The country’s retroactive application of a World War II-era law disenfranchises people with German and Hungarian ancestry.

Imagine that, one day, government representatives knock on your door and claim ownership of the land you inherited from your grandfather, saying it should have been confiscated from him immediately after World War II. The government representative explains that, for some procedural reason, the confiscation was not duly implemented in the 1940s, so the state is now correcting this omission.

This may sound preposterous, but it is the reality ethnic Hungarians and Germans in Slovakia face today through the retroactive application of World War II-era laws called the Benes Decrees. The Benes Decrees permit the seizure of private property of individuals belonging to these ethnic groups, and they are being increasingly abused by the Slovak government to expropriate land. It is an unjust practice that has no place in a democratic society in 21st-century Europe and merits the attention and outrage of the international community.

Czechoslovakia emerged from World War I as a brand-new multiethnic state with significant German and Hungarian populations. Germans, constituting almost one-quarter of the new country’s population, were primarily located in the German-Czech border region, the Sudetenland. The Hungarian ethnic minority, approximately 5 percent of the population, lived in the Hungarian-Slovak border region, known as Southern Slovakia. In 1938, the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany, while the ethnic Hungarian territories were transferred to Hungary, and citizens of these regions thus became citizens of Germany and Hungary, respectively. A few months later, Czechoslovakia fell apart, Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes was ousted, and puppet governments supported by Nazi Germany took control of its remaining territories.

Benes led the Czechoslovak government in exile from Paris and then London for the duration of World War II. The Benes Decrees, composed of 141 decrees issued from 1940 to 1945, aimed to lay the foundations of the new postwar Czechoslovak state. Benes and other Czechoslovak politicians blamed ethnic Hungarians and Germans for the collapse of Czechoslovakia and sought to punish them for taking part in the destruction of this newly created multiethnic country. Accordingly, 13 of the 141 decrees claimed that Germans and Hungarians bore collective responsibility of for the disintegration of Czechoslovakia.

When World War II ended, the Sudetenland and South Slovakia returned under the jurisdiction of Czechoslovakia, together with their German and Hungarian inhabitants—those who were of German or Hungarian ethnic origin as well as those who had gained German or Hungarian citizenship due to border-shifting. The Benes Decrees imposed collective punishment on them by depriving them of citizenship; fundamental rights, such as to pensions and health care benefits; and their private property. The laws affected nearly 4 million people in a country of less than 13 million.


Lead image: Edvard Benes (left), then-president of Czechoslovakia, is greeted by the crowd upon his return to Plzen, Czechoslovakia, in June 1945. STF/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Share This