Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2004 / 19 Shevat, 5764

Thomas Sowell

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The brotherhood of men | Those of us who believe in the brotherhood of man have to be able to accept the negative, as well as the positive, aspects of that belief. For example, a stupid and counterproductive idea that catches the fancy of one part of the human race in one part of the world in one era is likely to have a fatal attraction to other people in other places and times.

One such dangerous notion is the idea of being able to undo the wrongs of history. History is so full of wrongs that there are almost unlimited ways to go wrong trying to correct them.

Back in the 17th century, when Czech nobles revolted against the Hapsburg Empire, the crushing of their rebellion was followed by a confiscation of their lands, which were then transferred to German nobles. Whatever the rights or wrongs of that episode, the Czechs thought it was wrong.

Fast forward now to the twentieth century. After the First World War, the Hapsburg Empire was dismembered and the new state of Czechoslovakia was created. One of its national aspirations was expressed by one historian as being "to correct social injustice" and to "put right the historic wrongs of the seventeenth century."

Czechs were now to get preferential treatment, at the expense of the country's German minority. The Germans, of course, objected. Their outraged protests were suppressed by force, and some of them were shot and killed in the process.

The net result was a polarized country with an embittered minority in the 20th century — all because of trying to right the wrongs of the 17th century.

No matter who was right and who was wrong in the 17th century, they were all dead and nothing within the power of man could bring them justice in this world. Symbolic restitution could only create new problems among the living.

The German minority, living in the region of Czechoslovakia adjacent to Germany, became so alienated that they eventually demanded that their region be transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany.

By this time, the Nazis had come to power in Germany and Hitler backed this demand. This provoked an international crisis that was resolved in 1938 when Britain and France caved in to Hitler and backed the German demands, leaving the Czechs with no choice but to trade land for an illusory peace.

Within months of getting part of Czechoslovakia, Hitler took all the rest. Within the conquered country, the shoe was now on the other foot and the German minority lorded it over the Czechs, backed by the power and the racial ideology of the Nazi conquerors.

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Past injustices again led to present injustices.

When Germany lost the war, the German minority within Czechoslovakia paid the price. They were expelled en masse, suddenly and brutally, with thousands of German men, women and children dying in the process.

Winston Churchill protested in vain against these expulsions "on a scale grievous and undreamed-of" and said, "we must banish revenge against an entire race from our minds."

Now, in the 21st century, those Germans and their descendants are still trying to get the right to return to the Czech Republic and reclaim homes and property that they had been forced to abandon during the mass expulsions.

Relations between today's Germany and today's Czech Republic — both consisting mostly of people who were not even born when any of these events happened — are strained because of unresolved problems growing out of attempts to right the wrongs of the 17th century.

The brotherhood of man means that these were not just the special peculiarities of Czechs and Germans. Halfway around the world, Hindu extremists in India are trying to undo part of their history under Moslem conquerors in centuries past.

Bombay has been renamed Mumbai as part of a symbolic restitution. Far uglier things have also been done, including bloody riots and hideous atrocities costing many innocent lives among both Hindus and Moslems, whether men, women or children.

Americans hearing the siren song of collective restitution today might well look at what such attempts at restitution have produced in other places and times, especially if they believe in the brotherhood of man.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)


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