Table of Contents
- Two cases where the Slovak state has been trying to confiscate valuable lands by applying the Beneš Decrees
- Politico article by Balázs Kovács, “Ethnic discrimination is still alive and kicking in Slovakia”, October 28, 2022
- Federal Union of European Nationalities Report on Benes Decrees, May 20, 2022
- The National Interest article by Balázs Tárnok, “The U.S. Ignores Human Rights Abuses in Slovakia at Its Own Peril”. May 3, 2022
- Foreign Policy article by Balázs Tárnok, “Why is Ethnic Discrimination Still Legal in Slovakia?”, March 12, 2022
In focus: Two cases where the Slovak state has been trying to confiscate valuable lands by applying the Beneš Decrees
Since at least 2008, the scandal-ridden[i] Slovak Land Fund has been carrying out ethnically-based land grabs(Kovacs, 2022) on behalf of the state on the legal basis of the WWII-era Beneš Decrees[ii]. The private property of hundreds of citizen in current-day Slovakia is being retroactively confiscated – without compensation – from individuals whose ancestors were ethnic Hungarian or German. The Slovak Land Fund actively scours its archives[iii] looking for unfulfilled property confiscation orders from the 1940s, then sets about to “correct the procedural omissions” of these discredited, but legally in force decrees, that had assigned collective guilt for the world war to the two communities. The astonishing justification given is that these properties have already been seized in principle, just not yet in practice (Kovacs, 2022), and this “omission” is being “corrected” by the state.
The Slovak lower court has recently ruled in two such cases where the Slovak Land Fund initiated lawsuits against heirs whose ancestors had been registered as ethnic Hungarian. Not surprisingly, the extremely valuable plots of land are located under the D4/R7 motorway ring in Bratislava. Unfortunately for the state, the court ruled that the property belongs to the heirs of the former owners. The decisions can still be appealed.
The case of TERÉZIA GÉHRY
On October 13, 2022, the District Court II of Bratislava rejected the lawsuit filed by the Slovak Land Fund in which the Fund claimed that some extremely valuable properties do not belong to the individuals who inherited them, but to the state. The Land Fund had argued that the ancestors of the heirs were Hungarians, so their agricultural property should have been confiscated after the Second World War based on the Beneš Decrees. The lands in question are worth approximately 1.5 million euros today, as they are located under the D4 highway bypassing Bratislava. The decision of the lower court is not final; the plaintiff can still submit a legal remedy request. However, the new director of the Fund, Ján Marosz, has not yet decided whether to appeal. According to him, under the prior management of the institution, certain interest groups used the decrees as a means to assert their interests.
When Benes came
In the current trial, the lawyer representing the heirs, Tomáš Plank, told Új Szó, the Hungarian-language daily in Slovakia, that the land in question was owned by Terézia Géhry, a resident of Bratislava, before the Second World War. However, her asset confiscation was not carried out immediately. In the case of individual persons and their properties, an administrative process had to take place during which a confiscation decision had to be made for the given person, but the person concerned had to be notified of the confiscation. In many cases, this procedure was not finalized because in 1949 the Czechoslovak leadership decided to collectivize agriculture, and create production cooperatives. However, the production cooperatives that were established at the time did not become the actual owners of the land assigned under their management, so according to the real estate registry, the Bratislava lots in question were still in Terézia Géhry’s name at the time of her death in 1955.
The road from communism to the D4 highway
In the decades that followed, until communism fell, it did not matter who the true owner of each piece of land was. The inheritance process was not carried out for plots in Bratislava. After 1989, however, the re-privatization of the collectivized property began, and the state tried to identify former owners and descendants of these landowners who gradually got access to the properties that their ancestors had bequeathed them.
The state began to deal with who the real owners of the properties in question were in the 2010s when construction of the highway ring road bypassing the capital began. Consequently, it was determined in 2015 that the land named in the current lawsuit belonged to Terézia Géhry. “Her heirs started the inheritance process during which, in 2018, the competent court made a final decision that they had in fact inherited the properties,” the descendants’ attorney, Plank, explains.
