In the Wake of World War II: The European Atrocity You Never Heard About

In the largest episode of forced migration in history, millions of German-speaking civilians were sent to Germany from Czechoslovakia and other European countries after World War II by order of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union – Publisheed on Global Research.ca, by Prof. R.M. Douglas, June 29, 2012.

… Between 1945 and 1950, Europe witnessed the largest episode of forced migration, and perhaps the single greatest movement of population, in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians—the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16—were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland.  

As The New York Times noted in December 1945, the number of people the Allies proposed to transfer in just a few months was about the same as the total number of all the immigrants admitted to the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. They were deposited among the ruins of Allied-occupied Germany to fend for themselves as best they could. The number who died as a result of starvation, disease, beatings, or outright execution is unknown, but conservative estimates suggest that at least 500,000 people lost their lives in the course of the operation.

Most disturbingly of all, tens of thousands perished as a result of ill treatment while being used as slave labor (or, in the Allies’ cynical formulation, “reparations in kind”) in a vast network of camps extending across central and southeastern Europe—many of which, like Auschwitz I and Theresienstadt, were former German concentration camps kept in operation for years after the war. As Sir John Colville, formerly Winston Churchill’s private secretary, told his colleagues in the British Foreign Office in 1946, it was clear that “concentration camps and all they stand for did not come to an end with the defeat of Germany.” Ironically, no more than 100 or so miles away from the camps being put to this new use, the surviving Nazi leaders were being tried by the Allies in the courtroom at Nuremberg on a bill of indictment that listed “deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population” under the heading of “crimes against humanity.”

By any measure, the postwar expulsions were a manmade disaster and one of the most significant examples of the mass violation of human rights in recent history. Yet although they occurred within living memory, in time of peace, and in the middle of the world’s most densely populated continent, they remain all but unknown outside Germany itself. On the rare occasions that they rate more than a footnote in European-history textbooks, they are commonly depicted as justified retribution for Nazi Germany’s wartime atrocities or a painful but necessary expedient to ensure the future peace of Europe. As the historian Richard J. Evans asserted in In Hitler’s Shadow (1989) the decision to purge the continent of its German-speaking minorities remains “defensible” in light of the Holocaust and has shown itself to be a successful experiment in “defusing ethnic antagonisms through the mass transfer of populations” … //

… Today we have come not much further than Fye did in acknowledging the pivotal role played by the Allies in conceiving and executing an operation that exceeded in both scale and lethality the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It is unnecessary to attribute this to any “taboo” or “conspiracy of silence.” Rather, what is denied is not the fact of the expulsions themselves, but their significance.

Many European commentators have maintained that to draw attention to them runs the risk of diminishing the horror that ought properly to be reserved for the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities, or giving rise to a self-pitying “victim” mentality among today’s generation of Germans, for whom the war is an increasingly distant memory. Czechs, Poles, and citizens of other expelling states fear the legal ramifications of a re-examination of the means by which millions of erstwhile citizens of those countries were deprived of their nationality, liberty, and property. To this day, the postwar decrees expropriating and denationalizing Germans remain on the statute book of the Czech Republic, and their legality has recently been reaffirmed by the Czech constitutional court.

Some notable exceptions aside, like T. David Curp, Matthew Frank, and David Gerlach, English-speaking historians—out of either understandable sympathy for Germany’s victims or reluctance to complicate the narrative of what is still justifiably considered a “good war”—have also not been overeager to delve into the history of a messy, complex, morally ambiguous, and politically sensitive episode, in which few if any of those involved appear in a creditable light.

By no means are all of these concerns unworthy ones. But neither are they valid reasons for failing to engage seriously with an episode of such obvious importance, and to integrate it within the broader narrative of modern European history. For historians to write—and, still worse, to teach—as though the expulsions had never taken place or, having occurred, are of no particular significance to the societies affected by them, is both intellectually and pedagogically unsustainable.

The fact that population transfers are currently making a comeback on the scholarly and policy agenda also suggests that we should scrutinize with particular care the most extensive experiment made with them to date. Despite the gruesome history, enthusiasts continue to chase the mirage of “humane” mass deportations as a means of resolving intractable ethnic problems. Andrew Bell-Fialkoff, in a much-cited study, has advocated population transfers as a valuable tool so long as they are “conducted in a humane, well-organized manner, like the transfer of Germans from Czechoslovakia by the Allies in 1945-47.” John Mearsheimer, Chaim Kaufmann, Michael Mann and others have done likewise.

Few wars today, whether within or between states, do not feature an attempt by one or both sides to create facts on the ground by forcibly displacing minority populations perceived as alien to the national community. And although the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has attempted to restrain this tendency by prohibiting mass deportations, Elazar Barkan maintains that such proscriptions are far from absolute, and that “today there is no single code of international law that explicitly outlaws population transfers either in terms of group or individual rights protections.”

The expulsion of the ethnic Germans is thus of contemporary as well as historical relevance. At present, though, the study of many vital elements of this topic is still in its earliest stages. Innumerable questions—about the archipelago of camps and detention centers, the precise number and location of which are still undetermined; the sexual victimization of female expellees, which was on a scale to rival the mass rapes perpetrated by Red Army soldiers in occupied Germany; the full part played by the Soviet and U.S. governments in planning and executing the expulsions—remain to be fully answered. At a moment when the surviving expellees are passing away and many, though far from all, of the relevant archives have been opened, the time has come for this painful but pivotal chapter in Europe’s recent history to receive at last the scholarly attention it deserves. (full long text).

(R.M. Douglas is an associate professor of history at Colgate University. This essay is adapted from his new book, published by Yale University Press, Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War).

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