Thursday, September 20, 2012

German Expulsions: Door Number One or Door Number Two?

(Door Three Comes Later)

Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R.M. Douglas

As Douglas explains, the Allies made no plans for dealing with the issue of the Germans in countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland (including the to-be-assumed new Polish regions of Germany’s east).  Despite the fact that Germans had lived in these regions for generations, it was agreed that there would be expulsions, but the Allies basically left to circumstance the fate of the German people – most of whom were women, children, and elderly – remaining in these lands, with no serious attempt at separating the guilty from the innocent.

In the time encompassing the final year of the war and the subsequent year or so after the war, in the period of the advancing Red Army and the subsequent occupation of these regions by Stalin’s soldiers or appointed leaders, many Germans in Central Europe were being forced out.

In this time, there was some combination of possibilities awaiting the unwanted Germans.  There were the so-called “wild expulsions,” called wild because they were supposedly organized locally with no central government authorization or oversight, and there were the camps.  Not all Germans were immediately caught up in one or the other, and many were caught in both.

Wild Expulsions – Door Number One

Potsdam, in July 1945, called for an “orderly and humane” transfer of these populations.  By this time, both in Poland and Czechoslovakia, Germans were being displaced.  The same was occurring in Yugoslavia and Romania. The respective governments claimed ignorance for much of this activity; however to Douglas it is clear that this ignorance was feigned.

Disorganized and crude as these operations were, they were neither spontaneous nor accidental.  Instead they were carried out according to a premeditated strategy…devised by each of the governments concerned well before the war had come to an end.

Despite assurances from the Big Three at Potsdam that the expulsions would take place, leaders in Poland and Czechoslovakia did not want to let the opportunity presented by the chaos of the last months of the war and the collapse of the German army to go to waste.  They also had concerns that, as time went on, sentiment for such a massive population relocation would wane – especially as the focus on the war ended and the magnitude of the expulsions took center stage.

This is not to suggest that the governments of Poland and Czechoslovakia, respectively, gave any more thought to the details of the transfer than did the western Allies.  “Instead, most relied almost exclusively on the use of terror to try to stampede the German minority across the frontiers.”   These were not so-called “wild expulsions” as the leaders in the two states would suggest – signifying expulsions by decentralized, uncoordinated mobs.  In almost every case, the expulsions were “carried out by troops, police, and militia, acting under orders and more often than not executing policies laid down at the highest levels.”

Douglas highlights many atrocities committed during this time in Czechoslovakia, for example.  Every violation and atrocity you might expect occurred during these so-called “wild expulsions.”  The revenge and abuse was not limited to those compliant with the Nazis – an old woman thrown from a window, a member of a visiting German orchestra beaten to death because he could not speak Czech, patients in hospitals chosen due to the helpless nature of the targets.

English prisoners of war tried to shield the abused Germans, making themselves very unpopular among the local Czech population.  This, obviously, was not enough to stem the tide.  Douglas lists several specific incidents were dozens, if not hundreds, of Germans in various communities were rounded up and tortured, beaten, raped, and ultimately killed.  Often, these atrocities were committed in the open, for the local population to see. 

Some Czech leaders attempted to bring an end to these daily atrocities.  Any such petition was ignored, and the abuses continued.  During these summer months of 1945, there was never any serious effort to bring order to the process – for the government leaders, the path seemed to be the same on chosen by the Allies: don’t look, pretend the problem isn’t there, it will resolve itself eventually.  At worst, too much pressure would result in temporary embarrassment; the problem with too little pressure is that many Germans might remain.

Many Germans were marched to the border of Austria or Germany – often with no agreement or arrangement necessary for a border crossing.  It was not as if the marches offered respite – these were accompanied by beatings, torture, and rape.  Many died along the way.  As they often did not have permission to cross the border, they were then either marched back, or left in the forest to fend for themselves – still surrounded by a population intent on expulsion, feeling free to heap further abuse.

Not all of the traffic was one way.  At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Germans who had fled the advancing Red Army from the regions soon to belong to Poland returned to their homes.  They learned from Germans heading the other way that there was no longer a home to return to.  As Russia incorporated eastern Poland and deported the local population, these displaced Poles took up residence in the homes previously occupied by the now displaced Germans.

The Germans in Poland faced a fate similar to that faced by the Germans in Czechoslovakia.  General Karol Świerczewski, in urging his Polish troops onward to match the success of the Czechoslovaks, said “One must perform one’s tasks in such a harsh and decisive manner that the Germanic vermin do not hide in their houses but rather will flee from us of their own volition and then in their own land will thank God that they were lucky enough to save their heads.”

