A Brutal Peace: On the Postwar Expulsions of Germans

A Brutal Peace: On the Postwar Expulsions of Germans

A Brutal Peace: On the Postwar Expulsions of Germans

Did postwar population transfers complete a project of ethnic cleansing started by Hitler?


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. 

Given Douglas’s reliance on British and American sources, as well as his decision not to rely on testimony from the victims, whose accounts are still vulnerable to claims of bias and exaggeration, it is not surprising that his most original and valuable contribution here is his focus on the complicity and responsibility of the Allies. “While the expelling countries were undoubtedly guilty of wholesale violations of human rights, the Western democracies were equally implicated in the catastrophe that was unfolding before them,” he argues. Nor did the Allies support this massive experiment in demographic engineering out of naïveté. Douglas shows that instead they consciously rejected “the unanimous advice of experts who had predicted with great accuracy the state of affairs their policies would produce.” Through purges, trials and population transfers, the victors dispensed justice crudely and unevenly at the end of the war, as they sought to achieve particular political and economic outcomes. These included creating homogeneous nation-states in Eastern Europe in the name of peace and security, but also compensating the Soviet Union for its tremendous human and material sacrifices during the war.

* * *

But for the victors’ calculations to be understood entirely, we actually have to turn back the clock even further, to the end of World War I. Woodrow Wilson arguably bears as much responsibility as Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt and Czechoslovakia’s president, Edvard Beneš, for the postwar spree of ethnic cleansing. In 1918, the remnants of the multinational Habsburg and Ottoman empires were carved into sovereign nation-states, in accordance with the Wilsonian ideal of “national self-determination.” As Hannah Arendt perceptively argued, the world stood convinced in 1918 that “true freedom, true emancipation, and true popular sovereignty could be attained only with full national emancipation, and that people without their own national government were deprived of human rights.” 

The problem with this principle was that borders and nations were not neatly aligned in Eastern and Central Europe. Citizens of the Habsburg Empire’s many linguistic, national and confessional groups were hopelessly intermingled. In many cases it was not even clear who belonged to what nation, because so many citizens of the empire were bilingual or indifferent to nationalism. Equally important, in spite of the rhetoric of national self-determination, the frontiers of the new successor states had been drawn with geopolitical imperatives in mind. Even though German speakers formed an absolute majority in the borderlands of Czechoslovakia (which would come to be known as the Sudetenland), and most wanted to join the Austrian rump state, the region was forcibly annexed to Czechoslovakia for the sake of the state’s economic viability. 

A new so-called “minority problem” was born in interwar Eastern Europe, with German speakers and Jews ranking as the largest minority groups. While all of the successor states were forced to sign minority protection treaties (much against their will) and the League of Nations was charged with enforcing them, such treaties held little purchase on the ground. Czechoslovakia, which still enjoys a reputation as the most liberal, democratic and “Western” state in interwar Eastern Europe (and styled itself the Switzerland of the East), launched a “colonization” scheme to populate the German territories with large Czech families. It also arbitrarily fired German civil servants, closed German schools and, in many cases, forcibly reclassified self-declared Germans as Czechoslovak citizens on the census in order to shrink the official size of the German minority.

The presumed link between democratization and nationalization in 1918 enabled Eastern European leaders to justify such policies in the name of democratic values. And if minority protections offered one potential “solution” to the “minority problem,” the failure of these protections led many policy-makers to embrace the more radical alternative of forced population transfers. All told, between 1918 and 1948, millions of people were uprooted to create homogeneous nation-states: Greeks were swapped with Turks, Bulgarians with Greeks, Ukrainians with Poles, Hungarians with Slovaks. Certainly, population transfers were more “humane” than the wholesale extermination suffered by Armenians and Jews. But surely there are choices other than extermination and ethnic cleansing?

The existence of a large, disgruntled German minority in Eastern Europe ultimately provided Hitler with a welcome pretext to overrun the region in the name of “liberating” Germans in the East. The Nazi regime also justified its brutal campaign to “Germanize” occupied Eastern Europe as a way of exacting reparations for the decades of denationalization allegedly suffered by the Volksdeutsche between the wars. The Third Reich simultaneously launched an ambitious plan to bring Germans “home to the Reich,” by transplanting hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans from the USSR and Tyrol to its newly annexed Polish territory and assigning them to homes, businesses and farms recently expropriated from deported Poles and Jews.

