We can’t agree. Were the graves vandalized or just neglected over the past sixty years? Josef and I are standing in the tiny church graveyard of the village of Rannai, looking at inscriptions. Some are illegible and some have slumped face down on the ground. We’re not sure whether we should turn the latter over. We pick our way slowly between the stones. All of the few legible inscriptions are in German and are from the turn of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth. ‘Hier ruhen Karl Täubl. geb. 16. Oktober 1869, gest. 10. Dezember 1894’, and underneath this, with less detail: ‘Anastasie Täubl, geb. 1841, gest. 1896’. Perhaps these were mother and son, and perhaps those that buried Anastasie Täubl took less care with the dates than she did when she buried her son. Standing out of the rubble a few metres away is another stone:
Hier ruht in Gott
geb. am 17. November 1863
gest. am 28. November 1890
Beside the door of the church there is a plaque in memory of Josef Pelc, 1830–1889, ‘cons. Rath, bischöf. Vikär, Person. Dechant, k.k. Schulinspektor, Mitglied vieler Vereine und Pfarrer zu Rannai, Ehre seinem Andenken!’.
The curt facts on gravestones are always a provocation; it’s hard not to be curious about these vanished lives. Josef Pelc, episcopal vicar, school inspector, member of many societies and pastor of Rannai, was certainly a busy gentleman. There is an overtone of pride in the inscription, and his small flock were obviously convinced of his importance. The Täubl gravestone, on the other hand, displays the marks of a more private grief. Paulina Ring possibly died in childbirth. All of these deaths would have been important events in a village that is made up of about twenty houses. Walking away from the graveyard, I look at the surrounding landscape in a different way. The village is located on the lower slope of a hill and below it the tilled fields stretch off into the distance. The notes on the back of my map tell me that the church itself dates from 1384 and was overhauled during the Baroque period. About a kilometre away I can see the buildings of a large old farmstead, dating from some time in the nineteenth century, possibly earlier. I’m scrutinizing the land in an attempt to imagine the lives lived under this particular sky and upon this particular contour of the earth. The land, as usual in such moments, says very little. It has been cleared of this people.
Josef and I are walking in the Stredohori region of Central Bohemia. Czechs often think of their country as a large plain surrounded on all sides by mountains, and while this isn’t geographically correct, it’s a very powerful image for many people. They call the plain the Bohemian Basin, and often invoke it to explain why some trend or idea never caught on in the country. They’ll shrug and say: ‘Well, you know, we’re tucked away here in the Bohemian Basin …’ The hills of the Stredohori are small – between 300m and 900m high – but their shape is bizarre: you could only call them a ‘mountain range’ if you admit that there can be a ‘forest’ of Joshua trees. It’s as though the hills ignore each other, and punctuate the plain separately and independently: their lower reaches ascend gently and then, halfway up, they become much steeper. The village of Rannai shares its name with the hill that is behind it.
It’s early spring and there are still some patches of snow and ice on the ground. In one field I saw earlier in the day, the only ice that remained matched perfectly the shadow of a tree, and this was gradually shrinking as the sun rose higher. As our path spirals up another hill, we find that on one side of the hill the mud is frozen into a treacherous, jagged surface that makes it difficult to proceed. We round the hill onto the sunny side and find the narrow path is now warm, swampy and equally treacherous. The hill is wooded, almost to the summit, and when we get there we have a stunning view south towards Prague. The plain looks so neat from here: fields well kept, roads and highways seamed adroitly between them, and the windshields of distant cars relaying glints of sunlight towards us. The day is marvellously clear.
