Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R.M. Douglas
Douglas begins this book by with a focus on the Munich Conference of 1938, and the actions taken thereafter by Edvard Beneš. The result of Munich was the Nazi annexation of the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, the portion of Czechoslovakia bordering Germany and populated primarily by ethnic Germans.
The Sudetenland issue dates to the end of the First World War, and it represents one of the many failures of the Paris Peace Conference after that war:
The German deputies of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia in the Imperial Council (Reichsrat) referred to the Fourteen Points of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and the right proposed therein to self-determination, and attempted to negotiate the union of the German-speaking territories with the new Republic of German Austria, which itself aimed at joining Weimar Germany.
However Sudetenland remained in a newly created Czechoslovakia, a multi-ethnic state of several nations: Czechs, Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles and Ruthenians.
At the Paris Conference (technically Versailles dealt with Germany), Beneš lobbied long and hard to keep these ethnically German territories within Czech territory. Many diplomats from the West at the conference expressed reservations even at that time, yet Beneš was successful – even more than many of his countrymen had dared to imagine. Unfortunately, his victory sowed the seed of opportunity for confrontation:
Adolf Hitler had never ceased to highlight the incompatibility of territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles with the aims for which the Allies had professed to fight the Great War. The existence of Czechoslovakia in its current form, he insisted, was unanswerable proof of the victors’ hypocrisy.
While the term “Munich” as regarding the 1938 conference is today used as a term of derision, at the time it was hailed in all quarters of the West – not only for averting war, but also for correcting one of the well-recognized wrongs committed in Paris nineteen years earlier:
…as the London Times put it, the transfer of territory to Germany had been “both necessary and fundamentally just.”
Édouard Daladier, the prime minister, did not believe that most French citizens would understand why, as the law professor and commentator Joseph Barthélemy put it, there must be a general European war “to maintain three million Germans under Czech sovereignty.”
As for Great Britain, “appeasers” and anti-appeasers” alike agreed that the Sudeten Germans’ claim to determine their own allegiance was justified….Even Winston Churchill told Hubert Ripka, one of Benes’s closest associates, in the summer of 1938 that if he had been prime minister he would have acted as Neville Chamberlain had done….
Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, declared in the House of Lords that even if negotiations at Munich had broken down and a war had resulted, “no body of statesmen drawing the boundaries of a new Czechoslovakia would have redrawn them as they were left by the Treaty of Versailles.”
Gallup polls revealed popular majorities in Britain and France, and a still larger one in the United States, in favor of the Munich Pact.
Beneš, after Munich having departed for the United States, left his homeland with three convictions: first, that there would soon be a world war; second, as a result of this war the Soviet Union would become the leading factor in European affairs, therefore that Czechoslovakia should maintain the closest possible relationship with the USSR; and third, that the postwar would bring about significant political and economic changes such that it would offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete the Czechoslovak national project. To bring this to proper conclusion would require an expulsion of the minorities.
In May 1939, Beneš was able to privately meet with Roosevelt. What he heard from the president certainly must have been a welcome view: as far as the U.S. Administration was concerned, “Munich does not exist.” Separately, the other members of “the Big Three” indicated that they no longer felt bound by the terms of Munich.
Beginning in September 1941, Beneš felt confident enough about his position that he began floating trial balloons regarding the possibility of large population transfers after the war. “Germans, good and bad, European-minded and Nazi-minded, must learn…that war does not pay.” There was “no way other than the way of suffering of educating a social and political community and there never was any other way.”
As he had no significant push-back from the Allies regarding these statements, Beneš felt safe to go further. In a January 1942 article, he declared:
“National minorities…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.” Before speaking of minority rights, it was necessary to “define the rights of majorities and the obligations of minorities.”
He questioned, in light of wartime experiences, whether it was necessary or desirable for minorities to continue in existence. Then he used Hitler’s actions to justify the massive population transfers that would be required throughout Central Europe if his visions were to become reality:
Hitler himself has transferred German minorities from the Baltic and from Bessarabia. Germany, therefore, cannot a priori regard it as an injury to her if other states adopt the same methods with regard to German minorities….It will be necessary after this war to carry out a transfer of populations on a very much larger scale than after the last war.
