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The Other Horror

AT THE END of World War II, between twelve and fourteen million people, ethnic Germans, were forcibly expelled from Eastern Europe, or, if they had already fled, were prevented from going back to their homes. Many of them were simply bundled on to cattle trucks of the sort previously used to take Europe’s Jews to their fate in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka, and sent westward to Germany without food, water, or adequate winter clothing. Others were detained in appalling conditions in concentration camps for weeks, suffering from disease, starvation, and maltreatment, before they were brutally pushed out to the west. Long lines trudged towards Germany, with the weak succumbing to hypothermia and malnutrition. Altogether probably half a million and perhaps as many as a million perished in what was the largest action of what later came to be known as “ethnic cleansing” in history.

This massive act of expulsion and forced migration is still largely unknown outside the countries most closely affected by it. The story appears in standard histories of Germany and Europe in the twentieth century as little more than a footnote. Calling it to public attention questions the widespread popular understanding of World War II as a wholly good fight by the Allies against the evil of Nazism and German aggression. Unfortunately, history is seldom as simple as that. Until recently, few historians troubled to investigate the expulsions in any depth, and what writing there was on the topic was bedeviled by one-sided narratives of German suffering or Polish or Czech self-justification. But since the fall of Communism and the opening of the archives in these countries, serious and reasonably objective historical research by a new generation of younger historians less affected than their predecessors by national or ethnic prejudice has begun to appear. R. M. Douglas’s Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War draws on this recent work and incorporates archival research in Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic as well as the files of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, and the records of the British and American governments. It is a major achievement: for the first time it puts the whole subject onto a scholarly footing.

The expulsions, as Douglas points out, were no mere act of mass revenge carried out by peoples of Eastern Europe who had suffered under the Nazi jackboot. On the contrary, they were ordered by the Allies, and planned long before the war came to an end. The mistreatment of ethnic minorities before and during World War I in the Habsburg and Ottoman empires had led not just to a determination in the international community to guarantee their rights, but more importantly to a decision to cut through the problem by creating unitary national states. As the Tsarist Empire, itself no mean oppressor of minorities such as the Poles, fell apart, the Western Allies found meaning in the continuing conflict by declaring one of its objectives to be the realization of the democratic principle of “national self-determination.”

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, however, the seemingly simple and obvious idea that every nation should have the democratic right to elect its own government foundered on the intractable realities of centuries-old patterns of ethnic and religious diversity in East-Central Europe, and ran up against the requirements of security and viability for the new states created out of the wreckage of the old. Almost every one of them contained substantial national minorities. Naturally the peacemakers did their best to incorporate guarantees of minority rights into the settlement, but these proved impossible to enforce.

A case in point was the German-speaking minority in Czechoslovakia—three million people who made up nearly a quarter of the new Republic’s total population. The historic borders of the Kingdom of Bohemia included these people, and without them the new state would have lacked vital industries and defensible borders. Czech nationalism, already very passionate before 1914, was too strong a force to admit the German-speaking minority to equal rights, though liberal Czech politicians did their best to limit discrimination. And when Eduard Beneš took over as president in 1935, a new, harder note of Czech nationalism was heard, sparking a new radicalism among the German minority, who soon flocked to support the Sudeten German Party of Konrad Henlein. By 1937 this had become a Nazi front, dedicated to subverting the integrity of the Republic and opening it to German invasion and occupation.

During the wars, Beneš pushed aside the Sudeten German Social Democrats, led by Wenzel Jaksch, whose advocacy of a multinational postwar state was effectively suppressed. Jaksch is something of a hero to Douglas, though it has to be said that the amount of support he commanded among Sudeten Germans by 1939 had shrunk to an almost irreducible minimum, and it is doubtful whether his policy would have commanded much support among them even later on, after the war. Beneš convinced the Western Allies that the continued presence of a large German minority in Czechoslovakia would saddle the state with a million or more “young, incorrigible Nazis” who would be a major potential source of destabilization. “National minorities,” he declared in 1942, “are always—and in Central Europe especially—a real thorn in the side of individual nations. This is especially true if they are German minorities.” He won further sympathy for this point after the German destruction of the town of Lidice and the murder of its inhabitants as a reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. By the middle of that year, the British government had accepted the principle of the transfer of German-speaking minorities out of Eastern Europe, a principle strongly supported by the Labour Party that came to power in 1945.

Hitler’s exploitation of the grievances of national minorities also extended to Poland, which before 1918 had been divided between Russia, Germany, and Austria. The interwar Polish state included a Ukrainian population amounting to 14 percent of the whole, along with 2.3 percent German-speakers, who suffered increasing discrimination by the Polish nationalist regime. These had also been used by Hitler as a “fifth column” of subversives whose oppression, cynically exaggerated by Nazi propaganda, provided the excuse for invasion in 1939. All this made the presence of recalcitrant national minorities seem a permanent threat to the peace and integrity of national states in the retrospective vision of Allied planners for the postwar European order.

