Europe’s silence over Catalonia has its roots in 1945
After the war, issues of ethnicity, borders and nation states were left unresolved
British prime minister Clement Attlee, US president Harry S Truman and Soviet premier Josef Stalin prepare to sign the Potsdam Agreement. File photograph: Getty Images
Like many people, especially those with some connection to Catalonia, I kept checking my phone for updates from Barcelona when the referendum on independence was taking place.
I was doing this as I walked past Bubny railway station in Prague. Now a rundown local station, during the second World War it was a main point for transporting Czech Jews to concentration camps. Tens of thousands passed through on the way to their deaths. This is memorialised in a striking monument: a length of railway track tilted and pointed up into the sky, like a Jacob’s ladder.
But Bubny station was also central to another historical event, less talked-about: the expulsion of millions of Czech Germans immediately after the war, some to Germany, others to the Soviet zone. And there is a clear connection here with events in Catalonia.
As events unfolded in the referendum, many people were surprised by the deafening silence coming from the European Union. The ostensible reason was this was an internal Spanish matter and the Spanish constitution had to be the ultimate arbiter. But the real reason is that Europe has a skeleton in its cupboard, which makes Brexit look like a minor irritant: the border issue.
Every European issue can ultimately be brought back to 1945. The European community, as everyone except Britain understands, is essentially a product of the second World War and an attempt to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But that war wasn’t just a clash of ideologies – it also involved long-running issues of ethnicity and the legitimacy of borders and nation states.
After the war the Potsdam Agreement was drawn up to govern how Europe would be divided. But some states had already been moving fast to create facts on the ground.
In Czechoslovakia, the Czech government in exile had declared it wanted “a final solution” to the German problem, and had already started expelling, often quite brutally, Czech Germans, who made up almost one-quarter of the population.
It is not hard to understand the motivation of Poles, Czechs, Russian and Lithuanians, who had suffered so terribly at the hand of the Nazis – but it was also inhuman and morally wrong. It was ethnic cleansing. The best that can be said about it is that at least they weren’t being sent to concentration camps. The treatment of Germans after the war can be seen as the new Europe’s original sin.
The Potsdam Agreement more or less ratified all this, and declared that the border of the new Poland would be moved west into German territory to stop at the Oder-Neisse line, again with the displacement and dispossession of millions of people.
The unspoken agreement in every European capital was that Europe must remain frozen in its present borders
This was meant to be provisional, but, like a game of musical chairs, when the music stopped, or in this case, the Soviet tanks stopped, everyone stayed where they were. The Cold War froze the situation, and the question of legitimacy became academic.
Stalin added an extra complication to the issue by moving people from all over the Soviet Union into the Baltic states, whose descendants now find themselves European citizens.
With the collapse of communism, the two Germanys, to facilitate reunification, signed in 1990 the Treaty of Final Settlement with the four occupying powers, which made all of this permanent – without the benefit of referendums or constitutional assemblies.
The unspoken agreement in every European capital was that Europe must remain frozen in its present borders. This partly explains the massive European discomfort and inertia with regard to wars in Yugoslavia.
The Serbians were quick to support the Madrid government, gleefully pointing out the double standards involved in recognising Kosovo, but not Catalonia.
After the collapse of communism, and Europe’s rush to get the states of Eastern Europe copperfastened into Europe and Nato, such issues were left discreetly undiscussed.
The deal was that the Eastern European states would pay lip service to Western shibboleths like Holocaust memorial and the rights of ethnic minorities, such as Gypsies, and nothing would change with their present borders.
Now that these states are feeling more secure, and serious nationalist and authoritarian tendencies are re-emerging, we are beginning to see the consequence of allowing all those skeletons to remain in the cupboard, unchallenged.
Michael O’Loughlin is writer-in-residence for Prague Unesco City of Literature