This discussion was not occurring solely in the mind of the man acting as the Czechoslovak leader in exile. Eden learned that Stalin was also considering such transfers as early as December 1941 regarding the Germans from lands that would be given to Poland after the war. The British Foreign Office, in 1942, suggested that large-scale transfers were “a feasible method of dealing with the European minorities problem.”
As long as the battle in the East was to remain between Germany and Russia, there was certainly an air of realpolitik in these sentiments. Whether Britain was involved or not, the majorities in the regions were certain to take some action on their own account.
However, what is interesting is that these discussions were occurring even as early as 1939 – and certainly before United States entry into the war. From this time until the war’s conclusion, the leaders of the Allied powers met on several occasions. Their underlings met daily. Was there any push-back by the U.S. or Great Britain against Russia on this issue? Anything that suggests that the two Anglo leaders considered such massive population transfers as a horrendous and certain to be calamitous undertaking? While they had some leverage over Stalin, did they at least try to utilize this leverage on behalf of the minorities in question?
Poland eventually followed in the tracks first laid by Czechoslovakia. Certainly at the beginning of the war, Poland’s focus was to regain all territories lost. As it became clear that the Russians would keep what was taken in the east, Poland looked to the west and inevitably to the expulsion of Germans in East Prussia.
Rumors began to circulate that the British government was now falling in to support such forced expulsions. The Sudeten German leader in exile, Wenzel Jaksch, decided the best course was to remain dignified and consistent in his positions in support of his community. The line he had to walk was too thin – on the one hand, to not give the slightest hint that he was a support to the Nazis, on the other to properly place his claims for recognition of national Germans in Czechoslovakia.
The line might as well have been so thin that it need not have existed. Once the war began, the position of Central-European Germans outside of Germany was tenuous at best. To stay neutral only gave the appearance of giving aid to the other side. Overt acts of what is called patriotism in America would be necessary to even give some hope of being allowed to remain in their homes after the war. Yet this would require taking the fight against their national brothers.
That the line was so thin and that the fate of these Central European Germans was virtually sealed before the war began does not explain the robustness by which the Allies approvingly discussed the issue of forced transfers. The comments range from the casual (as if the entire task was equivalent to moving a few families from one city to the neighboring city) to the callous:
Herbert Hoover…called for consideration of what he described as “the heroic remedy of transfer of population” as a means of preventing future European conflict.”
Sumner Welles [recent collaborator with FDR on foreign affairs]…was coming around to the idea that “we should avail ourselves of this moment of world upheaval to effect transfers of population where these are necessary to prevent new conflicts, and thus enable peoples to live under the government they desire, free from racial discriminations.”
…the Oxford historian, A.J.P. Taylor declared that the Czechoslovak state could only be resurrected using the same “ruthlessness” and inflicting “as much suffering” as the Germans had employed in destroying it.
In the House of Lords, Robert Vansittart…applauded Stalin’s robust indifference to questions of guilt or innocence, when driving the Soviet Union’s German-speaking population from their homes in 1941, as a model for the Allies to follow. “He was a thousand times right; five hundred thousand times right….I say these [deportees] were not Hitlerite Germans. They had a quarter of a century’s training in the doctrines of Communism….Nevertheless they were held to be Germans and unreliable.”
Even Lord Robert Cecil, president of the League of Nations Union and an impassioned defender of the rights of minorities between the wars, now agreed that the Sudetendeutsche at least would “have to be removed,” and that their fate should be of no concern to anyone but the Czechoslovak government.
These are not words of concern for those to face the forced relocation to come. These are not words that have a concern to separate the guilty from the innocent. These are words that, in some cases, seem to take pleasure in the pain that will be inflicted – loss of property, loss of dignity, loss of life.
Others did speak in opposition, or at least demonstrated some concern. These concerns were not based on party or economic lines. For example, while leaders in the Labour Party expressed understanding of the necessity for the forced expulsions, the journal Socialist Commentary called attention to…
…the incongruity of trying to preserve in aspic the often artificially defined European frontiers of 1939, the product of centuries of dynastic squabbling and historical accident, for all time….It would have been more fitting…”to bring justice and freedom to the national minorities wherever they chose to live, and not to continue the odious Nazi method of shifting people about like cattle.”
