Expulsion of Germans after World War II

From Academic Kids

The expulsion of Germans after World War II refers to the mass deportation of people considered Germans (both Reichsdeutsche and Volksdeutsche) from Soviet-occupied areas outside of the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, and is one major part of the German exodus from Eastern Europe after World War II. The process, aiming at ethnically homogenous nation states, was decided by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference. Although the Potsdam Conference ordained ordered transfer, the whole process of resettlement was performed in a postwar atmosphere of chaos, frequent excesses and crimes. According to some German sources, there were about 2,000,000 people killed during expulsion.

German citizens remaining after the war, some of whom had become German citizens during the war, and people considered ethnic Germans were expelled from areas in present-day Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, the Kaliningrad Oblast, and other East European countries. Some fled in fear of the Soviet Red Army. Some were persecuted because of their activities during the war; some were persecuted solely because of their ethnicity. In a German mindset, refugees who had fled voluntarily but later refused to return are often not distinguished from those who were forcibly deported.


Wording of the actual agreement

Orderly transfer of German populations
The Three Governments, having considered the question in all its aspects, recognize that 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.

Discussion of the reasons

Various groups, including the public in affected countries and historians, perceive the reasons for the Potsdam decision and subsequent transfers differently. Some more frequent opinions include:

  • The actual purposes of the policy were to punish the Germans for Germany's actions during World War II, including its expulsion of Poles and Czechs from territories annexed to Nazi Germany; and at the same time to create ethnically homogenous nation states that would not give rise to that kind of ethnic tensions that had preceded the war.
  • The Potsdam participants believed this to be the only way to prevent ethnic violence. As Winston Churchill expounded in the House of Commons in 1944, "Expulsion is the method which, in so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble... A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed by these transferences, which are more possible in modern conditions…" From this point of view, it may be possible to conclude that the policy achieved its goals: the 1945 borders are stable and ethnic conflicts are relatively marginal, although this stability can also be explained by the rigidity of the Iron Curtain.
  • The purpose of this policy was to prevent German expansion to the east. German nationalists had historically used the existence of large German minorities in other countries as a basis for territorial claims; Adolf Hitler used it as a pretext for waging aggressive wars. By this reasoning, removing Germans from territories of other countries would remove potential causes of future problems.
  • Even before former German territories were captured by the Red Army, around 2 million Poles from the east half of Poland (behind the Curzon line) were expelled by the Soviets to Poland or gulag camps in Siberia. Additionally, an estimated 800,000 people from Warsaw were deported by the Germans to special work camps. After the end of the war, these people returned and needed housing in a country devastated by war.
  • Poland had lost 43 percent of its pre-war territory due to the fact that the Soviet Union insisted on keeping what it had incorporated after the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. While some cities, like Gdansk (then Danzig), were transferred to Poland as part of the "clean sweep" (see above) that eliminated minorities and strategically risky borders, others, like Wroclaw (Breslau) or Szczecin (Stettin), would hardly have been transferred to Poland had it not lost Vilnius (Wilna, Wilno) and Lwiw (Lemberg, Lwow).
  • One can thus say that one of the reasons for the expulsion of the Germans was the territorial compensation of Poland for what was kept by the Soviet Union; of course, this was ultimately a decision not only of Stalin, but of all four allied forces.
  • Also, there was little empathy for German victims after the World War II experience, especially since the German government was itself ethnically cleansing a large number of areas (e.g. Reichsgau Wartheland) during the war.

The results

More than 14 million Germans of the postwar population had to leave. More than 2.5 million had lost their lifes during these process. The actual population transfer included about 7 million from former eastern Germany, 1.5 million from Poland in the borders of 1938, 3 million from Czechoslovakia, around 2 million from the Soviet Union, 400,000 from Hungary, 300,000 from Romania, and another 1 million from other Eastern European regions.

Property in the affected territory that belonged to Germany and Germans was confiscated. The legality of that act was based on the state of war between those countries and the German state, whose citizens were affected. In addition, devastations caused by Germany during the war by far exceeded the value of confiscated property.

The Potsdam Agreement called for equal distribution of the transferred Germans between American, British, French and Soviet occupation zones in Germany. In actuality, twice as many expelled Germans found refuge in the occupation zones that later formed "West Germany" than in "East Germany", and large numbers went to other countries of the world, many to the United States.

Historical development


After World War II many expellees (German: Heimatvertriebene) from the land east of the Oder-Neisse received refuge in both West Germany and East Germany. Some of the expellees are active in politics and belong to the political right-wing. Many others do not belong to any organizations, but they continue to maintain what they call a lawful right to their homeland. The vast majority pledged to work peacefully towards that goal while rebuilding post-war Germany and Europe. In a document signed 50 years ago the Heimatvertriebene organisations have also recognized the plight of the different groups of people living in today's Poland who were by force resettled there. The Heimatvertriebene are just one of the groups of millions of other people, from many different countries, who all found refuge in today's Germany. In today's Germany there is little political support for reopening the border issue.