It’s hard to imagine what this land was like in medieval times, when the Hercynian Forest stretched through here from Middle Germany to unknown regions in the east. James Frazer writes in The Golden Bough that Julius Caesar interrogated Germans who had travelled through it for two months without reaching the end. Four centuries later, on his military campaigns against the Alemanni and Franks, the Emperor Julian was largely successful in containing the tribes, but he could never fully be their master because they could always take refuge in the forest. He often thought of himself as the custodian of the light of reason that shone from Athens through Rome, and his fierce imperial war machine was the instrument that would bring this light into the barbarian stretches of Central Europe. ‘The solitude, the gloom, the silence of the forest’, Frazer continues, ‘appear to have made a deep impression on his sensitive nature. He declared that he knew of nothing like it in the Roman Empire.’
With successive forest clearances, mostly in the last four centuries, the land has opened itself up to roads, agriculture and industry, as well as the gaze of walkers like Josef and myself. That mountain-top exhilaration was much rarer in previous times. Medieval inhabitants of this country were immured by trees and would only rarely have the prospect of infinity that is so accessible to Josef and me now. We travel about sixty kilometres on a bus and walk for a few brief hours and are vouchsafed a striking panorama. We speed through the landscape on the highway; no trees tangle our progress, no darkness obscures our path: the journey is emptied of event. This ease is like the eye’s mastery of the surrounding landscape from the top of the hill (although we are far from being masters of it on the way down when we nearly break our necks once again).
The bright clarity of the day and the peacefulness of the scene also make it hard to imagine the political upheavals that affected this region in the last century. The Second World War is marked in the very name of the village, which is now ‘Rana’ in Czech, and only ‘Rannai’ in the German inscription on the plaque of Josef Pelc. The village is part of what was once known as the Sudetenlands, and it was under that name that the area entered the history textbooks of European schoolchildren. The Sudetenlands were populated by German communities who had inhabited the peripheral mountain areas of Bohemia for over seven hundred years. After the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919, which helped to dismantle the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they found themselves in the new republic of Czechoslovakia. In the larger towns these communities had developed successful industries, but their markets disappeared with the Empire, and as a result Sudeten unemployment rose alarmingly in the period between the wars. As the 1930s progressed, they looked with increasing envy to the economic prosperity of Hitler’s Germany, not realizing that this success was achieved in part because German industry had lost a tough competitor in the Sudetens. The Czechoslovak government, more interested in pumping money into the industrially backward areas of Slovakia, deliberately overlooked Sudeten social problems. It is little wonder, then, that these communities were drawn to Hitler’s dream of a greater Germany that would stretch across the length and breadth of Europe. Instead of being second-class citizens of a small nation, they would become Aryan masters whose empire would last for a thousand years.
When the war ended, almost all the Sudetens were removed forcibly from Czechoslovakia; some were murdered in massacres organized by the Czechs. About seven kilometres away from where we are today, the bodies of 763 people were exhumed in 1947 from a pheasantry beside the town of Postoloprty. The government inquiry that ordered the exhumation led nowhere, and the communist state which established itself the next year was intent on erasing all trace of the Sudetens from the record. In other areas, especially north-east Bohemia, I’ve seen large dilapidated buildings that have no connection, architectural or otherwise, with the surrounding town. In many cases they were part of factories or office complexes that have been demolished. They stand there as marks of a community and a distinctive economic life that have since disappeared from the region. Communism also left many derelict buildings in its wake, and occasionally it’s difficult to distinguish one ruin from another. But for the most part, the buildings of the Sudetens still display a nineteenth-century elegance that is in contrast to the bargain-basement modernism that the communists favoured.
Walking around graveyards like that of Rana is a melancholy pastime which naturally leads you to feel sorry for the people who are buried there. The pathos of ‘Ehre seinem Andenken’ followed by an exclamation mark on Pastor Pelc’s plaque is magnified as one knows that there is no one round here to remember him, nor even a native speaker of his language.
