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Mass grave

August 19, 2010

Human remains discovered by archaeologists in a field near the Czech town of Jihlava are believed to belong to local ethnic Germans murdered by vigilante groups towards the end of the Second World War.

Czech fields
Still today there are wartime secrets to be found buried in Czech fieldsImage: transit

A team of archaeologists and police forensic scientists have so far uncovered the remains of six people buried in shallow graves in a field outside the village of Dobronin, not far from the regional capital of Jihlava, about 100 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Prague.

Police have been investigating the case for the past twelve months, in response to claims by Czech journalists and a German author.

The first corpses were unearthed on Monday August 16. Czech Television reported that the team would continue digging until the end of the week, when the remains will be removed and transported to Brno's Institute of Anthropology. There, scientists will try to identify the remains based on DNA samples provided by relatives of the victims, who now live in Germany.

Bones, shoes and a shovel

"This site contains the graves of about fifteen German citizens who were reportedly murdered here in this field at the end of the war," Milan Laska, the police detective heading the investigation, told Czech Television.

Sudeten Germans wait to board a train to take them out of Czechoslovakia
Sudeten Germans wait to board a train to take them out of CzechoslovakiaImage: AP

"So far we can say for certain that there are at least six bodies lying here. Apart from bones, we've discovered clothing, leather shoes and also a shovel," Mr Laska said.

Dobronin, known to its former German inhabitants as Schuetzendorf, once had a sizeable German community - part of the 2.5 million ethnic Sudeten Germans who lived in Czechoslovakia before 1945. German author Herma Kennel claims in her book "Bergersdorf" that between May 12 and May 19 1945, about 15 local Germans were shot or beaten to death by a drunken group of Czech "revolutionary guards."

'Wild expulsions'

The revolutionary guards were vigilante groups who forcibly expelled ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia during the so-called 'wild expulsions' of 1945. The remainder were transported by the Czechoslovak authorities under the Benes decrees. No-one knows for certain how many people were killed during the "wild expulsions" but figures range from several hundred to 20,000.

The journalist David Vondracek, who has produced several TV documentaries on the subject, said his research into the Dobronin massacre - conducted together with Jihlava historian Miroslav Mares - had revealed some surprising facts. All fifteen victims were almost certainly members of the Nazi Party, he said, but the identity and motive of their killers was confusing.

Czechs or Germans?

"I tried in my research to build a psychological profile of the revolutionary guard members, and spent 30 minutes interviewing the only member still alive, who was 18 at the time of the massacre," Mr Vondracek told Czech Television.

"Both he and his late father were themselves ethnic Germans who had moved to the Jihlava area from Vienna in the 1920s. The head of the revolutionary guards group who killed these Germans was himself an ethnic German and didn't even speak Czech fluently," Mr Vondracek said.

He added that in his opinion this would have been typical of the psychology of the early post-war period, when people went to extraordinary lengths to show they hadn't collaborated with the Nazi occupiers.

the historic center of Jihlava
Today Jihlava is a picturesque Czech townImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Statute of limitations

Police are officially treating the case as a criminal investigation, although it remains unclear whether the sole surviving revolutionary guard member, who says he remembers nothing of the incident, will be charged.

"It depends on whether we're dealing with the crime of murder, which would be barred under the statute of limitations, or crimes against humanity, which are not statute barred," detective Laska told Czech Television.

Emotive case

The case is highly sensitive for both Czechs and Germans, and arouses strong emotions 65 years after the end of the war. German MEP Bernd Posselt, the son of Sudeten expellees, welcomed the investigation in Dobronin but has called on the Czech parliament to repeal laws passed by President Benes in 1946 absolving all those who had committed crimes against Germans of criminal responsibility for their actions.

Shortly after the bodies were discovered, a large wooden cross was erected on the site of the massacre, put there, say police, by local citizens.

Author: Rob Cameron, Jihlava (sh)

Editor: Richard Connor

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