Updated: Apr 18, 2020
The BBC2 documentary entitled `Savage Peace` has to be the most vivid and graphic account of the atrocities committed against German civilians after the Second World War yet, shown on British television. The programme was unequivocal in stating the Allies connived in the ethnic cleansing of tens of millions of Germans from their homelands calling their unprecedented exodus `the largest ethnic cleansing in history and an atrocity hidden in plain sight.`
George Orwell simply called it `An enormous crime.`
This documentary did not make for easy viewing with graphic depictions of horrific massacres captured on film from the very outset. People forced to dig their own graves, civilians lined up and shot, interned in former concentration camps and often tortured to death. Crimes which mimicked those of the Nazis and which were carried out by people who were equally inhuman and which primarily targeted women, children, the old and infirm simply because they were `German` or spoke German. A programme which challenged established perceptions and perceived wisdom and made you question the bounds of justice and `revenge,` not only in territories that had been occupied but in Germany proper and Germany that was in the process of being ruthlessly annexed and cleansed of its indigenous population.
The only issue I have with the documentary is on the statistics it quoted. The first fundamental error was stating that only six million Germans were expelled from Germany`s eastern territories which were in the process of being forcibly annexed by Stalin`s new puppet Polish state. The number of Germans living in these territories before the Red Army’s murderous assault began was over 9.5 million and this is the only figure that counts (beyond that there were a further 10 million ethnic Germans/ German minorities living outside of Germany`s post war borders).
The figures for the number of German civilians killed in these and other German speaking territories remain hotly disputed and range from a quite risible 400,000 (roughly 2% of the total number of people forcibly removed from their homelands) to 3 million plus. The figure of half a million quoted in this documentary in no way shape or form constitutes anything like the real human cost. The BBC should however be and I do commend it for showing the sheer barbarity of the expulsions in a depiction that I know for many who watched it was not only profoundly shocking but moved many to tears.
What simply needs to be stated is that there has never been a group in any conflict whose mortality statistics have been so cynically abused and used as a political football to try and excuse the illegal and immoral rational that caused them. Those responsible for committing the acts shown in this documentary made absolutely no distinction as to who was `legally` German. Millions of ethnic Germans were abused for belonging to the `wrong ethnic group` and being in the wrong place at the wrong time and have in large measure been left out of all too many studies ever since. Stalin, the Red Army, NKVD, Polish and Czech militias, Yugoslav partisans made no fine distinctions as to who was ‘German.’ It mattered not to them whether you and your family had been communist or fascist, Wehrmacht soldier or bitter opponent to the Nazi regime; if you spoke German, lived in what for centuries had been a German community your chances of survival were drastically diminished. By means of an example even today if you visit Romania, the tiny remnant of the German community which has been settled there since the start of the twelfth century are still referred to as ‘Germans,’ even though their forbears have been in this region for over 30 generations.
Those who try and play down and use multiple ruses to reduce the figures play around with legal technicalities as to who was German when and where, which are and were irrelevant, and more often than not they only including Germans in the statistics who were in Germany as per her 1937 borders, rather than Germans in Germany and Austria before their borders were manipulated and redrawn from 1918 onwards. It is erroneous to put people on the wrong side of a border and then blame them for being there, not least when they were put there against their will, without the right to self determination and then expect them to be loyal to the states in which they were made second class citizens at best and abused minorities at worst.
Those playing down both the suffering and the enormity of the genocide committed against German civilians across central and eastern Europe never make a full account and beyond manipulating the above said legal technicalities, always leave out the ethnic Germans in the USSR who were perhaps one of the most abused communities of all. And invariably leave out ethnic Germans in Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia; yet again ignoring that it was Allied policies after the First World War that made them minorities in the first place.
My new book Death of a Nation – a new history of Germany argues that to gain a true understanding of the greatest demographic shift in German and European history since the fall of the Roman Empire and to have some understanding of the enormity of the casualties inflicted upon German civilians you have to include all those killed. All those killed from the initial onslaught of the Red Army and her militias in January 1945 onwards. This needs to include those who were massacred during the fighting and its immediate aftermath and those who died or were killed attempting to flee. Civilians died in droves on 158 ships torpedoed in the Baltic, strafed on the ice on the long treks west, bombed again at the disembarkation ports. Many hundreds of thousands more froze to death in sub zero temperatures especially those who were too old, sick or young to survive the journey. Numbers have had to be revised upwards in recent year for those who were dragged off and died as slave labourers in Siberia, as well as for those interned as slave labourers in the territories occupied and then annexed. The Soviets and their puppet regimes purposefully did not keep accurate records for the scores of civilians who died whilst being transported in sub-human conditions on long journeys in cattle trucks both east and west. And no one bothered to record the millions raped, gang raped, who if not summarily killed were often left to die from their injuries. And then there were many in communities across the East who simply committed suicide rather than be left to the mercy of the occupiers. You also have to include all those who were starved and worked to death as a result of both the deliberate and inept policies of the Allied occupation.
Include all these, for all territories in question, which must also include East Prussians and Silesians fleeing through Bohemia (some accounts only count those Germans killed in Czechoslovakia who lived there, as if the world around this outcrop was not in flames, collapsing and the ancient territories of Bohemia and Moravia were not filled to overflowing with refugees from every quarter), then and only then will you come to anything like a real appreciation of the unimaginable slaughter that marked the collapse of the Third Reich.
Watch the full documentary on BBC iPlayer HERE
(available until 23rd June 2015)
'Death of a Nation: A New History of Germany' is available now on Amazon