Turning German “Resettlers” into “New Farmers”

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 322-324:

The Soviets had no intention of allowing the “resettler” question (the term “expellee” was deemed politically incorrect in the East, as implying undue harshness on the part of the removing governments) to hang over their occupation zone indefinitely. The focus instead was on completing the task of resettlement and assimilation—or at any rate declaring it completed—within a measurable period.

Accordingly, the Soviet military authorities decided to kill two birds with one stone by tying expellee resettlement to land redistribution. Because most expellees in East Germany, like their counterparts in the West, had already been placed in the countryside—in Brandenburg, nearly 55 percent of the new arrivals were living in settlements of less than two thousand inhabitants in December 1947—this solution had the further advantage that no substantial internal redistribution of the four-million-strong expellee population would be required. Agricultural estates of more than a hundred hectares and those belonging to “war criminals” were broken up and expellees settled on the new smallholdings in numbers out of proportion to their share of the population. By the conclusion of the program, some 567,000 hectares of land were in expellee hands.

The results, though, generally bore out the prognostications of those British officials who had successfully diverted Ernest Bevin from pursuing a similar will-o’-the-wisp in 1944. The land reform program was an expensive failure. “Even at the end of 1946, three-quarters of the Neubauern (new farmers) had to work without horses … and only one third of the land reform farmers owned a cow. Only one farmstead in four was equipped with a plough, one in five with iron harrows and only one in fourteen with reapers and threshing machines.” Those who received livestock and equipment, moreover, tended to be members of the indigenous population, who profited from their superior connections in the rural communities to those overseeing the redistribution, while “resettlers” were largely overlooked. Lastly, exorbitant and unrealistic state requisitions and quotas, which forced the new farmers to turn over even their seed grain and sowing potatoes to the government, made it impossible for many to generate the minimum required for bare survival. As a result, living standards for the Neubauern were, as state inspectors reported in 1950, “almost unimaginably low,” while the cost of the program, which by 1953 had reached the alarming figure of 900 million marks, was described by Heinrich Rau, the Minister of Planning, as “a bottomless pit.” Rather than acknowledge the failure of the experiment and, as West Germany progressively did, recall the expellees from their initial billets in the countryside to the cities and towns as jobs and houses became available for them, the Soviet military authorities doubled down on their losing investment and announced a large-scale rural housing program in 1947. With practically the entire housing budget of the east going into building farmsteads that the resettlers were rapidly abandoning, reconstruction of war-damaged cities was virtually halted. As one Neubauer recorded, “The despair and anger among the settlers know no bounds…. Whole groups of settlers leave the settlements at night and have fled to the West …” Not until 1950 was this costly scheme discontinued, with very little to show for it.

By then, however, the authorities were ready to declare victory and move on. The Central Agency for Resettlers was dissolved in July 1948 and responsibility for its functions transferred to a small and low-profile section of the Ministry of the Interior. From that point on, even the term “resettler” (Umsiedler) became almost as taboo as “expellee” had become: all were to be equal citizens of the new German Democratic Republic, without distinction.

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Filed under economics, Germany, labor, migration, nationalism, USSR, war

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