Sections of northern and western Bohemia and northern Moravia around the Sudeten mountain ranges. Formerly part of Austria, the predominantly German-speaking area was incorporated into Czechoslovakia after World War I. Discontent among the Sudeten Germans was exploited in the mid-1930s by the Nazi Party and its local leader Konrad Henlein. The inflammatory situation convinced Britain and France that, to avoid war, Czechoslovakia must be persuaded to give the region autonomy. Adolf Hitler's demand that the region be ceded to Germany was initially rejected, but the cession was later accomplished by the Munich agreement. After World War II the region was restored to Czechoslovakia, which expelled its German inhabitants and repopulated the area with Czechs.
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The name is derived from the Sudeten mountains, though the Sudetenland extended beyond these mountains which run along the border to Silesia and contemporary Poland. The German inhabitants were called Sudeten Germans (German: Sudetendeutsche, Czech: Sudetští Němci, Polish: Niemcy Sudeccy). The German minority in Slovakia, the Carpathian Germans, is not included in this ethnic category.
The areas later known as Sudetenland never formed a single historical region, which makes it difficult to distinguish the history of the Sudetenland apart from that of Bohemia, until the advent of nationalism and the coining of the term in the 19th century.
The regions later called Sudetenland were situated on the borders of the Kingdom of Bohemia, which also consisted of Moravia and other lands (Silesia, Lusatia, etc.). After the extinction of the Přemyslid dynasty, the kingdom was ruled by the Luxemburgs, later the Jagiellonians and finally the Habsburgs. Already from the 13th century onwards the border regions of Czech lands, called Sudetenland in the 20th century, were settled by ethnic Germans, who were invited by the Bohemian kings.
The Habsburgs gradually integrated the Kingdom of Bohemia into their monarchy since the 17th century, and it remained a part of that realm until its dismemberment after World War I. Conflicts between Czech and German nationalists emerged in the 19th century, for instance in the Revolutions of 1848 in the Habsburg areas: while the German-speaking population wanted to participate in the building of a German nation state, the Czech-speaking population insisted on keeping Bohemia out of such plans.
In the wake of growing nationalism, the name "Sudetendeutsche" (Sudeten Germans) emerged by the early 20th century. It originally constituted part of a larger classification of three groupings of Germans within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which also included "Alpendeutsche" (Alpine Germans) in what later became the Republic of Austria and "Balkandeutsche" (Balkan Germans) in Hungary and the regions east of it. Of these three terms, only the term "Sudetendeutsche" survived, because of the ethnic and cultural conflicts within Bohemia.
After World War I, Austria-Hungary broke apart. Late in October 1918, an independent Czechoslovak state, consisting of the lands of the Bohemian kingdom and areas belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary, was proclaimed. However, the German deputies of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia in the Imperial Parliament (Reichsrat) refused to adhere to the new state by referring to the Fourteen Points of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Instead they proclaimed the union of the German-speaking territories with the new Republic of German Austria, which itself aimed at joining Weimar Germany. Four regional governmental units were established:
The U.S. commission to the Paris Peace Conference made the following, unheeded, recommendations. It should be noted they refer to all areas claimed by Czechoslovakia, including areas such as Lusatia, which would for obvious reasons never be joined to Czechoslovakia.
"To grant to the Czechoslovaks all the territory they demand would be not only an injustice to millions of people unwilling to come under Czech rule, but it would also be dangerous and perhaps fatal to the future of the new state ... the blood shed on March 3rd when Czech soldiers in several towns fired on German crowds ... was shed in a manner that is not easily forgiven... For the Bohemia of the future to contain within its limits great numbers of deeply discontented inhabitants who will have behind them across the border tens of millions of sympathizers of their own race will be a perilous experiment and one which can hardly promise success in the long run."
The Czechs thus rejected the aspirations of the Sudeten Germans and demanded the inclusion of the Sudetenland in their new state, despite the presence of 23.4% (as of 1921) ethnic Germans, on the grounds they had always been part of Bohemia and Moravia. The Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919 affirmed the inclusion of the German-speaking territories within the new state of Czechoslovakia.
However, over the next two decades, some Germans in the Sudetenland continued to strive for a separation of the German inhabited regions from Czechoslovakia.
According to the February 1921 census 3,123,000 Germans lived in all Czechoslovakia, i.e. 23.4% of the total population.
