Thursday, August 22, 2002

The ethnic cleansing of the Germans after World War II

Some years ago, I stood in the pouring rain at the Bregenzstrasse in Berlin in an attempt to look for the shadows of my parents in 1941. - My father Harald, then a young, good looking, enthusiastic attaché at the Swedish legation in Berlin, with high ambitions and my mother Louise, innocent and sweet, with dimples in her cheeks and my new-born brother Carl in her arms, lived in one end of the street.
Bregenzstrasse is a little street in the vicinity of Kurfürstendam. Easy to seal off from both sides. There were nearly only Jews living in the quarters. Harald woke up many times during the night by trucks; the rush of spike clad boots, commando shouts and screams of anguish.
He used to run down to the entrance door, dressed only in pyjama and waved in so many he could of the despairing people who looked for cover. They hid in the little apartment, crouching and trembling. Next day he was forced to let them go. There was no lifeline - the Swedish government had even forced a J in the passport of the Jews to differ them from the other German citizens.
Harald, who felt completely powerless regarding to this, proposed to his boss, the envoy Arvid Richert, that one perhaps could give these people a kind of passport of protection, like what his college later gave the Jews of Budapest. - Richert got white in his face and raged: - Do you want to throw us in war with Germany?
And that was it.
The Jews were driven from their homes, deprived from all possibilities of support and were put in a kind of quarantine of deprivation and starvation, till it was time for eradication.

In January 1945 the time came to the Germans themselves. In a way their own Holocaust. In any case, for some of them. A result of Hitler’s merciless politics.
It is called the Expulsion (der Vertreibung) - the ethnic cleansing of 15 million Germans from central and Eastern Europe. Hitler had cleaned out many groups of people, but this expulsion was something quite different.
Today the world has been shocked by what happened in former Yugoslavia, where Muslims, Croats and Serbs were driven away from their homes. Like cattle, with a scant hope of returning home again. The concept of ethnic cleansing has become very familiar, which one hears in all sorts of different contexts. One often hears:” The worst ethnic cleansing since World War II...” - But what happened then?

Very few people today have a slightest idea what happened all these Germans the years after the war and the tremendous suffering they had to endure. Nobody has, anyhow, been interested. The common idea is that the Germans got what they deserved. An idea that, 55 years afterwards, it is, perhaps, time to revise. The subject is very touchy. A former German ambassador warned me that to bring this topic up today in Germany, might classify you as a neo-nazi. Anyhow, the Expulsion represents a big white area on the historical map.

My own introduction to the Expulsion was the book of Marion Dönhoff, the founder of ”Die Zeit”: ”Namen die keiner mehr nennt”, in a dusty antiquarian shop in Berlin. She had big estates in East Prussia and had to flee as the Red Army approached. She left on her riding horse in - 25º cold and snow storm and joined the fleeing population on the full packed roads. After two weeks she halted her horse at two a clock in the night, at the big train bridge, crossing the river Nogat, by Marienburg, near Danzig.
The bridge was deserted, but she heard a strange, clattering sound, as from a three legged being: ”...soon I saw three figures in uniform, slowly dragging themselves over the bridge in silence: One of them was walking with crutches, one with a stick and the third had a big bandage round the head, and the left arm hanging down limb... For me this was the end of East Prussia: three dead sick soldiers, dragging themselves over the Nogat Bridge to West Prussia. And a woman on horse, whose ancestors 700 years before, had pushed, from west to east, right in to the great wilderness on the other side of the river, who now was riding back to the west. - 700 years of history was now wiped out...”

The story of Marion Dönhoff is typical and tells much about the historical background. The laborious and industrious German burghers and farmers colonised Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages, often invited by local lords. From the Baltic States, through Prussia, Poland, Bohemia, Moravia (Czech Rep and Slovakia today), down to Hungary and the Balkan, they cultivated the land and founded thousands of cities and villages. The First World War changed all and a big part of the German population in these areas became minorities under national governments. The second word war made things worse with the Nazis as a ruthless occupation force, terrorising all these countries. The ethnic Germans became the scapegoats as the Reich fell apart in ruins. - The situation was a bit different in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, since they were purely German areas since the 13th century.

During the Second World War, several politicians on the allied side demanded that the Germans in these areas should be driven away. The first one to air such thoughts was the Czech, exiled premier, Eduard Benes. The British government agreed.
During conferences, the fate of the Germans was sealed. Stalin wanted to keep the eastern part of Poland, that he got from Hitler in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and as compensation Poland would get East Prussia, West Prussia and Silesia. And then the current population must go. Roosevelt and Churchill promised help with transports. Stalin beamed. Churchill said in a speech:”...a clean sweep will be made...”
An other question that came up, was the matter of ”reparations of war damage” in the devastated Soviet Union. Stalin wanted German labour. Request was permitted. The result was that around 875.000 people, mostly elderly people, women and children, was sent to mines and slave camps, and were the greater part perished of starvation and hardship. The responsibility of Roosevelt and Churchill in this program is undeniable.

