It was one of many ugly episodes in 1945. On a summer day in Horní Moštenice, a small town in central Czechoslovakia, 265 people, including 120 women and seventy-four children, were dragged from a train, shot in the neck, and buried in a mass grave that had been dug beside the local railway station. It was a common enough scene in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II, when Nazi extermination policies threatened entire ethnic groups. But despite the similarity of means and ends, the massacre in Horní Moštenice was different. For one thing, it occurred on June 18, after the war in Europe had officially ended. Moreover, the perpetrators were Czechoslovak troops, and their victims were Germans who had been a presence in the region for centuries.
“Better enjoy the war—the peace will be terrible” went a popular joke during the Third Reich. While, after 1945, almost all Germans presented themselves as the true victims of the Nazi regime, the peace was perhaps most brutal for the more than 12 million Volksdeutsche: German speakers living outside the borders of the Reich. The vast majority of the Volksdeutsche in Eastern Europe had greeted Hitler’s conquests as a form of national “liberation.” They benefited materially from the plunder of their Jewish, Czech and Polish neighbors, and even if they sometimes resented their loss of autonomy (as when Germans from the Reich secured choice jobs and property during the Nazi occupation), they rarely protested. After the Nazi defeat, the Volksdeutsche fled or were expelled to the West, and were stripped of their citizenship, homes and property in what R.M. Douglas calls “the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history.” Douglas amply demonstrates that these population transfers, which were to be carried out in an “orderly and humane” manner according to the language of the Allies’ 1945 Potsdam Agreement, counted as neither. Instead, he writes, they were nothing less than a “massive state-sponsored carnival of violence, resulting in a death toll that on the most conservative of estimates must have reached six figures.”
Orderly and Humane is not, as it boasts, the first book “in any language to tell the full story” of the expulsions, nor is it “based mainly on archival records of the countries that carried out the forced migrations”—primarily Poland and Czechoslovakia, but also Yugoslavia, Romania and Hungary in smaller numbers. It is certainly not true, as Douglas claims, that the expulsions have “largely escaped the notice of historians today.” Douglas’s own account is based largely on an excellent synthesis of the extensive existing scholarship on the topic by American, British, German, Polish and Czech scholars, along with untapped English and French language sources found in the archives of the British Foreign Office, the US National Archives and the International Red Cross in Geneva, complemented by a smattering of previously well-mined records in Czechoslovakia and Poland.
At the heart of this story are pressing and unresolved philosophical and political questions—about the validity of collective guilt and the extent to which one can justifiably respond to evil with evil. As Douglas points out, the behavior of the Volksdeutsche during the war was certainly no worse than that of the vast majority of Germans in the Third Reich, who did not lose their property, citizenship or livelihoods in the postwar period. Between the extreme poles of collaboration and resistance in occupied Eastern Europe, there were many shades of accommodation, acquiescence and complicity. Recent scholarship on the occupied East has revealed the extent to which ordinary Eastern Europeans welcomed, participated in and profited from the deportation of Jews during the war. Slovakia, a Nazi satellite state, was the first Axis partner to deport its Jews, with only a single member of the Slovak parliament dissenting from this policy; Slovak troops participated in the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Yet relatively few Slovaks were punished for collaboration after the war.