Displaced History

'Orderly and Humane'

Elend, the German word for misery, has its roots in an ancient word that means being without a place, which reminds us that homelessness has always been one of mankind’s most painful misfortunes. Some of the world’s greatest literature is about how displaced persons—individuals like Odysseus or nations like the Hebrews—heroically search for a home of their own. While homelessness has been a part of human experience from the beginning, its scope and scale have grown in the modern world: according to the United Nations High Commission For Refugees, in 2011 there were 42.5 million people who had been displaced by wars, ethnic conflicts, or natural disasters. Among them a depressingly large number have been refugees for five years or more.

In Orderly and Humane, R. M. Douglas examines “the largest forced population transfer—perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history,” that is, the expulsion of between 12 and 14 million German-speaking civilians from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Romania at the end of the Second World War. A few of these people had followed the victorious German armies as they moved east after 1939, but most of them belonged to deeply rooted communities that had lived in Eastern Europe for generations. Between 1945 and 1947, these people were rounded up and, sometimes after several months in detention camps, forcibly relocated in...

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About the Author

James J. Sheehan, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, is the author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, among other books.