The European Atrocity You Never Heard About

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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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