Orderly and Humane: German Expulsions After World War Two
by Jonathan Goodwin
From the introduction:
Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Allies carried
out the largest forced population transfer – and perhaps the
greatest single movement of peoples – in human history.
With the assistance of the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments,
millions of German-speaking civilians living in Czechoslovakia,
Hungary, and the parts of eastern Germany assigned to Poland were
driven out of their homes and deposited amid the ruins of the Reich,
to fend for themselves as best they could.
Millions more, who had fled the advancing Red Army in the
final months of the war, were prevented from returning to their
places of origin, and became lifelong exiles….altogether,
the expulsion operation permanently displaced at least 12 million
people, and perhaps as many as 14 million.
Most of these were women and children under the age of sixteen….estimates
of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many
as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as
it exists at present.
In this book, Douglas compiles – apparently for the first
time in English – a thorough study of one of the least discussed
tragedies of the Second World War, and certainly of the immediate
post-war period – that of the forced expulsion of Germans
from their homelands throughout central Europe.
On the most optimistic interpretation…the expulsions were
an immense man-made catastrophe….
That this tragedy remains relatively unknown, even in the highest
academic circles, is given evidence by the following anecdote provided
by the author:
It is, then,
entirely understandable why so many of my splendid and learned
colleagues on the Colgate faculty should have expressed their
confusion to me after reading in the newspapers in October 2009
that the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, had demanded
that the other members of the European Union legally indemnify
his country against compensation claims by ethnic German expellees,
as the price of his country’s ratification of the Lisbon
Treaty. None had
been aware that anything had occurred after the war in respect
of which the Czech Republic might require to be indemnified.
some reasons why he believes that this episode has received so little
- For Germans,
it invites debate about the war-time record of ethnic German minorities
living in the subject countries.
- For the
citizens of expelling countries, it draws unwanted attention and
casts a doubtful light on carefully crafted war-related narratives.
- For citizens
of the U.S. and Britain, it draws light to the complicity of their
leaders in one of the largest episodes of human rights abuse in
Douglas does not add in this context, but elsewhere sheds light
on, another possible reason for the relative silence.
It is not considered appropriate to show any sympathy toward
Germans as regards the Second World War, and especially if it might
be juxtaposed to the Holocaust – therefore even the study
of such episodes might result in unwanted professional risks.
This conclusion is suggested given his need to apologize
in advance for the possibility that he might be accused of holding
such a position:
It is appropriate at the outset to state explicitly that no legitimate
comparison can be drawn between the postwar expulsions and the appalling
record of German offenses against the Jews and other innocent victims
between 1939 and 1945. The
extent of Nazi criminality and barbarity in central and eastern
Europe is on a scale and of a degree that is almost impossible to
Douglas begins this book by with a focus on the Munich Conference
of 1938, and the actions taken thereafter by Edvard Beneš.
When reading this, I wondered about the relevance of Munich
to this narrative – these expulsions took place seven years
and more after the conference: what is the possible connection?
As Douglas will demonstrate, the expulsions were not devised
at the last moment, in the chaos of the last days of Berlin, but
had been discussed and contemplated by many of the actors –
including in the U.S. and Britain –almost from the beginning
of the war.
The result of the Munich Conference, as is well-known, was the Nazi
annexation of the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, the portion of Czechoslovakia
bordering Germany and populated primarily by ethnic Germans.
The Sudetenland issue dates to the end of the First World War, and
it represents one of the many failures of the Paris Peace Conference
after that war:
The German deputies of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia in the Imperial
Council (Reichsrat) referred to the Fourteen Points of U.S. President
Woodrow Wilson and the right proposed therein to self-determination,
and attempted to negotiate the union of the German-speaking territories
with the new Republic of German Austria, which itself aimed at joining
However Sudetenland remained in a newly created Czechoslovakia,
a multi-ethnic state of several nations: Czechs, Germans, Slovaks,
Hungarians, Poles and Ruthenians.
At the Paris Conference (technically Versailles dealt with Germany),
Beneš lobbied long and hard to keep these ethnically German territories
within Czech territory. Many
diplomats from the West at the conference expressed reservations
even at that time, yet Beneš was successful – even more than
many of his countrymen had dared to imagine.
