World War II was unquestionably the greatest bloodletting in world history. Never before had so many people lost their lives in such a short period of time.
Of all of the many tragedies which took place during the war, one of the largest actually took place after the war.
It was the largest single forced migration of people in human history, it resulted in millions of deaths, and almost no one knows about it.
Learn more about the Post-WWII German Expulsions on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com
My audiobook recommendation today is Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe by Michael Neiberg.
After Germany’s defeat in World War II, Europe lay in tatters. Millions of refugees were dispersed across the continent. Food and fuel were scarce. Britain was bankrupt while Germany had been reduced to rubble. In July 1945 Truman, Churchill, and Stalin gathered in a quiet suburb of Berlin to negotiate a lasting peace – a peace that would finally put an end to the conflagration that had started in 1914, a peace under which Europe could be rebuilt.
But riven by tensions and dramatic debates over how to end the most recent war, they only dimly understood that their discussions of peace were giving birth to a new global conflict.
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The topic of this episode is one that many people, and dare I say the vast majority of people, have never heard about. It is almost never mentioned in school history courses, there are no movies about it, there are few books, and it is seldom the topic of conversation.
There are two reasons for it. The first is when it happened. All of the events I’ll be talking about occurred after VE Day, which ended one of the most significant, terrible, and tumultuous periods in world history. Almost anything which happens after that would be in the shadow of all of the events which preceded it.
The second is because of who it happened to. It happened to ethnic Germans. Given the horrors of the war, the millions who died, and the fact that it all happened because it was instigated by Nazi Germany, there was very little sympathy for the victims.
To understand what happened, we have to go well back before the start of World War II, or even the 20th century.
In the early 18th century, Peter the Great invited many German craftsmen to come to Russia and settle so Russia could have use of their Skills. Likewise, Catherine the Great, who herself was actually German and not Russian, invited Germans to come and settle in an area near the Volga River.
Many Germans had come to settle, either as craftsmen or as farmers, in countries to the East of Germany.
When Prussia controlled much of what is today Poland, they encouraged German immigration.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, they actually created an autonomous republic within the Soviet Union for the Volga Germans called the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
In each of these countries, Germans were an ethnic minority. They often lived in German communities, or in German neighborhoods in larger cities.
Most of these people had migrated before there was actually a country called Germany, which was only founded in 1871.
At the start of the second world war, there were millions of ethnic Germans living outside of Germany. These people were born outside of Germany, most had never even been to Germany, and were citizens of the country where they lived.
The Nazis called these Germanic people who lived outside of Germany and did not have German citizenship, Volksdeutche. Those who lived inside Germany and were German citizens were called Reichsdeutche.
A big part of Hitler’s plan was unifying all the German peoples in Europe. That was why he annexed Austria as well as the Sudetenland, which was the ethnically German part of Czechoslovakia.
After the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin had ordered all ethnic Germans to head west, into Siberia and Central Asia, and the Volga German ASSR was dissolved. Many were placed in prison camps and forced to work for the Soviet war effort.
As the Nazis expanded eastward, they recruited soldiers in these German communities.
In countries such as Hungary, Romania, and Serbia, many of the Volksdeutche joined SS units to fight local partisans. Most of the Volksdeutche from these countries were conscripted and did not volunteer. This was because there weren’t enough volunteers to meet the quota of the SS.
When the war was over, the tables were turned on the ethnic Germans.
All of the violence which the Nazis subjected the rest of Europe to was now being done to ethnic Germans.
In the Czech village of Horní Moštenice, 265 Germans were dragged from a train and shot in the neck. This number included 120 women and 74 children.
The Czech city of Brno conducted what was called the Brno Death March. 18,000 Germans living in Brno were expelled from the city and forced to march to the Austrian border 55 kilometers away.
4,140 ethnic Germans died on the march.
The leaders of the three major allied powers met in Potsdam Germany to outline how post-war Germany was to be managed. One of the issues they addressed was the question of ethnic Germans.
The Potsdam Agreement explicitly called for the removals of Germans from non-German Countries.
The agreement said:
“The Three Governments, having considered the question in all its aspects, recognize that the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, will have to be undertaken. They agreed that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner.”
Basically, they wanted to create ethnically homogenous nation-states in Central and Eastern Europe. The largest minority group, by far were Germans.
After the passage of the Potsdam Declaration, each of the countries had the green light to begin expelling Germans from their country.
What happened over the next four years was the largest forced expulsion of humans in history. In fact, many call it the largest migration of humans in history, even larger than the migration which occurred after the partition of India and Pakistan.
Despite the calls in the Potsdam Declaration for expelling the Germans in a humane manner, there was little of it.
Most of the people affected were women, children, and the elderly as most of the men had gone off to fight or had been killed in combat.
In Poland, hundreds of thousands were held in camps to provide reparations labor, and many of those were sent to the Soviet Union. Over a quarter-million ethnic Germans were sent to the USSR to work camps, and over 57,000 died there.
In Yugoslavia, many Germans were forced into camps where they were starved to death. Others were sent into forced labor.
Gang rapes and mass murders were a common occurrence everywhere in 1945.
Much of this was pure vengeance for what local populations were put through during the war. They wanted a target to lash out against, and the ethnic Germans were the closest thing available.
However, this was also a top-down policy as well. The Potsdam Agreement gave the governments all the cover they needed.
Germans were often given a few minutes notice before they were removed from their homes.
They were sometimes kept in the very same prison camps where the Nazis held Jews and were given similar treatment.
Many communities forced the Germans to wear armbands to degrade them in a way similar to how the Nazis treated them.
They were often transported in cattle cars, with no food or water, similar to how the Nazis transported their prisoners.
In total, approximately 14 million Germans were forcibly expelled from European countries and sent to Germany or Austria. The vast majority of them settled in West Germany, and almost none of them were allowed to settle in East Germany.
In the 1950s and 60s, the West German government tried to calculate the number of Germans who died during the expulsions.
They estimated that between 2.4 and 3 million people were killed or disappeared.
They were able to confirm 473,013 civilians, and there were at least another 2 million people who could not be accounted for.
Many of the findings of this study were not released until 1989 for fear of spoiling West German/Polish relations.
There was some outcry while this was happening, but it mostly fell on deaf ears.
George Orwell noted that the expulsions were “largely the defense of the indefensible.”
Bertrand Russell said, “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?”
Few people, however, were willing to stand up and try to stop what was happening.
The legacy of the German expulsions has lingered with us. In 1948, the United Nations passed the Genocide Convention. A passage in the first draft of the document was removed which banned the “forced and systematic exile of individuals representing the culture of a group.”
This was taken out because the allies, which formed the core of the new United Nations, were in the middle of doing exactly that.
While the scale of this was enormous, it has mostly been forgotten from history. It is totally omitted from most history books. Despite the thousands of documentaries on World War II, there is almost nothing on this event.
There was an attempt to create a museum about the subject, but objections raised by Poland ensured it was never created.
There are few monuments erected to recognize the victims. There is a small one in the city of Elek, Hungary, and another was recently unveiled in Serbia.
On the whole, most people don’t really want to talk about it. In Central and Eastern Europe, many still hold the view that the expulsions were justified. Many Germans don’t want to talk about it because it will make them appear to be Nazi sympathizers.
Many people from allied countries don’t want to talk about it because it makes the “good war”, with clear good guys and bad guys, much more morally ambiguous.
Nonetheless, this period of history is one which more people should at least be aware of. The horrors of the second world war didn’t end when the articles of surrender were signed. They lingered for years later.