Why Is Ethnic Discrimination Still Legal in Slovakia?

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

Balázs Tárnok March 12, 2022, 6:00 AM

Article source: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/12/slovakia-benes-decrees-ethnic-discrimination/

For additional background see HHRF report of October 10, 2007. 

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

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.

Czechoslovakian leader in exile Edvard Benes (right) inspects Czech troops stationed in the north of England during World War II in July 1940. Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

All persons of German and Hungarian ethnicity in Czechoslovakia lost their land effective Jan. 1, 1945. As international human rights lawyer Janos Fiala-Butora has explained, the confiscations were implemented on a case-by-case basis: Authorities examined each individual’s ethnic background and issued confiscation orders accordingly. These were then entered into the land registry, and the property was then supposed to be taken from the individual. After World War II, a total of 73,304 confiscation orders were issued.

Much of the resulting confiscation was completed, but a significant number of seizures could not take place for procedural reasons. In these instances, the state confiscated the property only in principle, with the lands left in the hands of their erstwhile owners. The Slovak state is now retroactively applying the Benes Decrees to seize these lands without compensation. Because almost the entire German population in Czechoslovakia—around 3 million people—was deported to the U.S. and Soviet occupation zones in Germany under the terms of the 1945 Potsdam Agreement after World War II, the Benes Decrees primarily came to affect ethnic Hungarians, who today number approximately 450,000 in Slovakia.

After the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the state’s policy changed. The Cold War had just begun, and the Soviet Union did not want tensions within the Eastern Bloc. Moscow ordered the new Czechoslovak communist leadership to end the era of persecution under the Benes Decrees. Ethnic Germans and Hungarians were given back their Czechoslovak citizenship, and the confiscation of private property was suspended. However, already seized land was not given back to its owners.

Since the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1991 and 1992, the Slovak and Czech governments have referred to the Benes Decrees as historical documents with only symbolic relevance. Indeed, decrees and decisions made in the 1940s should—in theory—not have any effect on the rule of law today, and in the Czech Republic this is mostly the case.

Slovakia, for its part, has been arguing for decades that the Benes Decrees are already an obsolete part of Slovak law, that they are no longer of legal consequence, and that the whole matter is only a symbolic issue for the legal continuity of the country. But a 2020 verdict at the France-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) shows that this is false.

In the case, Bosits v. Slovakia, the ECHR acknowledged that, in 2009, the Slovak state forest company wanted to unlawfully confiscate privately owned lands held by Miklos Bosits, solely on the basis that his grandparents were ethnic Hungarians in post-World War II Czechoslovakia. Since Bosits’s grandparents were of Hungarian ethnicity, under the Benes Decrees, their property should have been confiscated by the postwar Czechoslovak government in 1946.

The Slovak Supreme Court held that even though the confiscation was not completed due to procedural errors in the 1940s, in order to preserve the “necessary authority of the State,” it should be treated as if it had been confiscated. So, the Slovak state forest company tried to do just that. After the Supreme Court judgment, the matter was remitted back to the court of first instance and is still pending. The ECHR’s judgment was the first time an international court had acknowledged the contemporary application of the Benes Decrees as a legal practice.

But the incident was not a one-off. Just one month after the Bosits decision, in June 2020, another case was revealed by Uj Szo, a Hungarian-language daily newspaper in Slovakia. The report said the Slovak state wanted to confiscate 60 plots of land, worth millions of euros, under the D4 highway near Bratislava on the basis of the Benes Decrees, claiming that the properties in question should have been confiscated from people of Hungarian and German ethnicity back in the 1940s. The case is ongoing.

As shown by Uj Szo, in recent years the Slovak Land Fund—a public interest nongovernmental organization that manages state-owned agricultural real estate and lands whose owner is unknown—has taken possession of hundreds of hectares of lands worth millions of euros through the Benes Decrees. The fund’s 2020 annual report shows that a total of 600 proposals have been submitted since 2019 claiming ownership of properties that should have been confiscated between 1945 and 1948 from the ancestors of the current land owners.

The Slovak Land Fund, acting ex officio, is constantly searching for unenforced confiscation orders in its archives so it can acquire those lands through administrative or court proceedings. Jan Marosz, the newly appointed director of the Slovak Land Fund, admitted as much to the newspaper last month. The retroactive application of the Benes Decrees has also been confirmed by Slovak Justice Minister Maria Kolikova. In June 2020, she said the current procedures are simply corrections of historical errors. The Slovak government denies that the Benes Decrees create new legal relationships between the state and ethnic groups today.

Walter Erhart (left), whose father, Gustav, was killed by Czechs in 1945 in Usti nad Labem, speaks at the Edvard Benes bridge in Usti nad Labem, Czechoslovakia, on July 31, 2005. MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images

Non-Slovak citizens can also fall victim to the contemporary application of the Benes Decrees (Bosits, for example, is a citizen of Hungary), as can ethnic Slovak citizens with some ethnic Hungarian or German ancestors. Several landowners whose property the Slovak Land Fund has attempted to seize today are Slovak citizens with only some Hungarian or German ancestry. But Slovak courts and state authorities are still retroactively applying these legal acts to confiscate the private property of individuals solely on the basis of their grandparents’ ethnicities.

To this day, the Slovak government is refusing to address the issue of Benes Decree-related land seizures, arguing that the deregulation or the revision of the Benes Decrees would undermine the post-World War II peace settlement. Their argument is wrong. Treating people with German and Hungarian ancestors with dignity—rather than as war criminals—can hardly be seen as challenging the post-World War II peace.

In reality, the Slovak state may be more worried about its own coffers. Opening the Benes Decrees up to revisions could potentially pave the way for reparations for ethnic Germans and Hungarians—a potentially significant financial loss for the government, especially when the state is currently able to seize lands for free.

It is a gross violation of the law that, in 2022, a Slovak national who inherited private property from ethnic German or Hungarian grandparents cannot be sure when the state is going to knock on their door and seize that property from them.

The international community has ignored this serious case of ethnic discrimination. When, in 2007, Slovakia adopted a resolution on the inviolability of the Benes Decrees on the initiative of the ultranationalist Slovak National Party, there was no global outrage. The issue is completely under the radar. That must change.

The Slovak government is yet to condemn the idea that certain ethnic minorities present a threat to the state. Germans and Hungarians in Slovakia will continue to be second-class citizens of Slovakia until the Benes Decrees are revised and their retroactive application stops. If Slovakia wants to be considered a proud member of the Euro-Atlantic community, it must shut the door on one of its most shameful and discriminatory 20th-century policies.

One of the hardest lessons learned from that century is that ethnic tensions in Central and Eastern Europe must not be disregarded as a matter of convenience. The United States and the international community should encourage Slovakia to finally abolish the Benes Decrees. Keeping alive such conflicts of the past can easily fuel ethnic tensions in the 21st century. It could even provide an excuse for nationalists to disrupt the peace of Europe that the United States and broader West worked so hard to create.

Balazs Tarnok is a Hungarian jurist from Slovakia and a researcher at the Europe Strategy Research Institute at the Ludovika-University of Public Service in Budapest, Hungary. In 2021, he was the Hungary Foundation’s visiting research fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is also vice chairman of the Rakoczi Association, a Hungarian cultural nonprofit. Twitter: @TarnokB

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