Unfortunately, his victory sowed the seed of opportunity
Adolf Hitler had never ceased to highlight the incompatibility of
territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles with the aims
for which the Allies had professed to fight the Great War.
The existence of Czechoslovakia in its current form, he insisted,
was unanswerable proof of the victors’ hypocrisy.
Douglas sheds some light (for me at least) regarding Munich.
While the term “Munich” as regarding the 1938
conference is today used as a term of derision, at the time it was
hailed in all quarters of the West – not only for averting
war, but also for correcting one of the well-recognized wrongs committed
in Paris nineteen years earlier:
the London Times put it, the transfer of territory to Germany
had been “both necessary and fundamentally just.”
Daladier, the prime minister, did not believe that most French citizens
would understand why, as the law professor and commentator Joseph
Barthélemy put it, there must be a general European war “to
maintain three million Germans under Czech sovereignty.”
As for Great Britain, “appeasers” and anti-appeasers”
alike agreed that the Sudeten Germans’ claim to determine
their own allegiance was justified….Even Winston Churchill
told Hubert Ripka, one of Benes’s closest associates, in the
summer of 1938 that if he had been prime minister he would have
acted as Neville Chamberlain had done….
Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, declared in the House
of Lords that even if negotiations at Munich had broken down and
a war had resulted, “no body of statesmen drawing the boundaries
of a new Czechoslovakia would have redrawn them as they were left
by the Treaty of Versailles.”
Gallup polls revealed popular majorities in Britain and France,
and a still larger one in the United States, in favor of the Munich
The court historians seem to have done a thorough job of burying
this part of the story.
Beneš, after Munich, departed for the United States.
In May 1939, Beneš was able to privately meet with Roosevelt.
What he heard from the president certainly must have been
a welcome view: as
far as the U.S. Administration was concerned, “Munich does
not exist.” Separately,
the other members of “the Big Three” indicated that
they no longer felt bound by the terms of Munich.
Beginning in September 1941, Beneš felt confident enough about his
position that he began floating trial balloons regarding the possibility
of large population transfers after the war.
“Germans, good and bad, European-minded and Nazi-minded,
must learn…that war does not pay.”
There was “no way other than the way of suffering of
educating a social and political community and there never was any
As he had no
significant push-back from the Allies regarding these statements,
Beneš felt safe to go further.
In a January 1942 article, he declared:
minorities…are always – and in Central Europe especially
– a real thorn in the side of individual nations.
This is especially true if they are German minorities.”
Before speaking of minority rights, it was necessary to “define
the rights of majorities and the obligations of minorities.”
He questioned, in light of wartime experiences, whether it was necessary
or desirable for minorities to continue in existence.
Then he used Hitler’s actions to justify the massive
population transfers that would be required throughout Central Europe
if his visions were to become reality:
Hitler himself has transferred German minorities from the Baltic
and from Bessarabia. Germany,
therefore, cannot a priori regard it as an injury to her if other
states adopt the same methods with regard to German minorities….It
will be necessary after this war to carry out a transfer of populations
on a very much larger scale than after the last war.
Hitler did it, so it must be OK.
This discussion was not occurring solely in the mind of the man
acting as the Czechoslovak leader in exile.
Eden learned that Stalin was also considering such transfers
as early as December 1941 regarding the Germans from lands that
would be given to Poland after the war.
The British Foreign Office, in 1942, suggested that large-scale
transfers were “a feasible method of dealing with the European
It is interesting that these discussions were occurring even as
early as 1939 – and certainly before United States official
entry into the war. From
this time until the war’s conclusion, the leaders of the Allied
powers met on several occasions.
Their underlings met daily.
Was there any push-back by the U.S. or Great Britain against
Russia on this issue? Anything
that suggests that the two Anglo leaders considered such massive
population transfers as a horrendous and certain to be calamitous
they had some leverage over Stalin, did they at least try to utilize
this leverage on behalf of the minorities in question?
Douglas offers no evidence to this effect, and instead offers
much evidence to the contrary – willing partners were present
in both England and the U.S.
Poland eventually followed in the tracks first laid by Czechoslovakia.
Certainly at the beginning of the war, Poland’s focus
was to regain all territories lost.
As it became clear that the Russians would keep what was
taken in the east, Poland looked to the west and inevitably to the
expulsion of Germans in East Prussia.
