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Byline: Alan Cowell The New York Times

In his book-lined study here, Ivan Klima, one of the foremost Czech authors, recalls the days a half-century ago when surviving Jewish families like his finally fled the concentration camps to find their land awash in killing and chaos. He was then 14, and, even in the final days of the Second World War, he said, so many Czechs were shot by their Nazi occupiers "for nothing" that humanity seemed lost.

Karl-Heinz Wunderlich, a psychologist from the one-time ethnic German minority in Czechoslovakia, remembers that period, too.

In his mind's eye, he still sees the Czech soldiers who, when he was 8, came to his family's door in what was then the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, which Hitler had annexed in 1938. Now living in Mainz, Germany, Wunderlich recalls how Czechs toting submachine guns loaded people onto freight trains - the lucky ones, that is, who endured what he called ethnic cleansing rather than massacre as the Czechs purged their land of 3 million ethnic Germans.

Between them, the two men represent the emotional poles of a crisis between Germany and the Czech Republic that has burst forth virulently in recent weeks, representing one of the most corrosive disputes in Central Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

It is a conflict over a dark and tangled past that could hinder Czech ambitions to be included in the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance, and evokes the same mutually-canceling visions of history and collective guilt in Central Europe as bedevil the Balkans.

"The past still will not release us," the German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, told the Bonn Parliament this month. "We Germans have done the Czechs an evil injustice, opened wounds that are not yet healed and still cause pain. But, also, injustice was done to the Sudeten Germans through expulsion and confiscation of their property."

The dispute, moreover, has left the Czech Republic as the only nation in Europe with which Germany has still to settle formally outstanding issues, such as compensation for Nazi persecution arising from the Second World War. In the eyes of his critics at home, this challenges Chancellor Helmut Kohl to put statesmanship before domestic politics to seize what Antje Vollmer, a member of the opposition Green Party, called "an opportunity to ensure that Germany has no problems with any of its neighbors.

"Even Bismarck could not achieve that," she said.

At issue is a relatively simple equation: Germany will not pay wartime compensation to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Nazism here until the Czech authorities apologize for the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans.

In December 1989, shortly before he became president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel said that Czechs had a duty to apologize for the wrongs committed against ethnic Germans, but in the face of widespread criticism has since qualified his statement.

The Czechs, said Jiri Pahe, a political analyst here, "feel that they didn't do anything wrong, that the expulsion was an appropriate response to what German citizens had done to the Czech people."

Neither do the Czechs wish to be exposed to German claims for restitution or compensation for confiscated property - the central point for the politically powerful descendants of Sudeten Germans.

"For us on the Czech side, the matter is very clear," Jiri Grusa, Prague's ambassador in Bonn, said in an interview. "We have said that the events after the Second World War were not the best chapter in our history. But we cannot offer a general acknowledgment as long as the Germans have not relinquished their claims."

The historical facts - though disputed in their shadings - are well-known.

Emboldened by Britain and France and their policy of appeasement toward Nazi expansionism, Hitler annexed the Sudetenland - parts of the present-day provinces of Bohemia and Moravia - in 1938 with the broad support of the German minority, at the time the second biggest ethnic group in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Then, in March 1939, German troops marched into Prague, occupying the land with predictably grim results: During the Second World War, said Klima, the author, Czechoslovakia's Jewish population fell from 120,000 to 1,000.

At war's end, the Czech authorities perceived the Sudeten Germans collectively as a fifth column for the Nazis, though by no means all of them had been active collaborators with the occupiers.

Nonetheless, in a series of decrees, the first postwar president, Edvard Benes, sanctioned their expulsion, and granted amnesty to Czechs for the killing of between 15,000 and 240,000 ethnic Germans, depending on who is doing the counting. The 1945 Potsdam agreement among the war's victors further endorsed the notion of a transfer of the German population from Czechoslovakia.

Throughout the Cold War, the issue was suppressed by the communist authorities in Prague, and German officials preferred to ignore it.

But, since then, Havel, former President Richard Weizsaecker of Germany, and, more recently, Germany's current president, Roman Herzog, have sought to keep alive the idea that it must at some time be resolved, particularly since the Czech Republic sees Germany as its most important potential ally in securing membership of the European Union and NATO.

And so, last year, the two countries began negotiations on a joint parliamentary declaration intended to present a mutually acceptable view of the past.

To the consternation of politicians in Bonn and Prague who had wanted to keep the discussions a secret, the negotiations stumbled publicly into deadlock last month, tripped by competing notions of injustice, and the foreign ministers of both countries acknowledged profound differences in their peoples' perceptions.


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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 11, 1996

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