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.

Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, he and the government he had assembled in London began pushing for Allied recognition of the original pre-Munich borders of Czechoslovakia, including the Sudetenland, and to support the expulsion of at least some of “their” Germans—those who might plausibly be considered collaborators—once the war was over. As long as the outcome of the war was in doubt the British were unwilling to commit themselves to any definite postwar settlement. As well, they were uneasy about Beneš’s refusal to cooperate with Wenzel Jaksch, the leader of the Sudeten German Social Democrats, who had also fled to London when the Nazis took over the Sudetenland, and who was advocating postwar solutions that did not involve expelling Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia.5

Two events broke the impasse. In 1941, the Soviet Union came into the war, raising hopes of a clear Allied victory and making postwar planning feasible. And in May 1942, on Beneš’s orders, a unit of Czech paratroopers, sent from England, assassinated the “butcher of Prague,” Reinhard Heydrich. German reprisals were swift and brutal; they razed to the ground two villages, Lidice and Ležáky, killing all the men and scattering the women and children to concentration camps; thousands more were murdered or sent to the camps, and the Czech underground was decimated.

Douglas feels it is too cynical to suggest that Beneš deliberately ordered the assassination of Heydrich to exacerbate Czech–German relations, but the reprisals did enable him to argue that the Germans and Czechs could never again live peacefully on the same ground. That summer, Anthony Eden announced British approval of “the general principle of the transfer to Germany of German minorities in Central and South-Eastern Europe after the war in cases where this seems necessary and desirable.” Beneš finally had the endorsement he wanted, and the Czechs began to plan their endgame. So did the Poles, and by 1943, Douglas says, “the expulsion project had taken on a momentum that only a decision by the Big Three [Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union] could have reversed.”

There was one more Machiavellian twist in Beneš’s thinking that would have dire consequences for his country: he began to see the expulsions not just as a practical solution to a nagging minority problem, but as a catalyst for national and social revolution. Whether he really believed it or not, he was certainly aware of how persuasive such an argument would be to some of the people he wanted on his side.6

While in Moscow to negotiate a friendship treaty with Stalin in late 1943, he told the Czechoslovak Communist leader, Klement Gottwald, that because the expulsions would also include the confiscation and redistribution of private property, supervised by the government, “the way will be opened up to radical economic intervention and social change in the Bohemian lands.” Gottwald, in turn, provided Beneš with helpful suggestions on how the expulsions might be administered. Beneš naively believed that the Soviet Union would play a statesmanlike part in the postwar European order, yet his negotiations in Moscow and events after the war make him seem less like the hapless victim of communism he is usually seen to be, and more like an overreaching fellow traveler.

On April 3, 1945, Beneš entered the city of Košice in eastern Slovakia, where he set up a temporary government, and issued edicts establishing a legal basis for the post-war order. Among them were decrees concerning the treatment not just of Czechoslovak Germans, but also of “ethnic Hungarians, traitors and collaborators, and other enemies of the Czech and Slovak nation.” The decrees dealt with matters ranging from the confiscation of property and rescinding of citizenship to the management and reallotment of seized property. (A later decree, issued in 1946, granted immunity from crimes, including murder, committed against Germans in the first six months after the war.) The “Beneš decrees,” as they are still known, were ratified in 1946 and remain part of the Czech and Slovak legal codes to this day.

In early May, just before the war ended in Europe, the Czechs rose up against the German occupiers and the Sudeten Germans alike, and the “expulsions” began, encouraged by broadcasts and speeches that Douglas says bear comparison to the hate propaganda broadcast from the Milles Collines radio station at the height of the Rwanda genocide in 1994.7 It has to be said that many Czechs were not swayed by the incendiary rhetoric; Douglas mentions the “quietly heroic figure” of the Czech pacifist and educator Přemysl Pitter, who, during the worst of the savagery, did all he could to protect both German and Jewish orphans from harm. Along with Red Cross officials, Pitter appealed to the Czech authorities to do something about the starving children being held in internment facilities, but they were ignored and Pitter ended up supporting the transports because he believed the children would stand a better chance of survival in Germany.

