historiography in the nineteenth century (Konstantin Höfler, Adolf Bachmann) that offered an alternative interpretation to František Palacký’s history of Bohemia. They agreed with his idea about the continuous contact and conflict of Czechs and Germans in Bohemia, but they did not share his high regard for ‘Slavic democracy,’ and they stressed instead the cultural predominance and crucial role of German ethnicity. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bertold Bretholz made an effort to change the basically confrontational tone of German- Czech historiographical discussions. In his Geschichte Böhmens und Mährens, he sought to explain the historical conditions for the peaceful coexistence of Germans and Czechs. He presented his idea about the originally German-Czech character of Bohemia from ancient times. According to his Urgermanen theory, large parts of the East Germanic population remained in Bohemia during the time of the Migration Period (between Late Antiquity and Middle Ages). These formed the basis for German population in the country and carried the ‘continuity of German settlement’ throughout centuries. There was not, however, any evidence (linguistic, archeological, and so forth) in support of this, and the theory was soon criticized not only by Czech, but also by German historians. In 1918, although the majority of German historians in Czechoslovakia still considered themselves to be a part of Austrian historiography, the situation changed rapidly with the creation of Czechoslovakia. At this time, the German University of Prague became the most important center of crucial historical debates, such as that concerning Bretholz’s thesis in the 1920s. The primary focus of the German historians, however, turned from the all-German to the Sudeten German perspective. The younger generation of German historians in Prague (Heinz Hirsch, Theodor Mayer, Josef Pfitzner, Heinz Zatschek), influenced by Volksgeschichte, began to concentrate on the history of German settlement in Bohemia, with strong emphasis on the history of the Middle Ages. Increasingly, their academic writings provided a suitable historical narrative supporting Sudeten German identity-building and, at the same time, justifying their recent claims for cultural and political autonomy within Czechoslovakia.

10One of the most active in this respect was the ambitious Josef Pfitzner. Already in 1926, he had published a book about the ‘Sudeten German awakening’ prior to 1848. At the beginning of the 1930s he published several articles in which he called for the writing of a general history of the Sudeten Germans. On 28 October 1934 in Opava, he gave a speech at an official celebration for the anniversary of the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic, where apart from the representatives of German cultural organizations, official representatives of the state were also present. In his lecture ‘The Historical Fate of Sudeten Germans and Czechs,’ Pfitzner gave his account of the historical development of relationships between both ethnic groups and formulated an ‘optimistic vision’ of the main features characterizing this relationship. He accordingly challenged Palacký’s conception of Czech history and—being one of the few German historians who followed Czech publications on history—he explicitly made references to historians such as Jaroslav Goll, Josef Pekař, and Kamil Krofta and their interpretations of Czech history. According to Pfitzner, the “meaning” of Sudeten German history was the transmission of German cultural values to the Czechs. In his view, Sudeten Germans, were to serve as a bridge between past and present. The circumstances in which Pfitzner delivered his lecture compelled him to make politically moderate formulations. It is reasonable therefore to see his lecture as an example of a relatively ‘activist’ stance of the Sudeten German movement towards the Czechoslovak state. It formulated a basis on which, from their point of view, the coexistence and the ‘good neighborhood’ of Sudeten Germans and Czechs could have been possible. This interpretation depicts the history of Bohemia as the history of two essential national groups with separate paths of development from the outset. As such, the argument was unacceptable for many Czech and German historians, and definitely at variance with the official idea of the Czechoslovak state. Later, Pfitzner published his lecture as the introduction to his Sudetendeutsche Geschichte. In the book, he leans towards Bretholz’s theory on the character of the Bohemian Lands as being made up of two tribes (German and Czech) dating back to ancient times.

11Even though the Sudeten German identity in interwar Czechoslovakia developed rapidly, many German historians in Czechoslovakia, especially the ‘old liberals’ from the previous generation, did not accept Pfitzner’s ideas, seeing them as too politicized. During the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, Pfitzner’s conception of Sudeten German history, together with similar intellectual endeavors, was overshadowed by the vision of the all- German Third Reich. Thus, Pfitzner’s own writings aroused mistrust and criticism among the Nazi leaders in the Protectorate as well as in the Reich. After the postwar expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia, the books of Pfitzner, as part of the cultural legacy of Sudetendeutschtum, became an important unifying aspect of the Sudeten German movement in the Federal Republic of Germany.


Sudeten German history

13[...] All of this struggling and effort by the Czech side to clarify the meaning and content of Czech history has admittedly passed almost unnoticed by Sudeten German historians, even though the fate of the Sudeten Germans will also be partly decided by it. […]

14Now the time seems to have come to place Sudeten German history next to Czech history, which it is closely related to, and to reconsider the meaning of Sudeten German history. It was clear to me that for the fruitful formation and interpretation of our own past, the realistic method that Pekař had so successfully employed for Czech history would be most suitable. With this view in mind, six main forces and facts easily emerged, which will surely make clear the historical fate of the Sudeten Germans from their immigration to these lands up to the present day and into the future.

  • 1 Český časopis historický (The Czech historical review): the main professional historical journal i (...)

15The first, essential force and fact of our history has been that the Sudeten Germans are an immediate part of all the German people, but split off into a special sub-branch, and that the German culture of the Sudetenland, which is now coming together from out of the individual branch cultures into one whole Sudeten German culture, is therefore an integral part of all German culture and therefore of Western Europe. In a 1932 article in Český časopis historický1, Pekař responds to this observation with the comment that there was, in his opinion, probably no Czech historian who would deny the “need of the Germans for cultural coexistence with the German people on the other side of the border.” And, a few weeks ago, Krofta explained: “It is clear that we cannot seek, or want, to denationalize our German compatriots, nor can we shut our eyes to the reality that they are members of the great German national community, which cannot be without influence on their relationship to the state in which they live.”