One can divide the Expulsion in three phases:
1. The Soviet phase with flight from the terror of the Red Army.
2. The flight from revenge, primary from Poland and Czechoslovakia.
3. The organized expulsion from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Balkan.

The first phase opened when Stalin launched his winter offensive, ”Uranius”, against East Prussia, the 12th of January 1945, with 2.2 million soldiers. Facing them was 400.000 Germans. The Russian soldiers were highly motivated and had been instructed to kill so many Germans they could and that included the civilians. After reconquering his own devastated fatherland for years, each man was filled with revenge.
The population knew what was in store for them. During the fighting in the autumn, the Red Army had conquered some communes and been driven away again. What they left was horrible. Murdered civilians in all houses, raped women and something that would be repeated during all the conquest - naked women crucified to barn doors. These incidents were ruthlessly used in the Nazi propaganda to strengthen the resistance.

The violence against the civilians was documented where it was possible, for example, when German forces reconquered areas, like in Metgehten, a suburb of Königsberg, in the end of January 1945. The chocked soldiers could not believe their eyes, when the entered the town.
Big piles of dead bodies littered the streets. Most of them were women and children. Few were men. Nearly all women had been beaten to death or stabbed with bayonets. A big number were mutilated, especially by the genitals, and had cut off breasts. In the biggest pile, they counted to 3.000 dead. In one place people were driven down in a big bomb crater and then blown to pieces by explosives. I all buildings civilians lay dead. Several trains that had come with fugitives stood motionless, full of dead. A witness saw the rests of two women, who had been tied to their ankles and torn apart by two cars, which had driven in opposite directions. In a big villa, 60 surviving women were found. They had been raped 60 - 70 times per day. The villa had obviously served as a brothel. Half of the women had to be taken to psychiatric institutions.
A bit outside, in the village Gross Heydekrug, stood an abandoned tank, which had been dragging four naked women in ropes. In the church a young girl was nailed to the cross of the altar, with to German soldiers strung up on each side... - A bizarre biblical metaphor of pain and suffering.

The road to the west was filled with hardships and suffering for the fugitives. - When the Russian tanks advanced north from Poland, they cut off the German territory in several places. The population was thus caught in pockets and could not flee west by land. Instead they moved to the coast and the harbours where they hoped to get on a ship. The German navy then organized an evacuation that far surpasses the one made in Dunkerque in May 1940.
1,5 million fugitives and 700.000 soldiers were evacuated by 790 boats of different sizes from January to the end of the war. The admiral Dönitz, who was the successor of Hitler, delayed the final capitulation, just in order to evacuate as many as possible from the east.

But the evacuation could not be made without sacrifices. The 30th of January the passenger ship ”Wilhelm Gustloff” sailed out from Pillau, the harbour of Königsberg, with 10.000 fugitives on board. Outside in the snowstorm, waited the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of captain A.I. Marinesko. Three, well-aimed torpedoes sank ”Wilhelm Gustloff”. Despite the storm and cold temperature, the escort ships saved 1.100 people. The same submarine sent the hospital ship ”General von Steuben” to the bottom. It was painted white with red crosses, carrying 3.500 wounded soldiers. The worst sinking was ”Goya”, with 7.000 fugitives on board. There only 183 survived.

The problem was that the Red Army chased the fugitives as much as the German soldiers. The endless columns of charts that crossed the ice if Frischer Haff from Königsberg, towards the harbour Pillau, were bombed without mercy. On the roads the Russian tanks simply mashed the fugitives with their chains, mowed them down with their machine-guns or liquidated them at the roadside.

After the Russians came the Polish army, polish militia and civilians who should take over the country. They co-operated closely with the Soviet occupation authorities and participated in the looting and the killings. Polish fugitives from the eastern parts took over the houses of the Germans. The former owners were thrown out in the street. The provision of food stopped completely. Famine and diseases like typhoid and cholera ravaged.
Later the Allies stared to organise train transports to the west. They became veritable trains of horror, that was constantly stopped and plundered by hooligans and armed gangs. The conditions soon became so unbearable that the Allies had to stop the transports.
Of course there were exceptions. Decent Soviet officers were chocked by the violence. Solsjenytsin, who participated in the fighting of East Prussia, wrote in the ”Gulag Archipelago” that rape and the following murder of the woman, almost was considered as a combat distinction. Individual Poles gave Germans food and shelter and helped them cross the border. In many farms the Polish workers hid the German owners.