As in Czechoslovakia, the expulsions were carried out with a high degree of violence.  Forced marches, molestations of every type against victims of all ages – male and female.  Walking for weeks, living only on food they might gather on the way.  Germans packed in train cars like standing sardines, death and disease the constant companion on a trip taking upwards of two weeks – the trains standing more than moving, a type of mobile camp.

Deportations also took place in many of the surrounding regions – Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.  In some cases, while not forcibly removed, they were forced into a life that made it almost impossible to stay.  Houses were given away, with the former owners fortunate to then be taken in as servants to the new “owners.”

Events very likely to be “false flags” were also introduced to incite both the Allies and the local population to action.  The most infamous was the explosion of an ammunition dump in northwestern Bohemia.  The rumor quickly spread that it was the work of local Germans, and immediately the mobs took to work.  Even before the army concluded its investigation, the Cabinet concluded that it was a “planned sabotage action” – committed by a low-flying aircraft!  The Sudeten Germans aired their suspicions of a Czech version of the Reichstag fire; they thought it coincidental that the event took place during Potsdam.

All such activity was intended to get the German populations to voluntarily leave, deciding that life was too much of a hell on earth in their current location.  The intent was to drive as many out as possible before the Allies became soft on the subject.  As mentioned earlier, one result of Potsdam was an agreement to bring an end to the “wild expulsions.”  Eventually, toward the end of 1945, this practice – especially in Czechoslovakia – began to taper off.

By the late autumn 1945 an agreement was reached – the Allied Co-ordinating Committee in Berlin hammered out numbers by region, to / from, timing, etc.  the expulsion of an estimated 6.6 million Germans was to occur between December 1945 and July 1946 – an average of over 800,000 per month, to begin in ten days with the onset of winter with no prior planning or preparation.  This seemed another document for providing cover and saving face – it certainly was no plan.  The agreement was successful in undercutting the attempts to shed light on the atrocity, while at the same time cementing in stone the complicity of the Allies in the expulsions.

By the end of the “wild expulsions” in December 1945, it is estimated that one million Germans were expelled from each of Czechoslovakia and Poland.  In the same period, in “the eruption of a massive state-sponsored carnival of violence,” the most conservative estimate of deaths attributable to these actions is in the six figures. 

The Camps – Door Number Two

For many of those not yet expelled, their fate led them to camps.  While not including the systematic killings that took place under the Nazis, most other practices could not be distinguished from the Nazi camps to the new camps – with a few additional depravities thrown in for measure.  One such camp was the Linzervorstadt internment camp for Sudeten Germans, with day-to-day operations under one Wenzel Hrneček.

In place of the SS motto Arbeit macht Frei, the Biblical verse Oko za Oko, Zub za Zub (“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth”) was inscribed on the camp gate.

New “inmates” were initiated to the camp by running a gauntlet while naked, beaten with “rubber truncheons, canes, and clubs” along the way.  Punishments for offense as trivial as forgetting to remove one’s cap in the presence of a camp “supervisor” included the Nazi concentration camp procedure of “pole-hanging” – being suspended from a pole by the wrists tied behind the victim’s back.

Josef Neubauer, a Catholic priest detained at the camp until his release in November 1945, relayed the story of his beating – earned for having administered last rites to dying inmates in the infirmary:

…I was made to strip completely naked and was beaten with sticks and fists.  As a result, one of my ribs was broken and my teeth were knocked out.  I then received…another 50 strokes with a length of steel cable, the thickness of my thumb, on my stomach, back, chest, and buttocks.  I was made to count the blows myself.

Rape was a regular occurrence – a rare occurrence for prisoners held in Nazi concentration camps, and, if committed, often resulted in punishment for the offender.  Rape was not random and haphazard, but systematic and often organized – nightly parties arranged in which “fifteen or so young girls would await the arrival of visitors” – Czech and Soviet soldiers would then “take away the prettiest girls, who would often disappear without a trace.”

The camp at Linzervorstadt was not an exception.  Similar atrocities were committed in dozens if not hundreds of camps throughout central Europe.  In many cases, within days or a few weeks of the liberation of Jews in concentration camps, the same camp would be repopulated with Germans.  Auschwitz was one such example.  Some camps included populations of Jews, who, during the war in an attempt to save themselves from the Nazis, registered as Germans. 

The term “camp” covers a broad spectrum – from “concentration camp” due to the purposeful copying of Nazi practices, to “labor camps,” where the inmates were forced to work for an outside business (based on standardized contracts, with the pay often going to the camp master and disputes between businessman and camp master often ending up in court), to detention centers, intended to hold the captives in anticipation of near-term transport – which often was not near-term.

The death rates were quite high – highest during 1945 until the end of the “wild expulsions” – and what could be called a corresponding “wild detention,” as many (but by no means all) of the camps were established outside of any central control. Death rates in the thousands – reported at one-third of a given camp’s population – were not uncommon during this time.