A halt from the National Highway Authority
After the probate process, the heirs turned to the National Highway Authority to obtain monetary compensation for their plots on which construction of the ring road was already well underway. “However, the highway manager replied that he could not pay because the Slovak Land Fund forbade it,” recalls the heirs’ legal representative. The Land Fund referred to the fact that, based on an anonymous report, a suspicion arose that the properties in question could once have been confiscated based on the Beneš Decrees. In 2019, the Fund initiated a lawsuit, during which it tried to prove that the property in question had a confiscation order attached to it.
The Land Fund argued that Terézia Géhry must have been Hungarian, so the confiscation of assets also applied to her. However, Plank said that it was not actually revealed at the trial whether Terézia Géhry was Hungarian, German, or of another nationality; but even if this had been revealed, the Fund would still have had to present a confiscation order that was once issued in the name of Terézia Géhry. At the time, the decision to confiscate was not made for all ethnic Hungarian or German citizens and, if it was, the administrative process was not always finalized.
The case of GYULA WENHARDT
In December 2022 the Slovak Land Fund lost another lawsuit in which it similarly tried to confiscate several properties located under the D4/R7 motorway ring in Bratislava on behalf of the state, this time from Gyula Wenhardt’s heirs. The decision is not final.
Judge Eva Bieliková acknowledged the heirs’ argument during the sentencing. “The court mainly identifies with the argument regarding the preservation of the principle of legal certainty,” she declared, adding that the motion of the Land Fund is contrary to this principle. The legal costs must also be fully paid by the state. After the hearing, the lawyer of one of the heirs, Rastislav Čerevka, told Új Szó that several legal acts had been passed in recent decades in connection with the properties in question, which proved the ownership of the current heirs. The Land Fund now wanted to question these retroactively. The lawyer also mentioned that the Land Fund tried to argue based on the former owner’s last name alone, that the person named Gyula Wenhardt was German, so his property must have been confiscated in the second half of the 1940s. However, Wenhardt was definitely of Hungarian nationality. The current decision is not final; the Land Fund can still appeal to the district court.
The fate of Wenhardt’s estate
The case related to the estates of Gyula Wenhardt began immediately after the Second World War when a confiscation order was issued for his lands. However, the confiscation order presented by the Land Fund only mentions the name Gyula Wenhardt, no date of birth or place of residence is provided. Therefore, the identity of the subject of the document cannot conclusively be established. It is possible that, in accordance with the customs of the time, the given surname and first name were borne by several persons in the same village. The legal representative of the heirs asserts that Wenhardt never received the confiscation order, the title to his lands was never transferred to the state, and the properties were still listed in his name in the land registry at the time of his death.
By 2017, Wenhardt’s grandchildren finalized the inheritance process for the estate bequeathed by their grandfather, took ownership of it, paid the administrative costs, and have since also paid the property tax associated with ownership. It was subsequent to this that the Land Fund took legal action to dispute the ownership rights of the heirs, referencing the Beneš Decrees, but the court ultimately rejected it.
HHRF has highlighted these two legal cases as examples of this continuing human rights violation that requires immediate resolution. Domestic, even European Court of Human Rights level litigation, as has already happened in some cases, may provide some individual remedy. However, it is the unjust practice of confiscating land without compensation based on ethnic origin that the Slovak state is perusing that must cease. In addition, the government should consider monetary compensation for the victims of this misguided policy and provide effectivel remedy as well.
Beneš-dekrétumok: újabb pert veszített a Szlovák Földalap | Új Szó | A szlovákiai magyar napilap és hírportál (ujszo.com)
Photo: Tibor Somogyi of https://ujszo.com/
[ii] Ethnic discrimination is taking place in current-day Slovakia as the state confiscates private property on the legal basis of the Beneš Decrees, namely specifically, Decree No. 104/1945 of the Slovak National Council on the confiscation and swift distribution of agricultural land of Germans, Hungarians, and traitors and enemies of the Slovak nation, brought in 1945, that only applied to ethnic Hungarians and Germans in the country. The Beneš Decrees (consisting of 141 decrees issued from 1940 to 1945) aimed to lay the foundations of the new post-war Czechoslovakia. However, 13 of these decrees assigned collective responsibility to all ethnic German and Hungarian individuals for the disintegration of Czechoslovakia. These decrees were later confirmed by the Slovak National Council, as well. These legal acts are being applied retroactively, to people alive today, because their ancestors who owned the properties in question were either ethnic Hungarian or German.