16The second fundamental factor for Sudeten German history arises from the Sudeten Germans’ being neighbors of the Czech nation, from which stem manifold mutual relations of a spiritual, physical and economic nature. It is precisely in this field that we agree with the Czech interpretation of history, which emphasizes that beneficial things, and not just harmful things, may occasionally come out of it. Third, the unique physical position and distribution of the Germans in the Sudetenland has a fateful effect on their way of life in many areas. Fourth, the Germans, owing to their immediate membership in German and therefore Western culture, in many ways represent the culturally stronger element, yet find themselves numerically in the minority. Fifth, the Sudeten Germans have never formed an independent state, but have always belonged to larger state bodies. Sixth, consciousness of membership in the German cultural community was no small support and force in the development of the Sudeten Germans. These basic facts and forces provided me with the guidelines, when, in 1933, I wrote an outline of the history of the Sudeten Germans. Pekař adopted a critical position on both essays, explaining that they were identical, each showing the middle ground in the argument, a position which was tenable for both camps of scholarship.

17Since, however, these main ideas and basic forces of the Czech and Sudeten German historical fate, which stemmed mainly from history but were also tested in the present, had an effect not only in the past but also similarly have an effect through the present and future, we now wish to turn our gaze to the fundamentals of what we ourselves are and to the present and foreseeable future. At the same time, reciprocal Czech–German relations should be in the foreground. As we heard, the fact of being geographic neighbors, which is the decisive fact for peoples as well as for individuals, has been dominant between the Czechs and the Germans. Clearly, being neighbors creates obligations between people and can bind them together; it need not separate them. Being good neighbors leads to a coexistence that can weather all storms. The conditions for the creation of good neighborly relations must be known by each of the neighbors and felt by them, otherwise neither of them will share the greater good of community life. […] If we apply these convictions, which are drawn from national and individual life, to relations between the Sudeten Germans and the Czechs, then the fact that the Czechs and Sudeten Germans have been neighbors for seven hundred years and the fact of the almost thousand years of Czechs’ and Germans’ being neighbors in general teaches us with forceful clarity that despite the many conflicts, even of a warlike kind, being good neighbors is possible. […] [A]ncient history teaches us that Sudeten Germandom and Czechdom have possessed enough vitality to preserve their national existence despite all the dangers and troubles. Switching sides came into play only on the linguistic boundary, but was never too dangerous; the essence of the Sudeten Germans and Czechs was left unharmed, yet it has sown bitter animosity between them. Observing this thousand- year struggle must demonstrate to all concerned, and to all whom the formation of good neighborly relations matters, that it is basically pointless, indeed is outright detrimental to the apparent winner, to shift the borders of his own land holdings by force, since he will surely evoke the enmity of his neighbor. If this knowledge, sanctified by historical experience, is accepted, then the argument over the boundary lines of these national land holdings in the state will be solved for ever.

18Good neighborliness between Czechs and Germans, if it is to be strengthened from within, entails joy in the achievements of the other, without envy; it entails, in fact, being models to each other, and entails give and take in the highest spheres of human culture. For this very reason, healthy and constructive competition based on good neighborly relations will develop between the two nations, free of any hatred, spirit of expansion, revenge or feelings of inferiority, a spirit that knows only one aim—namely, to create, in the framework of its own nation and nationhood, and on that basis, united by competition with the other nation, many of the highest enlightening values of culture. The President of the Republic has repeatedly stressed the necessity for this peaceful, noble competition, because, as a scholar and statesman, as an educator of his nation, he knows that only honorable spiritual rivalry and struggle produces progress. […] The Sudeten Germans, however, because of their being closely bound up with all of German culture, still have one duty to the Czechs: the duty of being first-class purveyors of culture. It has been demonstrated again and again that building bridges from the Czechs to the world of German culture and vice versa is the ‘meaning’ and ‘mission’ of the Sudeten Germans. This service, which the German nation is to perform for the Czech nation, is a noble task. Its essence was also indicated by Krofta who said, “I don’t hesitate to add that, while carefully preserving our sovereignty as a nation and state as well as the uniqueness of our spiritual life, we shall always gladly and willingly be enriched by a German culture that has in the past contributed and, God willing, will continue to contribute to the world.” […]

19The preconditions for the establishment and maintenance of good neighborly relations have been enumerated here, and the responsible parties of both camps will now, by the arduous education of their nations, strive to surmount the harsh, often unbending reality. The responsible parties among the Sudeten Germans in particular will have to bear in mind from their history that their main tasks do not lie exclusively in the field of politics. Sudeten German history teaches us that quiet cultural work, which produces eternal values, is the most noble task. In the area of politics not all the tasks and therefore not all the fruits fall to the Sudeten Germans, though they could, if they had a state of their own, lay claim to them and would have to strive for them. The Czechs, like the Germans, must consider that the basis of the Czech nation is firmly settled in this state, while the Czechs abroad are of no serious consequence, and, conversely, only a small part of the German nation lives in this state, while the vast majority live outside its borders. This, as well as the ratio of the numbers of people from each nation and the origins of the state, explains why the Sudeten Germans play no independent role, for example, in foreign policy. A wise state leadership will, however, take the Sudeten German situation into consideration when formulating foreign policy to make that position easier, rather than more difficult. [...]


1 Český časopis historický (The Czech historical review): the main professional historical journal in Bohemia, published between 1895 and 1949 and from 1990 onwards.


Derek Paton (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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