"If the conscience of men ever again becomes sensitive, these expulsions will be remembered to the undying shame of all who committed or connived them... The Germans were expelled, not just with an absence of over-nice consideration, but with the very maximum of brutality." (Our Threatened Values - Victor Gollancz (1946))
In researching the sad fate of the City of Konigsberg I came across this ugly story which is by all accounts one of the most significant and disturbing events of recent European history, as it 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.
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 Soviet dictator Stalin’s demands to control most of eastern Europe, to redraw the borders of Germany and Poland and the Soviet Union further west such as to allow Stalin to keep the part of Poland he had already stolen earlier under the secret Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler in 1939, and to expel the entire ethnic German population east of the Oder-Neisse line. In real numbers, this meant that approximately 2 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 vicious barbaric horde bent on raping, killing and - in general - ransacking everything in their path. It was revenge time - a million dead Soviet soldiers in Stalingrad alone - 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 dawn to dusk 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 withstand the absolute barbarity inflicted on them any longer.
There are some who will say that Germany and its people got its just rewards - the destruction of the City of Königsberg and its citizenry being one example - in return for the incredible evil inflicted by its Nazi leadership for causing the death of countless millions of innocent people across the European continent.
”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 WWII 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”.
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was well known British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. When reports about the incredible hardship endured by German refugees during their forced expulsion started to appear in the British media, he wrote the following letter to the Times of London.
To the editor of the Times
Sir, - In your leading article of October 19 you refer to the third count of the indictment of German war criminals, which deals with an immense array of charges of murder and raping, including mass deportations and the murder of hostages and the fourth count, which includes crimes against humanity such as the attempt to exterminate the Jews. In Eastern Europe now mass deportations are being carried out by our allies on an unprecedented scale, and an apparently deliberate attempt is being made to exterminate many millions of Germans, not by gas but by depriving them of their homes and of food, leaving them to die by slow and agonized starvation. This is not done as an act of war, but as part of a deliberate policy of peace.
Is it possible for the British nation, with its tradition of humanity, to watch these trials without shame while, in the words of a British officer now in Berlin, we acquiesce in the preparation (by our allies) of these very injustices against which we have so recently fought? Are mass deportations crimes when carried out by our enemies during war and justifiable measures of social adjustment when carried out by our allies in time of peace? Is it more human to turn out old women and children to die at a distance than to asphyxiate Jews in gas chambers? Can those responsible for the deaths of those who die after expulsion be regarded as less guilty because they do not see or hear the agonies of their victims? Do the future laws of war justify the killing of enemy nationals after enemy resistance has ceased?
These are questions discussed far more in England now than the past sins of the Nazis. It was decreed by the Potsdam agreement that expulsions of Germans should be carried out in a humane and orderly manner. And it is well known, both through published accounts and through letters received in the numerous British families which have relatives or friends in the armies of occupation, that this proviso has not been observed by our Russian and Polish allies. It is right that expression should be given to the immense public indignation that has resulted, and that our allies should know that British friendship may well be completely alienated by the continuation of this policy.
I am, Sir, yours faithfully, Russel
Trinity College, Cambridge, Oct. 19