The London-based Economist warned…
That punishment of Germans after the war “must fall on those who are guilty in a moral and not in a racial sense. The Nazis have made racial scapegoats; the Allies must not fall into exactly the same error.”
A year later, the same journal spoke out more forcefully:
If, notwithstanding the Allies’ stated principles, “dismemberment, mass transfers of population, massacre, the permanent oppression of minorities are to be part of the settlement this time, let it be plain from the start that neither Britain nor America will in ten years from the signing of the peace raise a finger to maintain it.
To the extent Britain and the United States could no nothing to prevent the post-war expulsions in Central Europe (which I am not yet prepared to fully assume), at minimum this approach would seem just. Do not provide any support whatsoever to those who would instigate such massive transfers and expulsions. If such work is to be done, the hands of Britain and the U.S. did not need to be involved in the dirt.
In a paper published in 1943, Allan Fisher and David Mitrany offered the following critique:
To claim that this practice was now justified because of the Nazi government’s previous recourse to it, they argued, seemed a curious way of reeducating the German people “at a time when they are being urged to abjure Hitler and all his works.”
They went further, suggesting that this racial purity could only be maintained by hermetically sealing the borders:
…if it is to achieve the ends for which it is advocated the policy of transfer must have as its corollary a continuous policy of segregation. Migration or any free movement of people would have to be prohibited lest it should lead to the gradual creation of new unwanted and irritating minorities.
Discrimination must beget further discrimination if its ends are to be maintained. It seems, further, that discrimination teaches discrimination – exacerbating the so-called original problems and conflicts in the first place. (As an aside, the European experiment began shortly after the war- including the free travel of people from all nations in the participating community. There is something sadly ironic about this.)
It is interesting to consider why and how so many minorities were in so many places throughout Europe at this time before the war. I am certain the answer to this is not a secret – it is just that I have not looked into it.
For all of the horrendous actions taken by many Germans in the period up to and through the Second World War, it is appropriate to remember the wealth of knowledge, art, culture, philosophy, economics, technology, etc., that came out of these regions in the centuries preceding the First World War.
For eight centuries, much of this region was under the authority of The Holy Roman Empire:
The empire's territory was centred on the Kingdom of Germany, and included neighbouring territories, which at its peak included the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Burgundy. For much of its history, the Empire consisted of hundreds of smaller sub-units, principalities, duchies, counties, Free Imperial Cities and other domains.
Perhaps the diversity and limited nature of countless smaller units of government afforded some freedoms that might not have been available under a stronger, centralizing authority. Perhaps this relative freedom was a reason for the flowering of so many disciplines of learning. In any case, I hope someday to understand this better.
In any case, given what little opposition there was to this decision in the West, it was clear the direction the post-war settlements would take. This decision placed the Germans in Czechoslovakia in a terrible position – a Catch-22. To support Beneš and the Czechoslovak government in exile would mean expulsion after the war, and to support Hitler and the Nazis would also mean expulsion after the war. There was nowhere for these three million to turn that offered any hope.
These decisions were all taken and settled by 1943. These were not ad-hoc decisions taken during the chaos of the end of the war. In 1943, the U.S. especially still had tremendous leverage over Stalin if Roosevelt chose to use it. Certainly, Stalin would have broken any deal – but there is no indication that a deal on behalf of these minorities was even attempted. Evan the Slovaks, who had fought alongside the Germans for five years – invading both Poland and the USSR – before rebelling against the Nazis in 1944, were afforded a more secure future after the war.
Thus, the decisions for the expulsion were taken – in some quarters of the West supported enthusiastically, while in others at least tolerated. All Germans were to receive punishment – guilty by accident of birth as opposed to guilty by deed.
It is certainly an efficient way to finalize the issue. Racism often is. It is also one of the most unfair. Millions in Central Europe were soon to be on the receiving end of this decision.