Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War – R.M. Douglas

humaneMore than seventy years have passed since the end of World War II, yet it still fascinates historians and students.  The number of books written about Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and the Third SS Reich are perhaps the most written about any conflict and leader in history.  The former Austrian vagabond rose to power in Germany and plunged the entire world into the deadliest conflict in the history of mankind.  The emergence and use of the atomic bomb by American forces ushered in the nuclear age and set the stage for the Cold-War which lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. In my list of recommendations, I saw this title regarding the expulsion of Germans following the war.  At first, I was not sure which expulsion was being referred to but quickly realized that it was pertaining to the Germans that were living in Nazi occupied territories outside of Germany.  During the war, many of them enjoyed security and a stable life but in the wake of Germany’s defeat, nationalist governments came to power in former occupied territories, and they turned their wrath towards the German people that had been living within their borders.  A staggering number of Germans were forced from their homes and sent back to Germany with no clear or concise plan for reintegrating them into a Germany struggling to recover and rebuild.  And this is one part of the war that is often not discussed but a topic that should be known. 

The title of the book removes all doubt that the story is a “happy” one.  In fact, I believe that it is not for the faint at heart.  Although the book is not rife with gratuitous violence, the actions taken towards German nationals living abroad are both shocking and repulsive.  However, it could be argued that they are no more repulsive than what was done to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.  In the book, this is implied in actions and statements taken by foreign leaders eager to rid their countries of anything connected to Nazi Germany.  Regrettably, the operation to relocate German nationals was plagued by disorganization and confusion, leading to mass confusion the deaths of those being removed.  The author points out that: 

“Calculating the scale of the mortality remains a source of great controversy today, but estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present.” 

We may never know the true number of those who perished during the expulsion program but the numbers we do know of are nothing short of mind-boggling.  Further, it removes any illusion of a “glorious” end to the war where things were made right again. In fact, the book shows that even with Germany and Japan defeated, chaos and confusion continued to be a problem for quite some time as the Allied forces struggled with former camp prisoners, German military prisoners and the German people who were left destitute as their nation crumbled around them.  Hitler had committed suicide and his act left the people without a leader and at the full mercy of Germany’s many enemies.  Berlin became the battleground between the east and west and remained so until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.  Today, Germany is one of the most successful nations in the world and far removed from its post-World War II state.  But the question remains, how and why did the expulsion happen and develop in the way that it did? Further, were there no protections against such a thing?  Some readers will immediately think of the Hague Conventions, but the author anticipates this and explains that: 

“The Hague Conventions were by no means perfect. They bound only those countries that were signatories. They contained few protections for civilians—a crucial omission that in the future would hamstring the work of humanitarian agencies like the Red Cross. They were silent in circumstances in which a government maltreated its own citizens, rather than the inhabitants of foreign lands its armies were occupying. They applied only to conflicts in which a state of formal war existed, rather than in “undeclared wars” or in peacetime. They provided no means of individual redress, nor any mechanism for enforcement.”

Frankly, the Germans being expelled were on their own at times and could expect little to no help from those their country had been recently fighting against.  Readers may find themselves torn as the fate of German nationals is discussed.  And it may lead some to ask the age-old question of whether two wrongs make a right.   We do know that many Germans did not support Hitler, but millions of others did and opposing forces during the war were not eager to distinguish between the two.  During the expulsion, the feelings held by victors was even more direct according to the author: 

“After the Nazis’ defeat, the new regimes of central and eastern Europe were in no humor to try to distinguish between culpable and innocent Germans. This uncompromising attitude extended to German children, for whom in practice few exceptions were made.” 

Of all the things the book shows, one of the most striking is that war truly is hell, and the concept of victory can change depending on the situation that arises.  Some readers who decided to read this book may feel that the Germans brought it upon themselves. Others may be filled with sympathy for expulsion that took place.  Regardless of which side of the argument we fall on, I think we can all agree that the relocation of Germans after the war, is on the conflicts rarely discussed matters that does not put anyone in a positive light.  Fault lies at the feet of many and even during the operation, governments in high positions of power, rarely discussed matters and continued to shuffle the people around like pawns on a chess board. 

Admittedly, I cannot say that I was completely shocked at what I learned in the book.   Germany’s defeat was a concern for many Germans as it became clear that a quick victory would not take place. The entry of the United States into the war and the decision to invade the Soviet Union, showed that Germany had bitten off more than it could chew.  And it also showed that Hitler had gone completely mad.  As I read through the book and learned just how dreadful the expulsion were, I came to see that this was the hand that Hitler had dealt this people.  They would soon learn that national socialism was not all that they thought it would be. 

World War II permanently altered world’s political landscape and the horrors of the war remain with us to this day.  The Holocaust will always be a case study with regards to the dangers of racial ideology supported by government policy. And the dropping of the atomic bombs still sends chills down the spine of many, in particular, those still alive who lived through it.  For the millions of German nationals living outside of the fatherland’s borders, the war upended their lives, and they were forced to leave their long-term homes and return to a nation in ruins. They too can be added to the long list of victims of a senseless war that could have very well been mankind’s destruction.  This is the story of the plight and what really happened to them after the war ended.  Highly recommended. 

ASIN : B008740OQQ

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