Were there “good” Germans who resisted fascism? This was a question I wanted to answer as I started to write my family’s story.
I devoured all the memoirs I could find about the 1930s through 1950s in Central Europe as I researched the times. I discovered an obscure but fascinating memoir, Uprooted and Transplanted: A Sudeten Odyssey from Tragedy to Freedom 1938 - 1958 in a box among my father’s old papers. Published in 2000, I’d never heard of the book or its author, Hanns Skoutajan. Judging by the intact spine, my father had never read it.
The author’s keen understanding of the complex political climate of that time helped fill some gaps in my understanding. The answer to my question is a resounding yes. The author’s parents had been prominent German social democratic intellectuals in the industrial city of Aussig (now Usti nad labem) in northern Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, not too distant from Moravia where my father grew up. Skoutajan’s family fled to Canada as political refugees from fascism in 1939 when he was only 10.
He describes the strong, vibrant working class democratic socialist movement in his home town, where 60,000 German and Czech workers toiled side by side in harmony in coal mines and chemical factories. A large, organized working class existed in the highly industrialized region, called the “Manchester of the North”, where my father’s family also has its roots.
The author’s democratic socialist grandparents and parents had proudly marched in May Day rallies in Vienna sporting red carnations. This was Red Vienna, the city where a modern social democratic movement first took root. (I’ll write a future blog about our wonderful tour of Red Vienna in November 2018.) His mother had been active in a young socialist women’s organization, then illegal in Austro-Hungary. As a boy, the author belonged to a youth organization that stressed working class solidarity, fitness and hiking. He learned about evolution instead of going to Sunday school. How inspiring to read his accounts of discussions around the dinner table about building a just and compassionate society and the need for international workers’ solidarity.
Their strong labour unions and vibrant social democratic tradition meant that in the early 1930s, not all three-and-a-half million Sudeten Germans automatically fell into line behind Hitler. Large numbers diametrically opposed Hitler’s ultra-nationalistic vision of bringing all ethnic Germans together in one state, or Heim ins Reich. Social democratic Sudeten Germans supported the new Czechoslovak Republic, but sought greater autonomy for the large German-speaking minority within it.
But Skoutajan chillingly describes how Hitler was able to exploit the grievances of the German minority in a country of 13 million Czechs, and how by 1937 when my father was 18, the Hitler-inspired fascist Sudeten German party took hold, fuelling ethnic unrest, division and disunity.
My grandfather, the blacksmith in his village of Friedland, threw his support behind Henlein’s fascist party and Hitler, whose staccato speeches preached that Sudeten Germans suffered humiliation and oppression under the Czech regime.
The author’s account of the growing number of parades, demonstrations and rallies of swastika-waving crowds shouting fascist slogans in his town are sobering. Young Hanns describes how emboldened fascist thugs became ever more vicious and aggressive, smashing windows and roughing up opponents. Had the social democratic movement been stronger, fewer might have succumbed to the hateful propaganda and the fascist tide. After the boy was bullied by a gang of fascist youths, he and his mother left to live with relatives near Prague, where they found themselves “hated by the Czechs for being German and on the run from Germans because we were anti-fascist and pro-Czech.”
His staunch anti-fascist father stayed in Aussig until 1938, when the infamous Munich Agreement handed the Sudetenland over to Germany. Hitler’s armies drove in unopposed. When shown his name on a list of prominent German social democrats to be sent to the Dachau concentration camp, Skoutajan’s father was forced to flee.
Most of my father’s family were among the exuberant crowds waving swastika flags as Hitler’s troops arrived in the Sudetenland. My father very likely took part in the kinds of fascist marches and actions the author describes. Thousands of German anti-fascists now fled, and Prague became crowded with political refugees. When Hitler’s army seized the rest of Czechoslovakia the next year, Skoutajan’s family was forced to flee again. They were among only 2,000 fortunate German social democrats granted political refugee status, first in Scotland and then in Canada, at a time when Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King was still calling Hitler “an honourable man.”
Some 35,000 Sudeten German social democrats were not so lucky and were sent to concentration camps, 8,000 to Dachau, where many perished along with Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other opponents of the fascist regime.
Skoutajan’s chronicles of the refugees’ first years trying to be farmers in northern Saskatchewan make fascinating reading. His parents hoped to return to their homeland after the war, but in the nationalist frenzy whipped up by the new Czech government, all three million Germans—called a “foreign ulcer” by the new president—were expelled from the former Sudetenland by 1946. The largest ethnic cleansing until that time swept my father’s entire family out of their homeland.
All Germans in the country were now classified as “bad” Germans, including the “good” ones who had been active social democrats and Nazi opponents before the war. In a bitter irony, even German-speaking Jews who had survived the Holocaust and returned to their towns were forced to wear the white armbands all Germans now had to wear. It’s a stark reminder of the dangers of nationalism.
In Canada, the author’s lifelong passion for social justice led him to become an ordained United Church minister and social activist. I felt a huge pang of regret that I never had the chance to meet this warm and principled man when I learned that he had lived his final years in Ottawa and died here in 2015.
I like to think, though, that our paths may actually have crossed. Skoutajan became an Immigration port chaplain welcoming new immigrants and helping them orient to their new country. In 1957, the year we arrived, the young chaplain worked at the ports of Halifax, St. John, Montreal and Quebec City. Perhaps this fellow Sudeten German refugee even shook my father’s hand when we first stepped ashore in Quebec City and said, “Welcome to Canada.”