Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R.M. Douglas.
The forced migration of Germans after the war was certainly the largest forced migration in history, and likely the largest migration of any kind in such a short period of time. For Allies that were supposedly fighting for the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter, it is striking how many of these commitments were abandoned when it came to the affected populations.
In any case, it is worth considering the preparations that were made by the Allies in advance of this event, given that the subject was considered and discussed several years before the end of the war. The Allies had even recent precedent to draw upon – Hitler and Stalin each executed similar population relocations – in order to take measure of the lessons learned. Giving consideration to the preparations made by the Allies will not take long. Little if any attention was paid to even the most basic issues that would eventually need to be confronted if these objectives were to have any meaning.
Among the most remarkable aspects of the expulsion was the deliberate refusal of those who carried it out either to seek to learn the lessons of those previous examples or to make any preparations, of however rudimentary a character, for an enterprise whose disruption to the normal life of central Europe was second only to that caused by the war itself.
For the war, entire populations of the warring countries were mobilized. Every department of the state was set on war footing. For the expulsions, virtually nothing. So many questions, so little attention.
Who was a German? What of guilt or innocence. How do we concentrate the populations in preparation for transport? How much personal property can the expelled population take with them? What would happen to the property left behind?
How would they be moved? The Allies had spent much of the war years successfully destroying these same transportation networks that must now be utilized for the transfers. Where would they be housed upon arrival in Germany? The Allies spent the last several years destroying much of the housing – at times, indiscriminately.
How would they be supported and fed during transit and upon arrival? What about jobs? The German economy would be a shambles even for the local population, let alone the untold millions to be transferred. Most of the transferees spoke little or no German, having lived elsewhere for generations in some cases.
Finally, what to do with this new disgruntled German population, dispossessed of property, forcibly moved from home? Uprooted and embittered with no ties to the community, might they become a new threat, sowing the roots of disruption and even war?
It will take much longer to outline all of the shortcomings in preparation. Given the magnitude of the situation, it is noteworthy that virtually no preparations were made in anticipation of the eventuality. It is not that the Allies did not appreciate the enormity of the task, but that they gave it little weight at all.
The Allies viewed the transfers as one step toward a reeducation of the German population; they considered that resources would be better spent on the victims of German aggression rather than on the Germans; any organization established for the planning and overseeing of the transfer would certainly eventually lobby for adjustments to the transfer program, in favor of the transferees – this would be bothersome, to say the least. Finally, the Allies saw this as an opportunity to redraw the map of Europe – regardless of the costs and risks to the subject populations.
The twentieth century saw other such forced transfers. For a time this tool seemed to provide the answer for conflict. During the Great War, the Russians sent 750,000 ethnic Germans into the interior and away from the front. Eventually, the same would be done to several ethnic minorities. During the same war, the Ottomans drove out a million or more Armenians into the deserts of Syria, with half or more of those forcibly removed dying as a result.
At the end of the First World War, France did the same in the region of Alsace-Lorraine – dividing the populations into four groups ranging from unquestionably French to most likely German. This region had gone back and forth between Germany and France over the recent years, and it seems this was the method by which France would finally settle the issue. After this same war, Turkey drove out a million Greeks and many of the remaining Armenians before a truce was concluded in 1922. This conflict between Turkey and Greece was “resolved” via a population transfer between the two states – Greeks going west and Turks going east.
Of course, such schemes introduced more injustice than any purported justifications for the implementation. What of individual guilt or innocence? What of property rights? The danger of thinking of people in groups is that they are then thought of in groups. Punishment for the Germans in Alsace-Lorraine – even those who have lived peacefully in the region for generations; Armenians in Turkey, regardless of individual circumstance; and soon to come – all Germans throughout central Europe to be forcibly moved regardless of individual culpability in any actions of the Third Reich. All were deemed guilty – merely be being the other.
Treating people as individuals takes effort – such is possible for individuals, almost impossible when the state enables and encourages force. Creating enemies of an entire group is the foundation of bigotry and ultimately genocide. The Allies were going to teach all Germans a lesson – during the war, some Germans committed atrocities, forced expulsions, and genocide; for this we will commit atrocities, force expulsions, and genocide on all Germans, regardless of culpability. Germans (as a whole) were to be punished by the same acts (committed by a subset) that earned their punishment.
This is childish on the extreme – to teach you how it feels to be hit, I will hit you. Beating me is wrong, and for punishment I will beat you. But it is even worse – the beatings in retribution are not even to those who committed the crime; they are to be administered to anyone who is considered part of the “group.”