[iii] As documented by the daily Új Szó, in recent years the Slovak Land Fund—a public interest non-governmental organization that manages state-owned agricultural real estate and lands
—has taken possession, via the Beneš Decrees, of hundreds of hectares of land worth millions of euros. The fund’s 2020 annual report shows that since 2019 they’ve pursued 600 claims to seize properties from the current-day owners because these should have been confiscated between 1945 and 1948 from their ancestors. The Slovak Land Fund intentionally seeks retroactive application of the discriminatory decrees. Acting ex officio, it continually mines its archives for unimplemented confiscation orders from the past so it can acquire those lands through administrative or court proceedings. Ján Marosz, the director of the Slovak Land Fund, admitted as much in an Új Szó interview.
Ethnic discrimination is still alive and kicking in Slovakia
Brussels’ is turning a blind eye to the country’s retroactive land expropriations.
Article Source: https://www.politico.eu/article/ethnic-discrimination-slovakia-benes-decrees/
OCTOBER 28, 2022 4:03 AM CET
Balázs Kovács is an international relations researcher and an associate at the Roundtable of Hungarians in Slovakia, a minority rights advocacy group.
The ghost of history continues to haunt the societies of Central Europe.
While Ukraine is fully engaged in a war of national liberation against an imperial power hell-bent on denying the country’s right to determine its own destiny, Poland’s ruling party, now at the start of a reelection campaign, has once again revived its demand for reparations from Germany for the damages inflicted during World War II.
And then, there is the generally overlooked case of Slovakia.
Here, historically rooted injustices continue to rob citizens of their human rights, as recently demonstrated by the national land agency’s decision to deprive individuals of their private property based on their ethnic origin.
Over the last few years, the country has resumed a post-World War II legal process, the so-called Beneš Decrees, originally designed to confiscate all assets belonging to anyone who, at the time, identified as ethnic German or Hungarian — the two nationalities bearing the collective guilt for the ravages of war.
What’s even more appalling, however, is that the practice is currently being pursued amid the indifference of the European Union, which should be safeguarding citizens against such abuses.
Named after the wartime Czechoslovak president, the Beneš Decrees have remained part of both the Czech and Slovak legal order, even after these countries were admitted into the EU in 2004 — though officials at the time were adamant they carried no contemporary relevance.
But now, under the same pretext, the state is retroactively taking possession of hundreds of acres of privately owned land from its own citizens — entirely uncompensated.
Consider, for example, the case of descendants of a Hungarian smallholder with heritage located near the capital city of Bratislava. Due to a bureaucratic bungle, the land in question wasn’t confiscated back in the post-war years, and so continued in the family’s ownership. But when it was discovered that the land is located directly under the planned route of a new EU-funded highway, the state promptly set out to correct the “procedural omission,” the justification being that it had already been seized in principle, albeit not in practice.
Let there be no mistake: This is a gross assault on the principle of equal treatment under the law. And it exposes how the EU’s selective application of universal values undermines its credibility as a champion for human rights.
Let’s consider why the decrees were issued in the first place. At the end of the war — a time marked by unprecedented ethnic cleansing and population transfer — Germany’s defeat and the restoration of pre-war boundaries went hand in hand with the mass expulsion of now unwanted minorities and the arbitrary appropriation of their properties.
In Czechoslovakia, the largest affected group was that of the Sudeten Germans, 3 million of whom were all but expelled, a fate shared by some 76,000 Hungarians who soon found themselves removed to Hungary. The Beneš Decrees were adopted to establish the framework under which these individuals would be stripped of their citizenship, lands, homes, shops and businesses.
Meanwhile, minorities fortunate enough to avoid the fate of their brethren and remain were reduced to vulnerable groups, their long-term existence threatened by assimilation. One of the most notable among these groups is the community of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, which accounts for about 8 percent of the country’s population.
Today, post-war anti-minority politics continue to manifest in how governments across the political spectrum treat Slovakia’s minority populations. And though there have been genuine improvements, primarily through the adoption of European minority rights regimes, these foundations remain untouched, as the state continues to define itself along ethnonationalist lines that exclude other ethnic groups.