The inhabitants of Silesia that fled from the Red Army, mostly tried to get to Dresden. The city had not been bombed any time during the war. Thanks to the exquisite art treasures and the unique baroque architecture of the town, it was considered as an open city, like Rome and Paris. No military installations or industries were in the vicinity. A safe place.
The 13th of February the Royal Air Force attacked with a first wave of planes during the night. The city was packed with refuges, around 200.000. The night after the next wave came. A total of 1.400 planes participated. As if it was not enough, 450 American planes made daylight bombings, which completed the destruction.
The city was engulfed in a firestorm, never seen since the destruction of Hamburg in 1943. Very little was left. The figures concerning the number of perished are very unsure, but it is estimated that between 150.000 and 200.000 people died and 400.000 were left homeless. It shall be noted that in Hiroshima, around 50.000 people died.

In the rest of Europe, revenge struck hard on the ethnic Germans. It was like in Poland. In Czechoslovakia the Germans had to wear white sleeve badges with an N (Nemec, which means German in Czech). The Germans had to take off their hat for every Czech or Soviet officer they met.
In Prague, thousands of civil Germans were massacred by the end of war. At Uti 2.000 women and children were tossed from a bridge (Vaclav Havel had a commemoration plate put up at the place in 1990) and the Czech militia detained hundreds of thousand people in concentration camps. The old German camps were handy. No food was distributed and diseases ravaged. People died like flies. The ethnic Germans got the same treatment as Czechs and Jews had before.
With all the free looting, rapes and other atrocities, it must be said that the majority of the Czechs were revolted and ashamed over the treatment of the Germans. Vaclav Havel later publicly apologised for these events.

In Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania the ethnic cleansing followed the same pattern. The German inhabitants had to leave their farms, houses and business with what they could carry in a suitcase. No valuables were permitted. It was just to hand over the keys. - Here the Germans were particularly struck by the deportations to the Soviet Union.
Most of the Germans were put in labour camps. Those who could not work, like women, children and old people, were put in special starvation camps, were most perished. A witness tells about the starvation camp in Jarek. In June 1945 there was 25.000 prisoners. In May next year there was only 2.800 left. Other starvation camps were Rudolfsgnad, Gakovo, Mitrovica or Molidorf.

Those who were driven away from their ancestral lands came to a Germany that thanks to the bombings not could provide shelter for its own population. Nothing worked and food was scarce. The fugitives got no fugitive status of the Allies, which did that they could not get help from the Red Cross or other help organisations. They were in fact busy repatriating the displaced slave workers that the Nazis had brought in to Germany during the war. The question of the expulsed Germans was regarded as an ”internal German affair”.
In this situation Germany received more than 13 million fugitives!
Around two million of the expulsed Germans are estimated to have lost their lives, due to starvation, liquidations and other hardships.

The ethnic Germans had a terrible fate. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were surely Nazis, but the majority were simple farmers and artisans who did not care much about politics and just wanted to live in peace. The tragedy is that the governments that drove out the Germans treated them in the same way as the Nazis had treated their own people.
Now some facts start to emerge, concerning the Expulsion. Witnesses and victims dare to testify. Governments apologise. For the victims, it is perhaps not enough. One witness said:
”...It is difficult to loose all you have, but unbearable when you loose your identity and your history...”
Written by Erik Edelstam


My name is Monica, my mother lived in Germany during WW11. My family history is interesting,one of my mothers brother was in the Waffen SS her other brother was arrested and labled a level 2 political prisoner.
Dachu was the first camp my uncle was at.It was while he was there that his brother was told by another SS member tha this brother was a prisoner there. 
My uncle requested a transferr which he did recieve to the Front lines.
My Grandfathers sister was married to Muller.
My uncle that went to the front is MIA the family never knew what happened to him. The other brother that was a prisoner went from Dachu to Flossenberg. From that point he was taken to Russia and served in a Gulag. He did survive he was released in the 1950s.
I am searching for my lost uncle and intend to go to Germany next year to speak with anyone that can fill in the blanks from my other uncle that died 2 years after being releashed from the camps.
I was inspired to continue my research by your article.
Its good to know that there are others willing to look at both sides of the WW11 situation. 
Thank you for your information it helps me understand my mother and Aunts position during and after the war.
Monica Glaubitz
My father side was from East Pussia Von Glaubitz

Posted by: Monica Glaubitz on Feb 15, 05 | 12:41 pm

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