Ethnic cleansing is a term that comes vacuum-packed with a dose of moral abhorrence. The Sudetens, however, present the possibility of justified ethnic cleansing. In the view of many Czechs, this forced removal was morally correct, as the Sudeten people was a fifth column that betrayed Czechoslovakia and encouraged Hitler’s invasion of their country. Hitler’s plans from as early as 1932 involved clearing the lands of Central Europe, including Bohemia, of ‘foreign’ elements and populating them with Germans. He wanted to build a core of eighty to one hundred million thoroughbred Germans who would dominate the continental expanse. The Czechs, it seems, were destined for Siberia.
This aspiration filtered down to the lower levels of Sudeten society. Josef Skrabek, in a book that mixes memoir, anecdote and historical overview with swathes of statistics, tells of his upbringing in a predominantly German town in west Bohemia. Skrabek relates his conversation with a ten-year-old Sudeten girl with whom he used to spend long happy days tending goats:
Hanna said that Czechs are horrible people who do not deserve to live because they nearly caused another war. And whoever wants to cause a terrible war doesn’t deserve to live. It’s a good thing that the Führer is so peaceable and waited a few more days [for the Munich agreement]. After all, the whole world saw how Czechs were so unjust and cruel. And so there can be peace it’s necessary to have done with the Czechs and so they all must die. It’s true I have a Czech uncle, but he has to die too because he’s Czech.
The encouragement that the Sudetens offered to Germany was crucial to the policy of appeasement. The invasion of Czechoslovakia could be presented as a righting of an old wrong: the unjust separation of a people (the Sudetens) from their fatherland (Germany) by the Treaty of Saint-Germain. When the German soldiers arrived, most of the Sudetens welcomed them with open arms, and enthusiastically took control of the administration of the country.
Recently there was an initiative to erect a monument to the murdered Sudetens of Postoloprty, but this met such staunch resistance from the town council and most of the inhabitants that the idea was shelved. The Czech weekly Respekt reported that the mayor virtually begged journalists to stop writing about the subject. Largesse in such cases is probably possible only when one is sure of one’s title to one’s house and one’s town. Czech intellectuals in the past decade or so have deplored this deliberate silence, and people have listened to them as much as they listen to intellectuals in any other part of the world. Echoes still float across the border from the meetings of the Sudeten Landsmanschaft, about repatriation and property restitution. In the run-up to the Czech Republic’s entry to the EU, the Landsmanschaft tried unsuccessfully to persuade the German government that the Czechs should not be admitted until they compensated all those Sudeten families whose property was stolen from them after the war. Most of the members of this organization are senior citizens and a great part of their passion for their lost land is fuelled by childhood nostalgia. Their own children, generally, have blended into the population of Germany proper, and feel only the wispiest tether connecting them to the land of their parents and grandparents. (A German academic once told me that his boyfriend came from Sudeten stock and had been toying for years with the idea of making the three-hour journey to see their lost home, but had yet to get around to it.) This younger generation poses no threat to inhabitants of towns like Postoloprty. It’s possible also that the reluctance of towns like Postoloprty to remember the war and its aftermath is part of a more general Czech guilt about the fact that the violence done by Germans to Czechs during the war was dwarfed by what the Czechs did to Germans when the war was over: significantly more people were murdered, and almost three million Sudetens were dispossessed of their property and forcibly removed.
The Sudetenlands were repopulated by Czechs who had no previous ties to the area. The people of Rana, for instance, obviously care nothing for the church that stands in the centre of the village. Czech friends who grew up in former Sudeten areas have occasionally remarked that the new Czech communities are particularly unfriendly and inhospitable. Mirroring a suspicion of outsiders is mutual mistrust among the inhabitants themselves, and a consequent lack of solidarity. You could travel one village down the road and encounter a completely different community for the simple reason that that village was Czech before the war and remained so afterwards.