Hitler also planned to create an ethnically homogenous Germany by expelling the Jews, and then, during the war, to extend it a thousand kilometers to the East, exterminating millions of Jews and allowing between 30 and 45 million Slavs to perish through hunger and disease according to the infamous “General Plan for the East,” which became official Nazi policy in 1942. As part of Nazi policy even before the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, hundreds of thousands of Poles were thrown out of their farms and businesses without compensation to make way for a potential half-million or more ethnic Germans brought “home to the Reich” from Eastern Europe and the Baltic States under the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, along with a quarter of a million more from Hungary and Romania.

Increasingly exposed to attacks by Polish or Communist partisans, the settlers began to flee westwards in large numbers as Soviet forces advanced towards the end of the war, following ethnic Germans who had fled the Black Sea region, the Ukraine, Romania, and Yugoslavia in 1943-44 to escape the retribution of the Red Army. Germans in the occupied Czech lands, conquered by the Americans only at the very end of the war, did not have time to flee, and most of them in any case did not see the necessity. As Douglas notes, they entirely failed to understand that their occupation of confiscated property and their privileged status under Nazi occupation where non-Germans were discriminated against, expropriated, starved, and terrorized “had traumatized and radicalized the societies of which they were a part.”

The chaos and violence that had accompanied previous twentieth-century forced population transfers, notably between Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s, should have sent a warning signal to the Allied politicians who now set about organizing the removal of ethnic Germans from East-Central Europe. But it did not. Douglas describes in detail how policy was made on the hoof and constantly revised as negotiations about Europe’s postwar boundaries evolved. Warnings of the suffering that the transfers would entail were brushed aside by politicians anxious not to seem soft on the Germans, or alternatively dismissed by them as unduly pessimistic. Only a few commentators, such as George Orwell, warned that an “enormous crime” was about to be committed, “equivalent to transplanting the entire population of Australia.” Nobody listened.

Very late in the day, towards the end of 1944, it became clear that Stalin would hang on to the territory in Eastern Poland he had annexed in 1939 under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and that there was no alternative to compensating the postwar Polish state with the territories to the west, in Silesia and up to the rivers Oder and Neisse, that had been part of Prussia and later Germany for years, decades or even centuries. The Red Army was in occupation and Stalin held all the trump cards. All the Allies could do at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 was to ratify a fait accompli.

Already, millions of ethnic Germans had fled the onrushing Red Army, whose soldiers raped, looted, and killed German civilians as they went. The situation was made more desperate still by Stalin’s own expulsion of Poles from the areas annexed by the Soviet Union, which now became overwhelmingly Ukrainian in ethnic composition. Forced out to the west, the Poles had nowhere to go except, in the view of the new Polish authorities, to areas inhabited by the remaining ethnic Germans. Neither the Czech government-in-exile nor the Polish authorities backed by Stalin had made any coherent plans for the expulsions. But in the late spring and summer of 1945 they both sent in troops, police, and militia to initiate a process that, in Douglas’s view, has been misunderstood as a series of spontaneous acts of revenge by local inhabitants but in reality was centrally planned and directed.

True, there was a brief wave of popular violence against Germans after SS units had continued fighting to the very end of the war, and in a few instances afterwards—but even this was in many cases instigated by police or militia, as in the case of Brno, where at least 300 ethnic Germans were killed at Kaunitz College in May and June 1945, Germans were publicly tortured to death on a sports field, and 28,000 were rounded up and taken on a “death march” to the Austrian border, where they were dumped in a series of makeshift camps without proper supplies or sanitation. Shocked witnesses compared such events to the atrocities of the Nazis, and a few politicians urged restraint, but no concrete action was taken to control the violence.

Even though Brno, as Douglas notes, was exceptional in the extremism of its violence, politicians such as Ludvík Svoboda, Minister of Defense in the Czech government and later the country’s president, called for “the complete expulsion from Czechoslovakia of all Germans, even those so-called anti-Fascists, to safeguard us from the formation of a new fifth column.” With encouragement of this kind, local authorities acted on their own initiative, sometimes helped by the Red Army or the Czechoslovak armed forces. Germans had to wear a white square on their chest, labeled “N”for Nemec (German), echoing the yellow badge and star or “J” that Jews had been forced to wear by the Nazis, but the process of identifying them was frequently arbitrary and involved the offloading of many local rivalries and resentments.