Relations between Poland and Germany are good, and there are no fears within Poland that Germany would annex the land east of the Oder-Neisse line. There are, however, some worries among Poles that descendants of the expelled Germans would buy the land. It is believed that this may result in large price increases, since the current Polish land price is low compared to Western Europe. This led to Polish restrictions on the sale of property to foreigners, including Germans: special permission is needed. This policy is comparable to similar restrictions on the Baltic Ċland Islands. These restrictions will be lifted in 12 years after the accession of Poland to the European Union, i.e on May 1, 2016.

The Heimatvertriebene in general are aware and recognize the fact that, since 1945, Poles have been living in former eastern German homelands. The officially proposed policy is not to repeat the Potsdam Agreement expulsions with new persecutions and population transfers. Most Heimatvertriebene welcome the Slavic peoples now living on German lands as friends and neighbors in the European Union.

The remaining German minority in Poland (152,897 people according to the 2002 census) is granted full minority rights and the German language is the official language of several German-populated powiats, mostly in the Opole voivodship.


In Czech-German relations, the topic has been effectively closed by the Czech-German declaration (http://www.lib.byu.edu/~rdh/eurodocs/germ/czecheng.html) of 1997. One principle of declaration is that parties will not burden their relations with political and legal issues which stem from the past.

However, some expelled Sudeten Germans or their descendants are demanding return of their former property, which was confiscated after the war. Several such cases have been taken to Czech courts. As confiscated estates usually have new inhabitants, some of whom have lived there for more than 50 years, attempts to return to a pre-war state may cause fear. The topic comes to life occasionally in Czech politics.

Like in Poland, worries and restrictions concerning land purchases exist in the Czech Republic.


From the time that the policy was undertaken until the 1990s, there was little argument over the morality of the policy. Many of the propaganda themes of the Nazi regime against Czechoslovakia and Poland claimed that the ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) in those territories were persecuted. Although expellees (in German Heimatvertriebene) and their descendants were active in West German politics, the prevailing political climate within West Germany was that of atonement for Nazi actions. However the CDU governments have shown large rhetorical support for the expellees, and the Oder-Neisse line was for decades officially considered completely unacceptable. The expellees are still highly active in German politics, and are one of the major political factions of the nation, with around 2 million members. The president of their organizations is as of 2004 still a member of the national parliament.

In 1946, Winston Churchill delivered a memorable speech in Fulton, Missouri in the presence of US President Truman. Churchill made the USA aware of the Iron Curtain coming down "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic". In this speech, Churchill also emphasised the wrongful Soviet-directed Polish incursions into Germany (that is, the land east of the Oder-Neisse line) and the plight of millions of refugees/expellees. However, taking into account his personal responsibility for the decisions made in Potsdam, the sentence would seem to have been motivated by the contemporary political agenda.

US Congressman B. Carroll Reece of Tennessee, in the House of Representatives on May 16, 1957, called it genocide.

In November and December, 1993, an exhibit on Ethnic Cleansing 1944-1948 was held at Stuart Center of De Paul University, in Chicago, where it was called an unknown holocaust.

In the early 1990s the Cold War ended and the occupying powers withdrew from Germany. The issue of the treatment of Germans after World War II began to be reexamined, having previously been in the shadow of German war crimes. The primary motivation for this change was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which allowed previously marginalised issues such as crimes committed by Russians during World War II to be raised.

On 28 December 1989, Václav Havel, at that time a candidate for president of Czechoslovakia (he was elected one day later), suggested that Czechoslovakia should apologise for the expulsion of ethnic Germans after WWII. Most of other politicians of the country didn't agree, and there was also no reply from leaders of Sudeten German organizations. Later, the German President Richard von Weizsacker answered this by apologizing to Czechoslovakia during his visit to Prague on March 1990 after Václav Havel repeated his apology saying that the expulsion is "the mistakes and sins of our fathers".

The 1991 Polish-German border agreement finalized the Oder-Neisse line as the Polish-German border. The agreement gave to minority groups in both countries several rights, such as the right to use national surnames, speak their native languages, and attend schools and churches of their choice. These rights had been denied previously on the basis that the individual had already chosen the country in which they wanted to live.

Reports have surfaced of Soviet massacres of German civilians (see the book A Terrible Revenge). Also, some of the former German concentration camps were used as temporary camps for Germans.

Both Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Lev Kopelev, during their Soviet military service, had objected to the brutal treatment of German civilians of East Prussia. Lev Kopelev wrote about the events in East Prussia in the autobiographic trilogy To Be Preserved Forever (Хранить вечно, Khranit' Venchno).

Since 1990, historical events have been examined by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. Its role is to investigate the crimes of the past without regard to the nationality of victims and perpetrators. In Poland, crimes motivated by the nationality of victims are not covered by a statute of limitations, therefore the criminals can be charged in perpetuity. In a few cases, the crimes against Germans were examined. One suspected perpetrator, Salomon Morel, fled the country.

See also

Further reading

  • Silesian Inferno, War Crimes of the Red Army on its March into Silesia in 1945 , Karl F. Grau, The Landpost Press, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1992, ISBN 1-88-088109-8
  • Casualty of War: A Childhood Remembered (Eastern European Studies, 18) Luisa Lang Owen and Charles M. Barber, Texas A&M University Press (http://www.tamu.edu/upress/), January, 2003, hardcover, 288 pages, ISBN 1-58-544212-7



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