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Murder and Mayhem: Meaning of the Painted Plate

Updated: 15 February 2024, 14:15

I was recently contacted with a query about the origin of the decorative wooden plate pictured below. When and where was it made, and why? Does it signify something, or nothing at all? Here is what I found.

czechoslovak plate 1945
Decorative plate bought in a thrift shop in Maryland, USA. Credit: Peter Smith

Peter Smith said he bought the plate in a thrift (second-hand) shop in Maryland, USA. He knows nothing about its background or previous ownership. The German inscription reads 'Wallern im Juli 1945, Czechoslovakia'.

'Wallern' is the German name for the South Bohemian town of Volary in the Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia. The flowers feature the Czech national colours: red, white and blue. After consulting my local florist, I understand the flowers shown are blue-violet cornflowers (the German national flower symbolising love and strength), red German primroses (a toxic flower believed to ward off evil spirits) and white edelweiss (a legendary alpine flower symbolising devotion and bravery in Germany and Austria).

Interestingly, Mr Smith has another wooden plate featuring a similar design his father acquired while serving in the US Medical Corps in Trieste, Italy in late 1950. But we can discount any personal or tourism value here. More likely, there are two historical events the plate commemorates.

Trieste plate 1950
A similar decorative plate Mr Smith's father bought in Italy in 1950. Credit: Peter Smith

Volary Death March

A notable death march ended in Volary in July 1945. In January 1945, the Nazis forced more than 1,000 female Jewish prisoners to march from a concentration camp in Upper Silesia, West Poland towards Bohemia to escape the Soviets advancing on the Eastern Front. Hundreds perished en route.

The US Army liberated Volary in May and most of the surviving prisoners vacated the town by July, writes Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust archive). A spokesperson for the town's information centre suggests the plate marks this tragedy. They also confirmed there are no other entries for July held in the town's archives. But there is a stronger possibility about what the plate commemorates.

Sudeten Germans Volary Czechoslovakia May 1945
Sudeten Germans forced by US soldiers to walk past 30 Jewish women starved to death by the SS in Volary, May 1945. Public Domain

Mass Transfers and Expulsions of Ethnic Germans

The Second World War and its aftermath ended centuries of Czech-German cohabitation in the Czech border region known as the Sudetenland. The Czech Government-in-exile had lobbied the Allies to support enemy transfers from Czechoslovakia throughout the war. Its wish was granted when the UK, USA and USSR formalised the forced evictions of up to 3 million Sudeten Germans and Hungarians at the Potsdam Conference (27 July-2 August 1945). Article 12 of the protocol of proceedings (dated 1 August 1945) reads:

The Three Governments, having considered the question in all its aspects, recognize that the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, will have to be undertaken. They agree that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner.

sudetenland map czechoslovakia 1930
Map showing the percentage of native German speakers in Czechoslovakia, 1930. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The protocol also ordered the Germans to be distributed across the zones of occupation and requested the Czech, Polish and Hungarian governments "to suspend further expulsions pending an examination by the Governments concerned of the report from their representatives on the Control Council." The agreement gave the transfers the international legal basis they needed. It shows the Allies supported the transfers — at a distance.

But illegal forced evictions were already under way in Czechoslovakia since its liberation in May 1945. Revolutionary Guards, partisans, national committees, Czech soldiers of the Svoboda army and the SNB (national police overseen by the Ministry of the Interior) banished thousands of Germans and Hungarians to Germany and Austria in so-called 'wild expulsions' ('divoký odsun') — at the same time as Nazi war criminals were being put on trial at Nuremberg. They also interned thousands of expellees in camps and confiscated their property. Estimates vary, but at least 700,000 ethnic Germans were exiled, with 30,000 deaths, before Potsdam.

Postwar population transfers were not exclusive to Czechoslovakia. Around 12 million Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians were forcibly relocated in Central and Eastern Europe. But the feasibility of such an enormous undertaking, expected to be conducted in an orderly fashion, did not go unquestioned. In a British parliamentary debate on the issue (dated 30 January 1946) the Lord Bishop of Chichester remarked:

I should like to ask His Majesty's Government ... whether any authority representing the three Governments has been set up to see that it is orderly and humane, what is the result of the examination by the Allied Control Commission as to the equitable distribution in the several zones, and what estimate has the Allied Control Commission made as to the time and rate of further transfers."

winston churchill potsdam conference 1945 before meeting for the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany. Date	25 July 1945
Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Josef Stalin in Potsdam, Germany on 25 July 1945. Public Domain

The decision to expel ethnic Germans predated the Munich Agreement of September 1938 (or Munich Dictate). It was the product of increasing Czech nationalism, strong anti-Germanic sentiment combined with President Edvard Beneš's goal to establish a homogenous Slavic state. A total of 143 Decrees by the President of the Republic (or Beneš Decrees) were issued by the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile, and later the Provisional National Assembly from 28 October 1945. The decrees were not drafted and signed by Beneš alone, yet they came to bear his name.

The most controversial are listed below. They mainly concern citizenship and confiscation without compensation but — contrary to popular belief — none relate to population transfer.

Decree 5/1945 (May 1945)- on the Invalidation of Certain Property Transactions during the period of Lack of Freedom and on the National Administration of the Values of Germans, Hungarians, Traitors and Collaborators, and Certain Organisations and Institutes

Decree 16/1945 (June 1945)- on the Punishment of Nazi Criminals and their Accomplices and concerning Extraordinary People´s Courts

Decree 12/1945 (June 1945)- on the Confiscation and Accelerated Allocation of the Agricultural Property of Germans, Hungarians, Traitors and Enemies of the Czech and Slovak nations

Decree 33/1945 (August 1945)- on the Adjustment of the Czechoslovak Citizenship of Persons of German and Hungarian Nationality

Decree 138/1945 (October 1945)- on the Punishment of Certain Offences against the National Honour 

Decree 108/1945 (October 1945) on the Confiscation of Enemy Property and the National Restoration Funds

Act 115/1946 (May/June 1946) on the Legality of Acts in connection with the Struggle to regain the Liberty of the Czechs and Slovaks

Many of the decrees have since been replaced or expired. But their legal validity and effectiveness is still contested. Both Germany and the Czech Republic appeared keen to settle the matter by signing the 1992 treaty on Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation, and more concretely with the Czech-German Declaration of 1997. Neither agreement was legally binding. The decrees also did not impact the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union in 2004, though ethical concerns were raised concerning the decision to absolve those who committed 'just reprisals' against ethnic Germans in the immediate postwar period.

Back to the plate. It could commemorate the events surrounding Potsdam. But it could also commemorate another related event. On 31 July 1945, a munitions depot exploded in the northern suburb of the Bohemian town of Ústí nad Labem. Czech inhabitants blamed German 'fifth columnists' or 'werewolves'. Violence broke out in the town centre and on the Dr Edvard Beneš Bridge. Up to 100 German residents were killed, with some allegedly being thrown into the River Elbe. Some critics have argued the Czechs secretly engineered the incident to convince the Allies that expelling ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia was for their own safety.

Besides these events, what else could this plate commemorate? Have you seen similar items? Please contact me with your thoughts.

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