* * *

Ironically, then, the postwar population transfers completed a process of segregation and ethnic cleansing that Hitler himself had begun. Planning for the so-called “transfer” of Germans from the East began well before World War II ended. Indeed, Czechoslovakia’s President Beneš actually offered Hitler a secret deal on September 15, 1938: 6,000 square kilometers of Czechoslovak territory in exchange for the forced transfer of up to 2 million Sudeten Germans to the Third Reich. Hitler never replied. Beneš first publicly declared his support for the “principle of the transfer of populations” in September 1941, and then proceeded to lobby the Allies successfully for their approval of the expulsions throughout the war. The fate of more than 7 million Germans in Poland was meanwhile sealed by Stalin’s territorial ambitions, approved by the Allies at Yalta and Potsdam; when he gobbled up Poland’s eastern territories, he compensated the Poles with a large chunk of eastern Germany. These territorial “adjustments” were to be accompanied by massive population transfers that would, once and for all, create homogeneous nation-states out of territories that had long been mosaics of overlapping linguistic and national groups. 

One of Beneš’s first acts as president in 1945 was to issue decrees stripping Germans, Hungarians and collaborators of both their citizenship and their property. The anti-fascists among them could theoretically apply to have their citizenship reinstated, but very few were successful. There was a widespread consensus among the Czechoslovak population and officials that even anti-fascist Germans had to go, because their children would surely grow up to be traitors. Ludvík Svoboda, the Czechoslovak defense minister and future president, called for “the complete expulsion from Czechoslovakia of all Germans, even those so-called anti-fascists, to safeguard us from the formation of a new fifth column.” Jewish concentration camp survivors were expelled as well, based on the perverse argument that they had contributed to the “Germanization” of Czechoslovakia during the First Republic.

Yet neither Nazi race scientists nor their Czechoslovak counterparts after the war could easily distinguish between Germans and Czechs, or Germans and Poles. As George Kennan, the American diplomat, noted of one Bohemian town shortly after the Nazi occupation in 1939, “It became difficult to tell where the Czech left off and the German began.” Legally, a person’s declaration of nationality on the 1930 census was decisive in Czechoslovakia, but there were a multitude of problem cases. Several hundred thousand people, for example, had declared themselves German during the Nazi occupation, only to attempt to reclaim Czechoslovak nationality after the war. Thousands more were entwined with Germans in mixed marriages. 

* * *

The so-called “wild” or spontaneous expulsions in Czechoslovakia began almost immediately after liberation, in May to June of 1945. But there was nothing “wild” about this first wave of what Czech officials referred to as národní ocista (“national cleansing”). These expulsions, which resulted in the removal of up to 2 million Germans from Eastern Europe, were planned and executed by troops, police and militia, under orders from the highest authorities, with the full knowledge and consent of the Allies. Eastern European and Allied observers alike remarked on the utter passivity of the victims, the majority of whom were women, children and the elderly (most German men had been drafted during the war and either killed or interned in POW camps). But the “wild expulsions” were justified as self-defense on the basis of exaggerated or invented reports of ongoing resistance activity by Nazi “Werewolf” units. One of the most infamous postwar pogroms was sparked by the accidental explosion of an ammunition dump in Ústí nad Labem in northwestern Bohemia in July 1945. Most of the victims of the explosion were themselves German, but local workers, Czechoslovak Army units and Soviet troops wasted no time blaming Werewolf sabotage and taking revenge. Germans were beaten, shot and thrown into the Elbe River; many observers recall a baby carriage being thrown into the river with a baby inside. The massacre resulted in at least 100 deaths.

