Expulsion of Sudeten Germans at the end of WWII. Photo: Jacksonmcdonald3425 / Wikimedia Commons
The Czech Statistical Office (CZSO) can be rightly proud that much of its data, including that for total population, dates back to 1785, when 4.25 million people were recorded as living in what is now Czechia.
From that point, when Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia were part of the Habsburg empire, the population graph slopes gently upwards as numbers increased, only to dip at the time of WWI, after which it resumed its upwards climb until the graph literally falls off a cliff. The reason for this was the expulsion of more than 3 million ethnic Germans in the aftermath of WWII.
According to CZSO, the population of the Czech lands peaked in 1940 at 11.16 million, but by 1947 it had fallen to 8.76 million. While the population has grown since, it has never again been as high as it was in 1940.
Comparatively speaking, what is now Czechia was spared the ravages of all-out war. From the lands that comprised Czechoslovakia until 1938 some 345,000 are estimated to have died, of whom 263,000 were Jews murdered in the Holocaust, some 30 per cent of them being from the Nazi wartime Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The war also saw the murder of some 90 per cent of about 6,500 Roma and Sinti.
In demographic terms the combined wartime deaths of Czechs, Jews and Roma, tragic though they were, would not have made much long-term difference to Czechia’s total population number. What did were the savage reprisals and wholesale expulsions of the country’s ethnic Germans, who had overwhelmingly supported Hitler, immediately after the war.
The first period after the end of hostilities saw some 660,000 German-speakers forced out. Between 19,000-30,000 were killed or died of disease. The historian Mary Heimann writes: “The politically calculated orgy of violence, vigilantism and ethnic hatred that lasted through the spring and summer (May to August) of 1945 is rather disingenuously known in Czech as the divoky odsun (‘Wild’ or illicit ‘Transfer’), to distinguish it from the more ‘orderly’ and ‘legal’ odsun (transfer or expulsion) of a further 2.8 million ethnic Germans from their homeland which followed in 1946.”
In the 1930 census, 3.14 million, or 29.5 per cent of the population of what is now Czechia, identified as German. In the 2021 census, 24,632 identified as German – as well as another ethnicity. That is 0.23 per cent of the population, significantly less than the number of Vietnamese in the country.
During the Communist period, says Tomas Sobotka of the Vienna Institute of Demography, there was no work done on the demographic consequences of this huge population loss.
“You were not allowed to publicly debate, research or discuss the forced transfer of Germans, so all the research and all the public discussion… only started properly in 1990 after the change.”
Tomas Kucera, a demographer at Prague’s Charles University, says that in terms of its total population Czechia has never recovered from the expulsions and today’s population is only equivalent to what it was in 1928.
Heimann writes that from July 1945 the authorities arranged for Czechs, Slovaks and “other Slavs” to “resettle” lands and property left behind by the Germans. Yet, points out Sobotka, the fact that a large proportion of the expelled Germans came from now empty rural regions bordering West Germany and Austria proved to be “very convenient” for the new communist authorities, as it made it far easier than it would otherwise have been to construct a special buffer zone, including several lines of electric fences “to prevent people escaping the country.”
So, Sobotka says, “there was a conscious policy not to repopulate” large areas, especially the hills, forests and mountains of the south, and “just to let them be, with many villages completely erased and lost forever.”