Category Archives: Eastern Europe

Imaginary “Werewolf Cells” in 1945

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 114-116:

The Ústí massacre quickly turned into a bitter point of contention between the Czechoslovak government and the Sudetendeutsch Social Democrats in London. The Cabinet in Prague, already rattled by reports arriving from low-ranking officers who were anxious to parade their vigilance by depicting every find of discarded weapons or discovery of a German civilian in possession of a pair of binoculars as evidence of a “Werewolf cell,” immediately put two and two together and made five. Even though the army stated that the cause of the explosion had not yet been determined, the Cabinet concluded that it was undoubtedly the fruit of a “planned sabotage action.” Unverified rumors were supplied to—and uncritically published by—the national and international press as confirmed fact, including a story that a Werewolf aircraft had flown low over Ústí and might have dropped a bomb on the ammunition dump at the time of the explosion. (Six weeks later, Wenzel Jaksch’s Social Democrats mockingly inquired of Prague why nothing had been heard since then from “the powerful Werewolf conspiracy, its radio stations, its grey airplanes, its centres in Belgrade, Paris and Argentine.”) For their part, Sudeten Germans aired their suspicions that the explosion had been the Czechoslovak version of the Reichstag fire of 1933, pointing to what seemed the remarkable coincidence that the Potsdam Conference was taking place at the same time. Rumors circulated in the Sudetendeutsch camp that printed notices imposing a curfew on Ústí to quell the disturbances had begun to be posted up on walls even before the explosion took place, and that the massacre had been deliberately staged to impress on the Big Three at Potsdam what would happen on a far larger scale if they did not give final approval to the expulsions. Neither the government’s nor the Sudeten Germans’ rival conspiracy theories, however, need be taken very seriously. The truth was almost certainly, as a pair of British-born residents in Ústí who had witnessed the killings reported to Ambassador Nichols, that a tragic accident had been followed by “a spontaneous outburst by Czech hooligans” in and out of uniform.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, public as well as official paranoia over Werewolf activity escalated considerably, with ludicrous claims like “hundreds of Werewolves have been destroyed and disposed of every day” and “our entire border is now a combat zone, where the hidden enemy launches attacks against the Czech people” appearing regularly in the popular press. The precise reason remains unclear. It may be that in the wake of the Potsdam Conference’s call for a temporary suspension of expulsions, Czechoslovak authorities felt themselves under pressure to generate the evidence that would prove the presence of the Germans to be an ongoing threat to the country’s national security and strengthen the argument for their removal. Tomáš Staněk also points out that the Communist-dominated Ministry of Information had a vested interest in generating a steady stream of stories about Werewolves and spies seeking to undermine the “People’s Democratic State.” At all events, from early August an atmosphere reminiscent of the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials prevailed in the Czech borderlands, in which numerous Germans were tortured to persuade them to reveal the names of members of Werewolf cells, who would themselves be subjected to equally rigorous interrogation to elicit still more names. As Staněk notes, a high proportion of the “confessions” thus obtained bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those extracted using identical methods from “counterrevolutionaries” and “capitalist spies” after the Communist coup of February 1948.

The fact nonetheless remained that proven cases of opposition to forced removals were somewhat nowhere to be found. The uniform, almost eerie, meekness of the German population was recorded in report after report in both Czechoslovakia and Poland. The month before the Ústí explosion, the commander of the gendarmerie declared the area to be entirely peaceful; and although the local SNB headquarters three weeks later complained of shootings and robberies occurring on a daily basis, it placed the blame for these on Czechoslovak military and Red Army elements. Elsewhere, even after the massacre, police and army accounts spoke overwhelmingly of the “passivity and servility” of the Germans; of their evident appearance of being “frightened” and “depressed”; and of the security forces’ confidence that any truly dangerous elements among them had already either been removed from the country or were safely in custody. Newspapers likewise testified to the Germans behaving with the “servility to which the Czechoslovaks ha[d] become accustomed.”

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Herding Fractious Volksdeutsche

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 53-55:

At all levels of German society, scruples over profiting from the displaced Poles’ and Jews’ misery were rapidly overcome. Volksdeutsch colonists brought in from outside the Incorporated Territories fought vigorous turf battles with those already there, who pressed the authorities—often successfully—for compensation for their losses at the hands of the Polish state during the interwar years. Both found themselves competing with hundreds of thousands of predatory Reichsdeutsche, the citizens of the “old Reich,” who flooded into the conquered districts with an eye to the main chance. (One of them was Hitler’s favorite tank commander, General Heinz Guderian, who trawled the Warthegau in search of an estate befitting his elevated status. When an aghast Field Marshal von Manstein asked him what had become of the Polish owners of the manor he eventually selected, “Guderian said that he did not know, when he had taken over his estate the Poles had gone and he had no idea what had become of them.”) Tensions among all three groups, and among different ethnicities within the Volksdeutsch “family,” frequently ran high:

Settlement advisers depicted Bessarabian German children fighting local Volksdeutsche children. Native ethnic Germans were portrayed complaining that everything was done for the incoming settlers but nothing for them, and murmuring that if the settlers hadn’t come, they would have got all the confiscated Polish land for themselves. One settlement adviser reported that the local ethnic Germans called the settlers from Bukovina “gypsies.” Bukovina Germans hit back by calling the local ethnic Germans “Poles.” Settlement advisers were also quick to criticize fellow Reich Germans, usually men, for arrogance towards the Volksdeutsche. One told the story of a settler’s wife from Bukovina who forgot to wear the badge showing she was German and was thrown out of the post office, where she was trying to post parcels to her son at the front, by a Reich German man who hit her in the face.