Whole towns and villages with a mainly or wholly German population were emptied and their inhabitants forced out of the country. In Poland, where the German occupation had been far harsher, such reprisals were, perhaps surprisingly, far less common, and Polish troops even protected German women from the Red Army as it swept through the country, its troops indiscriminately raping any women they found, especially if they were German. Far more violent was the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Yugoslavia and Romania, though endemic corruption in the latter country meant that it was possible to bribe officials to allow a casual Romanian passer-by to take one’s place on the transport to Germany.

In many cases, the expellees were not pushed out directly but spent a period of some weeks or months in internment camps, where the authorities had begun to place them already well before the end of the war. Some of these were improvised, while others had already been used as camps by the Nazis. These included the concentration camps at Majdanek and Theresienstadt, and indeed Auschwitz, where a gap of less than two weeks separated liberation by the Red Army from the influx of the first ethnic German inmates. There was soon a vast network of these detention centers: ninety-six in Yugoslavia alone, for example. Around a quarter of a million ethnic Germans were imprisoned in camps in Czechoslovakia. Often the inmates were used on forced labor schemes to make good the devastation caused by the war. Conditions in the camps were atrocious, with poor supplies and hygiene, sadistic beatings, torture, disease, malnutrition and murder. In the camp at Łambinowice, in Poland, some 6,500 inmates had died by the time it was closed in 1946, many of them arbitrarily shot on the orders of the commandant.

Camp administrations were massively corrupt, with commandants selling the labor of the inmates to nearby businesses or taking bribes in return for safe-conduct to the border. Often, camp commandants and guards explicitly tried to replicate the conditions of the German camps in which they themselves had been held. Not even in the German camps, however, had sexual exploitation and sexual violence, rape, and the sadistic sexual abuse of female inmates been committed on the scale that Douglas documents for Czech and Polish camps. British and other Allied journalists and officials who tried to publicize this dire situation had no impact on politicians anxious not to be seen to be soft on the Germans. Czech and Polish crowds demonstrated publicly in support of detention. Only a handful of the camp commandants and guards were ever brought to justice.

In no country was there any serious resistance to any of this on the part of the Germans, most of whom were old people, women, and children, the vast majority of the men having been killed or taken prisoner in the war. By midsummer, more than 5,000 Germans were arriving every day in Berlin from Czechoslovakia on trains filled with the dead and dying, the sick and starving. More than half a million arrived in July alone. More came by road, thrown out of their homes and robbed of their possessions under blows, curses, and the threat of death. These expulsions and the accompanying chaos and violence caused widespread shock and disgust among Western observers in Berlin, and helped to persuade the Allies at the Potsdam Conference to sanction further expulsions only on the condition that they were “orderly and humane.”

On November 20, 1945, it was agreed that the Soviet zone of occupation of Germany would take 2,750,000 Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia, the American zone 2,250,000 from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the British zone 1,500,000 from Poland, and the French one 150,000 Sudeten Germans, and that the expulsions would be done gradually, in stages, to be completed in July, 1946. This agreement undermined the position of State Department officials who wanted the American government to condemn the expulsions. In 1945-46 Washington still gave priority to punishing the Germans for the crimes of Nazism. Still, the agreement promised to mark a transition from the “wild expulsions” of 1944-45 to a phase where they would be carried out in a more centralized, more controlled, and therefore more rational manner.

Yet the “organized expulsions” of 1946-47, as Douglas notes, “defied the efforts of the countries involved to impost any kind of order on the process.” Deporting millions of people in the space of a few months and with minimal resources devoted to the operation was a recipe for chaos. The Allied Combined Repatriation Executive achieved a great deal despite these hindrances, laying down rules and regulations to ensure safe passage, stop the spread of epidemic disease, and arrange proper reception facilities. But the expelling countries were in a rush to rid themselves of unwanted minorities before the Allies called a halt to the deportations, so these conditions were frequently disregarded. The expulsions degenerated into a shambles, with huge numbers of sick, malnourished, and debilitated elderly expellees arriving poorly clad and without food or supplies, and trains disgorging corpses or people so ill they had to be taken straight to hospital, to the disgust of many of the receiving Allied officials.

Often the deportees’ baggage had been impounded or stolen at the point of embarkation. Corruption was rife, with confiscated equipment being sold to the next trainload of deportees, and bribes to Polish officials getting deportees transported in better conditions, granted exemption from luggage restrictions, or moved to a place at the head of the queue. “Antifascists” were deported along with the supposedly dangerous majority, and Zionist groups took the opportunity to supply money and fake documents in order to get Jews classified as Germans and removed from Poland to Germany on their way to Palestine. Fit young males were frequently kept behind for labor service. But these were a small minority, and the sheer scale of the deportations overwhelmed the receiving authorities, not least as Hungary, though treated as a former enemy state, jumped on the expulsionist bandwagon, too.

