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 Germany or Austria.

As Douglas points out, the basic facts about expulsion are well known. Moreover, in the last few years there has been an impressive amount of new scholarly work on ethnic cleansing in general and the German case in particular. And yet he is right to insist that, considering their extraordinary human dimension, the expulsions have not played a major role in the public memories of the war and its aftermath. It is not hard to understand why. The expulsions do not fit into the national narratives of the war created by either the winners or the losers: there is no place for German victims in the Americans’ “last good war,” the Soviets’ “great patriotic war,” or Polish and Czech accounts of their own suffering and redemption. Many regarded accounts of German victimization as morally suspect and politically dangerous, a view reinforced by the unsavory political past of some of the expellees’ most prominent spokesmen. In Germany, the expellees were pushed to the margins of public life, as their organizations were absorbed by Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Party and they themselves were swiftly integrated into West Germany’s flourishing economy. The dangerous consequences of expulsion about which its critics had warned—social dislocation, endemic poverty, political radicalism—did not happen. As a result, the human cost, while surely not forgotten, largely disappeared from view.

The purpose of Douglas’s book is to tabulate this cost and to establish who was responsible for it. His title comes from Article XIII of the agreement signed by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union at Potsdam in the summer of 1945, in which the three allies recognized the need to transfer to Germany “the German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary,” adding that such transfers “should be affected in an orderly and humane manner.” As Douglas makes painfully clear, the expulsions were neither orderly nor humane. At every stage of the process, from the towns and villages where Germans were driven from their homes, to the squalid camps in which many of them were confined, to the inadequate and disorganized reception centers in Germany that reluctantly received them, there was endemic violence, shortages of the basic necessities of life, widespread disease, and constant undernourishment. As was to be expected—but was persistently overlooked—the overwhelming majority of the expellees were elderly men and women, or single mothers with small children; most able-bodied males were dead, prisoners of war, or doing forced labor. Estimates of the number of deaths among the expellees range from five hundred thousand to a million and a half. As usual the weakest and most vulnerable suffered the most. Tens of thousands of women were raped or sexually abused; the old and the very young succumbed to sickness, malnutrition, or the elements; well over a hundred thousand parents became separated from their children, some of whom were permanently lost in the maelstrom.        

Douglas argues that, contrary to what is often maintained, these travails were usually not the result of popular anger or mob violence. In fact, there were relatively few spontaneous attacks on ordinary Germans; most of the violence that did occur was done by agents of the state. Douglas insists that the blame for the disorder and inhumanity of the expulsions rested on policymakers, to some degree the leaders of Eastern European governments, but especially those of the Grand Alliance. Stalin, who had been engaged in the brutal uprooting of populations since the beginning of his career, had no qualms about moving millions of Germans to make room for a Poland that would be permanently dependent on Soviet power. Churchill, who is decidedly not the hero of Douglas’s story, told the House of Commons in December 1944 that the total expulsion of Germans from Poland was the best solution to long-standing nationality conflicts, citing as a positive example the “disentanglement of populations” that took place in Greece and Turkey after the First World War. This, Churchill managed to convince himself, had “produced friendly relations between Greece and Turkey ever since.” Roosevelt and then Truman, without much consideration, went along, apparently reluctant to risk alienating their allies on behalf of their former enemies.

From start to finish, expulsion policy was driven by ignorance, ill will, and hardheartedness. British and American policymakers initially refused to recognize the complexity and difficulty of what they proposed and then stubbornly denied how bad the results turned out to be. At times they simply would not look at what was happening before their eyes: for instance, when the British ambassador to Poland toured a detention camp in October 1946, he declined to meet with German inmates, convinced “that as usual they will complain.” There were, to be sure, some people who tried to tell the truth about the expellees’ situation, and there were institutions such as the International Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services that tried to ease their pain. But given the magnitude of the problem, these efforts had limited impact.

Both at the time and in every subsequent discussion, the harsh realities of expulsion were obscured by the dark shadow of Nazi atrocities. German minorities, many of whom certainly had benefited from Nazi rule, were held to be collectively responsible for the horrors of occupation. No serious efforts were made to sort out what individuals had or had not done; the families of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders usually suffered the same fate. They were all guilty of being German.

While for policymakers and ordinary people the horrors of Nazism were the most obvious justification for the expulsions, a few critics of the policy heard echoes of what Germans themselves had done after 1939. To hear these echoes did not and does not suggest a moral or practical equivalence between the expulsions and Nazism. In its scale and intensity, what happened to the German minority between 1945 and 1947 comes nowhere near the murderous violence inflicted on the peoples of Eastern Europe by Germans and their allies. Douglas affirms this vital distinction, but adds that “the threshold for acknowledging mass human rights abuses for what they are cannot be the unprecedented barbarities of the Hitler regime.” The recognition of victimization and sympathy for suffering should not be regarded as a zero-sum game.

Douglas’s book is not without its faults. The author does not always manage to keep in place the multiple perspectives from which the story must be told. His use of Eastern European sources seems somewhat arbitrary; most of his evidence is drawn from Allied documents. And he may overstate the importance of individual policymakers’ ill will and underestimate the force of immediate circumstance: after all, between 1945 and 1947, millions of people were cold, hungry, and sick. Nevertheless, this is an eloquent, compelling account of a human tragedy that has not been given the attention it deserves. I was especially taken with his chapter on “The Law,” which should be required reading for anyone concerned with the legal protection of human rights.

Orderly and Humane shows us once again how war brings out the worst in both individuals and their governments. Even in a just conflict like the Second World War, injustice abides, decent people do terrible things, and the innocent suffer without reason or relief. People are seldom ennobled by suffering. Instead, cruelty is contagious, spreading rapidly when power passes from perpetrator to victim. As W. H. Auden wrote in his great poem marking the outbreak of war in 1939, “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”

Published in the 2012-10-12 issue: 

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is Professor Emeritus of History at Stanford University.

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