Rumors began to circulate that the British government was now falling
in to support such forced expulsions.
The Sudeten German leader in exile, Wenzel Jaksch, decided
the best course was to remain dignified and consistent in his positions
in support of his community.
The line he had to walk was too thin – on the one hand,
to not give the slightest hint that he was a support to the Nazis,
on the other to properly place his claims for recognition of national
Germans in Czechoslovakia.
The line was so thin that it need not have existed.
Once the war began, the position of Central-European Germans
outside of Germany was tenuous at best.
To stay neutral only gave the appearance of giving aid to
the other side. Overt
acts of what is called patriotism in America would be necessary
to even give some hope of being allowed to remain in their homes
after the war. Yet
this would require taking the fight against their national brothers.
That the line was so thin and that the fate of these Central European
Germans was virtually sealed before the war began does not explain
the robustness by which the Allies approvingly discussed the issue
of forced transfers. The
comments range from the casual (as if the entire task was equivalent
to moving a few families from one city to the neighboring city)
to the callous:
Herbert Hoover…called for consideration of what he described
as “the heroic remedy of transfer of population” as
a means of preventing future European conflict.”
Sumner Welles [recent collaborator with FDR on foreign affairs]…was
coming around to the idea that “we should avail ourselves
of this moment of world upheaval to effect transfers of population
where these are necessary to prevent new conflicts, and thus enable
peoples to live under the government they desire, free from racial
Oxford historian, A.J.P. Taylor declared that the Czechoslovak state
could only be resurrected using the same “ruthlessness”
and inflicting “as much suffering” as the Germans had
employed in destroying it.
In the House of Lords, Robert Vansittart [second cousin of Lawrence
of Arabia]…applauded Stalin’s robust indifference to
questions of guilt or innocence, when driving the Soviet Union’s
German-speaking population from their homes in 1941, as a model
for the Allies to follow.
“He was a thousand times right; five hundred thousand
times right….I say these [deportees] were not Hitlerite Germans.
They had a quarter of a century’s training in the doctrines
of Communism….Nevertheless they were held to be Germans and
Even Lord Robert Cecil [cousin of Arthur Balfour], president of
the League of Nations Union and an impassioned defender of the rights
of minorities between the wars, now agreed that the Sudetendeutsche
at least would “have to be removed,” and that their
fate should be of no concern to anyone but the Czechoslovak government.
These are not words of concern for those to face the forced relocation
to come. These are
not words that demonstrate a concern to separate the guilty from
the innocent. These
are words that demonstrate, in some cases, a pleasure in the pain
that will be inflicted – loss of property, loss of dignity,
loss of life. These
are words that justify the coming actions using Hitler as the yardstick
of acceptable behavior.
Others did speak in opposition, or at least demonstrated some concern.
These concerns were not based on party or economic lines.
For example, while leaders in the Labour Party expressed
understanding of the necessity for the forced expulsions, the journal
Socialist Commentary called attention to…
incongruity of trying to preserve in aspic the often artificially
defined European frontiers of 1939, the product of centuries of
dynastic squabbling and historical accident, for all time….It
would have been more fitting…”to bring justice and freedom
to the national minorities wherever they chose to live, and not
to continue the odious Nazi method of shifting people about like
The London-based Economist warned…
That punishment of Germans after the war “must fall on those
who are guilty in a moral and not in a racial sense.
The Nazis have made racial scapegoats; the Allies must not
fall into exactly the same error.”
In a paper published in 1943, Allan Fisher and David Mitrany offered
the following critique:
To claim that this practice was now justified because of the Nazi
government’s previous recourse to it, they argued, seemed
a curious way of reeducating the German people “at a time
when they are being urged to abjure Hitler and all his works.”
They went further, suggesting that this racial purity could only
be maintained by hermetically sealing the borders:
it is to achieve the ends for which it is advocated the policy of
transfer must have as its corollary a continuous policy of segregation.
Migration or any free movement of people would have to be
prohibited lest it should lead to the gradual creation of new unwanted
and irritating minorities.
Discrimination must beget further discrimination if its ends are
to be maintained. Further,
discrimination teaches discrimination – exacerbating the so-called
original problems and conflicts in the first place. (As an aside,
the European experiment began shortly after the war- including the
free travel of people from all nations in the participating community.