All people in and between Germany and Russia during the time of the war were in for abuse during and after the war one way or another – most for no crime more significant than the happenstance of living in the region. This is bad enough to have to live through in one lifetime. However at the end of hostilities, certain groups were to be shown retribution for actions not their own. This was the lesson to be taught by the Allies. Somehow, this was justice.
During the early stages of the war, both Britain and the United States seemed to be opposed to such relocations schemes as a method of conflict resolution in Europe. Churchill saw that “the forcible transfer of large populations against their will into the Communist sphere” would “vitiate the fundamental principles of freedom which are the main impulse of our Cause.” As to the United States – despite the treatment of the native population – there was an example of immigrant populations successfully being absorbed into American life.
At some point before the end of the war, these sentiments would vanish. War fatigue? Perhaps. But if victory in the most demanding war in history was to result in outcomes such as these – against the stated principles of the victors – what was the point of entering the war in the first place?
With the expulsions now agreed by the Allies, it would seem appropriate to plan – to answer the many questions that arise as part of this massive undertaking. The United States did not plan, considering it a European problem.
The British carried out a detailed investigation in February 1942. The transfers were considered to be a massive undertaking. An international agency should be placed in direct control of the operations. A time period of five to ten years would be necessary given the condition of the transportation network of central Europe and the other demands placed on this network at the same time. It would be more likely ten years given the war-damaged state of the infrastructure and the need to prepare infrastructure on the receiving end of the transfers – in addition to the housing demands of the transferees, much of the existing housing stock in Germany had to be rebuilt due to the destruction brought on by Allied bombings.
It was recognized that the expelling states would likely not want to wait ten years, so the need for concentration camps in Germany should be considered – in order to house the transferred populations until adequate housing and employment could be developed. No action was taken based on this investigation.
One and one-half years later, in November 1943, the British government took one further study on the detailed practical aspects of the coming expulsions and transfer –a full year or more after the decision was taken by the Allies on this course. It was the only such study taken by any of the countries involved.
The timing is critical: at a time when the United States and Britain had not yet landed on the continent as the Russians were desperate for them to do – D-Day was still one summer away – there was an opportunity for leverage on Stalin regarding the questions of borders and populations. At Tehran, Roosevelt instead demonstrated his sympathy for Stalin’s geopolitical aims in Europe, and Churchill followed with his infamous “three matchsticks” performance (using the matchsticks to demonstrate and propose the shifting of both the east and west borders of Poland to the west). Stalin was delighted.
I do not pretend to believe that, had Britain and the United States secured some concessions from Stalin at Tehran, Stalin would have stuck to his word once hostilities ended (raising again the question of why the west would ally with such an actor). The issue is that no attempt was even made to come to a humane answer. In fact Churchill – who was treated insultingly by Stalin at the beginning of Tehran, and therefore perhaps looking to get back in his good graces – is the one who brought the matchsticks!
There were some who felt (or hoped) that the fate of those in central Europe would already be settled by the end of the war, thus relieving Britain of any responsibility in the issue. The rapid advance of the Red Army would be the motive force behind this hope. Others rightly saw that this “Pilate-like stance” might not be possible, as the British government would certainly carry responsibility for the policy decision.
Still others gave consideration to even more sinister possibilities. One Sir Orme Sargent of the Foreign Office suggested that “the future of these [expelled] people is much less likely to attract attention and give rise to political agitation if they disappear into Siberia.” This and other similar suggestions were soon dismissed, thankfully.
This committee report, a result of the November 1943 study, identified the numerous difficulties presented by this unprecedented endeavor. Despite the many significant issues raised, in hindsight the report understated the enormity of the task and the potential consequences. Even at this, the report proved far too gloomy for the politicians who commissioned it.
When members of the Armistice and Post-War Committee met to discuss it in July 1944, the general response was one of disbelief and anger.
Disbelief and anger are often responses when the truth of decisions made are too uncomfortable to be faced. Uneducated objections to the report were raised. When these objections were addressed with detailed responses, the conclusions were ignored. Clement Attlee, who chaired this committee, went even further. He was a prime proponent of the idea that all Germans, regardless of guilt, must be made to feel the weight of punishment for their so-called “national” crime. He would advocate punishment as far as possible, only limiting the punishment to avoid bringing “serious embarrassment or injury to ourselves…everything that brings home to the Germans the completeness and irrevocability of their defeat is worthwhile in the end.” Presumably, any horror brought upon the German deportees – many women and children – would be acceptable to Attlee as long as these horrors did not reflect too poorly on the British government.