During the “wild” expulsions, lucky expellees were given a few hours’ notice and taken on foot by force to the closest border with only the clothes on their back. The unlucky were interned in concentration and forced labor camps organized explicitly on the Nazi model. At least 180,000 ethnic Germans were interned in Czechoslovakia as of November 1945; another 170,000 were interned in Yugoslavia. The internees included many women, children and even several thousand German-speaking Jews. In many cases, former Nazi concentration camps and detention centers like Terezín/Theresienstadt were converted overnight into camps for ethnic Germans. At Linzervorstadt, a camp administered by a former Czech internee of Dachau, the motto “Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth” replaced Arbeit macht frei on the camp gates. Inmates were stripped naked and shorn of their hair upon arrival at the camp, forced to run a gantlet while being beaten with rubber truncheons and then, during their stay in the camp, systematically flogged, tortured and made to stand at attention in all-night roll calls. Interned women throughout Czechoslovakia and Poland were subject to rampant sexual abuse, rape and torture. Germans were also forced to wear armbands or patches marked with the letter “N” for Nemec (German)—collective payback for the humiliation that the Nazis had inflicted on populations in the East. When they were finally transported west, the expellees traveled by cattle car, sometimes going with barely any food or water for up to two weeks. One victim recalled that each morning, “one or more dead bodies greeted us…they just had to be abandoned on the embankments.”

As Douglas demonstrates, German expellees did not fare much better during the supposedly “organized” transfers supervised by the Allies under the terms of Potsdam. He describes a typical “organized expulsion” from the Recovered Territories of Poland to Detmold in Westphalia in February 1946. Out of 1,507 expellees in the transport, 516 were children. Many were barefoot because the expellees had been allowed only ten minutes to prepare for their departure, insufficient time for parents to find their children’s shoes. The Red Army had generously provisioned the travelers with a bit of coffee, a pound of bread and some sugar for a journey that lasted ten days.

Rations for Germans in liberated Czechoslovakia were officially set at the level allocated to Jewish concentration camp inmates during the war, but often sank even lower (even though the Czechs had enjoyed rations almost equal to those of the Germans during the war). This resulted in extremely high infant mortality rates. As of September 1945, some 10,000 children under the age of 14 were still interned in Czechoslovakia. An average of one child per day under the age of 3 died in the Nováky camp in Slovakia in July 1945; out of 110 children born in the Potulice camp in Poland between the beginning of 1945 and December 1946, only eleven survived to be expelled to Germany.

* * *

In a situation not unlike the earlier deportations of Jews by the Nazis, the pace of internment and expulsion was driven in part by a massive scramble for property, as Polish and Czech “gold-diggers” and “carpetbaggers” from the interior rushed to seize the best land, homes, furniture and businesses of the expelled Germans. In both Poland and Czechoslovakia, Communists controlled the ministries of the interior and agriculture and had a strong presence on local government committees. This advantage enabled them to use the distribution of German property “to buy, if not the support, then at least the acquiescence of citizens in their continued rule,” Douglas argues. The Economist reported in July 1946: “A new Lumpenbourgeoisie has grown up mushroom-like during the war by looting the property first of murdered Jews and then of expelled Germans.” The Red Army, too, carried back east everything portable, from German machinery and livestock to axes and scythes, in an operation partly outlined by Potsdam and partly pure plunder. 

The territories from which the Germans were expelled quickly gained a reputation as a lawless “Wild West,” even as Communist authorities dreamed of transforming these borderlands into model socialist societies. Instead, the evacuated regions typically became socialist dystopias, eerie ghost towns and blighted landscapes renowned for environmental devastation rather than socialist modernity. The Czechoslovak government stripped the borderlands of raw materials in a program of rapid industrialization and left them in ruins. The massive influx of expellees into occupied Germany, which was experiencing one of the most severe housing crises in human history, caused further suffering. The Dachau concentration camp continued to house German expellees until 1965.

But while the vast majority of expellees were bitter and desperate to return home, and small numbers joined revanchist pressure groups, most made peace with their lot. Konrad Adenauer, the Christian Democratic chancellor of the Federal Republic, smartly raised a new tax to compensate expellees, created a new ministry to assist them and offered them social insurance. By the early 1950s, Germany was experiencing the so-called economic miracle that contributed considerably to expellee integration. And as the 1968 generation in West Germany began to interrogate the Nazi past and embrace Willy Brandt’s conciliatory Ostpolitik, the expulsions became a taboo subject and expellee pressure groups more isolated and marginal.

