[For long-time readers, this post is a condensed version of several earlier posts on this topic and book. Some new additional information appears, primarily in the last several paragraphs.]
Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, 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 – apparently for 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 throughout central Europe.
On the most optimistic interpretation…the expulsions were an immense man-made catastrophe….
That this tragedy remains relatively unknown, even in 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 appropriate 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 conclusion is suggested given his need to apologize in advance for the possibility that he might be accused of holding such a position:
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.
Douglas begins this book by with a focus on the Munich Conference of 1938, and the actions taken thereafter by Edvard Beneš. When reading this, I wondered about the relevance of Munich to this narrative – these expulsions took place seven years and more after the conference: what is the possible connection? As Douglas will demonstrate, the expulsions were not devised at the last moment, in the chaos of the last days of Berlin, but had been discussed and contemplated by many of the actors – including in the U.S. and Britain –almost from the beginning of the war.
The result of the Munich Conference, as is well-known, 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.
Douglas sheds some light (for me at least) regarding Munich. 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.
The court historians seem to have done a thorough job of burying this part of the story.
Beneš, after Munich, departed for the United States. 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.
Hitler did it, so it must be OK.
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.”
It is interesting that these discussions were occurring even as early as 1939 – and certainly before United States official 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? Douglas offers no evidence to this effect, and instead offers much evidence to the contrary – willing partners were present in both England and the U.S.
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 was 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 [second cousin of Lawrence of Arabia]…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 [cousin of Arthur Balfour], 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 demonstrate a concern to separate the guilty from the innocent. These are words that demonstrate, in some cases, a pleasure in the pain that will be inflicted – loss of property, loss of dignity, loss of life. These are words that justify the coming actions using Hitler as the yardstick of acceptable behavior.
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.”
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. Further, 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, if not curious, about this. As if the message from the state is: you cannot travel freely, unless we say you can travel freely – on our terms.)
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 might have broken any deal – but there is no indication that a deal on behalf of these minorities was even attempted. Many of these Germans were innocent of complicity with the Nazis. 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 than the countless Germans outside of Germany who tried to lay low, especially women and children.
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 efficient solution.
Douglas goes on to explain the detailed planning put in place by the Allies in anticipation of the forced expulsions. This didn’t take him long. In a nutshell, there was no planning. Given that the decisions were finalized not later than 1943, this seems inexcusable.
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 [Armenians in Turkey, Germans in Alsace, previous relocations by Hitler and Stalin] 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 purpose of 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 unanswered (and unasked) questions, so little attention.
In November 1943, the British government took a 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 detailed study taken by any of the countries involved.
The timing is critical: at a time when the United States and Britain had not yet opened a western front, as the Russians were desperate for them to do – D-Day was still to come – 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 point 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 – the Germans in their path would either be killed or flee toward Germany. 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 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 consequences of decisions already 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 (recently voted the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th century), 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 fate of Germans in post-war central Europe, other than to be involved (as would the U.S.) in the coming implementation of the expulsions and transfers.
While many leaders and public figures 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.”
As an aside, the populations involved were approximately equivalent to the current population of any one of Illinois, Pennsylvania, or Ohio. Imagine moving just the residents of Chicago to Wisconsin in a matter of a few months – after having bombed much of the housing and infrastructure of every major city in that state.
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 time, 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 those they failed to take – in regard to the minority problem in central Europe. It was at Potsdam where the Allies agreed formally to an “orderly and humane” expulsion, if for no other reason than a cynical attempt to save face. 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.
Douglas describes the so-called “wild expulsions,” those taken before the west became directly involved, and the subsequent “organized expulsions” – taken after the western allied powers were formally engaged in the process. The treatment of the Germans in the two cases was rather similar. He describes the camps, temporary housing intended for a stay of a day or two that sometimes served the occupants for years, lack of dwellings in Germany, lack of food, the theft of property in the former home, the rapes, the beatings. He describes the packed trains – overstuffed and underfed – sometimes taking a month to make a journey of only a few hundred miles, standing still more often than moving. He describes the bodies frozen to death on the trains in the middle of the winter, with the Allies so anxious to begin their work despite the additional burdens brought on by the harsh climate.
He attributes many of these crimes to official channels. In fact, it was rarely the case that the majority populations spontaneously rose up against their German neighbors – counter to the claims of leaders in the east and to the expectations (or self-rationalizations) of leaders in the west. It was primarily state actors committing the worst atrocities against the expellees. It was not majority neighbor pouncing on his minority neighbor – unless the majority neighbor was afforded sanction and protection by the state via the badge.
It was western leaders agreeing to the methods and timing, involved at every railway station, agreeing to the terms, and looking the other way when terms were not met.
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.
At the end of 1947, Johannes Kostka, a German prisoner of war in a British camp in Egypt, wrote to the U.S. Office of Military Government in Frankfurt. He expressed his anxiety about his wife Gertrud, still in Poland. He had recently received a letter from his wife. In it, she described the despair and depravations that befell her after the war – their baby daughter had already died in 1944 in the chaos of the advancing Red Army. She described four years of agony and pain, including being raped. She became pregnant as a result of this abuse. She explains to her husband that she will now take her life. There is nothing left for her.
Johannes asks the U.S. officials for assistance – please ask the Polish government to expedite her expulsion. As expellees from Poland were to go to the British zone of Germany, the letter was forwarded to the British. In the end, neither the U.S. nor the British involved themselves in her case.
The Kostka case encapsulates the official Western response to the manifest failure of the expulsion project to live up to the “orderly and humane” standards stipulated by the Potsdam Agreement. As in almost every other instance in which the question of ameliorating the sufferings of the expellees arose, the first and overriding consideration was the national interests of the Western powers. The second was a fatalistic prediction that any such action was bound either to fail or to have a positively harmful effect…. Lastly, although the expulsions were taking place in accordance with the expressed policy of the Anglo-Americans and required their willing participation and collaboration, the Western democracies disavowed any responsibility for the suffering that resulted….
Individuals and various non-governmental organizations attempted to at least mitigate the sufferings of the expellees. In this, they flew into the teeth of Western resistance:
The greatest obstacle in their path was the victorious Allies’ insistence that the Volksdeutsche be excluded from any form of international protection or assistance.
Nor was there any agency, national or international, to which Volksdeutsche subjected to inhumane treatment might appeal…the women and children who made up most of the expellee population occupied a legal status far lower than that of members of the SS, who…were protected by the Geneva Convention.
Again, some spoke out. In a letter to the Times, Bertrand Russell compared the actions of the victorious Allies to those of the Nazi defendants then currently on trial:
…Are mass deportations crimes when committed by our enemies during war and justifiable measures of social adjustment when carried out by our allies in times of peace? It is more humane to turn out old women and children to die at a distance than to asphyxiate Jews in gas chambers?...Are the future laws of war to justify the killing of enemy nationals after enemy resistance has ceased?
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 before the events. When they had time for planning and leverage to 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 innocence and guilt. Again, from Douglas:
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 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.