Germany’s War, Chapter 6: The German Expellees

Germany’s War by John Wear: 

One of the great tragedies of the 20th century was the forced expulsion of ethnic Germans from their homes after the end of World War II. The Allies carried out the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of people—in human history. A minimum of 12 million and possibly as many as 18.1 million Germans were driven from their homes because of their ethnic background. Probably 2.1 million or more of these German expellees, mostly women and children, died in what was supposed to be an “orderly and humane” expulsion.1

One estimate of the Germans expelled runs to 16.5 million: 9.3 million within the 1937 Reich borders and 7.2 million outside. The Germans within the 1937 Reich borders include 2,382,000 East Prussians, 1,822,000 East Pomeranians, 614,000 in Brandenburg east of the Oder, and 4,469,000 Silesians. The Germans outside the 1937 Reich borders include 240,000 in Memel and the Baltic States, 373,000 in Danzig, 1,293,000 in Poland, 3,493,000 in Czechoslovakia, 601,000 in Hungary, 509,000 in Yugoslavia, and 785,000 in Romania. The Russians did not expel many of their 1.8 million Volga Germans; instead, the Volga Germans were predominately resettled within the Soviet Union.2

Historical and Legal Basis for German Expulsions

The mass expulsion of entire populations at the end of armed conflicts was not in the European tradition. With the exception of the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, which sanctioned mutual expulsions after the Greek-Turkish war of 1921-1922, European nations did not contemplate or carry out resettlement schemes prior to World War II. The Poles and Czechs, however, were determined to forcibly relocate their minority populations under the auspices of international organizations. These two governments-in-exile, located in London during most of the war, were eager to gain acceptance from the Allies for the forced expulsion of their German minorities.3

The Polish and Czechoslovak governments-in-exile found that the Allies were in complete agreement that the Germans should be expelled from both postwar Poland and the former Sudetenland. Documents from the Russian archives make it clear that Stalin and Molotov were fully informed about the Polish and Czech plans to deport their Germans. The Soviet leaders told the Czechs and Poles that they not only had no objection in principle to the deportations, but that they also thought positively about them.

Stalin unambiguously endorsed the expulsions in a June 28, 1945, conversation with the Czechoslovak prime minister and deputy foreign minister: “We won’t disturb you. Throw them out. Now they will learn themselves what it means to rule over someone else.” Stalin gave the Polish communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka advice on how to get the Germans to leave: “You should create such conditions for the Germans that they want to escape themselves.”4

Some provisional decisions concerning the expulsion of Germans had been made at the Tehran Conference in December 1943. Stalin wanted to keep the eastern half of Poland which he had acquired pursuant to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact made with Germany. In order to compensate Poland for her lost territory, East Prussia and perhaps Upper Silesia would be ceded to Poland. Poland would gain back in the west the same amount of territory she lost in the east. Churchill demonstrated to Stalin his thoughts on a Poland shifted westward with three matchsticks. Stalin was pleased with Churchill’s demonstration.5

Edvard Benes, the president of the Czechoslovak government, justifiably claimed that he had received the blessings of Roosevelt and Churchill for the transfers. Both the American and British governments were sympathetic to the Czechoslovak and Polish cases for expulsion of the Germans and, like the Soviets, had no objection in principle.

Churchill was especially callous on the subject of German expulsions. On Oct. 9, 1944, Churchill remarked to Stalin that 7 million Germans would be killed in the war, thus leaving plenty of room for Germans driven out of Silesia and East Prussia to move into rump Germany. On Feb. 23, 1945, Churchill dismissed the difficulties involved in transferring the German population to the west. Churchill insisted that the transfers would be easy to make since most of the Germans in the territories now taken by the Russians had already left.6

The question is: What moral or legal basis would allow the Allies to expel the ethnic Germans from their homes? The forced expulsion of millions of Germans was a clear violation of the Atlantic Charter signed by the United States and Great Britain in August 1941. The Atlantic Charter had promised in point two that there would be no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned. However, the Sudetenland Germans, East Prussians and Silesians were not asked if they wanted to stay in their 700-year-old homelands. They were thrown out against their will.7

British statesmen decided to repudiate the noble principles of the Atlantic Charter. In March 1944, the Earl of Mansfield stated before the British House of Lords: “The Atlantic Charter will not apply to Germany, and therefore there is no reason whatever why we should not contemplate, if not with equanimity, at least without consternation, any unavoidable sufferings that may be inflicted on German minorities in the course of their transference.”8

Other British statesmen including Churchill made similar statements that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to Germany. During a debate in the House of Commons on Feb. 23, 1944, Anthony Eden expressed his view of the Atlantic Charter: “There are certain parts of the Atlantic Charter which refer in set terms to victor and vanquished alike. Article four does so. But we cannot admit that Germany can claim, as a matter of right on her part, whatever our obligation, that any part of the Charter applies to her.”

A British Labor MP later acknowledged on March 1, 1945, before the House of Commons: “We started this war with great motives and high ideals. We published the Atlantic Charter and then spat on it, stomped on it and burnt it, as it were, at the stake, and now nothing is left of it.”9

The expulsion of ethnic Germans can be viewed in the United States as both a repudiation of the Atlantic Charter and the adoption of the Morgenthau Plan. Section Two of the Morgenthau Plan, which dealt with the “New Boundaries of Germany,” states: “Poland should get that part of East Prussia which doesn’t go to the USSR and the southern portion of Silesia.” However, the drastic territorial changes finalized at the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 2, 1945, went beyond what even Morgenthau had envisioned. It was agreed at the Potsdam Conference that all German land east of the Oder-Neisse Rivers that was not under Soviet administration “shall be under the administration of the Polish state.”10

The Potsdam Conference was held from July 17 to Aug. 2, 1945, to decide how to administer Germany after her unconditional surrender to the Allies. The goals of the conference included the establishment of postwar order, peace treaty issues, and countering the effects of the war. Participants were the United States represented by President Harry S. Truman, the Soviet Union represented by Josef Stalin, and Great Britain represented by Winston Churchill and later Clement Attlee. In a bitter blow to French pride, France was not invited to the Potsdam Conference. Although the Allies had independently agreed on the need to move the Germans out of Eastern Europe, the discussions at Potsdam indicated that the Americans and British had second thoughts on the expulsion of the Germans.11

President Truman at Potsdam expressed his concerns about where 9 million Germans would go. Stalin reassured Truman that most of the Germans had already left. Stalin later noted that the Poles had retained some Germans to work in the fields, but that the Poles would expel them once the harvest was in.

Churchill also stated somewhat disingenuously that “I have grave moral scruples regarding great movements and transfers of populations.” Churchill then added that perhaps the Germans who had left Silesia should be allowed to go back. Stalin told Churchill that the Poles would hang the Germans if they returned. Stalin also said that the Germans had already been driven out of Czechoslovakia, and that there was no need to contact President Benes about the German expulsion.12

Despite the reservations of the Western Allies, at the conclusion of the Potsdam Conference all parties agreed to the transfer of the Eastern Germans. The Western Allies could have said no, but they wanted to avoid any breach with the Soviets. Sir Denis Allen, a member of the British delegation, recalls:

We were then all too well aware—and to a degree hard to picture in retrospect—of our ignorance of what was really happening in Eastern Europe and still more of our inability to influence events there.