There is something sadly ironic, if not curious, about this.
As if the message from the state is: you cannot travel freely,
unless we say you can travel freely – on our terms.)
Given what little opposition there was to this decision in the West,
it was clear the direction the post-war settlements would take.
This decision placed
the Germans in Czechoslovakia in a terrible position – a Catch-22.
To support Beneš and the Czechoslovak government in exile
would mean expulsion after the war, and to support Hitler and the
Nazis would also mean expulsion after the war.
There was nowhere for these three million to turn that offered
These decisions were all taken and settled by 1943.
These were not ad-hoc decisions taken during the chaos of
the end of the war. In
1943, the U.S. especially still had tremendous leverage over Stalin
if Roosevelt chose to use it.
Certainly, Stalin might have broken any deal – but
there is no indication that a deal on behalf of these minorities
was even attempted. Many
of these Germans were innocent of complicity with the Nazis.
Evan the Slovaks, who had fought alongside the Germans for
five years – invading both Poland and the USSR – before
rebelling against the Nazis in 1944, were afforded a more secure
future after the war than the countless Germans outside of Germany
who tried to lay low, especially women and children.
Thus, the decisions for the expulsion were taken – in some
quarters of the West supported enthusiastically, while in others
at least tolerated. All
Germans were to receive punishment – guilty by accident of
birth as opposed to guilty by deed.
It is certainly an efficient way to finalize the issue.
Racism often is. It
is also one of the most unfair.
Millions in Central Europe were soon to be on the receiving
end of this efficient solution.
Douglas goes on to explain the detailed planning put in place by
the Allies in anticipation of the forced expulsions.
This didn’t take him long.
In a nutshell, there was no planning.
Given that the decisions were finalized not later than 1943,
this seems inexcusable.
Among the most remarkable aspects of the expulsion was the deliberate
refusal of those who carried it out either to seek to learn the
lessons of those previous examples [Armenians in Turkey, Germans
in Alsace, previous relocations by Hitler and Stalin] or to make
any preparations, of however rudimentary a character, for an enterprise
whose disruption to the normal life of central Europe was second
only to that caused by the war itself.
For the purpose of war, entire populations of the warring countries
were mobilized. Every
department of the state was set on war footing.
For the expulsions, virtually nothing.
So many unanswered (and unasked) questions, so little attention.
In November 1943, the British government took a study on the detailed
practical aspects of the coming expulsions and transfer –a
full year or more after the decision was taken by the Allies on
this course. It was
the only such detailed study taken by any of the countries involved.
The timing is critical: at a time when the United States and Britain
had not yet opened a western front, as the Russians were desperate
for them to do – D-Day was still to come – there was
an opportunity for leverage on Stalin regarding the questions of
borders and populations.
At Tehran, Roosevelt instead demonstrated his sympathy for
Stalin’s geopolitical aims in Europe, and Churchill followed
with his infamous “three matchsticks” performance (using
the matchsticks to demonstrate and propose the shifting of both
the east and west borders of Poland to the west).
Stalin was delighted.
I do not pretend to believe that, had Britain and the United States
secured some concessions from Stalin at Tehran, Stalin would have
stuck to his word once hostilities ended (raising again the question
of why the west would ally with such an actor).
The point is that no attempt was even made to come to a humane
answer. In fact Churchill
– who was treated insultingly by Stalin at the beginning of
Tehran, and therefore perhaps looking to get back in his good graces
– is the one who brought the matchsticks!
There were some who felt (or hoped) that the fate of those in central
Europe would already be settled by the end of the war, thus relieving
Britain of any responsibility in the issue.
The rapid advance of the Red Army would be the motive force
behind this hope – the Germans in their path would either
be killed or flee toward Germany.
Others rightly saw that this “Pilate-like stance”
might not be possible, as the British government would certainly
carry responsibility for the policy decision.
Still others gave consideration to even more sinister possibilities.
One Sir Orme Sargent of the Foreign Office suggested that
“the future of these people is much less likely to attract
attention and give rise to political agitation if they disappear
into Siberia.” This
and other similar suggestions were soon dismissed, thankfully.
