I grew up with family stories about the German refugees from World War 2. Both of my parents came from the east… Mama from Silesia, Dad from Brandenburg, and both lost their homes.I had heard about DonauSchwaben, and stories about staying ahead of the Soviet Army. About being expelled from homes and villages. About leaving houses, friends and possessions behind. But now, after reading “Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War” by R.M. Douglas, I have a new understanding of the madness that was the expulsion of MILLIONS of Volksdeutsche from Eastern Europe- Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and the Baltic States.
Note- Because this story is so personal to me, it is extraordinarily difficult for me to give it the dispassionate or removed review that I probably should. I can’t separate the events from my personal feelings. As a result, my review will be less objective than it should be. I’m not going to apologize though… these are heartbreaking events, and I know many of you will understand and relate. I will say that the book is not a series of first person accounts…. it is an umbrella look at the Expulsion Policies and how they were carried out. That is, it’s not so much about individuals as it is politics. But that’s like saying “it’s not personal, it’s business”… people’s lives changed, and that’s personal. My mother’s story is here.
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German Refugees From World War 2
The plans for the Expulsion of Volksdeutsche (people with German background) from the countries surrounding Germany was in the works already from the beginning of World War 2. Governments in surrounding nations were afraid that German Nationalism would take root among their German Minorities. The “logical solution”, kick them out. And so at the Potsdam Conference, the Allied powers came together and created plans for the forced migration. The logistics of this plan were far reaching. We are talking about taking MILLIONS of people out of their homes… and moving them into another country. Transportation, food, lodging on the other end… all of these factors needed to be taken into consideration.
In the end… a shockingly unrealistic plan was worked out.
All Germans would be removed from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania…. the borders of Poland would be moved west. The Soviets would take the old eastern part of Poland, and Poland would be gifted an eastern section of Germany. All Germans would be shifted out, and their homes/farms/businesses would be turned over to Polish immigrants. Germans deeper in Russia, the Volga Germans, would be sent to work camps in Siberia.
Within days after VE Day, the first Volksdeutsche were taken from their homes and put on a train to the West. DAYS. The dust hadn’t even settled yet. Those that weren’t put on trains immediately were housed in recently vacated Concentration Camps like Auschwitz and Majdanek (why these death camps weren’t burned to the ground after liberation is beyond me). The local logic… Germans built these places, they should have to live in them. It came in waves. Not everyone was moved at once. And when the knock came at your door, you often just had a few moments to get your suitcase (one) together. (Imagine… a child goes out to play, and comes home to find the family has been taken. It happened often.) New families from the East would then arrive and take over the house… all of the furniture, dishes…sometimes even the dinner that was left on the table when the family had to leave.
The rest of the world seemed to agree. Germans started the war, now they should be punished. Never mind that the remaining population was primarily women, children, the elderly and the insane. Governments seemed to believe in the Biblical idea of The sins of the Fathers.
Now… before I go on, I do want to point out, just as R.M Douglas did… that I am not discounting the Nazi atrocities toward Jewish people. I can’t wrap my head around that either. It was pure evil. BUT… that doesn’t mean we can’t be horrified by what happened to the millions of Germans AFTER the war. As one British journalist stated “How can you claim moral superiority to the Germans, when you are doing the same thing to them?
This map comes from a website called the “Institute for Research of Expelled Germans”…
Operation Swallow- Orderly and Humane
The title of the book comes from the basis of the expulsion plan. It was to be done in an orderly and humane way. This was not the first time large populations of ethnic peoples had been moved… and the plan masters were convinced that they had learned from past mistakes, and their plan would be different. Sadly, they were wrong.
This joint undertaking was labeled Operation Swallow. Germany was divided into four sectors after the war, overseen by Britain, France, America and the Soviet Union, and each of these countries would oversee the intake of Volksdeutsche into their area. What seemed like a straightforward idea… move the population from Here to Here… fell apart in logistics. Remember, after World War 2, much of Europe’s Rail system had been blown to pieces and needed rebuilding. Cities like Dusseldorf had over 95% of their buildings affected by bombing. And the East had much of the farmland… when you remove the farmers… you lose the food. Where were people going to go? How were they going to get there? And what were they going to eat?
Horror stories of boxcars filled with people. The smallest amount of food, no protection from cold or heat, and no sanitary facilities. People died from starvation, hypothermia and disease by the thousands. People were beaten, women raped, most of the remaining able-bodied men were labeled “exempt” from expulsion, and put to work as slave laborers. Children were separated from families… some were adopted by locals in efforts to re-train them to be good local citizens. Others died from malnutrition. It just breaks your heart.
Some families didn’t wait for the knock on the door… they took their chances and ran for their lives ahead of the advancing Russian Army and Polish take-over. Thousands of people took to the roads with the possessions they could carry, and headed west in search of safety.
Operation Swallow went on for over two years, and many of the camps on both sides of the border were open for much longer (some, over 10 years!). Food rations were around 500-600 kcal per day. Medicine was scarce and disease like Typhus was rampant. In the ultimate horrible irony, many Jews who had survived the camps during the war were now labeled GERMAN by the Polish and Czech governments, and put BACK into the camps.
In the end, 12 MILLION people were either expelled or became refugees. 12 MILLION people!
So why isn’t this common knowledge? Why didn’t the world protest? I remember being in a World History class at the University, and talking about it. No one had heard it before, and they thought I was making it up to excuse the Holocaust. When you boil it down, that is probably why. No one at the time was willing to speak up for the Germans because of the Holocaust. And so the atrocities committed were “justified”. It makes you weep.
And the Germans? I think at that point, the people who were left were just beaten down. They knew that no one would come to their aid, so they did what they could to survive. And after it was over… they squashed the story down into a manageable memory, and tucked it away. They just wanted to move on.
A Bit More about the book, Orderly and Humane
“Orderly and Humane” was not an easy read, and not just because of the difficult subject matter. The book is an accounting of the history leading up to Operation Swallow, and the outcome of the policies. It’s a scholarly work that digs into the politics of the time and explains the rationale behind the events. While there are some personal stories, the book is mostly a look at a situation from an academic point of view.
But as difficult as the book was to read, I’m glad I did. I think now I have a better understanding of what happened to my family after the war. I’m not planning to hand this book to my parents… I don’t want to dig at closed wounds… but one day, I will sit down with them, and maybe we can talk a bit more about their experiences. I will pass them along to my children and grandchildren, and not let this time be forgotten.
Orderly and Humane is available in Hardcover, Paperback and Kindle, both New and Used…
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