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The European Atrocity You Never Heard About

6/13/2012 10:04:28 AM

Tags: forced migration, World War II, post-war atrocities, Chronicle of Higher Education

Berlin 1945

The screams that rang throughout the darkened cattle car crammed with deportees, as it jolted across the icy Polish countryside five nights before Christmas, were Dr. Loch's only means of locating his patient. The doctor, formerly chief medical officer of a large urban hospital, now found himself clambering over piles of baggage, fellow passengers, and buckets used as toilets, only to find his path blocked by an old woman who ignored his request to move aside. On closer examination, he discovered that she had frozen to death.

Finally he located the source of the screams, a pregnant woman who had gone into premature labor and was hemorrhaging profusely. When he attempted to move her from where she lay into a more comfortable position, he found that "she was frozen to the floor with her own blood." Other than temporarily stanching the bleeding, Loch was unable to do anything to help her, and he never learned whether she had lived or died. When the train made its first stop, after more than four days in transit, 16 frost-covered corpses were pulled from the wagons before the remaining deportees were put back on board to continue their journey. A further 42 passengers would later succumb to the effects of their ordeal, among them Loch's wife.

During the Second World War, tragic scenes like those were commonplace, as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin moved around entire populations like pieces on a chessboard, seeking to reshape the demographic profile of Europe according to their own preferences. What was different about the deportation of Loch and his fellow passengers, however, was that it took place by order of the United States and Britain as well as the Soviet Union, nearly two years after the declaration of peace.

Between 1945 and 1950, Europe witnessed the largest episode of forced migration, and perhaps the single greatest movement of population, in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians—the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16—were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland. As The New York Times noted in December 1945, the number of people the Allies proposed to transfer in just a few months was about the same as the total number of all the immigrants admitted to the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. They were deposited among the ruins of Allied-occupied Germany to fend for themselves as best they could. The number who died as a result of starvation, disease, beatings, or outright execution is unknown, but conservative estimates suggest that at least 500,000 people lost their lives in the course of the operation.

Most disturbingly of all, tens of thousands perished as a result of ill treatment while being used as slave labor (or, in the Allies' cynical formulation, "reparations in kind") in a vast network of camps extending across central and southeastern Europe—many of which, like Auschwitz I and Theresienstadt, were former German concentration camps kept in operation for years after the war. As Sir John Colville, formerly Winston Churchill's private secretary, told his colleagues in the British Foreign Office in 1946, it was clear that "concentration camps and all they stand for did not come to an end with the defeat of Germany." Ironically, no more than 100 or so miles away from the camps being put to this new use, the surviving Nazi leaders were being tried by the Allies in the courtroom at Nuremberg on a bill of indictment that listed "deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population" under the heading of "crimes against humanity."

By any measure, the postwar expulsions were a manmade disaster and one of the most significant examples of the mass violation of human rights in recent history. Yet although they occurred within living memory, in time of peace, and in the middle of the world's most densely populated continent, they remain all but unknown outside Germany itself. On the rare occasions that they rate more than a footnote in European-history textbooks, they are commonly depicted as justified retribution for Nazi Germany's wartime atrocities or a painful but necessary expedient to ensure the future peace of Europe. As the historian Richard J. Evans asserted in In Hitler's Shadow (1989) the decision to purge the continent of its German-speaking minorities remains "defensible" in light of the Holocaust and has shown itself to be a successful experiment in "defusing ethnic antagonisms through the mass transfer of populations."

Even at the time, not everyone agreed. George Orwell, an outspoken opponent of the expulsions, pointed out in his essay "Politics and the English Language" that the expression "transfer of population" was one of a number of euphemisms whose purpose was "largely the defense of the indefensible." The philosopher Bertrand Russell acidly inquired: "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?" A still more uncomfortable observation was made by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, who reasoned that "if every German was indeed responsible for what happened at Belsen, then we, as members of a democratic country and not a fascist one with no free press or parliament, were responsible individually as well as collectively" for what was being done to noncombatants in the Allies' name.

Read the rest of this story at The Chronicle for Higher Education.

Image: Scene of destruction in a Berlin street just off the Unter den Linden, July 3, 1945. This artistic work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain. 



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Post a comment below.

 

Peter Aikman
4/10/2013 6:14:04 PM
rentschler99 2 hours ago I am unable to comprehend the number of hateful, prejudicial and mean- spirited comments aimed at the Germans. Some 60 years later many ignorant individuals continue to equate all Germans with Nazis. In reality, the atrocities committed by Soviets, Poles, Czechs and others against the Germans during and after the War were almost as bad as those committed by the Nazi. Whatever you may believe, there was no justifiable revenge for Red Army troops to mass rape millions of German women in East Prussia, Berlin and elsewhere in front of their children and then nail them to barn doors. Further there was no justification for the Russians to castrate young boys who attempted to defend their mothers from being raped. No justification to beat old East Prussian farmers to death in their fields. The flippant response that "The Germans did the same thing in the Soviet Union on the same scale is unproved, undocumented and subject to doubt. The expulsion of some 15 million Germans from their ancient homelands which had been German for centuries is incomprehensible to most scholars. As is the fact that some two million German expellees died on the winter roads due to sub-freezing temperatures, starvation, beatings and wanton murder. It is for this reason that this atrocity has been ignored. What happened in the German East, the Sudetenland, Yugoslavia and elsewhere cannot be justified as deserved revenge or retribution. It was what it was: wanton murder, mass rape, plunder, destruction and robbery of foreign lands. For those of us who lived through this crime or who have studied it in detail, the often repeated sick justification that the 'Germans deserved it!' rings innately false, naive and highly offensive.

Donato Cianci
6/19/2012 12:44:01 PM
Never heard this Seems a re run of the old mantra, bad people don't deserve justice, still being heard everywhere, since mankind walked upright, We should insist on a lot more and more accurate history being taught in schools. donatopoetry

Rebecca Warden
6/14/2012 7:55:57 PM
I never had a clue. My son is visiting Nuremberg for the next 2 months. I think he will find this article interesting as he is getting ready to take history in college.






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