Steven Plaut teaches at the University of Haifa.
In August 1998, according to press reports, official Israeli analysts met with Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet ministers to discuss what was termed the "potential strategic threat" stemming from the Arab population resident in Israel. Among other things, the report discussed a "worst case scenario" whereby these Israeli Arabs would launch a separatist campaign.1 The report went on to draw explicit comparisons between this threat and the role of Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.2
The report caused a minor uproar, forcing the government to apologize later and back down from this characterization of Israel's Arab citizens as a potential fifth column. Yet the comparison is an intriguing one, for Israeli Arabs and Sudeten Germans do have much in common, as recent research has established.3 The historic analogy with the Sudetens arises with respect to debate over the real motivations behind demands for Palestinian self-determination, demands sometimes extended to include Israeli Arabs. Does the Sudeten story of six decades back in fact have lessons for today?
BACKGROUND TO THE SUDETEN CRISIS
The modern Czechoslovakian state came into existence in 19184; 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. During the Hussite rebellion of the fifteenth century, the Czechs regained their full independence in a heroic armed struggle that pitted the few against the many. Their independence was then to be crushed with finality in 1620, and the Czech lands were absorbed by the Habsburg Empire, while much of the Czech population was dispersed.
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 occupied a strategically central location; indeed, Bismarck once observed that whoever was master of Bohemia was master of Europe.
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.
In the campaign for Sudeten self-determination, its advocates ignored the fact that the vast majority of Germanic peoples already enjoyed self-determination in the form of Germany and Austria, two states contiguous to the area of Czechoslovakia in dispute. Rather, the advocates accused the Czechs of being "outsiders" who did not belong in the region. As Slavs, the Czechs were portrayed as invaders of Germanic Lebensraum.
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. Indeed, he promoted the integration of the German minority as an ultimate test of his progressive principles.
Accordingly, 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. Government coalitions of parties were formed after a great deal of partisan horse-trading. 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.
A pattern of decentralization evolved, where 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.
Still, Sudeten Germans did have some legitimate complaints. They were under-represented in the civil service and armed forces, partly because of security fears. They also experienced some security-related restrictions, particularly during periods of exterior threats and tensions. The issue of land ownership was one of extremist political passion for them. Land owned by Sudeten Germans was expropriated for defense fortifications, as the Sudeten lands were alongside Germany—whence any future military threats would come. (The Third Reich later used these land expropriations as a justification for its military aggression in 1938.) On the whole, the Sudeten Germans probably enjoyed better treatment than any other national minority in Europe.
THIRD REICH AGGRESSION
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. He allowed no room at all for Czechoslovakian self-determination. On March 30, 1938, Hitler wrote in his diary, "It is my irrevocable decision to destroy Czechoslovakia by military means in the near future."5
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 patterns shifted as frustration peaked, from the more moderate parties in the 1920s to nationalist parties with totalitarian ideologies in the 1930s. 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 1938.6 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. Even in the face of escalating violence and provocations by the Sudeten Germans, the Czechoslovak authorities scrupulously maintained freedom of the press.
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. Funds from Germany flowed into the SdP coffers and Berlin conjured up imaginary Soviet airfields in Czechoslovakia and labeled Czechoslovakia "a puppet of Soviet imperialism." But 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. The head of the SdP, Konrad Henlein, went on a diplomatic offensive, touring western European capitals and demanding that Sudeten rights be acknowledged. Henlein at first attempted to convince the European governments that his ambitions were limited to autonomy for Sudeten Germans. With time, his statements became increasingly belligerent. On January 1, 1938, he announced that "The Czechoslovak people must recognize that no settlement will ever be reached with our great neighbor, Germany, until the Sudeten Germans are satisfied." 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 WESTERN RESPONSE
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.")7 London pressured Prague to sweeten the plan and agree to a Sudeten plebiscite, though it was obvious that such a plebiscite would lead to the partition of Czechoslovakia.
