Daily Archives: 18 May 2021

Elusive Property Rights in Eastern Europe

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 160-161:

My own experience of private property and that of people I know leads me to understand that both “private” and “property” are vague and very relative categories in my part of Europe. There are many reasons for this, ranging from political and economic changes through social ownership and war to ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust.

Watching the Hungarian movie 1945, directed by Ferenc Török and released in 2017, is perhaps the best way to understand at least one aspect of this; good films sometimes make such things possible. It begins with two strangers, Orthodox Jews, disembarking from a train at a small railway station in the middle of nowhere. They have two big boxes with them, almost like coffins. The railway station worker takes his bicycle and departs for the village in a great hurry to deliver news of their arrival. Meanwhile, villagers prepare for the wedding of a son of a local businessman who took over the local shop after the Jewish owners were transported to a concentration camp. As the two new arrivals approach the village on foot, the news spreads and people panic. They are afraid that the two Jews are coming back to reclaim the property of their relatives, who had been deported a year or two before. In the meantime everything has been stolen by the villagers—the shop, the tavern, the houses. Why are these two returning? And what is in their big boxes? Maybe the goods they want to sell once they have taken back the shop? Everybody took part in the plundering, so everybody has reason to fear the two strangers approaching. . . .

This black-and-white movie, in a style close to that of a documentary, shows the collective fear of the return of rightful owners, and how it destroys a community built on lies, denunciations and theft.

But this happened all over Eastern Europe and not only to Jews. Some three million ethnic Germans were expelled or had to flee their homes during the aftermath of World War II from the part of Czechoslovakia annexed by Hitler in 1938. Of course, local people promptly moved into those vacated houses. When thirty years later, two strangers suddenly appeared in a local tavern in a small village there, they were met with an awkward silence and suspicion. Perhaps these two men came because they wanted their family’s property back? But they were only two journalists in search of a good story, who, as it happens, got a unique chance to experience firsthand the mistrust of those living in and from stolen property.

When do wars really end? It seems that wars continue to live on in property documents, in doubts, nightmares and fears for generations.

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Filed under Eastern Europe, economics, migration, nationalism, religion, war