With Attlee as committee chair, needless to say considerations of the expulsion were given little further attention. If punishment was to be handed out to all, the less consideration given to details the better. With no sponsor in the cabinet, the report went no further, and was not discussed again after January 1945. With this, it seems the British government washed their hands of the situation of Germans in post-war central Europe.
Some grabbed at any hint that Germans were fleeing by the millions in advance of the Red Army. These “suggestions” were accepted by the political leadership of both Great Britain and the United States – despite suggestions from the Foreign Office that such reports were not plausible and should not be relied on. The politicians believed the reports anyway, presumably in order to assuage any feelings of human concern and to otherwise further ignore the issue.
All of this was fine for Stalin. The lack of a plan by the West only left the door open for Stalin to implement his wishes. Stalin worked with sympathetic forces in both Poland and Czechoslovakia to ensure that actions favorable to the Soviets would be taken when necessary. He began during the war to transfer many Poles from eastern Poland – from the area he desired to incorporate into Russia – to the west, thus ensuring the assistance of the Polish leaders to push for the western border of Poland to be moved to the west as far as possible, in order to replace land taken by Stalin. The Western leaders remained ignorant of these maneuvers.
The Western Allies began to grasp the magnitude of the situation by the time of the Moscow Conference in October 1944. By then, much of the situation was determined. In any case, Churchill did not want to press Stalin, making it clear that the maintaining of the alliance with the Soviets was of paramount importance (after falling out of Stalin’s graces once before, perhaps Churchill didn’t want to risk this a second time. This seemed to be Roosevelt’s position also – stating that the United States Government would raise no objections to the Polish desires to remove the national minorities, and would, as far as practicable, facilitate such a transfer.
While many leaders were almost nonchalant about the situation, some spoke out strongly against this policy. George Orwell demonstrated more awareness of the logistical difficulties and human costs than many of the politicians:
This is equivalent to transplanting the entire population of Australia, or the combined populations of Scotland and Ireland.
He raised questions of the logistics and transportation; he questioned the numbers that would die during the process. He called the expulsions an “enormous crime.”
Republican senators in the United States demanded to know when the Atlantic Charter of 1941 had been abrogated. Among other objectives, this Charter held that territorial changes would accord with the freely expressed will of the people. Every aspect of the expulsions – not only regarding the Germans, but the Poles from eastern Poland – would fly in the face of this objective.
All such objections were ignored. Churchill and Roosevelt were determined, above all else, to maintain alliance with the Soviets. Roosevelt had visions of the future United Nations, and this organization would be meaningless without Soviet participation – Roosevelt either acting purposely blind or quite ignorant about the nature of Stalin and the communists.
By this point, and certainly by the time of Potsdam in July 1945, all that was left for the Western Allies was to find a way to rationalize to themselves the decisions taken – or failed to take – in regard to the minority problem in central Europe. Just a few miles away from the location where the conference was held, overloaded trains were disgorging themselves of the dead and dying transported from the east. Suddenly, when it was far too late to make any difference, statements were made by western leaders in support of the German minorities, directly opposite to the positions taken even a year earlier, seemingly to provide cover for the tragedy unfolding before them.
On the expulsion issue, Potsdam resulted in some cover for the western Allies. First was the transparent authorization of giving Stalin’s Polish minions “a provisional administration” over the territories in question. “Provisional” only served a purpose for public consumption, all parties knowing full well that provisional meant final.
Second was an agreement to temporarily halt the expulsion, in order to give time for the respective governments to further study the issue. Study the issue? They had done little of this in the preceding years knowing that the question would have to be faced eventually. Now, three months after conclusion of the fighting in Europe, a study was to be undertaken?
In any case, the expulsions continued – what are called “wild expulsions” because these were supposedly done outside of formal state control. Whatever was said in Potsdam regarding the expulsions mattered not. Actions that should have been taken years before were not possible to take at this late date. The best that could be said of this effort by the western Allies was that it was an attempt to provide cover for their failings.
There were those in the west who attempted to place the entire blame of the unfolding tragedy on the Soviets. The Soviets certainly earned their share of the blame. However, Britain and the United States ignored this issue for three years or more. When they had time and leverage to do some planning and reach some agreements, they did nothing – in fact they encouraged Stalin and his minions in their quest for cleansing.
They rejected the experts who had studied the issue. They rejoiced that all Germans would be made to know suffering and pain, receiving a proper re-education. They cared not about distinctions of innocent and guilt.
They had encouraged their allies to carry out, and promised their cooperation in accomplishing, deeds for which they would later prosecute their enemies as war crimes….When making the choices they did, they went in with their eyes open.
I have no better summary to offer.