It is difficult to imagine a German or Czech finding the public space in which to write this book, given the topic’s ongoing political sensitivity in Central Europe. Even as histories of German “victimization” during and after World War II have multiplied in the last decade, such histories remain suspect among the many who see them, understandably enough, as an attempt to mitigate the Nazis’ crimes against humanity. Douglas calls for both a historical and commemorative approach that does not relativize Nazi brutality or ignore the context in which the expulsions of the Volksdeutsche took place, but instead focuses “squarely on the human person, which both in 1939–45 and 1945–47 was reduced to an abstract category rather than recognized as an all too vulnerable individual.” This is a laudable goal, but it does not resolve the underlying tension between the project of commemoration, with its selective focus on victimization and memorialization, and the documentary and interpretive goals of historical scholarship. 

Douglas also condemns the arguments that justify or normalize the expulsions, which still carry weight among some political scientists. The population transfers were not, he rightly argues, necessary or justifiable because of intense popular hatred of the Volksdeutsche—in fact, spontaneous retaliation was uncommon, and occurred in Czechoslovakia and Poland mostly when responsible authorities either abetted or participated in the violence. Nor did population transfers prevent the outbreak of a Third World War; instead, the Allied occupation of Germany did. And the punishment meted out to the expellees was not a just form of retaliation, because revenge does not equal justice. Douglas denounces the refusal of Czechoslovak officials to revoke the Beneš decrees, as well as the ongoing lack of redress for the expellees themselves. As recently as 2002, Czech courts reaffirmed the validity of a 1946 law that retroactively legalized “just reprisals for actions of the [German] occupation forces and their accomplices…even when such acts may otherwise be punishable by law.” This statute continues to prevent the investigation or prosecution of any murder, rape or torture of Germans that took place in Czechoslovakia prior to October 28, 1945, when the first postwar Czechoslovak parliament was reconvened.

* * *

Orderly and Humane contributes to the ongoing reassessment of the immediate aftermath of World War II, highlighting the dark, violent side of liberation. Accounts of ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitic violence, rape and plunder that occurred after the Nazi defeat challenge our most cherished ideas about World War II as a “good war.” They also shatter any notion that 1945 was a Stunde Null, or “zero hour,” a moment of spiritual conversion in which many Europeans were born again as believers in the creed of democracy and human rights. And they force us to re-examine the liminal years of 1945–48 on their own terms, asking which aspects of Nazi ideology were actually discredited by the experience of the Nazi occupation, and which persisted beyond the Third Reich’s defeat.

Knowledge of the wholesale massacre of European Jewry certainly did not discredit anti-Semitism in Europe (or the United States, for that matter). After the war, pogroms and plunder drove the vast majority of surviving Jews in Poland, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to flee to occupied Germany, of all places, and the protection of the Allies. Even Allied authorities saw Jewish survivors as undesirable immigrants, often offering asylum to Baltic and Ukrainian former SS members—now rehabilitated as victims of Communism—rather than to Jews. Above all, the experience of Nazi occupation did not discredit nationalism or the policies of ethnic cleansing. Eastern Europeans and the Great Powers alike emerged from the war more confident than ever that reconstructing a peaceful Europe required purging states of their national minorities, strengthening their sovereignty and restoring the national honor that had been compromised by the Nazi occupation. 

Douglas concludes by calling the expulsions a “tragic, unnecessary, and, we must resolve, never to be repeated episode in Europe’s and the world’s recent history.” But, of course, the tragedy of ethnic cleansing has been repeated many times over since 1945. To this day, the phrase “nation building” is used interchangeably with “state building” in the Western press, conveying the impression that democratic states are built on the foundation of ethnically homogenous nations. While the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia, did not explicitly endorse ethnic cleansing—and, in fact, contained provisions to protect minority rights—they brokered a peace by allocating sovereign territories to Serbs, Croats and Muslims. This, in turn, ratified the ethnic cleansing that had already occurred, reinforcing the assumption that homogeneous nation-states are a precondition for stable democracies. That presumption continues to shape foreign policy, and to find support among serious scholars. In reality, the historical record has shown that national antagonism and violence are often the product, rather than the cause, of population transfers, and that ethnic cleansing is the prelude to a brutal peace.

In “The Noble and the Base” (Dec. 3), John Connally examined Poland during the Holocaust.

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