Have you ever heard the sound of a breaking silence? I think I can discern one but whether it’s merely a movement in the pack ice that has lane over the fate of millions in central and eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, or a seismic shift in our understanding, the coming months will tell.
In my new book 'Death of a Nation – a New History of Germany' I have railed against those historians who have for decades chosen to ignore the horrific end and aftermath to the Second World War.
All the more significant then that one of the leading lights of the British historical establishment and a former tutor of mine, Sir Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of history at Wolfson College Cambridge has spoken out on the subject. Evans is one of the foremost authorities on the Third Reich whose best selling trilogy on the history of the Third Reich is one of the most respected in the English language. However, in those three volumes I only counted four pages in over 2,000 that were dedicated to the largest cartographic, demographic and cultural ‘shift’ in German and Central European history since the fall of the Roman Empire. That makes his 12 page essay contribution all the more welcome, although I don’t think The Third Reich in History and Memory will reach as wide an audience and that is a shame, as I was very pleasantly surprised at the candid way in which he approached a subject which has remained a taboo for all too many of his colleagues for far too long; namely viewing any Germans as victims of Hitler’s genocidal hubris.
It should not come as a surprise that a conflict as barbarous, bloody and sustained, as the Second World War did not have a neat ending. The killing certainly did not stop on the 8th May 1945 when millions in Western Europe were celebrating VE day. As with the end of the First World War it was in central and Eastern Europe that some of the worst atrocities were yet to come.
On a trip through the former Hungarian provinces of Partium and Transylvania I was jolted by the number of war memorials where the inscriptions read ‘To the fallen of the Great War 1914 -1919. ‘ Hungary as a result of the criminal treaty of Trianon was stripped of over half of her territory and half of her population, liberally scattered to all of her neighbours and those affected unsurprisingly did not take their being cast adrift as second class citizens in newly established states lying down but continued to fight for their freedom and right to self determination.
The difference after the Second World War was that the rape, murder and ethnic cleansing would go on for far longer and affects tens of millions of civilians across a vast swathe of the Continent. Very few in Europe today know of the fate of the civilian populations of Konigsberg, Marienburg and countless other towns along the eastern Baltic at the hands of the conquering Red Army in the closing weeks of the war or of the Bohemian death marches, the ‘Wild expulsions’ and the massacres in Prague, Saaz (Zatec), Aussig (Usti nad Labem) and the border towns and villages of the former Sudetenland. Of the brutal internment camps in Yugoslavia used not only to torture and kill former occupiers but also the local ethnic German population who had lived in their communities for centuries. Or that the concentration camps in Poland would be filled with German Silesians and Pomeranians within weeks of their liberation. Less still that there was a Pogrom against the surviving Jewish population of the holocaust in the Polish town of Kielce a year after the formal end of the war. Uncomfortable truths about which still too little is known, said and still far too much is denied.
Evans’s essay is surprisingly frank and will no doubt draw criticism from certain quarters. Frank in its assessment of the criminal nature of reordering of much of German speaking Europe after the war, not shrinking from calling it ethnic cleansing, or from stating that it wasn’t simply a spontaneous reaction against the horrors of Nazi occupation but in many instances planned long in advance and a sustained assault that continued for years after the war had ended. The essay is in large measure praise and a review of R.M Douglas’s book Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War, which makes bold statements including “Not even in the German camps, however, had sexual exploitation and sexual violence, rape and the sadistic abuse of female inmates been committed on the scale that Douglas documents in Czech and Polish camps.”
Where I do think a level of double standards still pertains in certain quarters on this subject is both in the form of the ‘numbers game’ and in regard to who can legitimately represent their (German civilians) suffering. The number of those raped, sent to the gulags, interned in former concentration camps and murdered during the expulsions is invariably played down (often because of a lack of ‘clarity’ as whom to class as ‘Germans’ - an issue I unpack in more detail in my book). The more troubling argument for this author remains the undercurrent, which seeks to say that those who were most adversely affected (die Vertriebene – the expellees) have little or no right to be heard or that their voices cannot be trusted. That is an insult that still smacks all too much of the ‘collective guilt’ mentality that imbued the Nuremburg trails and the attitudes of the victorious Allies in the aftermath of the war and which ultimately underpinned the orgy of violence and ethnic cleansing that accompanied their occupation and reordering of the former Reich’s territories. No one is quite so willing to tell members of any other community or victims of any other atrocity that their voices and recollections are not worthy to be heard. In fact recent decades have seen a welcome call to those who survived any and all aspects of the most barbarous conflict in history to recount and record their memories. Any study that looked solely at the accounts of the perpetrators and not the victims would be rightly regarded as incomplete if not suspect. Not least because the nations that benefitted most from the annexation, expropriation and expulsion of ethnic Germans communities (from territories they had lived in for over half a millennia), have consistently attempted to deny or play down their own misdeeds as well as the numbers who were killed and died in the process. There is still very little appetite to recall the manner in which the gains were made. There is everything to be gained by continuing to play down German suffering, focusing only on that of the manifest suffering of their own citizens and keep the focus for all misdeeds squarely on the Germans. Germany’s eastern neighbours have become adept at exploiting the post war collective guilt mentality that has taken hold in Germany. A mentality born of the amnesia of what was taken and the cost inflicted in the taking of it. Numbers espoused during the communist era are still paraded today which suggest that the expulsion of over 15 million ethnic Germans from their homes under the most violent of circumstances in horrendous conditions only met with a death toll akin to that of healthy, young, male western prisoners of war held by both sides during the conflict and are quite frankly nothing short of absurd. Particularly, when one considers that the overwhelming majority of those expelled in the harshest of conditions were women, children the old and the infirm.
It is nevertheless gratifying to see ever more historians and particularly British historians from Giles McDonough to R.M. Douglas and now R.J Evans cover the subject of the expulsions, which primarily but not only affected German communities in east central Europe. It is my hope and aim that a seminar drawing together historians from a variety of countries and perspectives is established in Germany in 2016 in which some common narratives on this subject are established and to ensure that the permafrost that has entombed this period of history for so long sees a permanent thaw.
Image Credit: Hoover Institution Archives