The screams rang throughout the darkened cattle car crammed with deportees, as the cattle car jolted across the icy Polish countryside five nights before Christmas. Among the lowing human livestock, moved a purposeful deportee German doctor. This Doctor’s only means of identifying which of this herd were his patients, was their screams of agony and pain. The doctor, formerly chief medical officer of a large urban hospital, found himself clambering over piles of baggage, fellow passengers, and reeking toilet buckets, only to find his path blocked by an old woman who ignored his request to move aside. On closer examination, he discovered that her ornery nature was caused by her having frozen to death.
Finally he located the source of the screams, a pregnant woman who had gone into premature labor and was hemorrhaging profusely. When he attempted to move her from where she lay into a more comfortable position, he found that “she was frozen to the floor with her own blood.” Other than temporarily stopping the bleeding, the deportee German doctor was unable to do anything to help her, and he never learned whether she had lived or died. When the train made its first stop, after more than four days in transit, 16 frost-covered corpses were pulled from the wagons before the remaining deportees were put back on board to continue their journey. A further 42 passengers would later succumb to the effects of their ordeal, among them the deportee German doctor’s wife.
It is estimated 2,000,000 people died in the course of the organized expulsions; survivors were left in the ruins of Allied-occupied Germany to fend for themselves. A form of Sharia justice rendering a Holocaust for a Holocaust.
During the Second World War, tragic scenes like those were commonplace, as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin moved around entire populations like pieces on a chessboard, seeking to reshape the demographic profile of Europe according to their own preferences. What was different about the deportation of this German doctor and his fellow passengers, however, was that it took place by order of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union, two years after the declaration of peace.
Between 1945 and 1950, Europe witnessed the largest episode of forced migration, and perhaps the single greatest movement of population, in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians—the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16—were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland. The number of people the Allies transferred in just a few months was about the same as the total number of all the immigrants admitted to the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. They were deposited among the ruins of Allied-occupied Germany to fend for themselves as best they could. The number who died as a result of starvation, disease, beatings, or outright execution is estimated to be two million people who lost their lives during the course of the operation.
Most disturbingly of all, tens of thousands perished as a result of ill treatment while being used as slave labor while performing the Allies’ cynical hard labor called “reparations in kind.” In a vast network of camps extending across central and southeastern Europe—many of which, like Auschwitz I and Theresienstadt, were former German concentration camps kept in operation for years after the war. It was clear that “concentration camps and all they stand for did not come to an end with the defeat of Germany.” Ironically, no more than 100 or so miles away from the camps being put to this new use, the surviving Nazi leaders were being tried by the Allies in the courtrooms of Nuremberg on a bill of indictment that listed “deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population” under the heading of “crimes against humanity.”
By any measure, the postwar expulsions were a man-made disaster and one of the most significant examples of the mass violation of human rights in recent history. Yet although they occurred within living memory, in a time of peace, and in the middle of the world’s most densely populated continent, they remain all but unknown outside of Germany itself. They are barely a footnote in the European-history textbooks, where they are euphemistically referred to as justified retribution for Nazi Germany’s wartime atrocities and a painful but necessary expedient to ensure the future peace of Europe. The decision to purge the continent of its German-speaking minorities in seen as “defensible” in light of the Holocaust and considered by those in power to be a successful experiment in “defusing ethnic antagonisms through the mass transfer of populations.”
George Orwell, an outspoken opponent of the expulsions, pointed out in his essay, “Politics and the English Language” that the expression “transfer of population” was one of a number of euphemisms whose purpose was to defend the indefensible. Bertrand Russell acidly inquired: “Are mass deportations crimes when committed by our enemies during war and justifiable measures of social adjustment when carried out by our allies in time of peace?” Victor Gollancz, who reasoned that “if every German was indeed responsible for what happened at Belsen, then we, as members of a democratic country and not a fascist one with no free press or parliament, were responsible individually as well as collectively” for what was being done to noncombatants in the Allies’ name.
That the expulsions would inevitably cause death and hardship on a very large scale was fully recognized by those who set them in motion. To a considerable extent, they were counting on it. For the expelling countries—especially Czechoslovakia and Poland—the use of terror against their German-speaking populations was intended not simply as revenge for their wartime victimization, but also as a means of triggering a mass stampede across the borders and finally achieving their governments’ prewar ambition to create ethnically homogeneous nation-states.
The Soviets compensated Poland for its territorial losses to the Soviet Union in 1939 by stealing more than 100 miles of German territory for Poland. The clearance of the newly “Polish” western lands and the dumping of their millions of displaced inhabitants amid the ruins of the former Reich served Stalin’s twin goals of impeding Germany’s postwar recovery and eliminating any possibility of a future Polish-German alliance. The British viewed the widespread suffering that would inevitably attend the expulsions as a teachable moment of re-education for the German population. Everything that brings home to the Germans the completeness and irrevocability of their defeat, it was officially declare in 1943, is worthwhile in the end. The Americans sought the approval of the Allied nations by displaying an “understanding” and cooperative attitude toward the expelling countries’ desire to be rid of their German populations. The United States was able to demonstrate its sympathy for those countries’ national aspirations and prevent them from drifting into the Communist orbit.