Malnutrition was rampant, even at the least harsh camps.  Food donations intended for camp inmates were regularly routed elsewhere. Visible signs of malnutrition were evident – including cachexia, where the body consumes the long muscles of the arms and legs in a last ditch effort to maintain life.

Such treatment did not go unnoticed – and many locals raised objections to the treatment of the Germans – “a mixture of exasperation and alarm” as is represented here by one Prague resident:

Devil take the Germans!  During the war, they decimated our nation and now, because of them, along comes a fresh scandal….

Let nobody fall back on the excuse that the Germans have done the same things.  Either we are qualified to stand as their judges, in which case we cannot conduct ourselves as they do, or we are no different from them, and give up the right to judge them.

It became increasingly difficult for the West to pretend none of this was occurring.  Too many reports were leaking out, including from the International Red Cross – although even here the reporting was limited to the government and not to the press or the public. 

There was a sad balancing act – one of continuing to appease Stalin, and another to not appear too sympathetic to the Germans.  In the first case, a continuation of the deal with the devil in the cause for war and the purported hope for global post-war peace; in the latter, a guilty verdict on all solely due to race.

Eventually the pressure grew to a point where the International Red Cross was allowed free travel to visit camps throughout Bohemia – this in January 1947, more than 18 months after the end of the war in Europe.  By this time, many of the countries in central Europe self-reported that most of the camps had been shut-down.

Needless to say, there was virtually no punishment toward the perpetrators of these brutal practices.  In the rare cases where a suspect was brought to trial and found guilty, the time served was in the months, if not days. 

Wenzel Hrneček was one such example.  After the Communist coup of 1948, he fell out of favor with the regime and fled to Bavaria, under a new name.  Unfortunately for Hrneček, many of his former victims lived in the region and he was recognized.  Even at this, it was not until 1952 that he was arrested – after even working for the U.S. Army in Munich.  He was convicted on eighteen counts, sentenced to eight years – three of which were suspended – and served a total of six months, released upon the condition that he leave the Federal Republic of Germany.

In Poland, the track record of prosecution was even less than in Czechoslovakia.  Little was done during the communist era.  As late as 1990, Poland attempted to extradite one of the suspects from Israel, but Israel refused on grounds that there was “no basis to charge Mr. Morel with serious crimes….”Elan Steinberg, former director of the World Jewish Congress, asserted that the efforts to prosecute Morel were a politically motivated attempt by Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis to “relativize” Germany’s crimes against the Jews.

The author recognizes the evidence regarding Morel’s guilt is overwhelming, at the same time recognizing that there is no parallel between Nazi camps and the worst of these post-war camps for Germans. Yet, he suggests this is no excuse to turn the other way when justice is concerned:

…the threshold for acknowledging mass human rights abuses for what they are cannot be the unprecedented barbarities of the Hitler regime.

Sadly today the pendulum has swung the other way, with every petty tyrant referred to as the next Hitler in an attempt to conjure the horror and fear in the population necessary to support action.

Douglas laments the lack of attention this crisis realized in both Europe and throughout the world:

That it largely escaped the attention of contemporaries elsewhere in Europe, and the notice of historians today, is a chilling commentary on the ease with which great evils in plains sight may go overlooked when they present a spectacle that international public opinion prefers not to see.

I have previously listed reason why it is impossible to refer to World War Two as “the good war.”  While absolutely not the worst chapter in the book of western involvement in this war, this chapter should not be ignored.


  1. Thank you for writing an enlightening series on the aftermath of WWII, as reported in Douglas's book Orderly and Humane.

    Today I read a book review on Liberty Law that made me think of your series:

    Title: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II
    Author: Keith Lowe

    This book presents a horrific portrait of Europe's travails in the years following WWII. I searched your site for "Savage Continent" but found no matches, so this book may be new to you. It sounds like an excellent companion to Douglas's Orderly and Humane. There is bound to be some redundancy, but I expect each book has its own unique stories, analyses and interpretations, and objectives, making them both worthwhile reads.

    I will be ordering both books. Thanks so much for bringing this topic to my attention!

    1. Thank you for the kind words and the book recommendation. The more I dig into the entire story of WWII, the more the whole thing stinks.

      I apologize for leaving your comment in limbo for so long. Trouble with the help!

    2. No apologies needed: I am so tardy myself that my mom says I wasn't even born until after my first birthday.

      I am always pleased to find a new topic to study, and you make me aware of interesting perspectives. I often think of something you have written when reading other blogs. Just within the past few weeks I found that someone mentioned Hoover's book and his opinion of FDR's policies. I immediately thought of what I had learned from your site -- and I felt so superior to already have a good background in the subject. Thanks!