Czech and Polish “Wild West” in 1947

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 255-257:

The removal of the ethnic Germans was not just an enormous logistical undertaking. It was also the source of a highly disruptive economic and social transformation of the affected areas, one whose impact remains to the present day. In much the same way that the wartime cooperation of ordinary Germans (and, indeed, Poles, Ukrainians, and other nationalities) in the persecution and removal of Jews had been obtained by the opportunity it provided to appropriate Holocaust victims’ property, Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian citizens’ enthusiasm for the expulsions owed a great deal to the prospect that they would profit from the confiscation of their German neighbors’ wealth. The new borderlands, however, proved to be no Eldorado, and the new economic and social realities that were produced under abnormal circumstances brought a fresh set of unforeseen complications in their train.

To a substantial degree, the scramble for booty dictated the breakneck pace of the expulsions, as local authorities, militia bands, or politically connected individuals rushed to grab the most desirable German properties for themselves before others, or the central government, got in ahead of them. The lion’s share of the loot, nonetheless, wound up in the state’s hands, where it became an important instrument of communization. Before the Second World War, Communist parties had been negligible influences throughout central and eastern Europe. The Nazi-Soviet Pact; Stalin’s treacherous attack on Poland’s eastern frontier when the country was fighting desperately for its life; the expulsions and massacres that had followed, at the Katyn Forest and elsewhere; and the Red Army’s cynical abandonment of the Polish Home Army to the Nazis in the Warsaw Rising of August 1944 did nothing to persuade ordinary Poles that the Russian leopard had changed its spots. Though the USSR’s standing in Czechoslovakia was higher—thanks in large measure to the perception that Moscow, in contrast to the appeasement-minded Western powers, had been ready to assist Prague militarily before the Munich Conference—there was little enthusiasm for state socialism on the Soviet pattern. Because Communists controlled the Ministries of the Interior and of Agriculture in both countries after the war, however, they were also in a position to decide the redistribution of confiscated German property. They took full advantage of the rich sources of patronage this provided to buy, if not the support, then at least the acquiescence of citizens in their continued rule. The expulsions, then, provided the material basis that enabled the governments of the Soviet satellites to solidify their domestic standing at the moment of their greatest vulnerability.

As the dispute over the Jelonka Hotel demonstrated, though, property redistribution could be an instrument of social disruption as well as social cohesion. Disputes over the true ownership of a confiscated house or farm, in a situation in which the premises might have changed hands several times over the card table in a single weekend, would clog up the court systems of the expelling countries for years into the future. Overnight, the borderland areas were stripped not just of population but of agencies of government: when a German town was cleared of its residents, its local council, police force, municipal administrators, and providers of essential services like waste removal or water supplies usually went with them. Even in those relatively rare cases when replacement officials from the majority population could be found to take their place, Soviet military commanders, preferring to concentrate the skeins of power in their own hands, often prevented them from taking up their positions. In a literal and not merely a metaphorical sense, then, many of these districts became lawless areas—as the hapless Kazimierz Trzciński had discovered when he tried to take possession of his hotel. For several years after the change in jurisdiction, a vacuum of state authority existed and the rule of the gun prevailed. It was hardly surprising, then, that fewer people than resettlement authorities hoped were willing to put down permanent roots in such areas; or that a disproportionate number of those who did, like Trzciński himself, turned out to conform poorly to the image of the sturdy, self-reliant pioneer depicted in Communist propaganda. The name that both Poles and Czechoslovaks gave to their frontier regions after the war—the “Wild West”—reflected their awareness that even after the Germans’ departure, these were places that remained alien in many respects from the countries of which they were nominally a part.

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Filed under Czechia, democracy, economics, Germany, Hungary, labor, migration, nationalism, Poland, Slovakia, USSR, war

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