How can historians find a “usable past,” beyond a cautionary tale of the price of national conflict, of the postwar ethnic cleansing of Central Europe? In Cleansing the Czechoslovak Borderlands: Migration, Environment, and Health in the Former Sudetenland, his work on the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia, Eagle Glassheim states that part of the mission of historians is “recovering and advancing hopeful and productive metaphors, while exposing and deconstructing noxious and dangerous ones” (14). Finding “hopeful and productive metaphors” to deal with the historical legacies of national conflict, expulsions, and other pathologies of high modernity would at first glance seem to be an exercise in programmed failure. Yet in Glassheim’s study a Sudetenland emerges whose multicultural reality and symbolic import is not just mostly dead, but also a little bit alive. Paradoxically, Glassheim argues that both the utopian and dystopian strands of the history of the cleansed Czech borderlands provide a unique view of the excesses of a mid- to late-twentieth-century high modernity that gave pride of place to homogenization, uniformity, and material productivity, over and above human needs and environmental responsibility. By reckoning the cost of this project, Glassheim seeks to provide us with a different narrative—one that calls into question the destructive nation-building and modernizing romanticism of the last century, and one that bridges divisions between Czechs, Germans, and others damaged by efforts to create a cleansed, modernized nation-state. Among the strengths of this work is how effectively Glassheim demonstrates that, from the beginning of their national conflict in the late nineteenth century, Czechs and Germans shared many common values and goals. From the 1880s on, both the German Heimat and Czech domov (homeland) movements developed programs of national health that mirrored each other. Czech and German nationalists carried on struggles within “their” communities to create nationalized peoples who would see themselves as distinct from and superior to their neighbors, even as they fought to redefine shared times and spaces of the Sudetenland in mutually exclusive ways. For Glassheim, this struggle, culminating in World War II and the ensuing expulsions of Czechoslovakia’s Germans, was not the logical result of “centuries of hatred,” but instead was a perfect historical storm that swept away a complex and heretofore intertwined social and cultural ecosystem. To be sure, Germans ended up losing the Sudetenland—but what emerged there was not a new Czech homeland, but a laboratory for a state socialist regime that managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory through their own modernizing hubris and extremist national and socialist revolutions. Neither the Czech Communist Party nor those Czechs who supported it mastered time, space, or themselves to create their hoped-for utopia in a fragile and increasingly shattered post-expulsion Sudetenland. That Glassheim can tell this story while not losing sight of its ongoing connections with the expelled Germans who remained deeply, if tangentially, connected to the Sudetenland after their expulsion is one way in which he subverts exclusive nationalist narratives and does a fuller reckoning of the costs of ethnic cleansing for both its victims and perpetrators. Another strength of this work is Glassheim’s concluding reflections on his own engagement with this history. Here, Czech (and German) history is not simply a story about faraway peoples about whom we know little. Glassheim points to broader patterns of shared alienation in German and American experiences of high modernism, which have proven subtly (and at times not so subtly) able to damage social and natural ecosystems even in societies not torn as deeply by ethnic conflict as was the Sudetenland. Glassheim reflects on how both Czech and German visions of borderland health—and illness—point to increasingly shared values that can reunite Czechs, Germans, and others even after expulsions and what Glassheim suggests is an unsustainable high modernism. This hope is compelling, yet Glassheim’s narrative demonstrates important problems with it. One key issue is that of shared historical trauma. Where Glassheim discusses the expulsions themselves, he sets out to demonstrate the interaction of high political rhetoric and mass Czech participation in expelling Czechs’ German neighbors. Yet what emerges is something much more disturbing: the propensity of ordinary Czechs to engage in spontaneous murderous violence against Germans. Glassheim points out that the Czech “state” at this time was a work in progress, caught between a variety of forces—from the great powers to various local committees, conflicting government agencies, and competing political parties. This was an environment where, locally, Czechs could pick and choose which directives to follow and which rhetoric to absorb. As Glassheim illustrates, in two particularly infamous incidents—the Brno Death March and the Ústí nad Labem massacres of 1945—“the masses proved to be more radical than elites” (53). Glassheim sees much of the violence of these and other incidents (that were essential elements of ethnic cleansing) as due to a “socialized belief system [that] resided in a set of rhetorical codes, which gained a particular power during the period of weak legal norms following the war” (66). Yet the weak legal norms, the socialized belief system, and the power of anti-German rhetorical codes all sprang from Czech society’s embrace of nationally revolutionary radicalism. The desire for historians to be relevant and to participate in healing, especially in zones of conflict, is understandable. Glassheim points out many instances, from constructing competing nationalist narratives, to justifying ethnic cleansing, to supporting high modernism’s most destructive experiments, where historians have been on what we (now) judge to have been the wrong side of history. This suggests that a sustainable history, like sustainable communities or economies, requires more than constructing new “hopeful and productive metaphors” and “exposing and deconstructing” those that seem “noxious” or “dangerous.” We also need to be aware of our own tendency to cleanse our narratives of what seem to us destructive impurities, and of the costs of such omissions. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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