The Dirty Little Secret at the End of WWII

German Expellees
German Expellees

This is old news now,  but as many European countries are commemorating  the Allied victory over Nazi  Germany around this time of the year we might also want to remember another significant event in relatively recent European history that was directly related to it and  that affected countless millions of people in what is perhaps the largest documented case of ethnic cleansing on record.

But I bet  you didn’t hear much at school about the dirty little secret at the end of WW2: the Potsdam agreement on policy for the occupation and reconstruction of Germany, at the Potsdam Conference between July 17 and August 2, 1945. The participants were the top leaders of the Soviet Union, the U.S.A and the UK, Josef Stalin, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and the ministers of foreign affairs of those states.

Potsdam Conference 1945
Potsdam Conference in 1945 -Truman next to Stalin,  and associated Foreign Ministers

The agreement wasn’t really a secret but given the amount of coverage it received and its subsequent nearly silent treatment in western history books would suggest that it may as well have been a covert agreement between these world leaders. In short, the US and England gave in to the evil Stalin’s demands to control eastern Europe, to redraw the borders of Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union further west to give the Soviets more territory and to expel the entire German population east of the Oder-Neisse line. In real numbers, this meant that approximately two million Poles were forced to abandon their homes and lands and resettle behind the redrawn Polish/Soviet Union border (the Curzon Line) to the west, and that a staggering number of approximately 13 million Germans were to be repatriated to the remaining German territory west of the Neisse river.

The plan was to allow for the orderly and humane repatriation of Germans from their former homelands where their families had lived and worked as far back as the 13th century. This didn’t quite work out this way! Around 5 million people were forced to flee almost immediately when the Soviet red army advanced into East Prussia in the manner of a viscous barbaric horde bent on raping, killing and in general ransacking everything in their path. It was time to revenge the millions that died at Stalingrad, and a particularly good time if you were a  soldier-slave of a brutal communist regime. Rape, in particular, was the highlight on the pillager’s menu. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then a young captain in the Red Army, described the entry of his regiment into East Prussia in January 1945 as follows: “For three weeks the war had been going on inside Germany, and all of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction”. The remaining 8 million Germans were forced to repatriate in an “orderly and humane” fashion, roughly 1,2 million did not survive the forced but unassisted trek west across their now former homelands and through Polish territory to the relative safety of Allied-occupied German territory on the other side of the Neisse river. The survivors – typically not the very old or the very young – and mostly ordinary farm folk who had done nothing more than toil ceaselessly for a living from dusk to dawn their entire lives – told of months and weeks of incredible suffering along the way during which time they were habitually beaten, robbed of the few possessions they had, the women raped repeatedly. Thousands of expellees committed suicide, not able to take any more of it.

The Humanitarian  Albert Schweitzer, in his speech accepting the Noble Peace Prize in Oslo in 1954, said:

The most grievous violation of the right based on historical evolution and of any human right in general is to deprive populations of the right to occupy the country where they live by compelling them to settle elsewhere. The fact that the victorious powers decided at the end of 2nd World War to impose this fate on hundreds of thousands of human beings and, what is more, in a most cruel manner, show how little they were aware of the challenge facing them, namely, to re-establish prosperity and, as far as possible, the rule of law.