Following the Austrian Anschluss (annexation) in March 1938, Sudeten German violence and mass demonstrations against Czechoslovakia grew, along with support for the SdP. 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. William Srang, head of the Central European Department of the British Foreign Office, warned that the German government is "using the Sudeten German question as an instrument of policy to strengthen [its] political and military position." The democracies insisted on seeing the Sudeten conflict as a question of minority rights and self-determination. Britain and Germany held talks in September 1938 and issued a joint statement affirming the rights of the Sudeten Germans, with no mention at all of the security needs of Czechoslovakia.
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. Lord Runciman, known for his strong Nazi sympathies, recommended to Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that all agitation against the Nazis be forbidden inside Czechoslovakia. Runciman then added: "Czechoslovakian rule in the Sudeten areas for the last twenty years, though not actively oppressive ... has been marked by tactlessness, lack of understanding, petty intolerance, and discrimination, to a point where the resentment of the German population was inevitably moving in the direction of revolt." 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.
During the negotiations over the mounting crisis, Prague had to accede under Western pressure to one German demand after another. It agreed on making the Carlsbad Eight Points the basis for negotiations. The SdP, under orders from Berlin not to reach a real agreement, met each new unilateral concession by Prague with new demands. Hitler told Karl Hermann Frank on August 6 that he had decided to go to war with the Czechs, even while continuing to negotiate "peace."8 German strategy called for the negotiations to fail, so that the Reich would have an excuse to intervene militarily. Henlein was instructed that, in the unlikely event of Prague's complete capitulation to the Carlsbad program, to add new demands that would infringe on Czechoslovakia's ability to formulate its own foreign policy—thereby compromising its own sovereignty.
As tensions mounted along the borders in the summer of 1938, Czechoslovakia went on military alert. The Czechoslovak military being based mainly on a system of emergency reserve mobilization, the Western states exerted pressure on Prague not to mobilize, so as not to provoke Berlin. Prague persisted anyway and was denounced by some in the West for war-mongering.
In late summer 1938, Prague agreed essentially to the whole of the Carlsbad program. On September 13, before the SdP could formally respond to this capitulation, an intifada-like revolt broke out in the Sudetenland. Organized by the SdP, the rioters attacked Jews, Czechs, and democrats, and fired on many Czechoslovak policemen. As the SdP leadership fled to Germany, the Czechoslovak army restored order and established martial law. But London and Paris then increased pressure on Prague. On September 19, they proposed to transfer to Germany all parts of Czechoslovakia in which the population was more than half German; in exchange, they offered Czechoslovakia an international guarantee for its new boundaries after partition. In fact, no such formal guarantee was ever received. Earlier, the same two powers had pledged to defend Czechoslovakia sovereignty over its entire territory.
MUNICH AND AFTER
On September 29-30, 1938, the leaders of Europe met in Munich and sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia by agreeing to transfer the Sudetenland to Germany. No Czechoslovak representatives were present. They apportioned parts of Czechoslovakia to Germany and other parts of the country were awarded to Poland and Hungary. (See Map 1 above for the areas given to Germany.) On October 1, the German Wehrmacht entered the Sudetenland, where most Czechoslovak fortifications happened to be located with almost no opposition. They then rapidly expanded the areas under their control. (See Map 2 above.)
The Germans immediately instituted their program of Gleichschaltung, suppressing the Czech and Slovak languages, confiscating Czechoslovak property, and forcing at bayonet point the three quarters of a million Czechoslovaks remaining in the ceded territories to emigrate. At the same time, German propaganda clamored about the alleged denial of national and human rights of those Germans still living within the rump Czechoslovakian state, demanding recognition of their rights to self-determination. On March 12, 1939, German demonstrations took place in all the remaining Czechoslovak cities with a German population. On March 15, the German army completed the destruction of Czechoslovakia by seizing military control of all the remaining parts of the country. On March 16, 1939, the German army occupied Prague, and the rump Czech state ceased to exist. In October 1939 Hitler arranged for Slovak and Ruthene minorities within Czechoslovakia to declare themselves autonomous zones, independent of Prague, and then in November had Prague cede 4,600 square miles of territory to Hungary. Thus were the Sudeten people at last liberated and granted their national rights of self-determination. In all these events, not a single country had lifted a finger to save Czechoslovakia.
