Orderly and Humane – German Refugees from World War 2
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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Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War
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 Silesia, 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 remaining 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…
Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War
More Books about this Time
Last Waltz on the Danube: The Ethnic German Genocide in History and Memory 1944-1948German Boy: A Child in WarThreaten to Undo Us
That is the most hidden secret in history. I’m totally shocked. The world today never learned from WWll, it’s still going on in other parts today, how sad.
Isnt’ it horrible…how could it happen? and how can it still happen?
The reality of the survival of my grandmother and her remaining family members as refugees during this time is fundamental to my existence and very much a part of me, although I didn’t witness nor live the times. My family was ripped from their prosperous family ice house business, happy family life, young dreams (my grandmother wanted to act), and their only home (destroyed) in the Pest side of Buda-Pest, Hungary, grasping only what they could fit on their back and in each hand. They were forced to migrate West. They hungered in the filthy train car, which stopped occasionally long enough to risk jumping off to hand wash themselves at town fountains at train stations. After the two week train car trip sleeping on hay in the corners like cattle, the arrival alive brought hope to them as they survived camp life and began integrating into German society. My grandmother’s simple desire to eat led her to marry into a young German soldier’s farming family and she would milk cows and deliver milk each day. The time evolved and they had 6 children. New dreams came to fruition and reality clouded the past. The past which was rarely spoken of, other than listening to my Oma and my Gross Tante reminiscing about the family and good old days in their native Hungarian tongue, animated heartfelt conversations I never understood but dearly miss listening to. The dialects and sounds of voices have the ability to be etched in your memory even as a child, not know the grandeur and importance this would later be in my life. I can’t seem to shake the heimweh myself, living and making a home for myself in another country for so many years now, I’m 40. This must’ve been the similar heimweh my Oma and her Hungarian family felt (those that made it out and were aloud to flee with her, not all were). My Oma at 84 no longer longs for Pest, it’s not the same anymore. I can say my trips home aren’t the same either, but for me the simplistic presence and safety of my family members is gift enough each time I have the luxury to visit my village in Southwestern Germany. I’m a gratefully simplistic person, yet may come across as complicated to those unsuspecting. I’ve adapted some of my ways to modern American life, but I have an unmatched sense of being grounded in another country and culture. The Expulsion is part of me and my story.
Thank you so much for sharing this.
My father and his family were living in a German village in Yugoslavia when in September, 1942 they were forced out of their home and put on a train that ended up in Poland. They were basically refugees (Displaced Persons) until 1948. They immigrated to the US in 1956.
My dad’s family’s story is nothing short of miraculous. (His family of 9 all survived!!) My dad recently passed away at age 81, the first of his siblings to do so. The legacy he left is of courage, strength, bravery and survival and has had a profound influence on my life.
Amazing… That they all survived. Wonderful. Thank you for sharing such a GOOD news story…. even if it started out bad
This was reading my mothers stories from small German village called Inja Yugoslavia, same about the train the cold the hunger and when the train did stop they were shot at . They ended up in ???????? Germany with only what they could carry.sad times
It was a sad and horrible time. It’s amazing people survived. That generation must have been strong.
Add the book “Escape from Plauen, ” a personal story written by Renate Stoever to your to read list. However, be prepared for an emotional roller coaster when you do. The strength and courage exhibited by the families is soemthing we all can learn from.
thank you… I will add it to my stack
I’m from German decent and getting to know more about my heritage.
Enjoying your website.
I’m glad… thank you
My grandmother was one of the persons who escaped with nothing but the clothes on her back and a suitcase, along with her young daughter and Oma’s sister. They caught the last ship out of East Prussia before the Russians invaded. Still being amazed how my dad, Opa and his brother-in-law found them in Germany, Opa was a POW in Siberia and my dad had come from an air force hospital in Austria after being infected with Malaria while fighting the war in Africa..
It is such a miracle that people could find each other again after the war. It sounds like your grandmother was lucky to get out alive.
Thank you for sharing her story. I never want to let these disappear.
My mom was 17 when the war ended and she lived, with her family, near Wittenberg. She was taken from her home and told she was to go and work. She was put on a boxcar train filled mainly with women and one man. They were packed in. They could look out the small slit and the man realized they were travelling in the opposite direction…towards Poland and Russia. By the way, it was the Russians who herded them onto the boxcars. When the train arrived at the Polish border, the Russians had difficulties with the Polish guards. The Russians took out the people from the box cars and herded them into a nearby barn. The man, my mom and a few others tried to tell the rest that they were heading to Russia. In the end , my mom, the man and 6 others dug a hole to escape the barn(it was a dirt floor) and snuck out. My mom remembers just crawling away and then running and running. I found out , in the last decade, that close to 700,000 mainly young women were taken to Siberia to work in the gulags. I think that was the #. My mom lost 2 brothers in the war, was in Hamburg and Dresden when the cities were bombed. She was taken by the Nazis and placed in a structured camp but she rebelled. They placed her in “the hole” and she refused to eat or drink and when her tongue swelled up, the doctor told the. To send her home or there might be a huge “incident”. She was raped by 7 Russians, endured starvation and her dad placed, first in a concentration camp by the Nazis for being a Communist and after the Russian marched in, he was placed in a Russian camp for being a Fascist. In 1950, my mom, already in the West, snuck back in ( she routinely went back and forth to being her parents food) and brought her dad out…6 months later my uncle brought out their mom. The home they built, was left behind, the door unlocked.
