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Dec 2012 Journal

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Law of the jungle (review)

This is the ghastly story of how millions of ethnic Germans were forcibly expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania after the Second World War – a story that is very well documented in Germany but virtually unknown outside that country. I came across it on reading the review of this book by Max Hastings in the Sunday Times and was appalled by some claims he made: 15 million expelled, with at least half a million dead, in conditions ‘entirely comparable with recent Jewish experience at Nazi hands, save that the victims were not gassed.’ Further, ‘former Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz had been reactivated for almost equally ghastly purposes.’ The review was accompanied by a photograph bearing the caption ‘Desperate children evacuated from Berlin by the British in 1946 look for their families.’ There seemed something phoney about both the caption and the picture, which showed a group of well-dressed and well-fed children, not in the least desperate, accompanied by three adult women, one of them smiling, and with the soldier’s uniform looking anything but British! I determined to discover the truth by reading the book. The photograph was not in it ….

The author of the book, a well regarded American historian, has written a scholarly and extremely well-researched and documented account of the post-war expulsions. However, he makes it crystal clear, even in his introduction, that, despite some similarities, ‘no legitimate comparisons can be drawn between the post-war expulsions and the appalling record of German offenses against Jews and other innocent victims between 1939 and 1945. The extent of Nazi criminality and brutality in central and eastern Europe is on such a scale and of a degree that is almost impossible to overstate. In the entire span of human history, nothing can be found to surpass it ... or to equal it.’

So much, then, for Max Hastings’s claims. The term ‘orderly and humane’ was coined by the Potsdam Agreement between the ‘big three’ in 1945. It was, however, a forlorn hope and the countries that were determined to rid themselves of ethnic Germans (primarily Poland and Czechoslovakia but also Hungary and Romania) had already taken the law into their own hands with the so-called ‘wild expulsions’. These were admittedly unofficial but none of the governments made any serious attempts to curb or control them. Thus local people and militias dealt out their own form of ‘justice’, essentially taking revenge for years of incredible hardship and privation under the Nazi yoke, to which most ethnic Germans had at the very least acquiesced and often contributed. Germans were forced out of their homes, often beaten, raped, and killed, with hundreds of thousands forced into vastly overcrowded and disease-ridden detention/assembly camps, some of which were reconstituted Nazi concentration camps. There they were ill-fed and brutally treated, and many succumbed to malnourishment and disease before they were transported back to Germany or Austria in overcrowded freight wagons that were wholly unsuited for the transportation over long distances of mainly women, children and the elderly. Thus many died en route after interminable journeys. In this respect, there was indeed some similarity between the methods that the Germans had adopted for the transportation of Jews - but the intended destinations were very different.

These wild expulsions had been encouraged by the determination of the Germans to continue fighting up to and even after VE Day, thus enraging the local population still further and leading to blind and brutal retaliation. One instance in Czechoslovakia in which British prisoners-of-war tried, unsuccessfully, to intervene, is recorded. It was the law of the jungle, a tidal wave of violence that could not have been arrested by the local ‘authorities’ even if the will had been there. The Manchester Guardian published accounts that described the Czechs as adopting methods ‘hardly distinguishable from those of Fascism’. Visits by the International Red Cross were strictly limited and stage-managed. In Poland, one camp commandant was a 23-year-old Jew who had survived a concentration camp and who, with a crew of 17-20-year-old soldiers, ran a camp with the utmost brutality. Subsequent attempts to try him for crimes against humanity failed, and an even later attempt, in 1990, to indict him led him to flee to Israel, where the Ministry of Justice found that there was no case against him, despite a lengthy dossier of evidence that had been prepared in Poland.

The only country that had considered even as early as 1942 the logistical implications of inevitable mass movements of populations after the war was Britain but, when it came to the crunch, all good intentions were swept aside by the scale of the problem and the rapidly unfolding events. The so-called ‘organised expulsions’, which began after the Allied Control Council Expulsion Agreement of November 1945, were almost equally chaotic. Trains with up to 1,500 passengers left Poland and Czechoslovakia in dire conditions and with very little notice given to the expellees, some of whom died en route from malnourishment, disease and, in some cases, hypothermia. Matters were complicated because one train from Poland contained Polish Jews who were passed off as ethnic Germans by the Polish authorities, destined for the American Zone for onward transmission to Palestine - an opportunity to rid the country of unwelcome citizens. At one point, the British Foreign Office threatened the Polish government with a total suspension of operations but the notorious ambassador in Warsaw, Cavendish-Bentinck, pleaded the Polish case on the grounds that Western concepts of human rights could not be applied to Slavs!

It is impossible here to do justice to the suffering and hardship the expulsions caused. Both the American and British Zones could barely cope with the constant arrival of trains, their passengers in bad health and often diseased. As for western Germany, which, together with Austria, was the final destination: its cities were in ruins and its population destitute, short of accommodation, and highly traumatised. That millions of returned ethnic Germans were eventually accommodated and absorbed into German society is nothing short of a miracle.

The expulsions came to an end in late 1947. The Western Allies were ‘rueful’ and recommended that ‘the Control Council declare its opposition to all future compulsory population transfers.’ Alas, ethnic cleansing has nonetheless taken place in many parts of the world in recent times.

Douglas concludes by summarising why, even today, the expulsions are defended by some: first, the hatred of the Volksdeutsche by their non-German neighbours; second, the need to prevent future conflicts; third, just punishment of the Germans for their atrocious conduct before and during the war. He claims that none of these stands up to closer examination. Whilst all three statements are undoubtedly correct they clearly do not provide a moral justification for what transpired. The lesson drawn by the author is that ‘if such operations cannot be carried out without brutality, injustice and needless suffering, they cannot be carried out at all.’ Who would disagree?

Leslie Baruch Brent

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