Rather than guaranteeing minority language rights and empowering these communities to remain culturally distinct, successive Slovak governments have long sought to sweep these issues under the rug. Over the course of the last decade, mainstream parties and media alike have created a narrative to alter perceptions, presenting the inequality of minority groups as a natural and, indeed, unalterable state of affairs. Meanwhile, minority political parties — which are supposed to represent groups whose voices aren’t otherwise heard in the political process — have all been portrayed as historically superseded.
Consequently, this persistent denial of equality to Hungarians and others, such as the Roma, has become the kind of question civilized people do not mention at the dinner table. But even by these standards, the recent cases of ethnically based retroactive land grabs are startling.
The lion’s share of the blame obviously falls on the government of Slovakia and on its unwillingness to face the dark chapters of its history. But it’s also true that these confiscations are enabled by the EU’s negligence, as it turns a blind eye to breaching of its rules.
Under the principles of the EU, present-day populations cannot be discriminated against based on an impression of their predecessors’ failings. And if the bloc tolerates the creation of second-class citizenships by its member countries, its virtues of inclusion and human rights will be exposed as hollow, at a time when the entire rules-based international order hangs in the balance.
If the EU is to retain the allegiance of its citizens, it needs to start taking its own founding principles seriously.
May 20, 2022
The Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN) released a report recently on the Benes Decrees Still Enforced in Slovakia
Click here to read full report or read down below.
Benes Decrees Still Enforced in Slovakia
The Beneš Decrees were a series of laws drafted by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile during the occupation of Czechoslovakia in World War II. Issued by President Edvard Beneš between 21 July 1940 and 27 October 1945, they were retroactively ratified by the Interim National Assembly of Czechoslovakia. Subsequently, they were transposed into the Slovak legal order by decisions of the National Council of the Slovak Republic. Many of the decrees have been abolished or became obsolete since their adoption, however, some of them, which applied collective guilt to ethnic Germans and Hungarians for WWII in order to deprive them of their land and immovable property are still used today. Properties are being confiscated from minorities on the grounds that their ancestors should have lost their properties.
Role of the Decrees in the EU Accession Process
The decrees also represented an important point of discussion in the EU accession process and the adoption of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The European Commission held the position that should there be no ongoing legal effects resulting from the decrees, they are not contrary to EU law. It has to be noted, that pre-accession assessment of the decrees in relation to compatibility with EU law was conducted only as regards the Czech legal system, and the Slovak legal order never underwent such scrutiny.
The current discussions about the ongoing legal effects of the so-called decrees – exact term would be decisions – have been raised in relation to those legal acts, which enabled the confiscation of lands of ethnic minorities1. These National Council decisions were not abolished and remain part of the Slovak legal system and consequently, state authorities, national courts and civil law notaries are basing their decisions on these confiscation acts. Recent findings2 prove that the legal acts relating to the expropriation of property are still capable of creating new legal effects.
Legal Uncertainty Raises Risk of Renewed Application of the Principle of Collective Guilt
Due to this legal ambiguity, national authorities have launched a number of administrative and court procedures in recent years against national minority citizens in order to confiscate their inherited lands with reference to the decrees. The 1945 decision (law) on immediate confiscation is still regarded as valid and applied by the national authorities; furthermore, some guidance for its application is given to authorities and legal practitioners, such as civil law notaries in succession proceedings. However, court decisions vary and depend on the sole discretion of judges and authorities, thus creating legal uncertainty and going against the principle of the rule of law. In addition, expropriations, which could not have taken place during the concerned WWII period are also pursued today (on the same legal basis), creating legal uncertainty on the immovable property market and raising the clear risk of renewed application of the principle of collective guilt. From a European law perspective, the recent situation can lead to restrictions on the free movement of capital and serious breach of EU rule of law.