What a story. Your mother really went through more than one person should have had to endure. It’s things like this that make me realize just how good we have it now.
Thank you for sharing this. It’s important that these stories are not lost.
My parents had to leave their home and business behind in Sudetenland, Germany, taken over by Czechoslovakia. I was only a few month old then, and don’t remember much of that part, but we were packed into trains like sardines and landed in Stuttgart, West Germany. We were called refugees ( Fluechtlinge). I almost died from maul nutrition and dehydration. There was no milk for me. My father walked to a nearby American Army Base and got a job there as a Barber. He was given Milk, Butter & Bread to help me and my family survive. It’s amazing what heartships humans can survive. My parents taught me to appreciate everything and as long as you have a roof over your head, food on the table & a warm clean bed to sleep in, you are wealthy.
So lucky you all made it. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s important that these things aren’t forgotten
I come by my status as the son of a fleuchtlinge and her family. Their origin was as Sudeten Germans. My Mom lived there from 1932 through at least 1948 when the Czechs expelled them. She never really talked much about those years, not unless I asked her about it. She did tell me a few things about her parents and their siblings. Her Mothers side of the family leaned toward being Union Workers and Socialists, (Socialists, not Communists). Her father worked in a factory that made Machine guns for the German Military and her Mother worked in a Factory that produced Woolen materials. I have seen photos of Her Father, my Granfather, that show him in a Uniform of sorts. I believe he was a member of a Local German Partisan Outfit that, when not holding down jobs, trained with the S.S. and given Weapons, so that they could terrorize and harrass the Czechs, , their Border Gurads and Officials. In other words they were being used by Hitler to pave the way for his Annexation of Czechoslovakia. My moms Socialist family members on the otherhand were placed in Prisons and Concentration Camps for being Union Members and Socialists. One was Liberated from Dachau, and another executed at Mauthausen. Our Families dilemma resembled that of Americas Civil War, one side Loyal Americans on the Union side, the other Siding with the Confederacy. What happened after the War, was terrible for those Germans who became Refugees, however it was a natural result of the Terrible atrocities that the NAZIs visited on countless other Nations and their people, My Granfather who participated with the Sudeten Volks FreiKorp helped bring these things about in his own small way. Twenty Million Russians died during that War, Millions of Civilians Of Conquered Nations that that Germany invaded died. Germand died at the hands of Hitler Loyalists as well. No one was Spared. There is guilt to be had by everyone proving that the World is full of hate to be shared by all. When we go so far as to remember these things and dredge up old resentments, we set the ground and foundations for new Hates and Wars. that’s the way I see it.
Ambassador Renate: A Siebenbürger Sachsen Immigrant’s Peace Trail to Cleveland, Ohio and into the Worlds Peace Makers Hall of Fame.
“…..Nach dem Staatsstreich vom 23 August 1944 und der Kriegserklarung Rumaniens am Deutschland zwei Tage spatter spitzte sich die Sicherheitslage Anfang September fur einige sachsische Gemainden im sogenannten Szeklerzipfel bzw. im ungarisch-rumanischen Grenzraum bedrohlich zu. Als deren unmittelbare Folge kam es fur Tausende von alteren Menschen, Frauen und Kindern zure ubersturzten Flucht, die fur einige den Tod, fur die moisten Not, Elend und Heimatverlust mit sich brachte. Im Folgenden soll die Chronologie der militarischen Ereignizze in diesen dramatischen Spatsommertagen nachgezeichnet warden”.
Sadly, I’m somewhat familiar with this, but from a different perspective as my wife’s family was forced from what was then eastern Poland to Silesia. My brother-in-law still finds stuff left behind by German families and it’s quite sad to see these artifacts from what must have been a very happy life for people at some point in the past.
May the day come when we can end war so that all can live in peace and prosperity.
I hope so too.
Saddened by these stories and thankful I I could read most of it. My Austrian mother came to South Africa after WWll, so part of me will always be German.
It’s interesting how FAR Germans went across our world. Family friends ended up in the US by way of South Africa after leaving Germany