Trying in just a few years to concoct a cohesive Germanic whole from a Volksdeutsch melting pot that constantly threatened to boil over was thus a forlorn hope. For many colonists, the dream of an idyllic life in the Incorporated Territories ended even sooner. The Volksdeutsch holding camps proved irresistibly attractive as reservoirs of available personnel to military recruiters and to businesses struggling to maintain production in the face of Germany’s increasingly acute labor shortage. Inmates, facing an open-ended sojourn in ramshackle facilities whose commandants were prone to imposing upon them “a militarized regimen, separating them by sex and treating the newcomers as children, if not prisoners,” were susceptible to such overtures. Sometimes even Himmler yielded to the temptation, ordering in December 1940 that the Bessarabian Germans, who had not fulfilled his expectations as potential colonists, be conscripted instead into labor battalions. On other occasions it was the Volksdeutsche themselves who threw in the towel. Some colonists from Galicia, disappointed with the farms assigned to them in the Warthegau, abandoned them in the autumn of 1940 and sought readmission to their holding camp in łódź; another group was arrested for rejecting the properties they were offered and holding a demonstration against the authorities. And sometimes the mismatch between colonist and colony was so great that no amount of official intervention could make Germanic silk purses out of sociological sow’s ears. The genteel Estonian and Latvian Volksdeutsche proved a particular disappointment as settlers, looking askance at the notion that they should become agrarian pioneers in the agoraphobia-inducing Polish steppes. “Either they were large landowners, who were not prepared to accept the conditions of peasant settlements (which would be like suggesting to Thomas Jefferson or ‘Turnip’ Townshend that they take on three acres and a cow) or they were urban dwellers…. Soon planning officials were calling on the evacuation staff not to send them any more Balts.”

The sheer diversity among the Volksdeutsche, indeed, was probably the biggest single impediment to the success of the colonization program. Other than their regional accents, some were indistinguishable from their Reichsdeutsch counterparts. Arthur Greiser, born in Poznań province, was himself Volksdeutsch. But the claims of others were far more tenuous, if not completely fictional. Poles and Jews often observed with bemusement that many members of the Selbstschutz [self-defense] militias that sprang up to assist the Germans were, as one woman put it “people from our town, Poles,” who as soon as the Nazis arrived “suddenly heard the call of their German blood! Mostly they were scum: ex-jailbirds, card-sharps, thieves, petty (and not so petty!) crooks.” The ease with which yesterday’s Pole, Ukrainian, or Czech could become today’s German was not lost on the Reichsdeutsche, who began to describe their supposed co-racials as Beutegermane or “booty Germans” who had attached themselves to the Volk solely for the purpose of grabbing as much loot as they could.

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Sudeten Germans in 1930s Czechoslovakia

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 11-12:

When the ailing and elderly Masaryk stepped down from the presidency in 1935, he carried away much of the Sudetendeutsch community’s goodwill with him. In contrast to the charismatic Father-Liberator, Edvard Beneš, his long-time heir apparent, seemed a colorless and uninspiring replacement. Across the political spectrum, Czechoslovaks paid tribute to Beneš’s intelligence, diligence, and efficiency. In administrative ability he stood head and shoulders above his peers. But if his talents were those of the skilled bureaucrat, so too were his flaws. Thin-skinned, intensely self-righteous, cold, and prone to bearing grudges, he was to prove an unfortunate choice as Masaryk’s successor. His own secretary, Jaromír Smutný, acknowledged that although a “brilliant master of tactics and strategy, the greatest Machiavelli of our time … he is unable to awaken the enthusiasm of the masses…. People leave him persuaded, but not feeling entirely with him, full of confidence but without affection.” Beneš also had a tendency toward political idées fixes that would twice prove disastrous for his country. An ardent Francophile, between the wars he placed his complete trust in the relationship between Prague and Paris, only to be abandoned by the French at Munich. A similar disillusionment lay in his future, after he transferred his unquestioning and unrequited confidence to the Soviet Union. The Sudeten German population’s attitude to Beneš, hence, was at best one of reserve. It was suspicious of his efficient public relations network that ceaselessly reiterated to Western Europeans what they wanted to hear about Czechoslovakia’s and its president’s exemplary liberal and democratic credentials—an image it knew to be more than a little rose-colored. It recognized him as a committed Czech nationalist, whose regard for minority rights owed more to pragmatism than conviction. And it had little confidence that in any situation in which Czechoslovak and Sudetendeutsch interests were in conflict, Beneš would treat the two communities even-handedly and impartially. When the resolution to confirm Beneš in the presidency was put before the Prague parliament in 1935, not a single Sudetendeutsch deputy voted in favor.