This committee report, a result of the November 1943 study, identified
the numerous difficulties presented by this unprecedented endeavor.
Despite the many significant issues raised, in hindsight
the report understated the enormity of the task and the potential
at this, the report proved far too gloomy for the politicians who
When members of the Armistice and Post-War Committee met to discuss
it in July 1944, the general response was one of disbelief and anger.
Disbelief and anger are often responses when the consequences of
decisions already made are too uncomfortable to be faced.
Uneducated objections to the report were raised.
When these objections were addressed with detailed responses,
the conclusions were ignored.
Clement Attlee (recently voted the greatest British Prime
Minister of the 20th century), who chaired this committee,
went even further. He
was a prime proponent of the idea that all Germans, regardless of
guilt, must be made to feel the weight of punishment for their so-called
He would advocate punishment as far as possible, only limiting
the punishment to avoid bringing “serious embarrassment or
injury to ourselves…everything that brings home to the Germans
the completeness and irrevocability of their defeat is worthwhile
in the end.”
Presumably, any horror brought upon the German deportees –
many women and children – would be acceptable to Attlee as
long as these horrors did not reflect too poorly on the British
With Attlee as committee chair, needless to say considerations of
the expulsion were given little further attention.
If punishment was to be handed out to all, the less consideration
given to details the better.
With no sponsor in the cabinet, the report went no further,
and was not discussed again after January 1945.
With this, it seems the British government washed their hands
of the fate of Germans in post-war central Europe, other than to
be involved (as would the U.S.) in the coming implementation of
the expulsions and transfers.
While many leaders and public figures were almost nonchalant about
the situation, some spoke out strongly against this policy.
George Orwell demonstrated more awareness of the logistical
difficulties and human costs than many of the politicians:
This is equivalent to transplanting the entire population of Australia,
or the combined populations of Scotland and Ireland.
He raised questions of the logistics and transportation; he questioned
the numbers that would die during the process.
He called the expulsions an “enormous crime.”
As an aside, the populations involved were approximately equivalent
to the current population of any one of Illinois, Pennsylvania,
or Ohio. Imagine moving
just the residents of Chicago to Wisconsin in a matter of a few
months – after having bombed much of the housing and infrastructure
of every major city in that state.
Republican senators in the United States demanded to know when the
Atlantic Charter of 1941 had been abrogated.
Among other objectives, this Charter held that territorial
changes would accord with the freely expressed will of the people.
Every aspect of the expulsions – not only regarding
the Germans, but the Poles from eastern Poland – would fly
in the face of this objective.
All such objections were ignored.
Churchill and Roosevelt were determined, above all else,
to maintain alliance with the Soviets.
Roosevelt had visions of the future United Nations, and this
organization would be meaningless without Soviet participation –
Roosevelt either acting purposely blind or quite ignorant about
the nature of Stalin and the communists.
By this time, and certainly by the time of Potsdam in July 1945,
all that was left for the Western Allies was to find a way to rationalize
to themselves the decisions taken – or those they failed to
take – in regard to the minority problem in central Europe.
It was at Potsdam where the Allies agreed formally to an
“orderly and humane” expulsion, if for no other reason
than a cynical attempt to save face.
Just a few miles away from the location where the conference
was held, overloaded trains were disgorging themselves of the dead
and dying transported from the east.
Suddenly, when it was far too late to make any difference,
statements were made by western leaders in support of the German
minorities, directly opposite to the positions taken even a year
earlier, seemingly to provide cover for the tragedy unfolding before
Douglas describes the so-called “wild expulsions,” those
taken before the west became directly involved, and the subsequent
“organized expulsions” – taken after the western
allied powers were formally engaged in the process.
The treatment of the Germans in the two cases was rather
similar. He describes
the camps, temporary housing intended for a stay of a day or two
that sometimes served the occupants for years, lack of dwellings
in Germany, lack of food, the theft of property in the former home,
the rapes, the beatings. He describes the packed trains –
overstuffed and underfed – sometimes taking a month to make
a journey of only a few hundred miles, standing still more often
than moving. He describes
the bodies frozen to death on the trains in the middle of the winter,
with the Allies so anxious to begin their work despite the additional
burdens brought on by the harsh climate.
He attributes many of these crimes to official channels.
