Königsberg, East Prussia


German Expellees

By Dr. Alfred de Zayas
Lecture given at the occasion of an exhibition titled "In the Claws of the Red Dragon" at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, sponsored by the German-American National Congress in 1988.

Dr. de Zayas is a Harvard law school graduate who went to Germany on a Fulbright fellowship and took doctorate in History at the University of Goettingen. He is the author of several books dealing with the subject of the Expulsion of Germans in Europe, and  currently a professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Sadly, the exhibition in Pittsburgh about the Expulsion of Germans at the end of WWII  became the subject of controversy when  local Jewish groups questioned the authenticity of of some of the material on display, as well objecting to the supposed inference that the expulsion was similar in nature to the Jewish Holocaust.

Dear Friends,

When I was a student of history at Harvard back in 1970, I knew nothing at all about the Expulsion of Germans. None of my history professors considered this event sufficiently notable to mention it, much less to assign a research paper on it. It was curiously not in history class, but in a seminar on Law of War that I first heard about the Expulsion.

At that time I still could not read or speak German, but my law professor, the late Richard Baxter, who was subsequently the American judge at the International Court of Justice, encouraged me to pursue the matter and he brought to my attention two books in English that touched upon the subject matter. Those were the books of Victor Gollancz Our Threatened Values and In Darkest Germany. Victor Gollancz was a British socialist and a human rights activist. I was so impressed by Gollancz that I later dedicated my first book, Nemesis at Potsdam, to his memory.

Now, when I first approached the subject matter, I thought naively enough that it was a legitimate field of research, like any other. But I soon learned that it was no accident that there was nearly nothing written in English on the theme -- it was taboo, it was not chic, it was not fashionable to do research or to publish in this field.

After all, Germans were looked at in a rather monolithic fashion as all Nazis, and not deserving any degree of human sympathy. As citizens of the "evil empire" they were morally disqualified "ad illicio."

It is perhaps curious to compare it with the way the press today deals with the Soviet system, but thank God the press has not thought of disqualifying the Russian people and considering them "ad illicio" as criminals only because their system is an inhuman, anti-democratic system.

Now, what actually happened with regard to the Germans at the end of the Second World War, the previous speaker has already outlined and given you the figures of the Expulsion. Obviously you can take the simplistic view and say, "Hitler started the war, he lost the war, therefore the Germans have to take the consequences," but I don't think that this axiom actually exhausts the subject matter.

As you may or may not know, the expulsion syndrome was actually started by Hitler himself. After subjugating Poland, he expelled over 1 million Poles from western Poland, from the areas that were annexed by the Reich, and pushed them off into so-called General-government Poland, and he also expelled over 100,000 French from Alsace-Lorraine into Vichy France. And this was a matter that curiously enough was condemned by the Allies during the war, and at the time of the Nuremburg Trials, this expulsion that Hitler carried out for the purpose of "Lebensraum" -- pushing out one ethnic group in order to settle the area with your own -- was declared to be a war crime, and a crime against humanity.

Not only in the London Agreement, that was the basis of the Nuremberg Trials, but throughout the trials, and the hearings, and the proceedings, it was constantly brought up, and a number of the German leaders were actually convicted of committing these specific crimes, war crimes and crimes against humanity on the basis of these mass expulsions. So that it is a particular anomaly that the Allies themselves got involved in a policy of expulsion of a far greater extent than the one that had been carried out under the Nazis.

Now, it is not just the Expulsion that is of interest to us and you have seen the pictures, a great many of which are devoted to the flight of German civilians from the Red Army in 1944.

In October of 1944 the Red Army entered East Prussia, and they entered the area of Gumbinden, Nemmersdorf, and Metgethen and they occupied the area for approximately two weeks and pretty much decimated the civilian population.

Thereupon the German army was able to re-occupy the area, and they realized what had happened. The legal division of the German Army was given the assignment of investigating what had happened; a great many persons, -- witnesses who saw the bodies, when they came in, -- gave their depositions, and their sworn testimony is available for the study of any researchers.

Now, it was this kind of occupation by the Russians that forced the flight. You may compare the American occupation of the Rhineland, of Duesseldorf, of Cologne, of Koblenz, and you will realize that the Germans living in these areas had no need to flee from the American Army, whereas you had 5 million Germans from East Prussia, from Pomerania, Silesia, East Brandenburg, who helter-skelter and pell-mell had to leave the area. Surely, not because they wanted to leave the area in the middle of the winter of 1945, but because they realized that the entire population of Nemmersdorf and of other cities had been liquidated.