If experience of the Nazi era and of war had engendered a certain numbness and indifference to human suffering, it had also bred new hope that, against all the odds, the wartime alliance might be consolidated into a workable system of post-war collaboration in Europe and in the world at large. So there was a widely shared determination not to press concern over events in the East that we could not prevent, to the point where it might maim at birth the Control Council and the United Nations; if hopes were to be frustrated, let it be the Russians and not ourselves who were seen to be responsible.13

The Potsdam Conference adopted Article IX of the Potsdam Protocol regarding the German-Polish border and Article XIII regarding the transfer of the Eastern Germans to what was left of Germany. The first paragraph of Article XIII reads: “The Three Governments having considered the question in all its aspects, recognize the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary will have to be undertaken. They agree that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner.”14

Article XIII of the Potsdam Protocol was intended to bring the then on-going expulsions under a regulated procedure. According to paragraphs two and three of Article XIII, the Allied Control Council in Berlin was to determine how many Germans were to be resettled. Until then a moratorium on expulsion of the Germans was to be in effect. However, the moratorium was ignored, and the expulsions continued just as before, and during the conference itself.15

In Nuremberg the mass deportations perpetrated by the Nazis were included as part of the crimes allegedly committed by the National Socialist government of Germany. On Nov. 20, 1945, Pierre Mounier, assistant prosecutor for France, reproached the accused for having ordered the mass deportations. Mounier stated: “These deportations were contrary to the international conventions, in particular to Article 46 of the Hague Regulations, 1907, the laws and customs of war, the general principles of criminal law as derived from the criminal laws of all civilized nations, the internal penal laws of the countries in which such crimes were committed, and to Article 6(b) of the Charter.” France’s chief prosecutor at Nuremberg also denounced the mass deportations perpetrated by the Nazis as “one of the horrors of our century.”16

The Nuremberg court was of the opinion that even in a total war, when a country must fight for its very existence, civil rights and in particular The Hague Convention and its Regulations on Land Warfare place restraints upon those waging war. The mass deportations perpetrated by National Socialist Germany were held to be both a war crime and a crime against humanity. The irony is that while the Nuremberg trials were in progress, the mass deportation of millions of Germans was occurring under the sanction of the same powers whose prosecutors and judges were condemning the mass deportations perpetrated by the Germans.17

Bertrand Russell criticized the expulsion of the Germans in a letter to the London Times:

In eastern Europe now mass deportations are being carried out by our allies on an unprecedented scale, and an apparently deliberate attempt is being made to exterminate many millions of Germans, not by gas, but by depriving them of their homes and of food, leaving them to die by slow and agonizing starvation. This is done not as an act of war, but as part of a deliberate policy of “peace.”

. . . Are mass deportations crimes when committed by our enemies during war and justifiable measures of social adjustment when carried out by our allies in time of peace? Is it more humane to turn out old women and children to die at a distance than to asphyxiate Jews in gas chambers? Can those responsible for the deaths of those who die after expulsion be regarded as less guilty because they do not see or hear the agonies of their victims? Are the future laws of war to justify the killing of enemy nationals after enemy resistance has ceased?18

American historian Ralph Franklin Keeling has commented on the hypocrisy of the Potsdam Agreement:

Potsdam calls for annulment of all Nazi laws which established discrimination on grounds of race and declares: “No such discrimination, whether legal, administrative or otherwise, shall be tolerated.” Yet these forced migrations of German populations are predicated squarely on rank racial discrimination. The people affected are mostly wives and children of simple peasants, workers, and artisans whose families have lived for centuries in the homes from which they have now been ejected, and whose only offense is their German blood. How “orderly and humane” their banishment has been is now a matter of record.19

The Early German Expulsions

For more than three months prior to the Potsdam Agreement, the Polish government was expelling German citizens from what it now called the “Recovered Territories”—a reference to the fact that Poland once ruled Silesia and Pomerania under the Piast dynasty 600 years earlier. Czechoslovakia had been expelling German civilians since mid-May 1945. Although Yugoslavia and Romania had neither asked for nor received permission from the Allies to expel their German citizens, both of these countries soon began large-scale deportations of their German population. While the expulsions of the Germans were crude and disorganized, they were neither spontaneous nor accidental. Instead, the expulsions were carried out according to a premeditated strategy devised by each of the governments concerned well before the end of the war.20

The expelling nations relied almost exclusively on the use of terror to transport their German minorities across the frontiers. Except in a very few instances, deportations as a result of mob actions did not cause the German expulsions. Rather, the so-called “wild expulsions” were carried out primarily by troops, police, and militia acting under orders and policies originating at the highest levels of the expelling governments. So chaotic was the process of expelling the German minorities that many foreign observers, and even many people in the expelling countries themselves, mistook the violent events of the late spring and summer of 1945 as a spontaneous process from below. The expelling governments were more than happy to allow the myth of the “wild expulsions” to grow, since this myth enabled them to disclaim responsibility for the atrocities that were essential components of the expulsions.21

The worst of the violence in Poland occurred between mid-June and mid-July 1945, particularly in the districts bordering the Oder-Neisse demarcation line, which were designated by the Polish Army Command as a military settlement area. The commander of the Polish Second Army expressed on June 24, 1945, the Polish position on the rapid transfer of the Germans:

We are transferring the Germans out of Polish territory and we are acting thereby in accordance with directives from Moscow. We are behaving with the Germans as they behaved with us. Many already have forgotten how they treated our children, women and old people. The Czechs knew how to act so that the Germans fled from their territory of their own volition.

One must perform one’s tasks in such a harsh and decisive manner that the Germanic vermin do not hide in their houses but rather will flee from us of their own volition and then [once] in their own land will thank God that they were lucky enough to save their heads. We do not forget Germans always will be Germans.22

The Germans who were forced to resettle were usually allowed to take only 20 kilograms of baggage with them, and were escorted to the border by squads of Polish soldiers. In late June 1945 at least 40,000 Germans were expelled within a few days. One commentator describes what this meant to the Germans living near the Oder-Neisse line:

The evacuation of individual localities usually began in the early morning hours. The population, torn from their sleep, had scarcely fifteen to twenty minutes to snatch the most necessary belongings, or else they were driven directly onto the street without any ceremony. Smaller localities and villages were evacuated at gunpoint by small numbers of soldiers, frequently only a squad or a platoon. Due to the proximity of the border, for the sake of simplicity the Germans were marched on foot to the nearest bridge over the river, driven over to the Soviet side [i.e., into the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany] and there left to their own fate.23

The German expellees were frequently robbed by members of the Polish militia and military units that carried out the expulsions. Food supply became an acute problem, and the uprooted Germans were often destitute and exhausted when they arrived in the Soviet Occupation Zone. The German expellees became easy prey for Soviet occupation troops, who often stole the few belongings the Germans had brought with them. Some Germans were beaten and raped, forced to perform humiliating acts, and some were randomly killed.24

Not all of the cross-border traffic of Germans was in a single direction. At the end of the war, many hundreds of thousands of Germans from the Recovered Territories who had fled the Red Army’s advance to the west now returned to their homes. The returning Germans did not understand that there was not going to be a return home. The alarming spectacle of the population in the Recovered Territories of Poland actually increasing in the weeks after V-E Day was one of the factors spurring local authorities to quickly proceed with “wild expulsions” of the Germans. Polish soldiers and government officials used aggressive and often violent measures to prevent the unwanted Germans from returning to their homes.25

However great the hazards and miseries of life on the road were for the German expellees, they were usually preferable to the expulsion trains the Polish authorities began to operate. Taking up to two weeks to reach Berlin, the trains were typically not provisioned and lacked the most basic amenities. As a result the death rate on the trains soared. One passenger writes:

In our freight wagon there were about ninety-eight people, and it is no exaggeration to say that we were squeezed against each other like sardines in a can. When we reached Allenstein people started to die, and had to be deposited along the side of the rails. One or more dead bodies greeted us every morning of our journey after that; they just had to be abandoned on the embankments. There must have been many, many bodies left lying along the track. . . .

The train spent more time stopping than moving. It took us more than fourteen days to reach the Russian occupation zone. We rarely traveled at night. . . . After a few days we had no more to eat. Sometimes, by begging the Polish driver, we were able to get a little warm water drawn from the engine. . . . The nights were unbearable because of the overcrowding. We could neither keep upright nor sit down, much less lie down. We were so tightly squeezed together that it was impossible not to jostle each other occasionally. Recriminations and quarrels erupted, even attempts to exchange blows in the middle of this human scrum. The very sick suffered the worst. Typhus was widespread throughout the entire transport and the number of deaths grew with each passing day. You can well imagine the state of hygiene that prevailed in the wagon.26

A German priest who witnessed the arrival of German expellees at the border described what he saw:

The people, men, women, and children all mixed together, were tightly packed in the railway cars, these cattle wagons themselves being locked from the outside. For days on end, the people were transported like this, and in Goerlitz the wagons were opened for the first time. I have seen with my own eyes that out of one wagon alone 10 corpses were taken and thrown into coffins which had been kept on hand. I noted further that several persons had become deranged. . . . The people were covered in excrement, which led me to believe that they were squeezed together so tightly that there was no longer any possibility for them to relieve themselves at a designated place.27

The worst of the violence appears to have been taken against the German minority in Czechoslovakia. A brief but intense outbreak of revenge-taking occurred across Czechoslovakia in May and June 1945 in response to the determination of German forces to continue fighting up to, and even after, V-E Day. Foreign observers and some Czechs themselves were shocked by the scale, the intensity and the lack of discrimination of the reprisals against German civilians. One writer states:

The end of the occupation was the beginning of the expulsion of German civilians, if they had survived the first hours and days of brutality. Retaliation was blind. An old woman was defenestrated; a member of a visiting German orchestra was beaten to death in the street because he could not speak Czech; others, not all of them Gestapo members, were hanged, doused with gas and lit, as living torches. Enraged mobs roamed through hospitals to find easy victims there. One [of those murdered] was a Czech patient, who happened to be the father of the writer Michael Mares, but his papers listed a Sudeten birthplace. From May until mid-October official statistics listed 3,795 suicides of Germans in Bohemia.28

The Ministry of Education, the Military Prison, the Riding School, the Sports Stadium, and the Labor Exchange in Prague were set aside as prisons for German civilians. The Scharnhorst School was the scene of a massacre in which groups of 10 Germans were led down to the courtyard and shot. In Strahov as many as 10,000 to 15,000 Germans were herded into the football stadium. Here the Czechs forced 5,000 prisoners to run for their lives as guards fired on them with machine guns. Some Germans were shot in the latrines. As a general rule all SS men were shot, either by a shot in the back of the neck or to the stomach. Even after May 16, 1945, when order was meant to be restored, 12 to 20 Germans died daily at the Strahov stadium. Most of the victims had been tortured first.29

The worst atrocities during this period in Czechoslovakia were perpetrated by troops, police, and others acting under color of authority. In a compound at Postoloprty in northern Bohemia, parties of up to 250 Germans at a time were removed and shot by Czechoslovak soldiers on June 5 and 6. The precise number of Germans killed range from a low of 763 (the number of bodies unearthed in 1947) to a high of 2,000. In a similar incident at Kaunitz College in Brno a Czechoslovak investigation found that at least 300 Germans died as a result of torture, shooting, or hanging in May and June 1945.

On June 18, 1945, Czechoslovak troops shot 265 German civilians in the back of the neck and buried them in a mass grave the Germans had first been forced to dig beside a railway station. At Lanskroun, a two-day “People’s Tribunal” conducted by a prominent member of Benes’s party resulted in 20 people who were shot; two hanged; others tortured; and others drowned in the town’s fire pool. In the city of Chomutov on the morning of June 9, up to a dozen Germans were tortured to death in a “cleansing operation” conducted by Staff Captain Karel Prásil on a sports field in full view of sickened Czech passersby.30

On May 30, 1945, under threat from a trade union headed by the Communist activist Josef Kapoun, the mayor of Brno agreed to an expulsion action against German civilians that same evening. The first column of expellees was marched off in the general direction of the Austrian frontier. A second group of German expellees, rounded up from neighboring villages and towns, followed them a few hours later. The German expellees, who by now numbered some 28,000, were denied permission to cross into Austria by the Allied occupation authorities. Rather than allowing the Germans to return home, the Brno activists responsible for the expulsion confined them in a collection of impromptu camps in the border village of Pohorelice. Lacking food, water, or sanitary facilities, 1,700 Germans are estimated to have died in the camps.31 A Red Cross nurse estimates that an additional 1,000 expellees died on the march to the camps.32

In light of the euphemistically styled “excesses” of May and June, some Czechoslovak policymakers and western correspondents began to criticize the Czech actions. For example, F. A. Voigt, longtime diplomatic correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, wrote that the Czechs themselves were adopting “a racial doctrine akin to Hitler’s . . . and methods that are hardly distinguishable from those of Fascism. They have, in fact, become Slav National Socialists.”33

The Czechoslovak government, however, never seriously attempted to rein in the agencies over which it exercised control. Czech leaders realized that nothing but the application of force on a massive scale could rid Czechoslovakia of its German population. Too much terror might result in at worst some embarrassment abroad; too little terror would prevent the success of the operation. Benes implicitly acknowledged as much in a speech broadcast on Radio Prague: “We are accused of simply imitating the Nazis and their cruel and uncivilized methods. Even if these reproaches should be true in individual cases, I state categorically: Our Germans must go to the Reich and they will go there in any circumstances.”34

The Czechoslovak government introduced numerous measures discriminating against their German minority. Germans could go out only at certain times of day; they were forced to wear white armbands, sometimes emblazoned with an “N” for Nemec or German; they were forbidden from using public transportation or walking on the pavement; they could not send letters or go to the cinema, theater, or pub; and they could not own jewelry, gold, silver, precious stones and other items. They were issued with ration cards, but were not allowed meat, eggs, milk, cheese or fruit, and had restricted times for buying food. The Germans were also sometimes forced to work as slaves on farms, in industry, or in the mines.35

For many Germans an aspect of the expulsions was blatant theft. Czech president Edvard Benes is quoted as saying: “Take everything from the Germans. Leave them only a handkerchief to sob into.”36 Benes declared all Germans and Hungarians to be politically unreliable and their possessions were therefore to fall to the Czech state.37

The Czech partisans frequently took anything that appealed to them, and sometimes simply moved into a German’s house, adopting the former owner’s possessions. In 1945 there were many instances of farmworkers appropriating German farms, junior doctors taking over German medical practices, and junior managers taking over German businesses. There were cases of pure opportunism: Czechs who had formerly moved in German circles suddenly became the apostles of Czech nationalism and hunted down former German acquaintances. Once the wilder days were over, the new Czech Republic moved to regulate the plunder of German property so that the booty came to the state.38

Throughout the summer of 1945, trains of German expellees continued to pour into Berlin and other German and Austrian cities. The Western journalists who had traveled to Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference were aghast at the scenes they encountered at the railroad stations, with dead and dying littering the platforms. Charles Bray, German correspondent of the London Daily Herald, described finding four dead Germans on a visit to Stettin Station, with “another five or six . . . lying alongside them, given up as hopeless by the doctor, and just being allowed to die.” Bray discovered the suffering of the German expellees “gave me no satisfaction, although for years I have hoped that the Germans would reap the seeds they had sown.”39

Several observers compared the fate of the German expellees to the victims of the German concentration camps. Maj. Stephen Terrell of the Parachute Regiment stated: “Even a cursory visit to the hospitals in Berlin, where some of these people have dragged themselves, is an experience which would make the sights in the Concentration Camps appear normal.”40

Adrian Kanaar, a British military doctor working in a Berlin medical facility, reported on an expellee train from Poland in which 75 had died on the journey due to overcrowding. Although Kanaar had just completed a stint as a medical officer at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, what he witnessed of the expellees’ plight so distressed him that he declared his willingness to face a court martial if necessary for making the facts known to the press. Kanaar declared that he had not “spent six years in the army to see a tyranny established which is as bad as the Nazis.”41

Gerald Gardiner, later to become Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, had been a member of a volunteer ambulance unit working with concentration camp survivors. Gardiner stated in regard to the expellee trains arriving in the late summer and autumn of 1945 from the Recovered Territories, “The removal of the dead in carts from the railway stations was a grim reminder of what I saw in early days in Belsen.”42

Robert Murphy, a career diplomat who had served as Gen. Eisenhower’s political advisor and was now the State Department’s senior representative in Germany with the rank of ambassador, became concerned about the Allied mistreatment of the German expellees. Murphy states in regard to the German expellees:

In viewing the distress and despair of these wretches, in smelling the odor of their filthy condition, the mind reverts instantly to Dachau and Buchenwald. Here is retribution on a large scale, but practiced not on the Parteibonzen [Party leaders], but on women and children, the poor, the infirm. The vast majority are women and children. . . .

Our psychology adjusts itself somehow to the idea that suffering is part of the soldier’s contract. . . . That psychology loses some of its elasticity, however, in viewing the stupid tragedy now befalling thousands of innocent children, and women and old people. . . . The mind reverts to other recent mass deportations which horrified the world and brought upon the Nazis the odium which they so deserved. Those mass deportations engineered by the Nazis provided part of the moral basis on which we waged the war and which gave strength to our cause.

Now the situation is reversed. We find ourselves in the invidious position of being partners in this German enterprise and as partners inevitably sharing the responsibility.43

An eyewitness report of the arrival in Berlin of a train which had left Poland with 1,000 German expellees aboard reads:

Nine hundred and nine men, women, and children dragged themselves and their luggage from a Russian railway train at Leherte station today, after 11 days traveling in boxcars from Poland.

Red Army soldiers lifted 91 corpses from the train, while relatives shrieked and sobbed as their bodies were piled in American lend-lease trucks and driven off for internment in a pit near a concentration camp.

The refugee train was like a macabre Noah’s ark. Every car was jammed with Germans . . . the families carry all their earthly belongings in sacks, bags, and tin trucks . . . Nursing infants suffer the most, as their mothers are unable to feed them, and frequently go insane as they watch their offspring slowly die before their eyes. Today four screaming, violently insane mothers were bound with rope to prevent them from clawing other passengers.