By 1947, American officials were complaining about the chaos and warning that it was time to stop regarding “occupied Germany as a waste-paper basket with a limitless capacity for the unwanted waste of the world.” Germany had its own massive problems of reconstruction, with towns and cities devastated by Allied bombing during the war, inadequate supplies of food and fuel, rampant inflation under the influence of a flourishing black market, and widespread malnutrition and high rates of disease and mortality amongst the German population, especially during the hard winter of 1946-47. Millions of expellees were severely exacerbating these problems and diverting scarce resources from their solution at a time when the Western Allies were beginning to worry about the appeal of Communism to the beleaguered Germans and starting to think that it was more important to rebuild Germany’s economy and society rather than to continue to punish its people for the crimes of Nazism.

Many Allied officials were outraged at the terrible conditions the deportees had to endure in the camps and on the transit trains. And with the rapid deepening of anti-Communist sentiments in the United States as the Cold War took hold on policy and opinion and East-Central Europe fell under Stalinist dictatorships imposed by the Soviet Union, the expellees came to be defined, as the head of the US Displaced Persons Commission declared, not as potential “fifth columnists” but as “oppressed victims of a Godless dictatorship.”

The expulsions left a gaping hole in the societies from which so many millions had been so hurriedly removed. Farmland was left abandoned, houses unoccupied, and there were even (as the London Times correspondent reported on a tour of the Sudetenland in the summer of 1947) “whole villages without an inhabitant.” In one Czech district, twenty-two villages out of a total of twenty-nine were allowed to fall derelict, and in many areas farmland was converted to forest. The deserted areas descended into looting, banditry, violence, and crime. The Czech and Polish governments lost control of the redistribution of confiscated German properties, and government ministers often took over German villas for their own private occupation. Often the same people became rich, as the Economist magazine noted in July 1946, “by looting the property first of murdered Jews and then of expelled Germans.” Red Army troops looted and plundered as well, and gunfights were reported between units squabbling over abandoned German property. As settlers gradually came in, the inducements they were offered by their governments proved insufficient, and the evacuated areas became bywords for agricultural poverty and industrial decay.

Astonishingly, however, the millions of ethnic German expellees, far from becoming a disruptive element in postwar West German society, integrated seamlessly into it within a few years. Of course the vast majority were angry and resentful and desperate to return to their former homes, and the pressure-group they founded, the Bund der Heimatvertriebenen und Entrechteten (literally the League of People Driven from their Homes and Deprived of their Rights) soon began to exert an influence in West German politics. But West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer cleverly took the wind from its sails by raising a new tax, the so-called Lastenausgleich, to compensate the expellees for their losses, setting up a special ministry to deal with them, and giving them eligibility for social insurance.

In foreign policy Adenauer vociferously demanded the return of the territories annexed by Germany’s eastern neighbors and insisted on the expellees’ right of return. He realized that these demands were unrealistic, but he persisted with them because he knew they won him the expellees’ political support. Massive propaganda underlining their sufferings helped create a feeling of sympathy among West Germans and aided integration. Above all, however, the so-called “economic miracle” in West Germany gave them, in little more than a decade, a much better material life than they had ever enjoyed before. Initially housed in camps, including former Nazi concentration camps, they were given help by the churches (whose role is underestimated by Douglas) and by the state, and benefited from the massive program of homebuilding. By the early 1960s their unemployment rate had fallen to little more than the average in West Germany as a whole.

Yet the expulsions left a legacy of bitterness and resentment that endures to the present day. Douglas rightly dismisses claims that they were carried out humanely, or that they were justified because the expellees were themselves guilty of atrocities against the occupied populations of Eastern Europe under Nazism, or that they were inevitable consequences of mass popular hatred against Germans triggered by the brutality of Nazi rule. On the contrary, they were the product of political machinations and government policies that could have been prevented or reversed. Carefully avoiding the use of the voluminous and self-evidently biased materials produced by expellee organizations and indeed by the Adenauer government, he uses Polish, Czech, and Allied sources to drive home his argument with conviction. “Expulsions,” he concludes, ‘”are not practicable unless they are carried out quickly; and if they are carried out quickly, they cannot be carried out humanely.”

Recent proposals for the creation of “ethnically homogeneous” populations in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia for example are recipes, says Douglas, for a repeat of the disaster that befell Central Europe at the end of World War II. And though he does not say so, a lesson of this book is surely that the principle of national self-determination proclaimed at Versailles in 1919 led to untold suffering in Europe during the following thirty years—suffering that underlines the need for all states and societies to be tolerant of ethnic, religious and other minorities rather than trying to expel, convert or suppress them. This important, powerful, and moving book should be on the desk of every international policymaker as well as every historian of twentieth-century Europe. Characterized by assured scholarship, cool objectivity, and convincing detail, it is also a passionate plea for tolerance and fairness in a multicultural world.

Richard Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College at Cambridge University and author of The Third Reich at War, published by the Penguin Press in 2009.