Ethnic Cleansing, Communism and Environmental Devastation in Czechoslovakia's Borderlands, 1945-1989
January 7, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES noon discussion with Eagle Glassheim, Assistant Professor of History, Princeton University and Title VIII JSTS Alumnus
The production of coal became the main industry in Northern Bohemia after WWII and this mining became the primary support structure of the Czech economy. By the 1970s, however, the environmental impact of coal mining became evident as the health of the population declined and people began to describe the towns of the region as "moonscapes, battlefields and wastelands." Eagle Glassheim's discussion focused on the environmental devastation that occurred in Czechoslovakia's borderlands after the expulsion of the over 700,000 Sudeten Germans. Glassheim traced the series of events and state initiatives following WWII that combined to cause the environmental crisis. In so doing, he debunked several theories about why the environment had been neglected for so long in that region.
First, he addressed assertions that the environmental degradation occurred because the Czechoslovaks that settled there after the expulsion of Germans did not have strong ties to the land. Glassheim asserts, however, that the settlers quickly developed strong ties to the land as well as a unique identity. In 1945, Communist officials established a Settlement Office with the aim of replacing the expelled Germans with Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Roma, thereby "de-Germanizing" the area and creating a new regional identity. Slogans, such as "Come with Us to Build the Borderlands," (1946) drew in new settlers and developed a mechanistic mentality toward nature, which allowed people to ignore environmental degradation while they came to rely on the natural resources of the region. The new identity of the borderlands settlers centered upon casting the region and its inhabitants as the engine of industry in the country. Thus, it was not the weak ties between the land and the settlers that brought the environmental crisis, but the nature of that relationship.
Several factors played a key role in defining the relationship between the inhabitants and the land. First, the central government in Prague hoped to develop new energy sources by extensive strip mining operations in Bohemia. The second factor was that central committee officials never stopped viewing the borderlands as a "laboratory of ingenuity and Socialist transformation."
Another common belief is that the environmental degradation continued because of the closed, centralized socialist system of government in which people had no recourse against or input into social policies. But Glassheim asked, "why assume that a dictatorship would not protect the environment and that a free society automatically would?" Indeed, given the unique identity cultivated among the settlers, concerns about productivity always trumped the environment. As an example of the strength of this identity, Glassheim recounted that the central government intended to decrease industrial production and coal extraction levels in the region due to concern over the environment. This attempt to counter the environmental degradation was prevented by the coal mining lobby, which fought hard to preserve its role as the engine of productivity. As a result, the production and coal mining continued apace, as did the destruction of the environment.