Many women try to carry off their dead babies with them,” a Russian railway official said. “We search the bundles whenever we discover a weeping woman, to make sure she is not carrying an infant corpse with her.”44

The stated rationale during the war for the transfers had been to remove a cohort of dangerous Germans—above all, fit men of military age—who might threaten the security of the countries in which they lived. Instead, it had been women, children, and old men who had been deported, while the fit men had been held back for slave labor.

Earl Ziemke wrote of the expelled Germans: “Only 12% could be classified as fully employable; 65% needed relief. Contrary to agreements made before the movement to keep families together, the countries expelling Germans were holding back the young, able-bodied men. Of the arrivals 54% were women, 21% were children under fourteen years, and only 25% men, many of them old or incapacitated.”45

The period of the “wild expulsions” had involved massive state-sponsored programs of violence, resulting in a death toll of many hundreds of thousands of Germans. Yet it was an episode that escaped the notice of many Europeans and virtually all Americans. Now the Allies would attempt to administer the expulsions in the orderly and humane manner specified by the Potsdam Agreement. As we shall see, the so-called organized expulsions were hardly more orderly and humane than the “wild expulsions” had been.

The Organized German Expulsions

International public opinion was generally relieved by the announcement at Potsdam that the Allies were proposing to assume control of the expulsion process. However, many people were taken aback by the number of Germans proposed to be transferred in such a short period of time.

A New York Times editorial noted that the number of Germans who were to be removed from their homes in seven months was “roughly equal to the number of immigrants arriving in the United States during the last forty years.”46 Transfers of this nature had never been attempted in human history.

Negotiations to determine when, how many, and to which destinations expellees would be removed were conducted between representatives of the Polish and Chechoslovak governments and the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain. A final agreement was approved on Nov. 20, 1945, by the Allied Control Council (ACC), the occupying countries’ temporary governing body for Germany. The so-called ACC agreement, a skeletal accord less than two pages in length, specified the approximate timing of the expulsions and the number of expellees to be sent to each zone of occupation. The ACC agreement did not create any international machinery for carrying out the transfers or for supervising their execution. In truth, the ACC agreement was an almost meaningless document.47

A serious attempt to come to grips with the expulsion problem would be expected to include the appointment of an executive body to conduct and oversee the operation; a description of the means to be used; and the assignment of responsibility for making the necessary preparations for assembly, embarkation, reception, and assimilation of the German expellees. The ACC agreement contained none of these provisions. The primary purpose of the ACC agreement was to reassure an increasingly anxious public that the Allies were finally addressing the expulsion problem, and to deflect further public and media criticism. In this regard, the ACC agreement prevented Robert Murphy from generating an official U.S. protest over the means by which the Poles in particular had been clearing the Recovered Territories of their German population.48

The ACC did set up an agency called the Combined Repatriation Executive (CRX) on Oct. 1, 1945. The CRX was designed to impose order on the expulsion process, and it became the closest thing to an international apparatus to cope with the enormous transport challenges the expulsions would involve. The CRX ran into problems when it attempted to determine the start dates for the organized expulsions and the minimum welfare standards to be maintained throughout the operation. The interests of the expelling and receiving countries diverged in both respects, with the expelling countries desiring to both begin the expulsions as soon as possible and retain as much German expellee property as possible.

The organized expulsions rapidly degenerated into a race against time. The expelling governments sought to rid themselves of as many unwanted Germans as possible before the receiving countries called a halt to further transfers. Given the minimal resources dedicated to the expulsion operations, the breakneck pace at which they were conducted, and the expelling countries’ ambivalence over whether the efficient removal of the expellees should take precedence over their collective punishment, it could hardly have been expected that the expulsion process would be “orderly and humane.”49

Numerous journalists, military, and government leaders continued to report problems with the expulsion process. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower telegraphed Washington, D.C. on Oct. 18, 1945, to warn of the dangers of the German expulsions:

In Silesia, Polish administration and methods are causing a mass exodus westward of German inhabitants. Germans are being ordered out of their homes and to evacuate New Poland. Many unable to move are placed in camps on meager rations and under poor sanitary conditions. Death and disease rate in camps [are] extremely high. . . . Methods used by Poles definitely do not conform to Potsdam agreement. . . . Breslau death rate increased tenfold and death rate reported to be 75% of all births. Typhoid, typhus, dysentery, and diphtheria are spreading.

Total number potentially involved in westward movement to Russian zone of Germany from Poland and Czechoslovakia in range of 10 million. . . . No coordinated measures yet taken to direct stream of refugees into specific regions or provide food and shelter. . . .[There exists] serious danger of epidemic of such great proportion as to menace all Europe, including our troops, and to probability of mass starvation [on an] unprecedented scale.50

Eisenhower’s primary concern in sending this telegraph was probably the danger of epidemics in such great proportion as to menace all of Europe, including the Allied troops. Eisenhower had repeatedly stated that he hated the Germans and wanted to be extremely hard on them after the war.51

Donald Mackenzie, a New York Daily News correspondent, reports from Berlin:

In the windswept courtyard of the Stettiner Bahnhof, a cohort of German refugees, part of 12,000,000 to 19,000,000 dispossessed in East Prussia and Silesia, sat in groups under a driving rain and told the story of their miserable pilgrimage, during which more than 25% died by the roadside and the remainder were so starved they scarcely had strength to walk.

Filthy, emaciated, and carrying their few remaining possessions wrapped in bits of cloth they shrank away crouching when one approached them in the railway terminal, expecting to be beaten or robbed or worse. That is what they have become accustomed to expect.

A nurse from Stettin, a young, good-looking blond, told how her father had been stabbed to death by Russian soldiers who, after raping her mother and sister, tried to break into her own room. She escaped and hid in a haystack with four other women for four days. . . .

On the train to Berlin she was pillaged once by Russian troops and twice by Poles. . . . Women who resisted were shot dead, she said, and on one occasion she saw a guard take an infant by the legs and crush its skull against a post because the child cried while the guard was raping its mother. An old peasant from Silesia said . . . victims were robbed of everything they had, even their shoes. Infants were robbed of their swaddling clothes so that they froze to death. All the healthy girls and women, even those 65 years of age were raped in the train and then robbed, the peasant said.52

Robert Greer Allen, a Canadian lieutenant, writes of his visit to Berlin in late 1945:

. . . In driving about [Berlin] on Sunday morning, we came to the Stettiner Bahnhof. It’s a complete wreck of course, the great arched glassway broken and twisted. I went down to the ground level and looked. There were people. Sitting on bundles of clothes, crouched by handcarts and little wagons were people . . . they were all exhausted and starved and miserable. You’d see a child sitting on a roll of blankets, a girl of perhaps four or five, and her eyes would be only half open and her head would loll occasionally and her eyes blink slowly as though she were only half alive. Beside her, her mother apparently, a woman with her head on her outstretched arm in the most terrible picture of despair and exhaustion and collapse I’ve seen. You could see in the line of her body all the misery that was possible for her to feel . . . no home, no husband, no food, no place to go, no one to care, nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing but a piece of the floor of the Stettiner Bahnhof and a night of weary hunger. In another place, another woman, sitting with her head in her hands . . . my God, how often have I sat like that with my stomach sick within me and felt miserable and helpless and uncaring . . . yet always I had someone to help, or a bed to rest on and a meal to eat and a place to go. For her there was nothing. Even when you see it it’s impossible to believe. What can you do when you have nothing? Where can you go, what can you do, when you have no strength left and hunger is a sickness in your belly? God it was terrible.53

Greer saw no men, only women and children. The people Greer described had survived the expulsions in their eastern homelands, where conditions were often even worse. They were wasted, half-dead people.54

Anne O’Hare McCormick, special correspondent to the New York Times, reported from Germany on Feb. 4, 1946: “[I]t was also agreed at Potsdam that the forced migration should be carried out ‘in a humane and orderly manner.’ Actually, as everyone knows who has seen the awful sights at the reception centers in Berlin and Munich, the exodus takes place under nightmarish conditions, without any international supervision or any pretense of humane treatment. We share responsibility for horrors only comparable to Nazi cruelties. . . .”55

On Dec. 8, 1945, Bertrand Russell, writing in the New Leader, protested the German expulsions again:

It was agreed at Potsdam that these expulsions should take place “in a humane and orderly manner,” but this provision has been flouted. At a moment’s notice, women and children are herded into trains, with only one suitcase each, and they are usually robbed on the way of its contents. The journey to Berlin takes many days, during which no food is provided. Many are dead when they reach Berlin; children who die on the way are thrown out of the window. A member of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit describes the Berlin station at which these trains arrive as “Belsen over again—carts taking the dead from the platform, etc.” A large proportion of those ejected from their homes are not put into trains, but are left to make their way westward on foot. Exact statistics of the numbers thus expelled are not available, since only the Russians could provide them. Ernest Bevin’s estimate is 9,000,000. According to a British office now in Berlin, populations are dying, and Berlin hospitals “make the sights of the concentration camps appear normal.”56

In Czechoslovakia and Poland, foreign diplomats and media representatives were invited to witness the staged conditions of the initial organized expulsions. The Czechoslovak government was most successful in arranging a suitably reassuring spectacle for the observers. The foreign dignitaries who were present at the initial organized expulsion on Jan. 25, 1946, marveled at the effort Czechoslovak authorities took to ensure the safe passage of the German expellees. A week’s ration of food was immediately issued to each expellee, with an additional three days’ supply of food held in reserve. All passengers were first medically examined by a medical doctor, and the train included a “Red Cross” compartment staffed by German nurses. The Czech commandant overseeing the proceedings confirmed that none of the expellees’ possessions had been confiscated, and those who arrived lacking adequate clothing were provided with what they needed by the Czechoslovaks themselves. A British journalist who witnessed another staged Czechoslovak transport found the scene “more like the end of a village garden-party than part of a great transfer of population.”57

The reality of the organized expulsions from Czechoslovakia was not nearly as favorable as the staged transports indicated. A very large number of German expellees were transported while suffering from infectious diseases contracted in the camps. The Red Army repeatedly complained that the trains from Czechoslovakia were consistently dispatched with insufficient food rations for the journey. The trains were often supplied with unusable, incompatible, or obsolete wagons, making it impossible to transport expellees’ baggage. Official reports spoke of systematic pillage of expellees by both military and civilian personnel, and local authorities continued unauthorized expulsions under the guise of “voluntary transfers.” Productive individuals were also held in Czechoslovakia in violation of the requirement that families not be separated. The number of able-bodied and skilled workers included in the expulsions was extremely low.58

Poland was not nearly as successful in convincing foreign observers that her organized expulsions were orderly and humane. Expulsions from the Recovered Territories in Poland to the British zone of Germany had been given the designation of “Operation Swallow.” A correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, who met a transport from Poland on March 3, 1946, found that 250 of the expellees were so seriously ill as to require immediate hospitalization; two of the expellees were dead on arrival. The correspondent stated, “In later transports the figures have been higher.”

A considerable portion of the expellees from Poland had eaten no food for up to a week. The women bore marks of systematic maltreatment over a long period, with the scars of physical and sexual abuse much in evidence. A British medical officer who examined the German expellees determined that “most of the women had been violated, among them a girl of 10 and another of 16.”59

Reports of systematic maltreatment of the German expellees from Poland began to flood in from Allied reception centers. Of 4,100 expellees on three Swallow trains, 524 were admitted directly to the hospital. The camp commandant reported that most of the women in these transports were multiple rape victims, as were some of the children.

A British army colonel who met a Polish expellee train in April 1946 reported that nearly all the passengers had been “severely ill-treated,” exhibiting “deep scars in the skull bone, fingers crippled by ill-treatment, fractures of the ribs which were more or less healed, and partly large [sic] bloodshot spots on their backs and their legs. The latter was also seen with women.” The British also reported that the Polish authorities consistently failed to provide rations for the expellees during their journey or for the day of their arrival in Germany, as their agreement with CRX obligated them to do.60

After only two months of the Polish organized expulsions, the operation had become so chaotic that officials in the reception areas had begun to press for its immediate suspension. Officials in London noted the deplorable condition in which the expellees were arriving was an observable fact with which British authorities in the reception areas were struggling to cope. However, British representatives on CRX did not seek to restrict the intake of expellees to a level that could be accommodated, since such a policy would have prolonged the transfer operation into the indefinite future. Instead, CRX officials agreed to a Polish request at the end of April 1946 to increase the daily rate of transfers from 5,000 to 8,000. This decision eliminated the prospect of imposing a degree of control over the conditions under which the expulsions took place. The result was a perpetual crisis atmosphere, with increased suffering and higher mortality among the German expellees from the Recovered Territories.61

The problem of overcrowding of the camps, the trains, and the reception areas was prevalent throughout Operation Swallow’s year-long existence. The expulsions from Poland hardly ever followed an orderly pattern. Soviet and Polish employers were often reluctant to part with their cheap or free German labor, and would often hide their German workers so that they would not be expelled according to plan. A more common problem was Germans who showed up at assembly camps ahead of schedule. Sometimes these Germans were forced to the camps by local Polish authorities or militia units who took matters into their own hands and cleared their districts of Germans. Other Germans, lacking ration cards or means of support, showed up at assembly camps as their only alternative to starvation. Just as often, though, Germans who had already resigned themselves to leaving Poland decided that the sooner they arrived in postwar Germany the better.62

The assembly camps themselves were no safe haven for the German expellees. The British ambassador who visited an assembly camp at Szczecin in October 1946 stated, “Since I have been promoted to Ambassador I have smelt many nasty smells, but nothing to equal the immense and over-powering stench of this camp.” The ambassador advised the camp commandant that this assembly camp at Szczecin should be closed down, fumigated, and repaired.63

The assembly camps became centers of hunger and disease, and the resulting mortality was on a significant scale. During the month of January 1947 alone, 52 inmates at the Gumience camp in Szczecin died “mainly through undernourishment but [in] one or two cases . . . also through frost-bite.” Ninety-five inmates died of disease in one month at the Dantesque facility at ŚSwidwin, which lacked water, heat, bedding, intact roofs, and medical supplies. Nearly 3,500 cases of illness were reported in this camp during the same month.64

German Expulsions from Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia

Since Hungary was an ex-enemy state, the ACC issued directives concerning expulsions rather than engaging in discussions with the interim Budapest government. The first expulsion of Germans from Hungary, the so-called Swabians, was ordered to be made on Dec. 15, 1945, to the American zone. Contrary to the government’s plans, the first group of deportees from Hungary had in some cases been given no more than 10 minutes notice of their removal. The system of medical screening prior to departure broke down and was abandoned, and the train took nearly three days to cover the 160 miles between Budapest and its initial stop in Vienna. Since no food had been provided for the journey, the passengers were seriously affected by hunger. Taking all the various breaches into account, inspectors who met the train in the U.S. zone concluded that the transport had taken place under inhumane conditions.65

The expulsion operations from Hungary continued in a disorganized and inhumane manner. The promised transit camps were never built; instead, villages were designated as assembly areas from which expellees could be sent. Trains were routinely dispatched without food for the passengers, and no notice of any kind was provided before the appearance of many transports in the U.S. zone. Only 15 trains, many of which were in deplorable condition, were available for the operation. Gen. Clay said that “a majority of Swabians arriving in the U.S. Zone are for all intents and purposes destitute and penniless.” In a March 1990 resolution, the Hungarian Parliament admitted that the expulsion of the Swabians from Hungary was an “unjust action.”66

For the two smallest expelling countries, Romania and Yugoslavia, all removals of Germans were by definition “wild expulsions” since the Allies never asked these nations to expel their ethnic Germans into occupied Germany or Austria. Uniquely, the Romanian government never formally demanded expulsion nor issued an expulsion decree against its German minority. In fact, the Romanian government in January 1945 formally protested the first move by the Soviet military authorities to expel Romania’s ethnic Germans.

However, the Soviet military required the Romanian government to round up all ethnic German males between the ages of 18 and 45, and females between 18 and 30, for transportation to the Soviet Union as slave laborers. In the predawn hours of Jan. 11, 1945, combined Soviet and Romanian patrols began roundups requiring deportees to be ready within 15 minutes with sufficient food and clothing for 10 days. Up to 75,000 Germans were removed from Romania by these means. Other Germans were taken into internment camps to facilitate the redistribution of their property.67

After the Soviets took control of the Romanian government in March 1945, a pair of decrees forfeited ethnic Germans’ real property to the state and stripped most ethnic Germans of their Romanian citizenship. The new Romanian government denied the Red Cross the right to extend charitable assistance to the Germans “on the ground that these people had lost Romanian nationality.” Romania’s Germans were officially classified as illegal immigrants, and ethnic Romanians began living in the Germans’ former homes.