The Allies, then, knowingly embarked on the very course the that a British panel of experts had warned the government about in 1944. A course that was bound to cause immense suffering and dislocation. That the expulsions did not lead to the worst consequences that could be expected from the chaotic cattle drive of millions of impoverished, embittered, and rootless deportees into a war-devastated country that had nowhere to put them was due to three main factors.
The first was the skill with which the postwar German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, drew the expellees into mainstream politics, defusing the threat of a potentially radical and disruptive bloc. The second was the readiness of most expellees—the occasionally crass or undiplomatic statements of their leaders notwithstanding—to renounce the use or threat of force as a means of redressing their grievances. The third, and by far the most important, was the 30-year-long “economic miracle” that made possible the housing, feeding, and employment of the largest homeless population with which any industrial country has ever had to contend.
The downside of “economic miracles,” though, is that, as their name suggests, they can’t be relied upon to come along where and when they are most needed. By extraordinary good fortune, the Allies avoided reaping the harvest of their own recklessness. Nonetheless, the expulsions have cast a long and baleful shadow over central and southeastern Europe, even to the present day. Their disruptive demographic, economic, and environmental consequences continue to be felt more than 60 years later. The overnight transformation of some of the most heterogeneous regions of the European continent into virtual ethnic monoliths changed the trajectory of domestic politics in the expelling countries in significant and unpredicted ways. Culturally, the effort to eradicate every trace of hundreds of years of German presence and to write it out of national and local histories produced among the new Polish and Czech settler communities in the cleared areas a state of “amputated memory.”
It is important to note the expulsions differ from the genocidal Nazi campaign in some concentration camps that preceded them. Yet, one of the greatest atrocities of our time cannot be used as a get of jail free card to avoid consequences for such a gross abuse of human rights. This post-Holocaust Holocaust flatly contradicts the Allied rhetoric about World War II being fought above all to uphold the dignity and worth of all people, the Germans included. Thousands of Western officials, servicemen, and technocrats took a full part in carrying out the same type of program that, when perpetrated by their wartime enemies, was denounced as contrary to all principles of humanity and civilization.
The degree of cognitive dissonance to which this led was exemplified by the career of Colonel John Fye, chief U.S. liaison officer for expulsion affairs to the Czechoslovak government. The operation he had helped carry out, he acknowledged, drew in “innocent people who had never raised so much as a word of protest against the Czechoslovak people.” To accomplish it, women and children had been thrown into detention facilities, “many of which were nearly identical to the ex-German concentration camps.” Yet these stirrings of unease did not prevent Fye from accepting a decoration from the Prague government for what the official citation candidly described as his valuable services “in expelling Germans from Czechoslovakia.”
Today we have come not much further than Fye did in acknowledging the pivotal role played by the Allies in conceiving and executing an operation that exceeded in both scale and lethality the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It is unnecessary to attribute this to any “taboo” or “conspiracy of silence.” Rather, what is denied is not the fact of the expulsions themselves, but their significance.
When rekindling attention to Allied Atrocities, once is forced to dismount the high horse of superiority and stop pretending the horrors of nation states can be properly to be reserved for the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. Czechs, Poles, and citizens of other expelling states fear the legal ramifications of a re-examination of the means by which millions of erstwhile citizens of those countries were deprived of their nationality, liberty, and property. To this day, the postwar decrees expropriating and denationalizing Germans remain on the statute book of the Czech Republic, and their legality has recently been reaffirmed by the Czech constitutional court.
The myth of the “good war” is shown again to be a bald-faced lie, one eagerly parroted by chickenhawks who refuse to delve into the history of messy, complex, morally ambiguous, and politically sensitive battlefield episodes, wherein few if any of those involved appear in a positive light. To continue to pretend that such expulsions never took place or, having occurred, are of no particular significance to the societies affected by them, is both intellectually and pedagogically unsustainable.
The fact that Mexican population transfers from America and others have made a thunderous comeback on the scholarly and policy agenda also suggests that we should scrutinize with particular care the most extensive experiment made with them to date. Despite the gruesome history, enthusiasts continue to chase the mirage of humane mass deportations as a means of resolving intractable ethnic problems. The mainstream disinformation machine continues to propose population transfers as valuable tools so long as they are “conducted in a humane and well-organized manner, like the transfer of Germans from Czechoslovakia by the Allies.
Few wars today, whether within or between states, do not feature an attempt by one or both sides to create facts on the ground by forcibly displacing minority populations perceived as alien to the national community. There remains no single code of international law that explicitly outlaws population transfers either in terms of group or individual rights violations.
The expulsion of ethnic Germans is thus of contemporary and historical relevance. At present, the study of many vital elements of this topic is still in its earliest stages. Innumerable questions—about the archipelago of camps and detention centers, the precise number and location of which are still undetermined; the full part played by the Soviet and U.S. governments in planning and executing the expulsions—remain to be fully answered. At a moment when the surviving expellees are passing away and many, though far from all, of the relevant archives have already been opened, the time has come for this painful but pivotal chapter in Europe’s recent history to receive the full glare of thoughtful public attention which it richly deserves.