The controversies between the Czechs and the German minority (which constituted a majority in the Sudetenland areas) lingered on throughout the 1920s, and intensified in the 1930s.
In the years of Great Depression the mostly mountainous regions populated by the German minority, together with other peripheral regions in Czechoslovakia, were hurt by economic depression more than the inland. Unlike the less developed regions (Ruthenia, Wallachia), there was a high concentration of industry dependent on export (such as glass works, textile industry, paper-making and toy-making industry) and thus very vulnerable in the period of global depression. For example: 60% of the bijouterie and glass-making industry were located in the Sudetenland, 69% of employees in this sector were Germans, and 95% of bijouterie and 78% of other glassware were produced for export. Then the glass-making sector was affected by decreased spending power and also by protective measures in other countries and many German workers lost their work.
The high unemployment made people more open to populist and extremist movements (Communism, Fascism). In these years, the parties of German nationalists and later the Sudetendeutsche Party (SdP) with its radical demands gained immense popularity among Germans in Czechoslovakia.
After 1933, the Sudeten-German party (SdP) pursued a policy of escalation. Party leader Konrad Henlein with his deputy Karl Hermann Frank had secretly formed a pact with the Nazi Party now ruling in Germany and would gradually increase his demands so that Hitler could reap the fruits of the conflict.
It has been frequently suggested that Henlein was a sinister schemer and his SdP nothing more than a subversive Nazi organization bent on the destruction of Czechoslovak independence. It is easy to understand how these notions arose, yet neither Henlein at the outset of his political career nor the SdP for many years of its development had anything to do with the National Socialist movement in Germany. Both were originally dedicated to a democratic settlement of the Sudeten German question, which was to be achieved by peaceful negotiations in the Czech parliament. All attempts to reach an acceptable settlement, however, failed, and the gradual escalation of the Czech-Sudeten confrontation resulted in forcing Henlein into the arms of Adolf Hitler, who promised to provide an international sounding board for the Sudeten case. […] Hitler of course, more than welcomed the opportunity of making the Sudeten case his own and did not hesitate to misuse the principle of self-determination as a weapon to further his own Lebensraum policy.
In August, UK Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, sent Lord Runciman to Czechoslovakia in order to see if he could obtain a settlement between the Czechoslovak government and the Germans in the Sudetenland. His mission failed because, on Hitler's command, Sudeten German Party refused all conciliating proposals. Runciman reported the following to the British government:
Czech officials and Czech police, speaking little or no German, were appointed in large numbers to purely German districts; Czech agricultural colonists were encouraged to settle on land confiscated under the Land Reform in the middle of German populations; for the children of these Czech invaders Czech schools were built on a large scale; there is a very general belief that Czech firms were favoured as against German firms in the allocation of State contracts and that the State provided work and relief for Czechs more readily than for Germans. I believe these complaints to be in the main justified. Even as late as the time of my Mission, I could find no readiness on the part of the Czechoslovak Government to remedy them on anything like an adequate scale ... the feeling among the Sudeten Germans until about three or four years ago was one of hopelessness. But the rise of Nazi Germany gave them new hope. I regard their turning for help towards their kinsmen and their eventual desire to join the Reich as a natural development in the circumstances.
The Nazis, together with their Sudeten German allies, demanded incorporation of the region into Nazi Germany to escape "oppression", in fact to destroy the Czechoslovak state. While the Czechoslovak government mobilized its troops, the Western powers urged it to comply with Germany believing that they could prevent or postpone a general war by appeasing Hitler.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden on 15 September and agreed to the cession of the Sudetenland. Three days later, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier did the same. No Czechoslovak representative was invited to these discussions.
Chamberlain met Hitler in Godesberg on September 22 to confirm the agreements. Hitler however, aiming at using the crisis as a pretext for war, now demanded not only the annexation of the Sudetenland but the immediate military occupation of the territories, giving the Czechoslovakian army no time to adapt their defence measures to the new borders. To achieve a solution, Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini suggested a conference of the major powers in Munich and on September 29, Hitler, Daladier and Chamberlain met and agreed to Mussolini's proposal (actually prepared by Hermann Göring) and signed the Munich Agreement accepting the immediate occupation of the Sudetenland. The Czechoslovak government, though not party to the talks, promised to abide by the agreement on September 30.