The ICRC reported that returning German deportees “generally camp out in the open air or in cellars and sometimes they have nothing to eat but what they can grow in the fields.” The ICRC also reported that the Germans who had escaped deportation “have literally been put out into the street. . . . Usually, their houses were given to Gypsies who, often, employ the former owners as domestic servants.” Deprived of the means of existence, the Germans were in the position of having been constructively expelled from Romania. By August 1945, substantial numbers of Germans from Romania had made their way to Germany and Austria, most having arrived in a very poor state of health.68

Romania was the first expelling country to intern her German minority. By June 1946, so many Germans had been expelled that Romania reported to the Red Cross that all of Romania’s internment camps had been closed. The expulsion of the Germans had an adverse effect on Romania’s agricultural production. An Allied officer who toured the Romanian countryside where the Germans had been deported found “large areas of valuable agricultural land . . . just lying idle. Glasshouses producing tomatoes, lettuces and other crops were likewise in a state of abandonment and in some cases would need quite a fair amount of capital to renew and repair the damages caused by the winter frosts.”

A Reuters journalist who interviewed the native Romanians of the region in 1946 reported: “[A]ll said that they sympathized with the Saxons [Germans] and were sorry that they had their land property confiscated under agrarian reform, since this land had been given to gypsies to purchase support for the Government, and the gypsies were very lazy and left the land uncultivated.”69

The Germans in Yugoslavia were subject to exceptionally brutal treatment and expulsions. They were dispossessed of all their property by law. The internment camps erected for Germans by the Tito government in Yugoslavia were decidedly not mere assembly points for group expulsion; rather, they were consciously and officially recognized as extermination centers for many thousands of ethnic Germans. There was little or no food or medical care in the internment camps, and internees were left to starve to death or perish from rampant disease. The primary purpose of these internment camps appears to have been to inflict misery and death on as many ethnic Germans as possible.70

The Tito regime in November 1944 issued an edict that provided for the internment of all Yugoslav Germans except those who had played an active part in the struggle against Nazi occupation. The internment camps in Yugoslavia for Germans are widely considered to be the worst of all the expelling nations. The British Embassy in Belgrade, which secured the release of a Canadian woman with dual nationality in the summer of 1946, reported that her food ration at the Ridica labor camp “consisted of watery soup, and 200 grams of maize bread, of so rock-like a consistency that it had to be soaked in water to be edible. . . . At the end of January, [she] was transferred to the internment camp at Krusevlje, where work was not compulsory and where consequently the food consisted of two wooden spoonfuls of maize porridge a day and nothing else. In this camp there was a mortality rate, especially among children, as high as 200 a day.” The embassy noted that this account was consistent with other reports it had received from various sources concerning the Yugoslav internment camps for Germans.71

In a dispatch that was circulated to Attlee’s cabinet, the British Embassy in Belgrade reported in 1946 that “conditions in which Germans in Yugoslavia exist seem well down to Dachau standards.” The embassy staff added that there was little to be lost by placing these facts before the public “as it will hardly be possible for the position of those that are left in camps to deteriorate thereby.” The British Embassy further stated that the “indiscriminate annihilation and starvation” of the Yugoslav Volksdeutsche “must surely be considered an offense to humanity” and warned that “if they have to undergo another winter here, very few will be left.”72

Yugoslavia had to dissolve several camps—notably Backi Jarak, Sekic, and Filipovo—because their mortality rates were so excessive as to render them no longer viable. The Yugoslav government took initial steps to wind down its internment operations early in 1947. In the process, the Yugoslav government began forcing its remaining German inmates to pay the Yugoslav government money to obtain their release from the camps.

According to British intelligence officers, some German inmates bought their way out of Yugoslav camps by using the services of human-trafficking networks which would pay off the camp authorities. Other German inmates paid the higher price of 1,000 dinars per person to the camp staff, who would conduct groups of about 60 inmates at night to the border. In the summer of 1947, these operations caused the number of Yugoslav Germans illegally crossing into Austria via Hungary to more than double. Rudolfsgnad, the last remaining camp for ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia, closed in March 1948, although many former inmates still had to perform slave labor in state “enterprises” or farms.73

The expulsion of Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans had a long-term adverse effect on Yugoslavia’s economy. Tito’s vice premier, Edvard Kardelj, later observed to Milovan Djilas that in expelling its ethnic Germans, Yugoslavia had deprived itself of “our most productive inhabitants.”74

Fate of German Children in Eastern Europe

German children in Eastern Europe suffered major hardships and deprivations prior to and during the expulsion process. From August 1945, the Czech government allocated to German children under the age of six only half the allowance of milk, and less than half the allowance of barley, allocated to their Czech counterparts. German children received no meat, eggs, jam, or fruit syrup at all, these being allocated entirely to children of the Czech majority.

One example of the prevailing mood in Czechoslovakia toward German children was expressed by the Prague newspaper Mladá Fronta, which ran a ferocious campaign against British proposals to provide a temporary haven for thousands of starving German children during the winter of 1945-1946. When an announcement was made that the scheme would not go ahead, the newspaper’s headline read: “British Will Not Feed Little Hitlerites: Our Initiative Crowned With Success.”75

In the Recovered Territories, food ration cards were progressively withdrawn from the entire German population. Like their parents, German children found that they were entitled to no rations at all. The head of the Szczecin-Stolczyn Commissariat thus proudly reported that since the end of November 1945, even German children under the age of two had their milk allocation withdrawn from them.

Polish laws designed to protect German children were typically never enforced. For example, a directive issued in April 1945 by the Polish Ministry of Public Security specifying that nobody under the age of 13 was to be detained was never followed. More than two years later, the Polish Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare was complaining that the regulations against imprisoning children in camps continued to be “completely ignored.” German children were illegally detained in Polish internment camps as late as August 1949.76

German children experienced the worst conditions in the detention centers. Premsyl Pitter, a social worker from Prague, quickly found as he visited the Chechoslovak detention centers that the overwhelming majority of those who needed his aid were ethnic Germans. At a makeshift internment camp in Prague, Pitter discovered at the end of July 1945 “a hell of which passers-by hadn’t the faintest notion.” More than a thousand Germans, the great majority women and children, were “crowded together in an indescribable tangle. As we brought emaciated and apathetic children out and laid them on the grass, I believed that few would survive. Our physician, Dr. E. Vogl, himself a Jew who had gone through the hell of Auschwitz and Mauthausen, almost wept when he saw these little bodies. ‘And here we Czechs have done this in two and a half months!’ he exclaimed.” Red Cross officials found that the conditions at other Prague camps were no better.77

The youngest German children were most vulnerable to the conditions in the detention centers. Their undeveloped immune systems and lack of physical reserves left them particularly vulnerable to starvation and its attendant diseases. A credible account by a female detainee at Potulice in Poland recorded that of 110 children born in the camp between the beginning of 1945 and her eventual expulsion in December 1946, only 11 children were still alive by the later date. A high rate of infant mortality in the camps was also caused by numerous cases in which German children were denied medical care because of their ethnicity.

Investigations by the ICRC found high rates of infant mortality attributable to malnutrition to be widespread in Czechoslovakia. When the ICRC visited a detention center in Bratislava at the end of 1945, it found that every one of the emaciated infants and children was “suffering from hideous skin eruptions” and that conditions were “in general so desperate that it is difficult to find words” with which to comfort the detainees. A journalist from Obzory, who visited one of the Prague detention centers in the autumn of 1945, acknowledged that “mortality has increased to a horrifying degree” among the children. The journalist attributed the high mortality among the infants to the complete absence of infant formula and the fact that the majority of nursing mothers were too emaciated to breastfeed their newborns.78

Authorities generally did little to shield children from the harsher aspects of camp life. Germans in Czechoslovakia typically became forced laborers on their 14th birthday, with some districts requiring labor services of those aged 10 or above. At Mirosov, in Czechoslovakia, the definition of “adult” for forced labor consisted of all inmates above six years of age. Children of 10 years of age and above were also routinely used as forced laborers in Yugoslavia. In September 1945, the ICRC complained that in the Czechoslovak camps the young male guards treated detainees with “the utmost cruelty,” with widespread beatings of children as well as adults. Many children were also subject to psychological abuse, and some children were compelled—as at Krusevlje in Yugoslavia—to witness their parents’ torture or execution at the hands of camp guards.79

The Western Allies did not intervene to help ethnic German children in Eastern Europe since they regarded all Germans as perpetrators of World War II. The policies of the Western Allies and the expelling nations were a violation of their subscription in 1926 to the International Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which stipulated that children were to “be the first to receive relief in times of distress” without taking into account “considerations of race, nationality or creed.”

