Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R.M. Douglas
As I did with Hoover’s volume on U.S. foreign policy before, during, and after the Second World War, I plan on writing several posts covering this work by R. M. Douglas. From the introduction:
Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Allies carried out the largest forced population transfer – and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples – in human history. With the assistance of the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments, millions of German-speaking civilians living in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the parts of eastern Germany assigned to Poland were driven out of their homes and deposited amid the ruins of the Reich, to fend for themselves as best they could. Millions more, who had fled the advancing Red Army in the final months of the war, were prevented from returning to their places of origin, and became lifelong exiles….altogether, the expulsion operation permanently displaced at least 12 million people, and perhaps as many as 14 million. Most of these were women and children under the age of sixteen….estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present.
In this book, Douglas compiles for apparently the first time in English a thorough study of one of the least discussed tragedies of the Second World War, and certainly of the immediate post-war period – that of the forced expulsion of Germans from their homelands in former-Germany-soon-to-be-Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Central Europe at the end of the war.
On the most optimistic interpretation…the expulsions were an immense man-made catastrophe….
On this subject, I have considered that the fate of those living within and between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia was hopeless – whether the two powers remained as allies, but especially if they did not. Therefore, when I consider these expulsions and specifically the roles played by the U.S. and Britain, I wonder if any different actions taken by these two western nations would have made any difference. I am hoping to understand this more fully by the time I finish the book, however at minimum Douglas identifies the tragedy as man-made – suggesting “man” could have “made” some other outcome. I also consider that such tragedies, even if unavoidable, do not need to be sanctioned by third parties (e.g. the U.S. and Britain). Here again, I look forward to any enlightenment brought forward by the author.
That this tragedy remains relatively unknown, even among the highest academic circles, is given evidence by the following anecdote provided by the author:
It is, then, entirely understandable why so many of my splendid and learned colleagues on the Colgate faculty should have expressed their confusion to me after reading in the newspapers in October 2009 that the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, had demanded that the other members of the European Union legally indemnify his country against compensation claims by ethnic German expellees, as the price of his country’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. None had been aware that anything had occurred after the war in respect of which the Czech Republic might require to be indemnified.
Douglas gives some reasons why he believes that this episode has received so little attention:
- For Germans, it invites debate about the war-time record of ethnic German minorities living in the subject countries.
- For the citizens of expelling countries, it draws unwanted attention and casts a doubtful light on carefully crafted war-related narratives.
- For citizens of the U.S. and Britain, it draws light to the complicity of their leaders in one of the largest episodes of human rights abuse in history.
Douglas does not add in this context, but elsewhere sheds light on, another possible reason for the relative silence. It is not considered polite in mixed company to show any sympathy toward Germans as regards the Second World War, and especially if it might be juxtaposed to the Holocaust – therefore even the study of such episodes might result in unwanted professional risks. This can be concluded given his need to apologize in advance for the possibility that he might be accused of holding precisely such views:
It is appropriate at the outset to state explicitly that no legitimate comparison can be drawn between the postwar expulsions and the appalling record of German offenses against the Jews and other innocent victims between 1939 and 1945. The extent of Nazi criminality and barbarity in central and eastern Europe is on a scale and of a degree that is almost impossible to overstate.
The author indicates that the Western Allies went beyond acquiescence in the operation, and in fact played an “underappreciated part” in the forced transfers. This point will be important for me to understand as I read through the book – again, life dealt a rotten hand to the people stuck within and between Russia and Germany once Stalin and Hitler came to power. Pain and suffering was certainly a given, whether or not the U.S. and Britain became involved in the war. But acquiescence is one thing – being complicit is quite another.
Douglas assesses the expulsions from their earliest origins – beginning with actions, attitudes and intrigues occurring between and among the principle actors as early as the beginning of official hostilities. He is humble about his accomplishment, suggesting it is only a small step upon which he hopes future scholars will build.
I look forward to his treatment of this terrible chapter in history.