Two Recent Cases
The 2020 Report of the Slovak Land Fund3 revealed that hundreds of hectares of land have been seized by the Slovak state in recent years (2018, 2019 and 2020) in regions inhabited by ethnic Hungarians and Germans, under the Beneš decrees. The Land Fund admitted that it based its confiscation on archived land registry data. Without informing the owners or heirs, confiscation has been carried out randomly by searching for minority surnames. The value of the acquisitions is estimated at several million euros. In 2018, the Slovak Land Fund attempted to expropriate valuable land for the purpose of constructing the Bratislava D4 ring road motorway arguing that the state motorway company was not obliged to pay the owners for the needed parcels, as they had been confiscated (or should have been confiscated) by the state between 1945 and 1948, and were therefore state property.
The Slovak state forest company also tries to confiscate privately owned land by referencing the Beneš decrees. The owners brought one of the cases (case Bosits v. Slovakia, 2020) before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It concerned state proceedings against a decision of an administrative authority registering the applicant’s ancestors as owners of property confiscated in 1945. The Slovak Supreme Court, following an extraordinary appeal by the Prosecutor General, had ruled in favour of the applicant. In its judgement, the ECHR considered the extraordinary appeal a breach of the right to a fair trial. The judgement decided only on the application of the extraordinary appeal procedure. A new, second judgment on the substantive aspects of the Slovak law concerning the property right is expected this year.
European Parliament Actions
The European Parliament in Brussels has been dealing with the question of the applicability of the decrees mainly because of citizens’ enquiries and petitions (see the two below, which are open). The decrees are mentioned in a minority and human rights context pointing out the ongoing legal effects of the above-mentioned WW II era legal acts, which were based on collective guilt and applied against ethnic minorities.
In 2014, the Committee on Legal Affairs adopted an opinion concerning the issue. It stated that the legal situation resulting from the decrees remains subject to judicial and administrative proceedings, and therefore further legal examination of the status and influence of the decrees, and related legislation within the framework of the Slovak legal system, might be warranted.
Current Status in the European Parliament
The Committee on Petitions discussed the two petitions dealing with the decrees at its meeting on 26 January 2021. Members sympathized with the petitioners and expressed support for advancing the issue at the European level. As a follow-up to the discussions, the Committee on Petitions has forwarded the two petitions for an opinion by the European Parliaments’ Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (DRFMG) at the initiative of MEP Loránt Vincze.
Position of the European Commission
The Commission maintains that the matter does not fall within the scope of EU law, it is a national competence and it is up to the Slovak authorities to ensure that the fundamental rights in accordance with their national law and international human rights obligations international human rights law.
- Petition No. 0070/2012 by Imre Juhasz (Hungarian citizen), bearing 2 signatures, on a request for the repeal of Resolution 1483/2007 of the Slovak National Council concerning the inviolability of the Beneš Decrees
Summary of petition 0070/2012
The petitioner refers to Resolution 1483/2007 of the Slovak National Council, which established that the Beneš Decrees issued between 1944 and 1948 were inviolable and incontestable. The petitioner points out that discrimination against the Hungarian and German minorities in Slovakia constitutes a contravention and flagrant violation of Articles 2 and 6 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. He therefore asks the European Parliament to take action to have the above Resolution repealed and calls for Slovakia’s membership of the EU to be suspended if it continues its policy of violating human rights.
2. Petition No 2098/2014 by N. P. (Slovak citizen) on the Beneš decrees
Summary of petition 2098/2014
The petitioner considers that the Beneš decrees infringe on the provisions of the Treaty on the European Union, of the European Convention for the protection of human rights and of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
The U.S. Ignores Human Rights Abuses in Slovakia at Its Own Peril
Foggy Bottom’s latest report on human rights abuses in Slovakia omits worrisome realities
Balázs Tárnok May 3, 2022
Article source: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/us-ignores-human-rights-abuses-slovakia-its-own-peril-202179
On April 12, the State Department published its annual human rights country reports. While certain countries and issues are being strictly scrutinized, serious human rights violations in the heart of Europe are consistently ignored. This goes against America’s own interests and undermines transatlantic unity at a critical time.
Human rights are at the heart of the values-based alliance the United States seeks to lead in the 21st century. Since the Cold War, the State Department’s human rights country reports have been an important foreign policy tool used to draw attention to government practices that undermine democratic practices. Sadly, this year’s report, yet again, stays silent on an important problem in Slovakia, a NATO country.