German children were also denied aid from international relief agencies like UNRRA and the International Refugee Organization (IRO) as a matter of policy. Even the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) maintained a discriminatory stance against German children, assigning priority to the children of “victims of aggression” in the provision of aid. The plight of children in the expelling countries was additionally worsened by the expropriation of German religious and charitable organizations, which caused German children in orphanages and facilities for handicapped children to lose their homes. In the long run, the only hope for most German children in the expelling countries was their expeditious removal to Germany.80

The Resettlement of Expelled Germans in Germany

The surviving expelled Germans continued to face unimaginable hardships and suffering in Germany. The devastation of Germany by total warfare had demolished its life-sustaining resources. Industrial production in the American zone after the war had gradually risen until it reached a high of about 12% of the old normal. However, with a cut in food rations, the industrial production index had begun to decline again. On May 4, 1946, Brig. Gen. William H. Draper, Jr., the Allied Military Government director of economics, reported that industrial output in the American zone was “far below that necessary to maintain the minimum standard of living.”81

By August 1945, the daily death rate in Berlin had risen from a prewar amount of 150 to 4,000, even though Berlin’s population in August 1945 was significantly smaller than before the war. In the U.S. sector of Berlin, the infant mortality rate for infants born in the summer of 1945 was 95%. Germany also faced an acute shortage of housing after the war. Even where houses existed, the inadequacy of water or drainage facilities in them was giving rise to the grave danger of epidemics. Because of the high proportion of sick, abused, or infirm expellees, the hospitals and asylums in Germany were full to overflowing. This was the environment into which the Allies proposed to transfer another seven to 8 million people.82

By September 1945, 45 makeshift reception camps had been set up in Berlin, employing barracks, schools, and any other building not already being used for other purposes. The number of expellees seeking admission to these camps greatly exceeded the spaces available. Thousands of expellees never left the station at which they had arrived, while thousands more set up improvised tent villages in city parks or woods on the outskirts of Berlin. Many expellees died of hypothermia as the weather turned colder, and the sight of corpses of people who had spent their last night outdoors became a common spectacle during the first peacetime winter in Germany. By the end of 1945, 625 camps of various kinds with a total population of more than 480,000 had been established in eastern Germany. The number of camps in the Western zones of Germany ran into the thousands.83

Conditions in most of the expellee camps were extremely grim. The records of the occupying authorities and humanitarian bodies are replete with descriptions of overcrowded, unheated, disease-ridden, and even roofless facilities in which expellees languished for months or years. Unemployment was also a problem for the expellees. When German expellees could find work at all, it tended to be poorly paid if not positively exploitative.

As 1946 began drawing to a close, Germany continued to feel the strain of the so-called organized expulsions. Col. Ralph Thicknesse, a senior officer administering Operation Swallow, warned: “At present, we tend to regard occupied Germany as a waste-paper basket with a limitless capacity for the unwanted waste of the world. We are not convinced that this attitude is correct, either economically or politically.”84

The Western democracies generally disavowed any responsibility for the suffering that resulted from the German expulsions, which they claimed was entirely the concern of the expelling states or of the Germans themselves. Some officers attached to the Allied Military Government in Germany even stated that mass deaths among expellees were a matter of no great significance compared to the overriding objective of not offending the Soviet Union. For example, Goronwy Rees stated on Nov. 2, 1945:

It is inevitable that millions of Germans must die in the coming winter. It is inevitable that millions of the nomads who wander aimlessly in all directions across Germany should find no resting place but the grave. . . . These facts could only be altered, if at all, by a universal effort of philanthropy which would reverse the result of the war….

The real danger of Germany at the moment is not that millions of Germans must starve, freeze and die during the winter; it is that out of their misery the Germans should create an opportunity for destroying the unity of the Allies who defeated them.85

While not in the majority, views like these were far from unusual.

Although most of the German expellees were Catholic, the Vatican conspicuously refrained from protesting their mass expulsion. While individual priests and bishops in the United States and central Europe vigorously condemned mass expulsions as inconsistent with the laws of God, the Pope never publicly did so. Nor did the governing body of any other Christian denomination protest the mass deportations of ethnic Germans. The Christian churches were only prepared to give small-scale assistance to the expellees out of existing funds. To mount a larger appeal on behalf of the expelled Germans would have required at least a public announcement on their behalf, and this was something that none of the Christian churches was prepared to do.86

Those individuals and nongovernmental organizations that sought to mitigate the ill effects of the German expulsions could make little headway. The Allies insisted that the German expellees be excluded from any form of international protection or assistance. As a result, humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross were frequently prevented from extending even minimal assistance to the German expellees.

In addition to denying food, clothing, and shelter to the German expellees, Allied policy prevented any organization from representing the expellees to the expelling states or the Allied governments in Germany. Nor was there any agency or organization to which German expellees subject to inhumane treatment could appeal. Because of this Allied policy, advocates for the expellees could do little more than attempt to raise public awareness. While advocates for the expellees enjoyed limited success in this regard, it was never enough to make a difference in the way in which the expulsions were conducted. None of the expelling or receiving governments was ever compelled by the pressure of public opinion to abandon or modify a policy on which they had previously decided.87

Freda Utley describes the treatment of the German expellees in Germany:

Many of the old, the young, and the sick died of hunger or cold or exposure on the long march into what remained of Germany, or perished of hunger and thirst and disease in the crowded cattle cars in which some of the refugees were transported. Those who survived the journey were thrust upon the slender resources of starving occupied Germany. No one of German race was allowed any help by the United Nations. The displaced-persons camps were closed to them and first the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and then the International Refugee Organization (IRO) was forbidden to succor them. The new untouchables were thrown into Germany to die, or survive as paupers in the miserable accommodations which the bombed-out cities of Germany could provide for those even more wretched than their original inhabitants.

How many were killed or died will never be known. Out of a total of twelve to 13 million people who had committed the crime of belonging to the German race, four or 5 million are unaccounted for. But no one knows how many are dead and how many are slave laborers. . . .

The estimate of the number of German expellees, or Flüchtlinge as the Germans call them, in Rump Germany is now eight or 9 million. The International Refugee Organization (IRO) takes no account of them, and was expressly forbidden by act of Congress to give them any aid. It is obviously impossible for densely overcrowded West Germany to provide for them. A few have been absorbed into industry or are working on German farms, but for the most part they are living in subhuman conditions without hope of acquiring homes or jobs.88

American aid in the form of the Marshall Plan eventually helped to improve conditions in Germany. The famous “economic miracle” made possible by the Marshall Plan achieved two important goals: rapid economic recovery and the integration of millions of expellees into the German economy. The expellees had many years of pain behind them; now they could rebuild their lives and have a chance to begin anew. Unfortunately, even in 1949 many of the German expellees still had to live in group housing.89

Freda Utley writes of the discrimination expellees faced in obtaining adequate housing:

Although the number of displaced persons in Germany is continually diminishing and many of the camps are half empty, the Germans are not allowed either to regain possession of the many houses, barracks, and other buildings occupied by the DP’s, or to place their own refugees in them. Exact information is not available since the German authorities are not allowed to enter the DP camps but, according to the estimate of the Bavarian Minister for Refugees, between twenty-four and twenty-eight thousand beds are now unoccupied. While this accommodation is wasted the German refugees are crowded into unsanitary huts and other accommodation unprovided with the most elementary comforts and decencies, and frequently have to sleep on the floor.

In the Dachau camp near Munich I found fifty or more people—men, women and children—to each wooden hut 26 x 65 feet in size. There were no partitions, but the inmates were using some of their precious blankets to screen off their cubicles. The huts were cold and damp. It was raining and one woman with a little girl suffering from a bad cold showed me the wall behind their bed where the rain seeped through.

