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This is a tricky subject.

So tricky, I’ll leave it to the Stanford researcher James Mayfield to state what this is all about:

…the largely unknown story of more than 10,000,000 ethnic German civilians who were subjected to deportation, compulsory labour, expulsion, and in some cases starvation and ethnic violence following World War II with varying support and involvement by the governments of the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, and Yugoslavia.

Let’s attack the problem head on. Is it possible to talk about this without being accused of revisionist history or of feeling sorry for the Tätervolk (an ugly word implying the collective guilt of a whole people)?

In my opinion — yes.

For years, this was taboo in Germany. To some extent, it still is. There’s always an uncomfortable aftertaste when the Germans talk about any situations they suffered under during and after the war. You get two main arguments: “That generation deserved it” versus “There were perpetrators and victims in all countries.” Like the horrors of the wartime allied bombardments, the expulsions of Germans after the war were suffered largely in silence and shame. It’s taken decades and generations for people to open up about the expulsions. Many Germans today don’t know much about them.

Expellee groups claimed millions of Germans died in the postwar expulsions. For years, the West German government and the Red Cross generally agreed. But modern academic research has settled on something between 400,000 and 600,000.

Was it ethnic cleansing?

It’s a political question, one that rankles people, especially in Poland and the Czech Republic. Poles and Czechs suffered massive violence, deportation and execution at the hands of Nazi Germany. Any talk of the ethnic cleansing of Germans in their territory after the war is seen as revisionist history. They claim the Germans in their regions benefited from Hitler’s policies during the war – and in many cases, this was true, for instance when German settlers moved into houses of Poles who were expelled or killed. The interesting article “Distorted historical memory and ethnic nationalism as a cause for our forgetting the expelled Germans sums up their view:

What the Germans remember as ethnic cleansing or even genocide, the Czechs and Poles remember as merely the punishment of Nazi criminals and the formation of states long denied their sovereignty by German hegemony.

Cue the case of Erika Steinbach. She’s a controversial figure and the leading advocate for restitution for expellees. Her attempt to build a “Centre Against Expulsion” in Berlin failed largely because of the protest from Poland and the Czech Republic. Though the center intended to denounce ethnic cleansing in general, including the postwar Germans as a case of it was unacceptable. The German experience could not be lumped together with that of the Poles and Czechs.

President Jaroslaw Kaczynski further reflected this national perception by insisting that the Germans should “remember who was the perpetrator and who was the victim.”

I’m not Polish, Czech or German. My view of all this from the outside – though admittedly closer to the Germans since I live here – waivers between both arguments. But I don’t believe in collective guilt. No one deserved to be deported or killed no matter what ethnicity they were, and deporting Germans wholesale was an understandable, but unjust reaction to atrocities during the war.

That opinion won’t make me any friends among certain groups in Poland,  the Czech Republic and other countries where one man’s justice was another man’s reprisal. On the other hand, I don’t buy into romantic notions of the former German territories in the east. The documentaries where expelled Germans talk about their childhood and deportation or escape from the east are often moving. They were victims – the children definitely – of forces outside their control. They lost their homes and were raised in shame at who they were. But anyone who secretly wishes those lands belonged to Germany again are naive and crazy.