In 1938, in the midst of negotiations over the settlement of the Sudeten conflict, Czechoslovakia's president, Eduard Benes had warned the West: "Do not believe it [is] a question of self-determination. From the beginning, it has been a battle for the existence of the state." Several years later, after Sudeten self-determination had been granted and Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist as a country, Benes—then in exile—observed that "such a concept of self-determination is a priori a denial of the right of self-determination of ten million Czechoslovakians and precludes the very existence of a Czechoslovakian state."
The Czech historian Luza observes that "The Sudeten German problem was not a cause of the conflict but its pretext. The true reason, according to the Germans themselves, was a refusal of the Czechoslovakian state to become a German vassal" (emphasis in original). Years later in January 1942, Hitler confirmed this observation: "To put it briefly, the Czechoslovakians are a foreign body in the midst of the German community. There is no room both for them and for us. One of us must give way."
There are, of course, many differences between the Sudeten story and the Middle East conflict, the most important being the absence of a Hitler in the latter. This said, a large number of parallels between Sudeten and Palestinian self-determination are worth noting.
We know that the ultimate goal of Sudeten "self-determination" was not some corner of the country but the whole of it, including its capital Prague; likewise, Arafat announces several times each day that his goal is Jerusalem. In both cases, the campaign against the "oppression" of a minority group in fact served as an instrument for aggression against the state in which they lived. Since 1948, those who would destroy Israel have steadily insisted that they were acting out of moral high-mindedness and compassion for their Palestinian brethren, simply trying to help the latter achieve self-determination, though their goal is far more aggressive than that.
The campaign for Palestinian self-determination, like its Sudeten forerunner, has not the slightest connection with concern over the human rights and civic treatment of Palestinians. Those who exaggerated discrimination and oppression against the minority showed little interest in their plight in neighboring German and Arab countries. The Arabs' assault on Israel has been based on a determination to drive Israel out of their Lebensraum. As such, theirs is another example of the twentieth-century tendency to disguise naked aggression in the self-righteous cloak of promoting self-determination.
"Palestinian self-determination" serves as the banner for Arab aggression against Israel. In both cases, the minority group whose "oppression" formed the rationalization for aggression in fact enjoyed toleration and democratic rights that were completely absent in the neighboring countries where its ethnic brethren formed majorities. Refusal of the neighboring states to accept the presence of an "alien population and state" within their Lebensraum led to war. Both the victims of aggression were social democracies and states with extensive "progressive socialist" structures and high standards of living.
And the future? If the Oslo process results in Palestinian statehood, will this end the Middle East conflict or mark an intermediate stage of transition to a new form? Will the Palestinian state discover the plight of oppressed and mistreated Arabs remaining in the rump Israel, much as Germany demanded further concessions for Czech Germans in the rump partitioned Czechoslovakia? That seems likely, as such demands have long been heard by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Arab states. Will Arabs of the Galilee, the Negev, the Triangle, and then those in Ramla, Haifa, and Jaffa demand their self-determination? Is a Galilee Liberation Organization yet to be heard from?
The world chose to ignore the evidence that demands for Sudeten self-determination were a Nazi device to disguise military aggression aimed at destroying the self-determination of another nation; might something similar happen in the Middle East? It remains to be seen whether Palestinians will be permitted to fulfill their role, assigned to them by the Arab states, of the Sudetens of the Middle East.
And the Western reaction: Western powers have chosen to blind themselves to the misuse of the campaign for self-determination, and to the ambition by aggressor states to use "self-determination" to liquidate the target state. The powers bewail the sufferings of the minority group while ignoring the fact that the campaign on behalf of their "rights" are serving to delegitimize and weaken the democratic states being targeted for destruction.
Looking to the future, will Great Britain (with its Ulster, Scotch, and Welsh problems), France (with the Corsicans and Bretons), Belgium (with the Flemish and Walloons), Spain (with the Basques and Catalonians), and Canada (with the Quebecois) have any doubts? No, they are all likely to agree on one thing: the Palestinians are morally and politically entitled to "self-determination," no matter how this jeopardizes Israel's security or even, as in the Czechoslovak case, its very existence. Self-determination for the "oppressed" minority is assumed to provide an instant, just, and sublime solution to a conflict. Westerners (and the rest of the world, too) dismiss challenges to Palestinian self-determination with the same unthinking and indignant self-righteousness as their grandfathers did in the 1930s with regard to Sudeten self-determination.
But what moral basis is there for such self-determination? Palestinians always identify themselves as Arabs. That being the case, why are over twenty sovereign Arab states, in a territory larger than that of the United States, not sufficient? And if Palestinians are not Arabs, why do Arab leaders never demand, at least not audibly, self-determination for those Palestinians not under Israeli control—such as in Jordan and Lebanon, or in the pre-1967 West Bank?
It has become a matter of near-universal consensus in recent years that Palestinian self-determination stands at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this view, the lack of such Palestinian self-determination drives the conflicts and the realization of such self-determination is the only formula that will lead to Middle Eastern harmony.
But this outlook ignores the fact that for a century nearly every form of aggression, irredentism, and xenophobia has wrapped itself in the banner of self-determination. Twentieth-century aggressors feel a need to present themselves as defenders of the downtrodden and friends of those souls seeking self-determination. Other examples of aggressors claiming to be fighting for self-determination for minorities or for oppressed peoples include Spain's invasion of Mexico (to protect tribes from the Aztecs); Japan's invasion of Manchuria, China, Indochina, and Burma; and Russia's occupation of Eastern Europe. More recent examples include Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia; Russia in Afghanistan; Iraq's aggression against Iran and against Kuwait; and the Serb invasions of its several neighbors, including Bosnia and Kosovo. If Iran invades Afghanistan, it, too, will rely on self-determination as a fig leaf for aggression. This historic pattern should give pause to anyone hearing appeals about the rights to self-determination.
For decades, Palestinian self-determination has being utilized to threaten Israeli self-determination. The PLO has often repeated that Oslo is part of the "plan of stages" by which all of Palestine, including all of Israel, will be liberated in stages. The Arab states have been even less reticent about promoting the ultimate goal of dismantling Israel.
Westerners seem unable to imagine that any form of self-determination is morally or politically objectionable or ethically deniable; therefore, they tend to receive the self-determination argument with understanding and approval. Ever since Woodrow Wilson devised the term, Westerners have tended to give "self-determination" the benefit of every doubt, even though many of the most horrific conflicts on the planet have been
fought in the name of just this "self-determination."
The West must recognize that any form of Palestinian self-governance and "self-determination" must be preconditioned on the complete preservation and protection of Israeli self-determination.
1 A Gallup poll (Ma'ariv, Oct. 4, 1998), shows 62 percent of Israelis think it likely that Israeli Arabs (within the Green Line) could launch their own intifada; 31 percent think it not likely.
2 Ma'ariv, Aug. 16, 1998.
3 Most notably by Arie Stav, Czechoslovakia 1938—Israel Today (Ariel, West Bank: Ariel Center for Policy Research, 1997).
4 General references include Rudamir Luza, The Transfer of the Sudeten Germans: A Study of Czech-German Relations (New York: New York University Press, 1964); Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, The Meaning of Czech History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974); Robert M. Smelser, The Sudeten Problem, 1933-1938 (Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1975).
5 Quoted in Josef Korbel, Twentieth Century Czechoslovakia, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 123.
6 Ibid., p. 119.
7 Quoted in Smelser, The Sudeten Problem, p. 233.
8 Smelser, The Sudeten Problem, pp. 233-34.
Related Topics: Steven Plaut | June 1999 MEQ
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