The aftermath of the end of Second World War was even more brutal than the war itself especially for German civilians in Europe in Germany and elsewhere. The war of conquest unleashed by Hitler's Nazi Germany had embittered the countries that had suffered in German hands. They also feared that a resurgent Germany in the future would harass and invade them again on the pretext of 'saving' German minorities in other countries. Hitler had done exactly that. So as WW2 ended the mood in countries in eastern Europe was to throw all German minorities back into Germany.
It led to a most brutal expulsion history has ever seen.
In 1944–5, five million Germans fled from the eastern parts of the Reich in the face of the Red Army. Between 1945 and 1948, post-liberation regimes in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Hungary expelled another seven million members of their German minorities.
The first phase of panic and flight in the face of the advancing Red Army occurred between the autumn of 1944 and the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Germans fled East Prussia by land and sea; later they were followed by others from Silesia and Pomerania. Mass rapes and massacres at the hands of the Red Army created a widespread atmosphere of terror.
|MILLIONS OF GERMANS WERE EXPELLED FROM VARIOUS EUROPEAN COUNTRIES AT WW2 END|
“The Russians entered every shelter, cellar and basement, and under menaces, demanded and took watches, rings and other valuables,” ran a report from Danzig in early 1945. “Nearly all the women were raped—among the victims were old women of sixty and seventy-five and girls of fifteen or even twelve. Many were raped ten, twenty or thirty times.” Those who did not flee were thrown into labour or detention camps and deprived of their possessions. Many were forced to wear marks of identification—first large painted swastikas on their clothes, then badges.
In these ways, the German population was collectively paid back for the racial humiliation which Nazi policies had inflicted earlier upon the Untermenschen.
In Czechoslovakia, following liberation, hatred of the Germans was widespread, especially as many seemed unrepentant and “sullen and dangerous.” President Beneš had already won Allied support for his plans to expel the “disloyal” among them, but expediency rather than justice turned out to be the motive for what followed. In Brno, for instance, on 30 May 1945, young National Guards expelled the town’s entire German population, roughly 25,000 people, and herded them towards the Austrian border. Discriminatory measures such as being banned from public transport, or being made to wear “badges of defeat,” added pressure on those that remained.
By July 1945, several million Germans had fled or been expelled from their homes and driven into camps or herded across the border. In part, this was an act of revenge by the east Europeans for their sufferings of the previous six years; but we should not ignore the fact that running parallel with this popular anger was a more carefully thought-out official policy by the new authorities in the region. “We must expel all the Germans,” the Polish communist Gomulka emphasized, “because countries are built on national lines and not on multinational ones.”
At Potsdam, the nature of this policy became clearer. The Allies accepted the principle of the mass expulsion of millions of Germans, including not just Volksdeutsche but also those who were citizens of the pre-war Reich, now living under Soviet or Polish occupation. The Allies’ primary concern was to control the flow of refugees so that they could be received properly in Germany itself. Thus a temporary suspension of the transfers was agreed. In fact, the expulsions continued, especially from the former Reich territories now administered by Poland.
Only during the winter of 1945–6 were more “orderly transfers” arranged; but by then the temperature had dropped and many died in the cattle cars which brought the refugees westwards. In all, some twelve to thirteen million Germans were “transferred,” by far the largest such population movement in European history. The numbers who died en route must have been at least in the hundreds of thousands; some sources put the final tally as high as two million.
|GERMANS WERE MADE TO WEAR THE CROSS SIGN AND KILLED AND THROWN OUT OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA IN 1945|
Much of the Germans’ property, as had that of their victims before them, passed abruptly into the hands of new owners. The expulsions— not unlike the earlier deportations of the Jews—provoked a “lust for booty” on the part of onlookers. “The German peasant had scarcely left his farm and house and been taken off to the station by the police, when robbery and plunder were in full swing,” recalled an ethnic German from Hungary. “Former have-nots were stealing by day and night. A rabble would arrive from the town in lorries and plunder everything that came to view and that they could lay their hands on. There were bandits too among the police.” Just as there had been, of course, a few years earlier among the German police battalions and Waffen-SS units stationed in. eastern Europe.
Places changed their identity and composition. Towns reverted from their German to their Polish, Czech or Hungarian names. Across eastern Europe, synagogues, mosques, Lutheran and Uniate churches were bulldozed, or converted to secular use, becoming barns, stables, warehouses or, later on, cinemas. Those houses which were not rendered unsafe by the wholesale looting stood vacant until new owners moved in. Owing largely to the initial plundering of unoccupied buildings, many areas of settlement remained deserted for many years.
The town of Glogau, for example, met a fate shared by others in Silesia: its pre-war population of 33,500 had shrunk to some 5,000 by the early 1960s. “To all intents and purposes Glogau no longer exists,” reported a visitor in 1960. “Here a grotesque looking ruin, there a deep hole, then a hillock overgrown with sparse grass.” Even in 1966 the population of the city of Wroclaw was only 477,000—only three quarters the 1939 size of its former incarnation, Breslau.