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Kicking the Germans Out of the East

Sudeten Germans being expelled from Czechoslovakia, 1945


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.”

Yet in the West, the memory of this inglorious coda to the war in Europe has largely been forgotten or suppressed. Douglas refers to several recent histories of Germany that scarcely mention it or ignore it altogether, leaving him with the impression that, for some historians at least, the expulsions “occupy a less important place in modern European history than the cultural meanings of football hooliganism or the relevance of the Trabant automobile as a metaphor for East German society.”1

Reasons for this silence, or indifference, are not hard to find. In the first place, as Douglas is careful to point out, the wrongs inflicted on the expelled Germans pale before the catastrophic atrocities committed by the Nazis during their twelve-year reign of terror. Indeed, those very atrocities, and the collusion of some ethnic Germans in them, were justification enough for the architects of the expulsions, who were not deterred by the fact that a great many of the ethnic Germans came from families who had lived in the eastern countries for centuries but were given little or no opportunity to prove their innocence of any wrongdoing.

With a few honorable exceptions—notably George Orwell who, when news of the planned deportations leaked out in early 1945, called the idea an “enormous crime” and predicted it would end in disaster2—there was little public concern in the West over the ethics or the logistics of the expulsions, and little sympathy for the expellees, who were mostly lumped in with the vanquished enemy and therefore, at the very least, were considered guilty by association. Douglas quotes a letter to the London Daily Herald from September 1945 that he says typified British public opinion at the time: “Enemies remain enemies in spite of the cessation of [hostilities], and anything done by us to alleviate [the deportees’] well-earned misery is against British interests.”

In the end, the euphoria of victory, the scramble to rebuild, and the looming cold war combined to draw a veil over the expulsions and most of the world soon forgot about them. The problems they left behind, however, did not go away; instead they burdened Europe with a legacy as divided as the postwar world itself.

In the occupied zones of West Germany, the surviving refugees, in the face of hardships and resentment, began forming community associations called Landsmannschaften. At first the Allied authorities tried to prevent these groups from morphing into political parties, fearful that any concerted expression of their desperate needs and powerful resentments would endanger the transition to democracy. But when the German Federal Republic was established in 1949, Konrad Adenauer, as its first chancellor, wisely allowed the expellees to organize politically, and then encouraged the most successful of their parties to join forces with his Christian Democratic Union. Eventually, the Landsmannschaften faded as a disruptive political force. The “economic miracle” of the 1950s hastened integration even further.

In the Soviet zone, soon to become the German Democratic Republic, the displaced Germans were called “resettlers,” presumably to avoid any hint of violent expulsion to which the Soviet Union had been a party. Without political or economic freedoms, there could be no real solution to their travails apart from various forms of subsidized assistance. When all else failed, the authorities simply declared their problems solved and swept matters under the rug. Those who wished to do more for themselves left. Before the Wall went up in August 1961 it was relatively easy to escape to West Germany via Berlin, and over 800,000 people took that way out. But the issue remained taboo, so much so, Douglas says, that when the East German playwright Heiner Müller staged a play in East Berlin called The Resettler Woman in 1961, he and his entire cast were arrested on opening night. Müller was expelled from the writers’ union and his director spent two years of “re-education” in a coal mine.

In general, however, the Allies’ worst fears—of widespread social unrest, intractable social problems, the resurgence of extremist politics—did not come to pass, and by the time the two Germanies reunited in 1990 the issue of expulsion had faded into the background. Today, according to a study from 2005, the expellees and their descendants make up about a quarter of Germany’s population, and although one of the few remaining sore points is that many Landsmannschaften still keep a demand for the return of their lost properties in their statutes, there appears to be little chance of this ever happening.

In what Czech historian Vilém Prečan calls “a cruel irony of history,”3 most of the German expellees ended up in circumstances of freedom. The countries that had expelled them, however, although technically on the winning side of the war, faced a very different future as Communist parties, run from Moscow, seized power in the late 1940s and clung to it for the next four decades. Since those ruling parties had played a leading role in driving the Germans out and redistributing their properties, they saw the expulsions as a crucial step in their rise to power, while official Communist historiography came to interpret it in a far more palatable way, as a bold step forward into true, undiluted nationhood. By the 1960s, the odsun (transport), as it was called in Czech, or the wysiedlenie (displacement) in Polish, had, in the minds of most people, become a morally neutral, unexamined fact.