This aspect of the Expulsion, just the loss of life involved would have been enough, I would say, for any historian to devote attention to it, but as I already mentioned, the flight has been largely ignored.

Now, these refugees were basically turned into expellees when they were not allowed to return to their homeland. Because certainly at the time of the flight, the German refugees were expecting to return to their homelands at the end of hostilities.

But, before I go into the nature of the Expulsion itself, I wanted to cite from George Kennan as to the nature of the flight. In his Memoirs, Volume 1, page 265, he wrote

"the disaster that befell this area, (speaking of East Prussia) with the entry of the Soviet forces has no parallel in modern European experience. There were considerable sections of it where, to judge by all existing evidence, scarcely a man, woman, or child of the indigenous population was left alive after the initial passage of Soviet forces; and one cannot believe that they all succeeded in fleeing to the West."

Obviously Kennan'sMemoirs are not devoted to the Expulsion of the Germans, but he does have several pages in which he describes it from the perspective of an American official at the American embassy in Moscow.

As far as the decisions with regard to the Expulsion of the Germans, those were taken as early as at the Teheran Conference, and confirmed, or actually expanded, at the Yalta Conference, and finally at the Potsdam Conference, where they were more or less articulated in ARTICLE 13 of the Potsdam Protocol.

In this ARTICLE 13 the allies agreed that it was necessary to transfer the German populations from what they referred to as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They did not mention the Donauschwaben, the areas in Yugoslavia, or the areas in Rumania, but in fact all of these countries were in the process of pushing the Germans out at the time.

And the reason for these expulsions from East Prussia, Rumania and from Silesia was ostensibly that Poland was to be given compensation. Compensation for the territory of eastern Poland that had been annexed by the Soviet Union pursuant to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939.

People, and very many historians conveniently seem to forget that the outbreak of the World War II in 1939 was caused not only by Hitler, but also by Stalin: Soviet Union invading the eastern half of Poland, and Germany invading the western half.

Stalin made it very clear at Teheran that he was certainly intending to keep the half of Poland that he had invaded, and he ended up keeping it. But not only that, he ended up taking up a good slice of East Prussia, which is today part of the Soviet Union, and Koenigsberg is today, as you all probably know, called "Kaliningrad."

As far as the lip service that was paid to human rights, you will read in ARTICLE 13 of the Potsdam Protocol, that these expulsions were to be carried out in an "orderly and humane fashion."

Now, as far as the nature of the Expulsion, or the manner in which the expulsions were carried out, I wanted to quote very briefly from Victor Gollancz's book Our Threatened Values, on page 96 where he says:

"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 considera- tion, but with the very maximum of brutality."

Now, I'm quoting Gollancz precisely because he is not German. In the German archives in Koblenz, you have over 40,000 reports of survivors that are open to all researchers, and there you will see what the survivors have to say.

Some critical voices might say they have an axe to grind, that they are just trying to excuse themselves. But you have extensive documentation -- American, British, French documentation that prove the nature of the expulsions as an exceedingly cruel and brutal expulsion.

Particularly sad is the fact that if you compare that with our commitments, because after all, ostensibly the Americans and British entered the war on behalf of democracy and for certain principles of humanity and fair play -- and, after all, in August of 1941 President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill had agreed in the middle of the Atlantic on the ship Augusta on the so-called Atlantic Charter, and the Atlantic Charter provided that neither would seek territorial or other aggrandizement, and they both undertook a commitment to oppose, and I quote, "territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned."

So, in light of the principles which we ourselves proclaimed as our peace aims, it is most regrettable that at the end of the war we did not live up to those principles.

The moral question therefore arises: if the allies fought against the Nazi enemy because of this inhuman message, could they then adopt some of those same methods in retribution? Who was it then who succeeded in imposing his methods on the other? Whose outlook triumphed?

I think this is a question that we all have to answer to ourselves.

Robert Murphy, the political advisor of General Eisenhower, and later the political advisor of Clay during the occupation in Germany, was one of the first official voices in the American government that opposed the Expulsion, and to criticize the manner in which the Expulsion was being carried out.

In a memorandum to the State Department of 12 October 1945 he presented this moral dilemma very eloquently, and I quote in part:

"Knowledge that they are the victims of a harsh political decision carried out with the utmost ruthlessness and disregard for the humanities does not cushion the effect. The mind reverts to other mass deportations which horrified the world and brought upon the Nazis the odium which they so deserved. Those mass deportations engineered by the Nazis provided part of the moral basis on which we waged war and which gave strength to our cause. Now the situation is reversed. We find ourselves in the invidious position of being partners in this German enterprise and as partners inevitably sharing the responsiblity."