The Czech word for a German is ‘Nemec’, which means a person who cannot speak, who is dumb. The word carries, and perpetuates, something of what must have been the incomprehension of the first encounter between primordial Czechs and Germans, which took place at an unascertainable time in the first millennium ce. The Germans’ inability to speak any variant of a Slavonic language instantly wrote them off in the eyes of the Czechs. The flicker of condescension in the word ‘Nemec’ is mirrored perfectly in the word ‘Slav’, which was used by the Germans and many other peoples: from it most European languages have the word ‘slave’, as the Slavic peoples were considered little more than a commodity in early medieval times.
But the antagonism suggested by these names has not defined Czech– German relations for most of these peoples’ histories. The development of Bohemia has depended on Germany, and Czech culture is as unthinkable without its neighbour’s as Ireland’s is unthinkable without Britain’s. The Czech-born German historian Ferdinand Seibt began his marvellous study of Czech–German relations by referring to the time when the chairman of the German Social Democrats was called Mr Czech, and the head of the Czech Social Democrats was called Mr Nemec. As Czech surnames drift into German they are shorn of their difficult diacritical marks; as German names go into Czech, not only do they gain some marks but the spelling also changes, thus for instance the name Steiner becomes Stajner and takes a hacek on its first letter.
In a profound way, then, the phone directory of Prague or Vienna or Dresden is a more reliable historical source than most of the nationalistic histories written about the relations between what are now separate countries. There you have German names side by side with Czech in peaceful computerized co-existence. There have been protracted violent periods in this part of Europe, most gruesomely the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, but before the twentieth century the battle-lines were never Czech versus German. The lines of the aristocracy criss-crossed Europe in ways that now seem promiscuous to generations nursed on chauvinistic history. But arguably those lines were better able than nation-states to provide a modus vivendi for the ethnic mixtures of Europe. With the killings and forced removals of 1945 and 1946, the dividing line set hard in the land; the only German to be heard now in the Stredohori region is that of tourists.
The Czechs desired to clean all that complication away, much like the Nazis did a few years before them. The Czechs gained some good real estate in clearing the German people from the land, but, as many intellectuals now agree, the nation impoverished itself immeasurably in the process. Even so, as the Czech geologist Vaclav Cilek has commented, the genius loci is not something that floats above the land in a small cloud; it is firmly carved into the shapes, structures and colours of the region. The Sudetens’ buildings and graves still mark their place, and make it impossible to call the region Czech pure and simple. The Rannai ghosts cannot be disentangled from the village and fields stretching down to the plain.
Not having broken our necks when coming down the mountain, we find it’s mid-afternoon, and we have to work out how we’ll get back to Prague before nightfall. We approach the saddle between two hills and find a prison there. Plaster is crumbling down in large cakes from the walls. A prison guard is patrolling the perimeter with an Alsatian. We agree that we must look a little suspicious (there isn’t a marked tourist track here), but neither the guard nor his dog seems to think so. We walk on through the adjacent village to the bus stop on the main road to check the timetable. It turns out that there’s still enough time to walk on to the next village and have a look around. As we reach its outskirts, we find another, larger cemetery. It is in much better condition and seems to be divided into two parts. The older part is for Sudetens and the newer part for Czechs. The Sudeten graves have weathered extremely well. I start to surmise that this was an exclusively German village before the war, but Josef tells me that he saw one or two Czech graves in the German section. Not just Czech names (of which there are many in Germanicized versions among the Sudeten graves, just as there are many Czechicized German names among the Czech graves) but gravestones with Czech inscriptions. One man was described as an outstanding Czech patriot from the village. It’s likely then that the village of Kozly, or Kosel, had a more mixed population, and that the condition of the German graves suggests that the two communities got on well, though this friendship or tolerance was obviously not enough to counter the forced removal.