In today’s otherwise progressive Slovakia, World War II-era laws, called the Beneš Decrees, are still applied to confiscate the private property of individuals purely on an ethnic basis, and yet, there is no word about them in the report.
The Beneš Decrees claimed collective responsibility of ethnic Germans and Hungarians after World War II, and persons of German and Hungarian ethnicity were deprived of their citizenship, fundamental rights, and private property. In some cases, however, seizures could not take place for procedural reasons. The Slovak state is now “correcting” these omissions and seizing the lands without compensation for those who inherited their property from their ethnic German or Hungarian ancestors.
This happened to Miklós Bosits in 2009, when the Slovak state forest company wanted to confiscate Mr. Bosits’ lands, which the state claims should have been confiscated in 1946 solely on the basis that his grandparents were ethnic Hungarians. In 2020, the European Court of Human Rights, in the Bosits v. Slovakia case, acknowledged the contemporary application of the Beneš Decrees as an existing legal practice.
There are hundreds of similar cases. In recent years, the Slovak Land Fund has taken possession of hundreds of hectares of land, worth millions of Euros, through the retroactive application of the Beneš Decrees. Since 2019, a total of 600 proposals have been submitted claiming ownership of properties that should have been confiscated between 1945 and 1948 from the ancestors of the current landowners. The Slovak Land Fund, acting ex officio, is constantly searching for unenforced confiscation orders in archives so it can acquire those lands.
According to Harvard Law graduate and international human rights lawyer János Fiala-Butora, it is as if the state had not repealed Nazi-era laws after World War II and is now confiscating the lands of Jewish people, claiming that a confiscation decision made in 1942 was unenforced due to procedural errors and now the state is “correcting” these omissions.
The ghosts of the 1940s are still alive in Slovakia, but the 2021 human rights report on Slovakia remains silent about this practice. The document addresses property seizures, but only those regarding the restitution of property seized during the Communist and Nazi era. How can such serious human rights violations be completely missed by the U.S. State Department?
Since the early 1980s, the reports have been repeatedly criticized for being thin on substance, particularly with respect to U.S. allies. The use of biased sources when drafting the reports is also a significant issue. The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor coordinates the drafting of the human rights reports, while inputs are provided by local U.S. embassies. The sources for the reports are wide-ranging and may include NGOs, press reports, academic studies, and governments.
While the contribution of these outside sources makes sense, the exclusive and uncritical reliance on NGOs, which often receive State Department funding themselves, jeopardizes the objectivity of the country reviews. Many NGOs, functioning as advocacy organizations, are explaining the perspectives of only one side rather than providing a fair picture. Even in countries where well-established advocacy organizations provide detailed analyses on human rights violations, the abuses experienced by certain marginalized groups in society tend to go unreported.
This is specifically important in Slovakia. Here, the ethnic Hungarian minority constitutes roughly 8 percent of the country’s population. However, Hungarian human rights organizations are not well-organized in the country. As Nicole Nemeth recently pointed out in a far-ranging review of the State Department’s reports, the lack of professional advocacy cannot be a legitimate reason for the United States to ignore serious human rights violations. Still, the violations of the rights of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia were barely addressed in the country reports on Slovakia between 2016 and 2020—much like reports about human rights in Eastern Europe between 2011 and 2015.
Although the report itself acknowledges that the ethnic Hungarian minority is the largest minority in the country, the State Department does not address the challenges faced by the Hungarian community at all. In the chapter on ethnic violence and discrimination, the report deals only with the issues of the Roma and completely disregards issues affecting other ethnic minorities.
Ignoring the retroactive application of the Beneš Decrees—and thus, the confiscation of the private property of individuals purely on an ethnic basis—is not only an ethnic discrimination issue. It is also an outrageous violation of the core human rights and values that are cherished by the United States: the rights to human dignity and private property.
If the United States wants to maintain its leading role in the realm of international human rights, the State Department must improve its work on its annual human rights reporting. It must involve stakeholders it has traditionally ignored and provide a fairer and more balanced approach to human rights. Otherwise, America’s official reports on human rights practices will only be viewed as a political tool to pressure certain countries whose politics are not favored by Washington.
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.
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.
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.
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