As a result of this and all the memoranda of Murphy, the American government repeatedly protested at Warsaw and at Prague and tried to get some cooperation from the Czechoslovak government and from the Polish government.

But unfortunately the Soviet occupation forces in those areas encouraged both the Polish and the Czechoslovak governments in the Expulsion, so there was no way for the U.S. to effectively stop it.

With regard to the legal aspects of the Expulsion, were such expulsions to take place today, there is no question that it would constitute the violation of various provisions of international law.

ARTICLE 49 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits specifically such expulsions. I'm speaking of the Geneva Convention for the protection of civilians.

ARTICLES 3 and 4 of the Fourth Protocol of the European Human Rights Convention also prohibits such expulsions.

It would also be incompatible with ARTICLES 12 and 13 of the International Covenant on civil and political rights.

It would be incompatible with the General Convention of 1948 and with several other instruments.

But obviously, at the time of the Expulsion none of these instruments were in force. So the only applicable principles were the Hague Conventions, in particular, the Hague Regulations, ARTICLES 42-56, which limited the rights of occupying powers -- and obviously occupying powers have no rights to expel the populations -- so there was the clear violation of the Hague Regulations.

And, obviously, if you want to apply the Nuremberg principles to the German Expulsions, considering that the London Agreement was supposed to reflect, and not to create international law, so if that was applicable to the German crimes against the Poles with regard to deportation of Poles, and deportation of French for purposes of "Lebensraum," certainly it was applicable to the expulsions by the Poles of Germans and by the Czechs of Germans.

So, if you apply these Nuremberg principles and the Nuremberg judgement, you would have to arrive at the conclusion that the Expulsion of the Germans clearly constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Now as you all know, the more than 12 million German expellees who survived, and who have come to the Federal Republic of Germany, have been integrated into the democracy that the Federal Republic of Germany is, and have contributed to the European reconstruction and to the so-called

Wirtschaftswunder, which was facilitated through the funds of the Marshall Plan.

And one of the most noble things that the German expellees did, and I would invite all non-Germans to try to place yourselves in the position of the German expellees, and try to see it through their eyes, what it meant having lost homelands that were over 700 years German; having lost half of their families in the process of the expulsion, having suffered what they all suffered, having being spoliated and having been victimized, -- what it meant to adopt the Stuttgart Charter of the German Expellees, which provides specifically for renunciation of revenge and renunciation of violence.

I wanted to quote from this document, which is also on one of the placards. I quote:

"We, the expellees, renounce all thought of revenge and retaliation. Our resolution is a solemn and sacred one, in memory of the infinite suffering brought upon mankind, particularly during the past decade."

Now, consider what it meant to write that, at a time when the memories were still very fresh, and when the wounds were not yet healed.

I think it is a tremendous contribution to peace, tremendous contribution to the normalization of the post-war Europe.

For this contribution of the German expellees to peace in Europe, earlier this year the German American National Congress (DANK) passed a resolution to nominate the Union of Expellees for the Nobel Peace Prize, thus joining the earlier initiative of parliament members of several nations from the European Parliament.

Why this honor to the Union of Expellees?

Because the German expellees have done more for peace in Europe, than they are credited for. Indeed, the more than 12 million surviving expellees from East Prussia, Pomerania, East Brandenburg, Silesia, Sudetenland, etc. could have turned to terrorism like the Palestinian refugees, and they could have developed into a major destabilizing element in Europe after 1945.

Instead, they proclaimed the Charter of the German Expellees in 1950, in which they proclaimed themselves to the peaceful reconstruction of Europe, and pledged never to use violent means to achieve their right to the homeland.

We must also keep in mind, however, that these expellees and their descendants are today -- 43 years after the Expulsion -- still waiting for a just settlement of this great injustice, and for return to their ancestral homelands in the Central and Eastern Europe.

As a final thought, I wanted to encourage all students here, to consider the Expulsion of the Germans as a worthwhile field of research.

I would like to encourage professors to give research papers and research assignments on the basis of the many, many aspects of the Expulsion. As I mentioned the archives, both the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, and also the National Archives in Washington are full of relevant, unpublished materials, which would more than satisfy a doctoral requirement, if you wanted to take a doctorate on any question of the Expulsion of the Germans.

And more importantly, and I rather hope that it will happen, I look forward to the great novelist, who will put down this history in a novel. I think that there is more than enough material for a Gone With the Wind, and I would welcome a Margaret Mitchell, who would write a novel depicting the very human and very deeply felt tragedy of the Expulsion of these victims of politics and of politicians.

I thank you.


Copyright 1999 Museum of European Art