Josef, who was brought up in Chomutov, or Komotau, which was part of the Sudeten area of north Bohemia, tells me about a friend of his grandmother’s who spoke bad Czech. He thought nothing of this for years and it was only later that he realized that the woman was in fact a Sudeten who had eluded the forced removals after the war. There was another case of a boy he knew whose father was said to be German, although to all outward appearances he was as Czech as his neighbours. It was possible that this man had known how to speak German in his childhood and forgotten it since. How many were in their position is hard to say because they knitted themselves so deftly into the new status quo, and they could have done this only with the assistance, open or tacit, of their Czech neighbours. If not a matter of life or death, it was often a matter of holding on to one’s property and to the place where one had been born and where one’s ancestors had lived for centuries. Many of these people were married to Czechs who had either chosen not to exploit their German connections during the occupation or not been given the choice. Their small silences slotted into the larger official silence of Czechoslovakia, still apparent in the detailed tourist notes on the back of my ordnance survey map published only three years ago. It makes no mention of the Sudetens of Rana; for Chomutov, there is only a passing reference to Germans, and that is safely tucked away in the twelfth century. Neither does the map give the German variants of the names of the towns and villages, as in many cases that would betray their non-Slavic origins and raise old and awkward questions.
There is little or none of this history in the poetry and criticism that Josef himself writes. The landscape for him is a place of phenomenological encounters, sublime openings, confrontations of the individual ego with the contours of the land. He writes and talks beautifully about the act of walking itself, about the ways that the land reveals itself to you depending on your speed, the way it comes forward and surrounds you when you stop to lie in a field and to sleep for an hour or so. He tells me about his experiences walking through the country at night and how it changed his sense of space. These dilations and contractions of consciousness in the midst of nature fascinate him. In one essay on Czech romantic poetry, he puts one poet above another because the first, Macha, sings the great ability of the human mind to transcend its immediate surroundings, whereas the second, Erben, depicts characters without self-awareness who are the playthings of the huge natural forces and mythological patterns that flow through the world.
He knows the Stredohori region intimately, through the very boots on his feet, and he has walked over most of it many times. That his writing isn’t concerned with history doesn’t mean that he actively avoids or suppresses it. In general, he talks about it as naturally as he does about the day’s walk ahead of us or the weather. My harping on about the unpleasant past doesn’t make him at all uneasy, as journalists made the mayor of Postoloprty uneasy when they were researching the town’s history and its present attitude. He is, though, perhaps a little puzzled by my fascination. He knows I want to write about these things and teasingly makes occasional suggestions for my article, some of them borderline ridiculous. I respond by saying that if he’s not careful, I’ll put him in too. The possibility becomes immediately serious for me, and I add in a more earnest tone that if I do, I’ll let him know. ‘Oh don’t bother to do that!’, he says, and waves his hand, dismissing the scruple with amusement.
The bus comes on time. It’s like crossing between worlds as we step out of the slowness and complications of the Stredohori into the bus which then flies along on the excellent blacktop towards Prague. The world speeds up again and the graves, both badly kept and well kept, both Czech and German, dwindle in the distance behind us.
A few days later, I’m looking at the map of where we walked and I see what I missed earlier. When we were making our way through the hills, I was too caught up in immediate logistics to pay any attention to the areas of the map beyond the trajectory of our walk. About ten kilometres to the north of Rana there are open coal mines that stretch twenty kilometres from east to west. On the map, all colouring and features fade away to leave a huge area of white space ribbed by thin serrated lines. I now remember the photographs that I have seen of this region, along with the stories. Nothing but smooth black contours in every direction, grazed upon by outlandishly large mining machines. One large town and several villages, as well as the fields and hills, were razed to accommodate the activity. The town of Most, or Brüx, was rebuilt a few kilometres away, and I remember seeing a line of white tower blocks on the horizon during the day which must have been the new town. This immense alteration of the land suddenly dwarfed all my thinking over the past few days about the small, subtle shadings of place and history nearby. These tiny scrabblings now seemed to be engulfed by black oblivion. No genius loci could survive in such a landscape. Here is a further, even deeper, land clearance in which, for a few square kilometres, all the complications between Czech and Sudeten had vanished off the face of the earth.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 20 Autumn 2005