The statistics associated with the expulsion of the Germans between 1945 and 1949 defy imagination. By far the greatest number of them came from the lands east of the Oder and Neisse that had been incorporated into the new Poland – almost 7 million, according to the German government figures. Almost another 3 million were removed from Czechoslovakia, and more than 1.8 million from other lands, making a total of 11,730,000 refugees altogether.
Each of the different zones of Germany coped with this massive influx of people in its own way. Probably the worst prepared was the Soviet zone, whose towns and cities were amongst the most comprehensively destroyed by the war, and which was in the process of being stripped of everything of value for Soviet war reparations. A flood of refugees arrived in the aftermath of the war, mostly from the new Poland, but also from Czechoslovakia. By the end of November 1945 there were already a million of them trying to scratch a living here, disoriented and virtually destitute. During four years from the end of the war at least 3.2 million refugees settled in the zone, and possibly as many as 4.3 million. A further 3 million or so paused there temporarily before moving on to other parts of Germany.
The British zone, which bordered none of the deporting countries, had a little more time to prepare. In the autumn and winter of 1945 the British organized an operation to take in millions more refugees, code-named Operation Swallow. Between February 1946 and October 1947 eight trains plied their way back and forth between Szczecin and Lübeck, each composed of covered freight wagons with a total capacity of 2,000 people. Other trains took refugees from Kaławska to Mariental, Alversdorf and Friedland; and from April 1946, refugees were also transported to Lübeck by sea. In this way some 6,000 ‘eastern’ Germans were transported into the British zone almost every single day for a full year and a half. By the end of the decade more than 4.25 million new people had settled here.
Further south, the Americans continued to receive refugees from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia – more than 3.5 million of them in total. The authorities there struggled to cope, and hundreds of thousands were still languishing in refugee camps at the start of the 1950s. According to General Lucius D. Clay, the American military governor in West Germany, the influx of refugees increased the population of the British and American zones of West Germany by over 23 per cent. In East Germany, according to its first president, Wilhelm Pieck, the increase in population was as much as 25 per cent. The effect this had on all parts of Germany (with the exception of the French zone, which received relatively few refugees) was verging on the catastrophic. Most of the cities had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombing during the war, and the country’s shattered infrastructure simply could not cope. Even after their arrival refugees continued to die in their thousands because they were unable to find the shelter, the medical aid or the food to sustain them after their westward odyssey.
For those who were least able to find work or integrate themselves into German society – mostly the sick, the elderly, or widowed women with children – several years in refugee camps was all they could look forward to. Conditions in these camps were sometimes not much better than finding shelter in ruined buildings. A report on the camp at Dingolfing by the Bavarian Red Cross, for example, described a high number of invalids and people with tuberculosis living in overcrowded conditions. They had no proper shoes, clothing or bedding. In another camp in Sperlhammer cardboard had to be pasted to the walls of the barracks as protection against the water that leaked through.
Worse than this, however, were the social and psychological problems experienced by the refugees. People from the east or the Sudetenland were sometimes regarded as foreigners by other Germans, and tensions often rose up between them. As General Clay wrote in 1950,
Separated from Germany through many generations, the expellee even spoke in a different tongue. He no longer shared common customs and traditions nor did he think of Germany as home. He could not persuade himself that he was forever exiled; his eyes and thoughts and hopes turned homeward.
According to one man deported from Hungary, it was difficult for his fellow expellees to forge a new life for themselves, ‘Not only because they had lost their homelands and practically all their material possessions, but also they had lost their identity.’ The social democrat Hermann Brill described the refugees he saw as suffering from a deep state of shock. ‘They have fully lost the ground from under them. That which is taken for granted by us, a sense of security from life experience, a certain personal feeling for their individual freedom and human worth, that is all gone.’ In July 1946, a Soviet report on politics in Leipzig described the refugees as still ‘deeply depressed’ and ‘the most indifferent to politics of any group of the Leipzig population’. Unable to adjust to their new circumstances, they did little but dream of returning to their ancient homelands across the border.
The right to return was the one thing that these Germans would be denied. Their expulsion was designed from the outset to be permanent, and with this in mind ever stricter border controls were set up: Germans would be allowed to leave, but they would not be allowed to come back.
Furthermore, their deportation was only the first stage of a much larger operation: after they were gone, attempts were also made to erase all traces of their existence. Even before the Germans had been driven out of Poland and Czechoslovakia, towns, villages and streets were being renamed. In the case of villages that had never had Polish or Czech names before, new ones were invented for them. German monuments were torn down and new Czech or Polish ones erected in their place. Swastikas were taken down everywhere, although their shadow could still be seen on many walls for years to come. The speaking of the German language was banned, and the few Germans who were allowed to stay (by renouncing their German nationality) were advised to speak Polish or Czech even in private.
Schools were banned from teaching the German history of areas like the Sudetenland or Silesia. Instead, Germans were portrayed as invaders on lands that had historically always been Polish or Czech. The new areas of Poland were referred to as the ‘Recovered Territories’, and Polish children there were taught nationalist slogans, such as ‘Here we were, here we are, here we stay’, and ‘These regions are reclaimed property’. Students in the border areas were not permitted to study German, even as a foreign language – in contrast to other parts of Poland where it was allowed.
It was not only in schools that this new, nationalist mythology was taught – the adult population was also fed propaganda on a prodigious scale. In Wrocław, for example, an ‘Exhibition of the Recovered Territories’ was held, and was visited by some 1.5 million people. Amongst all the obligatory political exhibits stressing Polish-Soviet brotherhood there was a huge historical section, largely devoted to the relationship between Poland and Germany. This emphasized the thousand-year conflict between the two countries, the return of Poland to its ‘Piast Path’ (in reference to a medieval Polish dynasty who defied German kings to create an independent Poland centred around Silesia), and an exhibit entitled ‘Our Immemorial Right to the Recovered Territories’.
This was not merely the claiming, or even the reclamation, of territory: it was the rewriting of history. In the new, nationalist Poland, any trace of an indigenous German culture had to be eradicated: this was to be a Poland for Poles only.