Wall Street Journal on August 9, 2012, published a review of a new book on how some 12 million Germans were expelled from Eastern Europe in 1945. Excerpts below:

By the late spring of 1945, Germany had lost a war, its honor and millions of dead. There was more to come. The Allies had decided that the country’s east should be carved up between Poland and the Soviet Union and that its German inhabitants should be moved to the truncated Reich. There they would encounter Sudeten Germans, Czechoslovakia’s second largest ethnic group, now also scheduled for deportation. In August 1945, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed at Potsdam that these transfers, which had in any case already begun, should be “orderly and humane.”

They were to be neither, and they rapidly evolved into the greatest forced migration of all time. In total, 12 million Germans or more—mostly women and children—were stripped of all they owned and expelled from a vast swath of Eastern and Central Europe. At least 500,000 lost their lives (some estimates are far higher) due to neglect, violence, disease and the debilitating effects of freight wagon and forced march. From the Baltic to the Carpathians and beyond, communities that had flourished for, in some cases, more than half a millennium were smashed and scattered until all that remained were buildings and graveyards.

In Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After World War Two, R.M. Douglas quotes the comments of a British diplomat who visited East Prussia in September 1945: “The towns of Deutsche Eylau, Freistadt and to a lesser extent Marienwerder, as well as the smaller villages, are not only devastated but also almost empty,” he wrote. “These are ruins in the raw, untouched and untidied, looking like horses disemboweled in a bull-ring.”

Mr. Douglas is careful, however, to guide his readers away from any notions of moral equivalence between these events and the Nazi slaughterhouse that preceded them. The treatment of the Germans was savage, cruel and frequently murderous, but it most closely resembled (in type if not scale) the “ethnic cleansing” that would tear apart Yugoslavia during the 1990s. It was no new Holocaust.

Mr. Douglas shows that the expellees were the victims of realpolitik as well as rage, righteous or otherwise. In 1943, Gen. Władysław Sikorski, the leader of the “London Poles,” may have been moving toward accepting a postwar Poland shoved westward (to accommodate Stalin’s theft of the country’s eastern portion) at Germany’s expense, but he was clear that there would be no room within it for a substantial Jewish minority. If this was to be punishment for Hitler’s crimes, it was taking strange forms.

After years of hard-fought Nazi occupation, Tito’s expulsion of Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans citizens was perhaps no great surprise, but Moscow’s seizure of a slice of East Prussia was just the latest in a series of imperial land grabs engineered by Stalin.

Above all, the expulsions of 1945 were, as Mr. Douglas shows, just the biggest in a series that had begun two to three decades earlier in Turkey, Greece, Central Europe and, even, France’s recovered Alsace-Lorraine. In many respects, the expulsion of the Germans represented the belated full flowering of the ideas that had shaped the Treaty of Versailles (1919).

Most important of all, the “resolution” of what was left of Mitteleuropa’s ethnic muddle dovetailed with Stalin’s strategic objectives in lands now dominated by the victorious Red Army. The fate of the 12 million was sealed.


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