In fact, it was rarely the case that the majority populations
spontaneously rose up against their German neighbors – counter
to the claims of leaders in the east and to the expectations (or
self-rationalizations) of leaders in the west.
It was primarily state actors committing the worst atrocities
against the expellees. It
was not majority neighbor pouncing on his minority neighbor –
unless the majority neighbor was afforded sanction and protection
by the state via the badge.
It was western leaders agreeing to the methods and timing, involved
at every railway station, agreeing to the terms, and looking the
other way when terms were not met.
Such treatment did not go unnoticed – and many locals raised
objections to the treatment of the Germans – “a mixture
of exasperation and alarm” as is represented here by one Prague
Devil take the Germans! During
the war, they decimated our nation and now, because of them, along
comes a fresh scandal….
Let nobody fall back on the excuse that the Germans have done the
same things. Either
we are qualified to stand as their judges, in which case we cannot
conduct ourselves as they do, or we are no different from them,
and give up the right to judge them.
At the end of 1947, Johannes Kostka, a German prisoner of war in
a British camp in Egypt, wrote to the U.S. Office of Military Government
in Frankfurt. He expressed
his anxiety about his wife Gertrud, still in Poland.
He had recently received a letter from his wife.
In it, she described the despair and depravations that befell
her after the war – their baby daughter had already died in
1944 in the chaos of the advancing Red Army.
She described four years of agony and pain, including being
raped. She became
pregnant as a result of this abuse.
She explains to her husband that she will now take her life.
There is nothing left for her.
Johannes asks the U.S. officials for assistance – please ask
the Polish government to expedite her expulsion.
As expellees from Poland were to go to the British zone of
Germany, the letter was forwarded to the British.
In the end, neither the U.S. nor the British involved themselves
in her case.
The Kostka case encapsulates the official Western response to the
manifest failure of the expulsion project to live up to the “orderly
and humane” standards stipulated by the Potsdam Agreement.
As in almost every other instance in which the question of
ameliorating the sufferings of the expellees arose, the first and
overriding consideration was the national interests of the Western
powers. The second
was a fatalistic prediction that any such action was bound either
to fail or to have a positively harmful effect….
Lastly, although the expulsions were taking place in accordance
with the expressed policy of the Anglo-Americans and required their
willing participation and collaboration, the Western democracies
disavowed any responsibility for the suffering that resulted….
Individuals and various non-governmental organizations attempted
to at least mitigate the sufferings of the expellees.
In this, they flew into the teeth of Western resistance:
The greatest obstacle in their path was the victorious Allies’
insistence that the Volksdeutsche
be excluded from any form of international protection or assistance.
Nor was there any agency, national or international, to which Volksdeutsche
subjected to inhumane treatment might appeal…the women and
children who made up most of the expellee population occupied a
legal status far lower than that of members of the SS, who…were
protected by the Geneva Convention.
Again, some spoke out. In
a letter to the Times, Bertrand
Russell compared the actions of the victorious Allies to those of
the Nazi defendants then currently on trial:
mass deportations crimes when committed by our enemies during war
and justifiable measures of social adjustment when carried out by
our allies in times of peace?
It is more humane to turn out old women and children to die
at a distance than to asphyxiate Jews in gas chambers?...Are the
future laws of war to justify the killing of enemy nationals after
enemy resistance has ceased?
There were those in the west who attempted to place the entire blame
of the unfolding tragedy on the Soviets.
The Soviets certainly earned their share of the blame.
However, Britain and the United States ignored this issue
for three years or more before the events.
When they had time for planning and leverage to reach some
agreements, they did nothing – in fact they encouraged Stalin
and his minions in their quest for cleansing.
They rejected the experts who had studied the issue.
They rejoiced that all Germans would be made to know suffering
and pain, receiving a proper re-education.
They cared not about distinctions of innocence and guilt.
Again, from Douglas:
They had encouraged their allies to carry out, and promised their
cooperation in accomplishing, deeds for which they would later prosecute
their enemies as war crimes….When making the choices they
did, they went in with their eyes open.
I have previously listed reason why it is impossible to refer to
World War Two as “the
good war.” While
absolutely not the worst chapter in the book of western involvement
in this war, this chapter should not be ignored.
with permission from the Bionic
© 2012 Bionic