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When the Germans realised that they were losing the Second World War, a dark joke was whispered in quiet corners: "Better enjoy the war—the peace will be terrible."

The peace would be especially terrible for the twelve million ethnic Germans who lived beyond the borders of Germany proper. Writing for the Nation, Tara Zahra draws upon a new history of the period – Orderly and Humane by RM Douglas – to remind us what happened to them:  

  • R.M. Douglas calls [it] ‘the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history.’ Douglas amply demonstrates that these population transfers, which were to be carried out in an ‘orderly and humane’ manner according to the language of the Allies’ 1945 Potsdam Agreement, counted as neither. Instead, he writes, they were nothing less than a ‘massive state-sponsored carnival of violence, resulting in a death toll that on the most conservative of estimates must have reached six figures.’" 

Many will say – and, at the time, did say – that the Germans had it coming. That the crimes they committed (and were planning to commit) were much worse. Furthermore, as is well-documented, complicity in what the Nazis did to innocent people was not limited to a fanatical minority, it was widespread.

But how does that argument apply to German children or, for that matter to German-speaking Jews? 

  • "At least 180,000 ethnic Germans were interned in Czechoslovakia as of November 1945; another 170,000 were interned in Yugoslavia. The internees included many women, children and even several thousand German-speaking Jews. In many cases, former Nazi concentration camps and detention centers like Terezín/Theresienstadt were converted overnight into camps for ethnic Germans." 

It is truly appalling to think that Jews who survived the Nazi concentration camps were then re-imprisoned in the same places because suddenly they were considered to be German again.

It’s also worth remembering how the ethnic cleansing of the Germans was exploited by a new totalitarian force: 

  • "In a situation not unlike the earlier deportations of Jews by the Nazis, the pace of internment and expulsion was driven in part by a massive scramble for property… In both Poland and Czechoslovakia, Communists controlled the ministries of the interior and agriculture and had a strong presence on local government committees. This advantage enabled them to use the distribution of German property ‘to buy, if not the support, then at least the acquiescence of citizens in their continued rule.’" 

Thus, instead of being used to compensate the true victims of Nazi Germany – in particular, the Jews – the confiscated wealth was used to build Communism.

But then came one of the great ironies of history: 

  • "Konrad Adenauer, the Christian Democratic chancellor of the Federal Republic, smartly raised a new tax to compensate expellees, created a new ministry to assist them and offered them social insurance. By the early 1950s, Germany was experiencing the so-called economic miracle that contributed considerably to expellee integration." 

Meanwhile, under Communist rule, those who replaced the ethnic Germans were not so fortunate: 

  • "…the evacuated regions typically became socialist dystopias, eerie ghost towns and blighted landscapes renowned for environmental devastation rather than socialist modernity." 

For fans of moral relativism, the ethnic cleansing of the Germans is proof that the Second World War was not, in fact, the struggle between good and evil we suppose it to be. But, surely, the real lesson is this: Democracy, for all its failures, is something we should be truly thankful for.

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