If you have ever thought that the black hole of horrors that was World War II must by now have surrendered all of its ghastly secrets, perhaps it’s time to think again. A recent book by Colgate historian R.M. Douglas has opened, or rather reopened, yet another tortured and largely ignored chapter of that war, a chapter whose specter is still dragging and clanking its chains across World War II battlefields.
In 1944 and the early months of 1945, when the Red Army was driving the Wehrmacht westward through Eastern Europe, it dislodged large pockets of ethnic German settlers who fled before the advancing Soviet troops. The trickle soon became a flood, and by the time the war in Europe ended in May, millions of displaced and now homeless German civilians were on the move with nowhere to go but west.
This was only one of many shifts of population carried out by the Red Army. But from the moment the fighting stopped in early May 1945 another kind of expulsion was unleashed, one that had been concocted during the war and agreed to by governments in London, Moscow, and Washington. From May 1945 until well into 1947 and often beyond, millions more German residents of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary (and, to a lesser extent, of Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia) were stripped of their citizenship and their properties, and driven from their homelands, on foot or by cattle car, with no more than what they could carry, to the occupied zones of a devastated Germany.
Douglas estimates that, counting the refugees from the east, between twelve and fourteen million German civilians either abandoned or were expelled from their homes, their farms, and their factories, making it one of the largest and most disruptive transfers of population in history. And although the expelling countries had been pressed by the Allies to carry out the deportations in an “orderly and humane manner,” the injunction, issued in Potsdam in the summer of 1945, came too late. By then, the deportations had already begun—savage, unsupervised, and largely uncontrolled by any international authority.
The core of Douglas’s book is a carefully researched account of the expulsions themselves, focusing mainly on Poland and Czechoslovakia, where most of the deportations—of about ten million people—took place. Inevitably, there was great cruelty, misery, and death: between five hundred thousand and one and a half million ethnic Germans, many of them women with small children, are thought to have died of starvation, suicide, sickness, or maltreatment. Families were torn apart and many men and young boys, often on the mere suspicion of having been collaborators or members of the Hitlerjugend, were summarily executed and buried in mass graves. “On the most optimistic interpretation,” Douglas writes, “the expulsions were an immense manmade catastrophe, on a scale to put the suffering that occurred as a result of the ‘ethnic cleansings’ in Yugoslavia in the 1990s in the shade.”