I don’t wish to give the impression that Douglas has unduly targeted the Czechs. Much of his book deals with the Polish expulsions, which although initially not as inhumane, soon came to rival or surpass the Czech deportations in viciousness. But for many reasons, the Polish situation was different. The Nazi oppression of the Poles far surpassed anything suffered by the Czechs, and the Polish resistance fought back hard, at enormous cost in lives and property; after the war, the redrawing, not the restoration, of borders became a major issue as Poland’s borders moved west according to the Yalta Agreement. Germans who suddenly found themselves on Polish territory as a result were not Polish citizens. After 1989, the process of understanding what happened seems to have gone more smoothly in Poland, though the issues are no less complex or vexing.

In the Czech Republic, despite the existence of a joint Czech–German declaration, signed in 1997, in which each side accepted responsibility, and expressed regret, for the cruelties inflicted on the other, and despite the strong public criticism of the expulsions expressed by President Václav Havel and other former dissidents, the expulsions remain a divisive issue. But that is slowly changing. Many Czech historians have been trying since 1989 to disentangle their modern history from the myth and ideology that still cling to it. Nongovernmental civic groups as well are helping the public confront the past by memorializing places and events related to the expulsions. One of the most successful civic endeavors is the Ostrava-based PANT, a rapidly growing NGO that conducts seminars and produces materials—the most recent of which is a guide to teaching students about the expulsion of the Germans—to help teachers to take the initiative in putting postwar Czech history on the curriculum. (Astoundingly, Czech high school history textbooks still stop at the end of World War II.) Feature-length movies like Habermann’s Mill (2010), a Czech-German-Austrian coproduction about life in a mixed Sudetenland community under Nazi occupation, remind wider audiences that Czech and German citizens of Czechoslovakia once shared a common history.

How well is it working? The Czech presidential election in January—the first such election in the country’s history to be decided by popular vote—provided a surprising barometer of where things stand today. In a series of live televised debates during the run-off round, the frontrunner, Miloš Zeman, drew his last remaining rival, Foreign Affairs Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, into a discussion of the still-valid Beneš decrees. Schwarzenberg, a friend and colleague of Václav Havel, with his own distinguished record in the field of human rights, said that the expulsions would today be considered a “blatant violation” of such rights, and that had such standards been in place at the time, his government would probably have ended up in The Hague. Zeman accused Schwarzenberg of calling Beneš a war criminal and talking like a “Sudet’ák”—a disdainful expression for a Sudeten German. Schwarzenberg’s chances of winning, marginal at best, shrank even further.

As president, Zeman seems willing, when convenient, to stir the country’s darker passions.8 Still, Schwarzenberg got 45 percent of the vote—mostly from the urban young, a generation that will soon dominate public life. He even polled well in parts of the former Sudetenland, which suggests that the baleful grip of the past is not as firm as it once was.

Larger problems remain, however, and Douglas concludes his unflinching survey of the expulsions on a strong note of warning. The Czech Republic is now a member of the European Union, having been allowed, by a special protocol, to keep the Beneš decrees on its books even though they contravene the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which specifically prohibits “collective expulsions.” In effect, the decrees remain a dangerous loophole in the EU constitutional treaties. Douglas examines this, and other precedents in international law, and draws a cautionary conclusion:

We have already seen how the taboo against torture in the Western world began to erode in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks to an extent that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years previously. If the presence of an unwanted minority population should once again be seen as giving rise to a perceived international emergency, then the case for invoking the “Sudeten corollary” and exploiting the ambiguity and loopholes that continue to exist in the laws regarding forced population transfers will no doubt seem more persuasive still.

It is not an idle warning. Douglas cites a 1996 manifesto in which the Boston University political scientist Andrew Bell-Fialkoff argued that mass transfers of population “conducted in a humane, well-organized manner, like the transfer of Germans from Czechoslovakia by the Allies in 1945–47,” can provide permanent solutions to intractable problems. The temptation is still with us.9

Douglas concludes by underlining his central point: since events like the expulsion of the Germans are inevitably accompanied by brutality, injustice, and needless suffering, they shouldn’t be carried out, or even contemplated, at all:

A firm appreciation of this truth, and a determination to be guided by it at all times and in every situation…is the most appropriate memorial that can be erected to this tragic, unnecessary, and, we must resolve, never to be repeated episode in Europe and the world’s recent history.