Daily Archives: 5 January 2014

Poles vs. Ukrainians during World War II

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4091-4123, 4147-4157:

The borderlands of eastern Poland were invaded not once, but three times during the war: first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, and finally by the Soviets again. The different ethnic communities that lived in this richly diverse area reacted to each invasion in different ways. Most of the Polish population resisted the Nazis and the Soviets alike, in the hope that Poland might somehow be able to return to its prewar status quo. The Ukrainian population, by contrast, was more divided. Almost all of them feared and hated the Russians because of the brutal way that they had ruled the Soviet part of Ukraine during the 1930s; but many welcomed the Germans, at least at first, as liberators. The Jews, meanwhile, did not know where to place their faith. Many hoped that the Soviet invasion might deliver them from Polish and Ukrainian anti-Semitism; later, some seemed to hope that the German invasion would save them from Soviet persecution. By the time the region was invaded for a third time at the end of 1943, the handful of Jews who still survived had lost faith in all outsiders, whatever their nationality.

Both the Soviets and the Nazis played these different ethnic groups off against one other. The Nazis especially sought to harness the nationalist sentiments of the Ukrainians, in order to suppress the rest of the population. Even before the invasion they had made contacts with Ukrainian far-right political groups, particularly the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). This was an illegal ultra-nationalist movement, akin to the Ustashas in Croatia or the Iron Guard in Romania, which embraced the use of violence to achieve its aims. The Nazis dangled the promise of Ukrainian independence before them in return for their collaboration. While the most powerful factions of this shady organization never trusted German intentions, other factions enthusiastically allowed themselves to be exploited – partly because they thought the Nazis would give them what they wanted, but also because they shared some of the Nazis’ darker intentions.

The most shameful collaboration between the OUN and the Nazis was the way in which they worked together to eradicate the Jews. The OUN had for years been speaking of ethnic purity, of a ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians’, and of the benefits of revolutionary terror. The implementation of the Final Solution, particularly in the region of Volhynia, showed followers of the OUN that the slogans were not mere rhetoric. These massacres, which occurred in full view of the general population, would provide the template for all future ethnic cleansing in the region. What once would have been unthinkable now became eminently possible.

During the course of 1941 and 1942, about 12,000 Ukrainian policemen became intimately acquainted with the tactics the Nazis used to kill over 200,000 Volhynian Jews. As collaborators, they were involved in the planning of operations. They gave assurances to local populations in order to lull them into a false sense of security. They were employed in the sudden encirclement of Jewish villages and settlements, and even took part in some of the killing itself. The slaughter of the Jews was the perfect apprenticeship for what would come later.

At the end of 1942, when it first became obvious that German power was waning, these same Ukrainian policemen deserted their posts en masse. They took their weapons and went to join the OUN’s new, armed partisan group, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrains‘ka Povstans’ka Armiia, or UPA). They used the skills they had learned under the Nazis to continue their campaign against their ethnic enemies – not only the region’s few remaining Jews, but this time also its large Polish population.

The massacre of Poles began in the same areas where Ukrainian policemen had been most intimately connected to the massacre of Jews: Volhynia. There were many reasons why the ethnic cleansing began here – the area contained extensive forests and marshes, and so was particularly suited to partisan activity, and the isolated Polish communities were much less well defended than in other areas – but the previous actions against the Jews certainly played their part. The taboos had already been broken: young Ukrainian men here had become both trained to kill, and inured to mass killing. When they embarked on their cleansing of the region at the end of 1942 they were therefore relatively free of both external and personal constraints.

In reaction to such events, some local Poles began to set up their own militias for the purpose of self-defence. The Polish underground also diverted resources away from resisting the occupation in order to protect Polish communities from the UPA. Some Volhynian Poles turned to the Germans for jobs as policemen so that they might have opportunities for revenge. (The Germans certainly appeared happy to recruit them, and a new wave of collaboration was born – ironically in the name of controlling former collaborators who were now running amok.) When the Soviets arrived in 1944, many Poles joined the Red Army or the NKVD – again, with the purpose of exacting revenge for all they had suffered. Ukrainian villages were burned, and thousands of Ukrainian peasants killed, in both official and unofficial reprisals for the actions of UPA. These reprisals, naturally, were used by Ukrainian partisans as further justification for their targeting of Poles and Polish villages. And so the situation degenerated into a vicious cycle. During the final year of the war, and in its immediate aftermath, the entire region was engulfed in what was effectively a civil war. What began in Volhynia spread to Galicia and central Poland. Poles and Ukrainians slaughtered one another and burned each other’s villages with an enthusiasm that far exceeded any of their actions against the German or Soviet occupiers.

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Expulsions of Germans, 1945–49

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4614-4678:

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.

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