The Freedom Train commemorating the escape of thousands of East Germans to West Germany via Prague in the autumn of 1989, arrived in the Czech capital on Wednesday. September 30 marks 20 years since thousands of refugees, camping on the premises of West German embassy in Prague, were allowed to emigrate to the West. The Freedom Train will leave for Bavaria on Thursday retracing the historic journey, with a group of former East German refugees.
Two decades ago the attention of the world’s media was on the West German Embassy in a normally quiet corner of Prague, where thousands of East Germans were living in a makeshift camp, desperate to escape from communism. On the 30th of September, 1989 the then West German foreign minister made a dramatic announcement: those refugees were free to emigrate to the West.
Borderlands are fascinating areas where cultures either meet and intermingle, or in some cases are cordoned off to coldly stare at one another. The Czech/German/Austrian tri-border has experienced both. Over the last century it went from being an imaginary line through the woods to a literal Iron Curtain and back again. What’s emerging here today is a cross-cultural region deep in the Bohemian Forest National Park.
I made a special trip to a local church near Mariánské Lázně recently. The occasion was an annual mass to commemorate the church’s patron saint. Such things are not my usual scene. The service was in both Czech and German. And the event has become a sort of annual meeting point for the Sudeten Germans forced to leave their homes in the surrounding villages after WWII and the Czechs that followed them into the mostly empty frontier region.
For a few weeks in the late summer of 1989, Prague became the scene of a bizarre – and now largely forgotten - refugee crisis. It had all begun in the spring, when Hungary announced its decision to take down the barbed wire on its border with Austria. A growing number of East Germans, desperate at the suffocating lack of reform in their country, took advantage of this new gap in the Iron Curtain as a way of fleeing to the West. But smuggling themselves into Austria was an uncertain business, and before long, they started seeking refuge at the West
The Lusatian Sorbs are a small Slavic minority who can mostly be found in the East of Germany. But they have their history, and their friends, in the Czech Republic too. Petr Kaleta is in charge of the Friends of Lusatia Society – in Czech, the ‘Společnost přátel Lužice’ – I’ll let him introduce himself to you in Sorbian:
One of the darkest chapters in modern Czech history has just been reopened, with the news that police in north Bohemia have named two men responsible for the killing of Sudeten Germans in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Though the alleged culprits are long dead, some have welcomed the fact that the matter has finally been investigated.
The Prime Minister of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, has asked the Czech government to start a dialogue with the Sudeten Germans, a community whose members were expelled from Czechoslovakia after the end of WWII. Speaking at a Sudeten German conference in Augsburg, Germany, on Sunday, Mr Seehofer said the motto of the Czech presidency of the EU “Europe without barriers” meant no one should be excluded from a dialogue, particularly those who became “victims of the 20th century history”. Spokesperson of the Sudeten German association and MEP Bernd Posselt said that Czech politicians should finally scrap the Beneš decrees. These were issued by President Edvard Beneš after the war and became the legal basis for the expulsion of some three million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia.
Before the Second World War, the Czech capital was home to several ethnic groups – the Czechs, the Germans, and the Jews. Their co-existence in the modern era was often a source of conflict that only deepened after the 1918 foundation of Czechoslovakia. The question of identity in the multi-ethnic environment posed considerable challenges for leading intellectuals of the time; among them was the Prague writer, journalist and composer Max Brod. In this edition of Czechs in History, we talk to the Prague-based French historian Gaelle Vassogne, the
Pre-war Prague with its multi-national and multi-cultural environment has inspired many scholars and writers who explore the life of Czechs, Germans and Jews in the city of a hundred spires before it was swept away by the two totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Our guest in this edition of One on One is Professor Peter Demetz, the author of Prague in Black and Gold, Stage: Prague, and other works. Mr Demetz was born in Prague in the 1920s to a German and Jewish family but left the country after the communist takeover of 1948 and later became
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