Four hundred people at Dachau shared one washroom and one outdoor latrine and there was no hot water. No one had any linen or sheets, and some had neither shoes nor overcoats.90

One positive result of the expulsions is that within an incredibly few years, the German expellees had become effectively integrated into the larger society in both West and East Germany. Instead of becoming terrorists in order to force the return of their homelands, the expellees preferred to take the path of peace and reconstruction. They renounced revenge and retaliation and made a decisive contribution to the West German economic miracle by means of hard work and sacrifice. It should be noted that the expellees’ public expression against revenge did not merely stem from a condition of weakness. It has been maintained ever since, and remains as Germany has become a respected political and economic power.91

The hard work and sacrifice of the German expellees was duplicated by Germans already living in Germany. With an incredible will and energy, Germans set out to rebuild their country. Admiring the hard work of German women, one American exclaimed: “Did you ever see anything like it! Aren’t those German women wonderful?” Another American said: “I used to think that it was only in China you could see women working like that; I never imagined white people could do it. I admire their guts.”92

However, the fact that the German expellees quickly integrated into German society should not be viewed as a kind of retrospective vindication of Allied policy. The costs of the expulsions were all too apparent. Many hundreds of thousands of German expellees, most of whom were women and children, had lost their lives. Millions more of the expellees were impoverished, without the assets they had lost in the expelling countries necessarily enriching those who took possession of them. The economies of entire regions were disrupted, and the surviving expellees suffered tremendous hardships both during and after the expulsions. Tens of thousands of German women who had been repeatedly raped had to bear the physical and psychological scars for their entire life. The legacy of bitterness, recrimination, and mutual distrust between Germany and her neighbors from the expulsions still lingers to this day.93

Closing Thoughts on German Expulsions

Since the German expulsions were not given adequate press coverage, most people in the United States and Great Britain did not know there were any expulsions at all. However, it was undoubtedly Anglo-American adherence to the principle of population transfers that made the catastrophe of the German expulsions possible. The Allies had knowingly pursued a policy that would cause great suffering to the expellees, so as to generate an “educational” effect upon the defeated German population. Late in 1947, the ACC asked U.S. officials who had administered the transfers how these transfers might be better managed in the future. The U.S. officials stated that on the basis of their experience with mass expulsions:

We recommend that the Control Council declare its opposition to all future compulsory population transfers, particularly the forcible removal of persons from places which have been their homes for generations, and that the Control Council refuse, in the future, to accept into Germany any persons so transferred, excepting only repatriated German prisoners of war and persons who were formerly domiciled in Germany.

In formulating this recommendation . . . we have considered the moral and humanitarian aspect of the injustices done to masses of people when an element of a population is forcibly uprooted from long-established homes, has its property expropriated without redress, and is superimposed upon another population already suffering from hunger, insufficient shelter, lack of productive employment and want of social, medical and educational institutions. We have considered that any course of action other than that recommended above would be to invite just condemnation on grounds of economic, social and religious injustices to the persons being transferred, to the present population of Germany and to the populations of nations surrounding Germany.94

Albert Schweitzer also expressed strong opposition to the German expulsions. Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Nov. 4, 1954, he made an appeal to the conscience of mankind to repudiate the crime of mass expulsions:

The most grievous violation of the right based on historical evolution and of any human right in general is to deprive populations of their right to occupy the country where they live by compelling them to settle elsewhere. The fact that the victorious powers decided at the end of World War II to impose this fate on hundreds of thousands of human beings and, what is more, in a most cruel manner, shows how little they were aware of the challenge facing them, namely, to reestablish prosperity and, as far as possible, the rule of law.95

The fate of the German expellees has been ignored in most universities and high schools. The extreme hardships and suffering the expellees experienced have been pushed aside, if not totally forgotten. People have thus been deprived of an important history lesson: mass expulsions are almost invariably unjust and inhumane. Historian R. M. Douglas states:

The most important lesson of the expulsion of the Germans, then, is that if these operations cannot be carried out under circumstances in which brutality, injustice, and needless suffering are inevitable, they cannot be carried out at all. A firm appreciation of this truth, and a determination to be guided by it at all times and in every situation, however enticing the alternative may momentarily seem, is the most appropriate memorial that can be erected to this tragic, unnecessary, and, we must resolve, never to be repeated episode in Europe’s and the world’s recent history.96


1 Dietrich, John, The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy, New York: Algora Publishing, 2002, p. 137.

2 MacDonogh, Giles, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, New York: Basic Books, 2007, p. 162.

3 Naimark, Norman M., Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 108.

4 Ibid., pp. 108-109.

5 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 83.

6 Naimark, Norman M., Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001, pp. 109-110.

7 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 88.

8 Dietrich, John, The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy, New York: Algora Publishing, 2002, p. 145.

9 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 88.

10 Dietrich, John, The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy, New York: Algora Publishing, 2002, p. 137.

11 Naimark, Norman M., Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 110.

12 Ibid., pp. 110-111.

13 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 86.

14 Ibid., p. 87.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p. 35.

17 Ibid., p. 37.

18 Russell, Bertrand, The London Times, Oct. 23, 1945, p. 5.

19 Keeling, Ralph F., Gruesome Harvest: The Allies’ Postwar War against the German People, Torrance, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1992, p. 13.

20 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, p. 93.

21 Ibid., pp. 94-95.

22 Bessel, Richard, Germany 1945: From War to Peace, London: Harper Perennial, 2010, pp. 214-215.

23 Ibid., p. 215.

24 Ibid., pp. 216-217.

25 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, p. 103.

26 Ibid., pp. 109-110.

27 Davies, Norman and Moorhouse, Roger, Microcosm, London: Pimlico, 2003, p. 422.

28 Demetz, Peter, Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-1945, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, p. 235.

29 MacDonogh, Giles, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, New York: Basic Books, 2007, p. 134.

30 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, p. 96.

31 Ibid., pp. 98-99. See also MacDonogh, Giles, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, New York: Basic Books, 2007, p. 139.

32 MacDonogh, Giles, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, New York: Basic Books, 2007, p. 139.

33 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, p. 97

34 Ibid., pp. 97-98.

35 MacDonogh, Giles, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, New York: Basic Books, 2007, p. 131.

36 Goodrich, Thomas, Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany 1944-1947, Sheridan, CO: Aberdeen Books, 2010, p. 241.

37 MacDonogh, Giles, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, New York: Basic Books, 2007, p. 128.

38 Ibid., pp. 126-127, 131.

39 London Daily Herald, Aug. 24, 1945.

40 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, p. 117.

41 Ibid., pp. 117-118.

42 Ibid., p. 118.

43 Ibid., pp. 118-119.

44 Wales, Henry, Chicago Tribune Press Service, Nov. 18, 1945.

45 Ziemke, Earl, U.S. Army in the Occupation of Germany, Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1975, p. 435.

46 New York Times, Dec. 16, 1945.

47 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 124-125.

48 Ibid., pp. 125-127.

49 Ibid., pp. 159-161.

50 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 115.

51 Bacque, James, Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians Under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950, 2nd edition, Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2007, pp. 25-26.

52 Congressional Record, Dec. 4, 1945, p. 11554, and New York Daily News, Oct. 8, 1945.

53 Bacque, James, Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians Under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950, 2nd edition, Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2007, pp. 94-95.

54 Ibid., p. 95.

55 New York Times, Monday, Feb. 4, 1946, “Abroad: As UNO Prepares to Settle in this Neighborhood.”

56 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, Nemesis at Potsdam: The Anglo-Americans and the Expulsion of the Germans, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, p. 109.

57 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 166-167.

58 Ibid., pp. 188-189.

59 Ibid., pp. 167-168.

60 Ibid., pp. 168-169.

61 Ibid., pp. 171, 174.

62 Ibid., pp. 174-176.

63 Ibid., pp. 178-179.

64 Ibid., p. 179.

65 Ibid., pp. 166-167.

66 Ibid., pp. 210-211, 356.

67 Ibid., pp. 110-112.

68 Ibid., pp. 112-113.

69 Ibid., pp. 153, 278-279.

70 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 99-100.

71 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 136, 145.

72 Ibid., p. 151.

73 Ibid., pp. 153-154.

74 Djilas, Milovan, Wartime, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, p. 423.

75 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 233-234.

76 Ibid., pp. 234, 236.

77 Ibid., pp. 234-235.

78 Ibid., pp. 234, 238-239.

79 Ibid., pp. 234, 236-238.

80 Ibid., pp. 240-241, 244.

81 Keeling, Ralph Franklin, Gruesome Harvest: The Allies’ Postwar War against the German People, Torrance, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1992, p. 84.

82 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 198, 303.

83 Ibid., pp. 303-304, 309.

84 Ibid., pp. 185, 192, 310-312.

85 Ibid., pp. 286-287.

86 Ibid., p. 297.

87 Ibid., p. 286.

88 Utley, Freda, The High Cost of Vengeance, Chicago: Regnery, 1949, pp. 202-203.

89 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 130.

90 Utley, Freda, The High Cost of Vengeance, Chicago: Regnery, 1949, pp. 203-204.

91 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 135-137.

92 Utley, Freda, The High Cost of Vengeance, Chicago: Regnery, 1949, p. 37.

93 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 302, 364.

94 Ibid., p. 363.

95 De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 149.

96 Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012, p. 374.

Share this page

Follow Us