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BIGGEST `ETHNIC CLEANSING' WAS EXPULSION OF EASTERN GERMANS

AN ANNIVERSARY, and an accusation in the heart of Europe, have brought back into focus the biggest act of "ethnic cleansing" the continent has known.

Last month Czech nationalist MP Jan Vik was stripped of his parliamentary immunity after being charged with distributing a forgery.Disguised as the transcript of a meeting between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and leaders of the Sudeten Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II, Vik's leaflet seemed proof that the Czech government had agreed to let the Sudetenlanders return to their homeland and reclaim lost property.

The anniversary emphasized what an incendiary falsification this was. Fifty years ago July 31, in the north Bohemian town of Aussig (Usti nad Labem today), several hundred Sudeten Germans were killed by young Czech men. Among the first to die were a German woman and her baby, who were crossing a bridge over the Elbe. They were beaten and thrown into the water.

Within 18 months of the massacre of Aussig, 3 million Sudeten Germans were driven from the lands they had lived on for centuries - ethnically cleansed would be today's euphemism. Most were transported to West Germany in conditions so brutal that 250,000 died en route.

Altogether 15 million Germans from the eastern parts of the Reich became refugees in West Germany, victims of the biggest national expulsion in recorded history.

Just as the collapse of Tito's Yugoslavia allowed old tribal grievances to resurface as respectable national policies, so the collapse of European communism has revived the thought that this expulsion might be atoned for.

The result is a test for the Czech and German peoples and their governments. They cannot afford to fail.

Conservative German newspapers regularly express dissatisfaction with Czech deafness to Sudeten German claims. These include property claims and the demand that Sudeten Germans be allowed to return with dual Czech-German nationality while the Czechs publicly acknowledge the wrong done to the Sudetenlanders.

The German government has shown its displeasure more discreetly by refusing to agree on compensation for Czech victims of the Nazi regime.

The dispute confirms what the former Yugoslavia proves daily: where tribal feelings have been wounded, only a small minority can appreciate the other side's pain.

Czech attitudes are complicated by what their president, Vaclav Havel, calls their "provincial combination of fear of the Germans, and of servility to them."

The communist regime protected the Czechs from the German civilization they had learned to hate and admire during centuries as part of the Habsburg Empire.

They now risk becoming an appendage of the reunited Germany, which has the Czech Republic in a geographical vise. Almost two-thirds of Czech exports from the European Union come from Germany, and Germany is the biggest European investor in the Czech economy. The Czechs are anxious to join the EU and NATO: The speed depends largely on German advocacy.

Havel apologized for the mistreatment of the Sudetenlanders when he was elected president five years ago. It was a brave attempt at reconciliation for which most Czechs have not forgiven him.

What seems to trouble Czechs most are German suggestions of moral equivalence between Nazi crimes and the cruelty of the Sudetenlanders' expulsion. The latter is not disputed.

But to ignore why Czechs acted so cruelly 50 years ago is to be trapped in the Balkan logic of endless recrimination and reprisal.