This benign, nation-building version of the expulsions remained unchallenged until the late 1970s when a Slovak historian, Ján Mlynárik, wrote a groundbreaking essay called “Theses on the Resettlement of the Czechoslovak Germans,” in which he advanced a heretical idea: that the very brutality of the expulsions, and their dubious legality, had made Czechs and Slovaks more vulnerable to communism. The expulsions, he wrote, had been

a massive, practical, everyday training in contempt for the notion of the human person, his dignity and his rights…. [A] nation that behaves brutally towards others will itself succumb to the poison of these crimes.

Mlynárik’s essay was unpublishable in Czechoslovakia, except as samizdat, but it was smuggled out of the country and appeared, under the pseudonym “Danubius,” in the Paris-based Czechoslovak émigré journal Svědectví (Testimony) in early 1979. In addition to setting off a round of secret police investigations, Mlynárik’s theses provoked a heated debate among dissidents and émigrés alike, some of whom found his observations “shocking” and unacceptable. Four members of Svědectví’s editorial board published a statement disavowing the article because they said it was a “moral judgment lacking in the objectivity essential to evaluating complex questions concerning the ideals, actions, and the very existence of the Czechoslovak people.”4 When Mlynárik was arrested in May 1981 after a dissident document-smuggling operation was uncovered by police, he admitted to being “Danubius.” He was held in custody for a year and charged with sedition, but was released without a trial and, in 1983, emigrated to West Germany.

Mlynárik’s arguments had touched a sore spot shared by both the regime and its opponents, and foreshadowed a painful truth that even today many Czechs refuse to acknowledge: that in order to fully confront the destructive legacy of communism, they would also have to face up to the way they treated the Czechoslovak Germans after the war.


The most telling part of Orderly and Humane is Douglas’s portrayal of the escalating efforts by the Czechoslovak president, Edvard Beneš, to persuade the reluctant British—and the far less reluctant Americans and Russians—to endorse his postwar plan to expel the Sudeten Germans from their traditional homelands along the German and Austrian borders, where their ancestors had been living since the thirteenth century.

Beneš and many of his peers seem to have consistently underestimated the complexity of living in a multiethnic state. Though desultory efforts were made after World War I to integrate “our” Germans, as Beneš liked to refer to them, into the political and economic life of the new country, enough dissatisfaction remained that by the mid-1930s, Konrad Henlein’s pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party had the support of nearly 70 percent of the German vote and, with over 15 percent of the overall vote, was the strongest political party in Czechoslovakia. Mere days before the fateful Munich agreement to cede the Sudetenland to Germany was finally signed in September 1938, President Beneš, whose secretary later called him “the greatest Machiavelli of our time,” secretly offered Hitler a six-thousand-square-kilometer swath of his country in exchange for the transport of up to two million Czechoslovak Germans to the Reich. Hitler ignored the offer, and after Munich, Beneš resigned and went into exile.

  1. 1

    It should be mentioned that Anne Applebaum’s new book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 (Doubleday, 2012), which appeared about the same time as Douglas’s study, devotes a chapter to the expulsions. 

  2. 2

    From his “As I Please” column in the Tribune, February 2, 1945. Orwell, with typical clarity, wrote that the proposed expulsions, envisioned at the time to include around seven million people, would be “equivalent to uprooting and transplanting the entire population of Australia, or the combined populations of Scotland and Ireland,” and went on to ask: “How many wagons and locomotives, running for how long, would be involved in transplanting those seven million people, plus their livestock, farm machinery and household goods; or, alternatively…how many of them are going to die of starvation and exposure if they are simply shipped off without their livestock, etc…. Meanwhile, the British people should be made to understand, with as much concrete detail as possible, what kind of policies their statesmen are committing them to. 

  3. 3

    From a keynote speech called “We All Belong Among the Vanquished,” delivered at a conference on Czech–German relations in Prague, November 6, 1996. 

  4. 4

    Svědectví, No. 58. The declaration is dated February 13, 1979. 

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