It was ethnic cleansing on a scale never seen before. As many as 14 million people, mainly women and children, were forcibly removed from their homes and deported to a country devastated and demoralized by war.
More than 500,000 Germans died in the post-World War II expulsions from eastern Europe. Yet the world had largely forgotten this manmade tragedy until the Irish historian R. M. Douglas (the R. stands for Ray), a professor at Colgate University in New York, published “Orderly and Humane.”
Nearly 70 years after the event, it is the first comprehensive academic study of the episode and has been welcomed in Germany, where discussion of the expulsions is still a political hot potato in relations with its eastern neighbors.
“I tried for a very long time, as long as I possibly could, not to write this book,” Douglas said in an interview in Berlin, where he was promoting the German translation. “I knew what a lot of work it was, and how sensitive it was.”
The 10 years of writing and research that followed reveal the expulsions were anything but “orderly and humane” -- the words used by the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union in the 1945 Potsdam Agreement, which ordered this mass exodus.
Few may know, for example, that the main camp at Auschwitz was used for Germans less than two weeks after the last Jewish inmates left. Camps for Germans mushroomed across eastern Europe; hundreds of them, if not thousands, Douglas said.
Rape was commonplace. Many were tortured to death; others died of hunger. Expellees were transported to Germany in cattle trucks and eyewitnesses described piles of corpses at the arrival stations.
Part of the reason the expulsions have faded into obscurity is that the story complicates national accounts of history in eastern Europe, which cast the Germans exclusively as perpetrators and their own people as victims, Douglas explained.
“It is perceived as almost disloyal to the memory of those who were persecuted by Nazi Germany to acknowledge other forms of suffering, especially German suffering,” Douglas said.
In Germany, discomfort in dealing with the question has stemmed from fear of accusations of promoting German victimhood at the cost of addressing the incomparable crimes of the Holocaust. Discussion of the expellees was also muted for the sake of diplomatic ties with eastern neighbors.
So those who suffered as children -- and an estimated one in four of the current German population is an expellee or a descendant -- were discouraged from talking about their experiences and left alone with suppressed trauma, Douglas said.
“I can’t tell you how many letters and e-mails I have received from expellees, usually now in their mid-70s, who were children in one of these very squalid camps,” Douglas said.
“The letters are almost stereotyped in their uniformity: ‘I had this horrendous experience as a child, then I wound up in Germany and nobody wanted to hear,’” he said. “‘I was afraid I would die without anyone knowing or caring about what happened to me and now I can’t even talk to my family about it.’”
For the U.S. and Britain -- which not only saw the expulsions as necessary but helped organize them -- it taints the image of World War II as “a good war” fought to protect Western humanism against brutal fascism, Douglas said.
“One’s blood chills at the sheer recklessness of the people who conceived this operation -- I am talking now about the Great Powers,” he said. “The notion that the allies were unhappy bystanders watching while lots of people in faraway places behaved in inhumane ways cannot survive even the most cursory survey.”
Mass population transfers are not just a thing of the past, and Douglas said that part of what propelled him forward was alarm at voices, especially in the U.S., saying they could be useful policy instruments applicable to current ethnic strife -- for example in the former Yugoslavia, Darfur or south Asia.
For Douglas, the broader lesson from history is that human rights can never be denied on the basis of ethnicity -- a policy he sees as “a very dangerous road” to take.
Germany has finally found a way to address this aspect of its past without provoking the ire of its neighbors. Last month, after years of heated debate, the government established an international academic team to set up a permanent exhibition in Berlin about the expulsions.
First initiatives by German expellees’ organizations for a center for research and commemoration met horror and derision in Poland and the Czech Republic. In 2003, a Polish weekly portrayed Erika Steinbach, the controversial lawmaker leading the initiative, with a swastika armband and jackboots on its cover.
“The German government has struck the right note in its approach -- that there will be no attempt to whitewash the German past,” Douglas said.
“There is an increasing awareness that reconciliation through repression isn’t an option and that history must be confronted,” he said.
(“Orderly and Humane” is published by Yale University Press, 504 pages, $38. To buy the book in North America, click here.)
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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