Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Book review: A Brutal Peace: On the Postwar Expulsions of Germans

Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War.
By R.M. Douglas-- 
Reviewed by Tara Zahra


 In 1918, the remnants of the multinational Habsburg and Ottoman empires were carved into sovereign nation-states, in accordance with the Wilsonian ideal of “national self-determination.” As Hannah Arendt perceptively argued, the world stood convinced in 1918 that “true freedom, true emancipation, and true popular sovereignty could be attained only with full national emancipation, and that people without their own national government were deprived of human rights.” The problem with this principle was that borders and nations were not neatly aligned in Eastern and Central Europe. Citizens of the Habsburg Empire’s many linguistic, national and confessional groups were hopelessly intermingled. In many cases it was not even clear who belonged to what nation, because so many citizens of the empire were bilingual or indifferent to nationalism. Equally important, in spite of the rhetoric of national self-determination, the frontiers of the new successor states had been drawn with geopolitical imperatives in mind. Even though German speakers formed an absolute majority in the borderlands of Czechoslovakia (which would come to be known as the Sudetenland), and most wanted to join the Austrian rump state, the region was forcibly annexed to Czechoslovakia for the sake of the state’s economic viability. 
A new so-called “minority problem” was born in interwar Eastern Europe..
It was one of many ugly episodes in 1945. On a summer day in Horní Moštenice, a small town in central Czechoslovakia, 265 people, including 120 women and seventy-four children, were dragged from a train, shot in the neck, and buried in a mass grave that had been dug beside the local railway station. It was a common enough scene in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II, when Nazi extermination policies threatened entire ethnic groups. But despite the similarity of means and ends, the massacre in Horní Moštenice was different. For one thing, it occurred on June 18, after the war in Europe had officially ended. Moreover, the perpetrators were Czechoslovak troops, and their victims were Germans who had been a presence in the region for centuries.

“Better enjoy the war—the peace will be terrible” went a popular joke during the Third Reich. While, after 1945, almost all Germans presented themselves as the true victims of the Nazi regime, the peace was perhaps most brutal for the more than 12 million Volksdeutsche: German speakers living outside the borders of the Reich. The vast majority of the Volksdeutsche in Eastern Europe had greeted Hitler’s conquests as a form of national “liberation.” They benefited materially from the plunder of their Jewish, Czech and Polish neighbors, and even if they sometimes resented their loss of autonomy (as when Germans from the Reich secured choice jobs and property during the Nazi occupation), they rarely protested. 

After the Nazi defeat, the Volksdeutsche fled or were expelled to the West, and were stripped of their citizenship, homes and property in what R.M. Douglas calls “the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history.” Douglas amply demonstrates that these population transfers, which were to be carried out in an “orderly and humane” manner according to the language of the Allies’ 1945 Potsdam Agreement, counted as neither. Instead, he writes, they were nothing less than a “massive state-sponsored carnival of violence, resulting in a death toll that on the most conservative of estimates must have reached six figures.”


Orderly and Humane is not, as it boasts, the first book “in any language to tell the full story” of the expulsions, nor is it “based mainly on archival records of the countries that carried out the forced migrations”—primarily Poland and Czechoslovakia, but also Yugoslavia, Romania and Hungary in smaller numbers. It is certainly not true, as Douglas claims, that the expulsions have “largely escaped the notice of historians today.” Douglas’s own account is based largely on an excellent synthesis of the extensive existing scholarship on the topic by American, British, German, Polish and Czech scholars, along with untapped English and French language sources found in the archives of the British Foreign Office, the US National Archives and the International Red Cross in Geneva, complemented by a smattering of previously well-mined records in Czechoslovakia and Poland.
At the heart of this story are pressing and unresolved philosophical and political questions—about the validity of collective guilt and the extent to which one can justifiably respond to evil with evil... Read more: