Some 65 years ago on the outskirts of Bavaria’s Kaufbeuren, a thousand settlers working from a disused munitions factory launched the production of glass and jewellery artefacts, making the new town of Neu Gablonz a centre of the industry. The settlers, ethnic Germans, came from then-Czechoslovakia’s Bohemian town of Jablonec nad Nisou, a town they referred to as Gablonz and that had also been noted for its glass and jewellery making.
Their settlement and the creation of Neu Gablonz was one of the very few success stories associated with the mass expulsion and resettlement of ethnic Germans from all over Central and Eastern Europe as the Second World War came to an end and in the ensuing years.
Changed map of peoples and borders
Following the 1945 Potsdam Agreement between the US, USSR and UK, the victorious powers oversaw the massive transfer of some 12-14 million Germans in a vast ethnic resettlement scheme that profoundly shaped the map of the new Europe. Of those who survived the chaos that left between 500,000 and 1.5 million dead, the majority, primarily women, children and the elderly, arrived from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, a newly redefined Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia. It is the complex but little-known history of these expulsions that R.M. Douglas covers in a thorough, carefully researched and well-written volume.
“Orderly and humane”, words from the text of the Potsdam Agreement, was the manner in which the Allies envisaged the expulsions would take place. Yet the result was what Douglas describes at once as not only “the largest forced population transfer – and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples – in human history” but also as “one of the largest episodes of mass human rights abuse in modern history”.
For Allied policy-makers and a number of exiled political leaders of countries under Nazi occupation in the latter part of the war, the immediate post-war months were seen as a brief window of opportunity to address what they saw as a permanent thorn in the side of a peaceful settlement for post-war Europe. Ethnic resettlement, the principle that each nation should have its own political unit, was endorsed by the victors as the rule that would not only placate demands by, in particular, Czechoslovak leader Edvard Benes, but also serve as a form of retribution against the damage caused by Germans throughout Europe.
Turning the tables
Ironically, while the ethnic German populations of Central and Eastern Europe were first affected by post-war expulsions, the seeds of their fate were also sown by wartime German leaders. These not only built – for Jews and other victims of Nazi genocide – the concentration camps that were later used to house ethnic Germans both in sending countries and in Germany, but also promoted between 1939 and 1941 a mass-scale “colonisation” by ethnic Volksdeutsche of the vast tracts of land that were to be part of the Third Reich’s new eastern territories.
Douglas provides a fascinating glimpse of the backstage of the Nazi war effort, as hundreds of thousands were shifted from Poland and the Baltic states as part of a forced Germanisation policy that sheer lack of preparation doomed to failure.
These, in turn, joined members of ethnic German communities established over centuries in the mass forced expulsion effort overseen by the Allies and by the new governments of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary from early in 1945. Most of Douglas’ effort is spent in documenting the varied nature of the expulsions: some, classified as “organised”, took place under the aegis of the Potsdam Agreement and subsequent negotiations on the quotas and distribution of ethnic Germans between Allies and the three countries authorised to carry out expulsions – Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary (though expulsions from Hungary, under US authority, came to an early end with less than a quarter of the targeted population eventually resettled).
Other, “wild” expulsions, were carried out outside of the framework of these agreements, as much in Czechoslovakia and Poland – which sought to rid themselves of as many Germans as they could beyond their allocated quota – as in Romania and Yugoslavia, which were not included in the formal framework of expulsion.
The picture that emerges – one painted with sober words and drawing from a large array of official documents of the time – is one of utter and relentless chaos drawn out over years as wave upon wave of expellees, beset by hunger, disease, cold, maltreatment and destitution, arrived in American, Russian, French and English-controlled sectors of Austria and Germany.
Shared responsibility for costly failure
Though stressing that the many perverse aspects that accompanied the history of German expulsions should in no way be put on the same plane as the cruelty displayed by Nazis during the war and through the Holocaust, Douglas also emphasises that few heroes emerged on any side throughout this chapter of history.
Rather, responsibility for the costly procedure that left hundreds of thousands of people uprooted and vast areas of previously German-populated Poland and Czechoslovakia economically and socially broken is placed as much on Germans as on Poles, Czechs or Hungarians, and on Allied leaders and public opinion that condoned the policy and failed to back out even as the sheer scale of the endeavour and the impossibility of its completion along “orderly and humane” lines came to light.
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