The Sudetenland was occupied by Germany between October 1 and October 10, 1938. This unification with the Third Reich was followed by the flight or expulsion of most of the region's Czech population to areas remaining within Czechoslovakia.
The remaining parts of Czechoslovakia were subsequently invaded and annexed by Germany in March 1939.
The Sudetenland was initially put under military administration, with General Wilhelm Keitel as Military governor. On 21 October 1938, the annexed territories were divided, with the southern parts being incorporated into the neighbouring Reichsgaue Oberdonau and Niederdonau.
The northern and western parts were reorganised as the Reichsgau Sudetenland, with the city of Reichenberg (present-day Liberec) established as its capital. Konrad Henlein (now openly a NSDAP member) administered the district first as Reichskommissar (until 1 May 1939) and then as Reichsstatthalter (1 May 1939–4 May 1945). Sudetenland consisted of three political districts: Eger (with Karlsbad as capital), Aussig (Aussig) and Troppau (Troppau).
Shortly after the annexation, the Jews living in the Sudetenland were widely persecuted. Only a few weeks afterwards, "Kristallnacht" occurred. As elsewhere in Germany, many synagogues were set on fire and many Jews were sent to concentration camps. In later years, the Nazis transported up to 300,000 Czech and Slovak Jews to concentration camps. where 90% of them were killed or died. Jews and Czechs were not the only afflicted peoples; German Socialists, communists and pacifists were widely persecuted as well. Some of the German Socialists fled the Sudetenland via Prague and London to other countries. The "Gleichschaltung" would permanently damage the community in the Sudetenland.
Despite this, on 4 December 1938 there were elections in Reichsgau Sudetenland, in which 97.32% of the adult population voted for NSDAP. About a half million Sudeten Germans joined the Nazi Party which was 17.34% of the German population in Sudetenland (the average NSDAP participation in Nazi Germany was 7.85%). This means the Sudetenland was the most "pro-Nazi" region in the Third Reich. Because of their knowledge of the Czech language, many Sudeten Germans were employed in the administration of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia as well as in Nazi organizations (Gestapo, etc.). The most notable was Karl Hermann Frank: the SS and Police general and Secretary of State in the Protectorate.
After the end of World War II, the Potsdam Conference in 1945 determined that Sudeten Germans would have to leave Czechoslovakia (see Expulsion of Germans after World War II). As a consequence of the immense hostility against all Germans that had grown within Czechoslovakia due to Nazi behavior, the overwhelming majority of Germans were expelled (while the relevant Czechoslovak legislation provided for the remaining of those Germans that were able to prove their anti-Nazi affiliation, in many instances these provisions were not respected). The number of expelled Germans in the early phase (spring-summer 1945) is estimated to be around 500,000 people. These expulsions and forced resettlements were associated with excesses and even murders of Germans, e.g. in the Ústí massacre and during the Brno death march ("Brünner Todesmarsch", the forced march of some 20,000 German inhabitants of Brno toward the Austrian borders at the end of May 1945). There were about 24,000 known deaths directly related to the expulsion (this includes murders as well as suicides or deaths from disease, old age, etc.). More than 62,000 German people were reported missing by relatives, but their deaths could not be verified. The property of practically all Sudeten Germans, claimed to be part of war reparations, was confiscated by Czechoslovakia pursuant to the Beneš decrees. During the organised phase in 1946, a total of 2,232,544 people were transferred to Germany: two-thirds of them to the American sector, and one-third to the Soviet sector (note: not all of the transferred were actual Germans: the number includes the non-German members of mixed families and renegades). About 244,000 Germans were allowed to remain in Czechoslovakia. Many German refugees from Czechoslovakia are represented by the Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft.
Many of the Germans who stayed in Czechoslovakia later emigrated to West Germany (more than 100,000). As the German population was transferred out of the country, the former Sudetenland was resettled, mostly by Czechs but also by other nationalities of Czechoslovakia: Slovaks, Volhynian Czechs, Gypsies and Hungarians (though the Hungarians were forced into this and later returned home). Some areas remained depopulated for several strategic reasons (extensive mining, military interests etc.) or simply for their lack of attractions. There remained areas with noticeable German minorities only in the westernmost borderland.
In the 2001 census, approximately 40,000 people in the Czech Republic claimed German ethnicity.