The differential impact of the Great Depression on Czech and German communities intensified the Sudetenland’s sense of alienation. As one of the most export-dependent parts of the country, the Sudetenland was hard hit by the contraction in international trade. But the Prague government added greatly to the region’s distress by its practice of preferring Czechs for public-sector jobs, dismissing thousands of Sudetendeutsch workers in the process. Germans, more than 23 percent of the population in the 1930 census, five years later made up only 2 percent of the civil servants in ministerial positions, 5 percent of the officer corps in the army, and 10 percent of the employees of the state railways. Not a single ethnic German was to be found in Beneš’s own Foreign Ministry. State contracts, even for projects in the German-speaking districts, were steered toward Czechoslovak firms. By 1936, more than 60 percent of all Czechoslovak unemployment was concentrated in the Sudetenland. No less injurious to German sensibilities was Prague’s dismissive response to their complaints of discrimination. It was unreasonable, Czech leaders argued, for the Sudetendeutsche to complain about their exclusion from public-sector employment while they remained equivocal in their loyalty to the very state that they expected to pay their wages. Germans, on the other hand, recalled that Czechoslovakia had come into existence as a result of Czech and Slovak soldiers deserting from the Austro-Hungarian army during the Great War and forming a Czechoslovak Legion to join the conflict on the Allied side against their former comrades in arms. For Beneš and his followers, with their record of disloyalty to the Hapsburg Empire at a moment when it was fighting for its life, to preach to anyone else about minority nationalities’ duty of fidelity to countries to which they had been unwillingly attached seemed to most Sudetendeutsche the epitome of hypocrisy.

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Degrees of French Patriotism in Alsace

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 69-70:

Even after the return of peace [in 1918], national governments would pioneer methods of displacing unwanted minorities that would be applied on a much larger scale twenty years later. A case in point was France’s “cleansing” (épuration) of the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine between 1918 and 1921, in what Mark Mazower describes as “a blatantly racist assault on the civil rights of Germanspeakers” in the region. After his victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Bismarck had ill-advisedly annexed the ethnically mixed provinces to the Reich, creating a permanent antagonism between the two countries. When France reconquered Alsace-Lorraine in 1918, it immediately set out to eliminate any basis for future disputes about the provinces’ political complexion by purging them of those who might be thought to favor their reincorporation into Germany. To facilitate the process, the population was divided into four categories by the end of December 1918. Residents whose French loyalties were unquestioned were given identity cards marked with the letter “A,” signifying that they had been citizens of France before the Franco-Prussian War. Those who had at least one pre-1870 French parent received “B” cards. Citizens of Allied and neutral countries were placed in the “C” category; the remainder—a total of 513,000 “enemy” nationals and their children, including those who had been born in Alsace-Lorraine—became members of the “D” class. As we have seen, Heinrich Himmler’s racial gurus would use this system as a model when devising the Deutsche Volksliste in occupied Poland two decades later.

Like the Volksliste, the French classification scheme could readily be applied for the purpose of discrimination as well as expulsion. Category “A” card-holders, for example, could exchange Reichsmarks for francs at a much more favorable exchange rate than members of the other classes. Holders of “B” cards were often turned down for public-sector jobs on the ground of their mixed parentage. The most stringent disabilities, needless to say, applied to the “D” class, whose members among other restrictions were not permitted to travel. Petty persecution, however, soon gave way to deportation. The first to be removed were German-speaking civil servants; later, those marked for expulsion included factory owners and the unemployed. Their fate was determined by commissions de triage that held meetings in camera to assess the French patriotism of the persons concerned, often on the basis of denunciations solicited by local officials from individuals waging personal vendettas. Those who failed this examination were pushed across the frontier into Germany. They were permitted to take thirty kilograms of baggage with them and a maximum of two thousand Reichsmarks, all their remaining property being forfeited to the French state. But an even larger number were induced to opt for “voluntary repatriation” on the same terms. They did so because they expected to be removed eventually; because life in the “D” category had become intolerable; because, although not personally removable, their spouses or children were “D” card-holders; or, in some cases, because they feared physical attack by members of the majority population. Altogether, nearly 100,000 expellees and “voluntary repatriates” were transferred to Germany before the system was discontinued in July 1921.

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Prewar Ethnic Cleansing in Europe

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 39-41:

In one respect it is misleading to speak of “the postwar expulsions.” From the very beginning of the Second World War, the European totalitarian powers engaged in ethnic cleansing on a scale never before seen in history. For Adolf Hitler, a continent from which “undesirable” peoples—Jews, Slavs, Roma, and others—had been displaced to make room for incoming German colonists lay at the very heart of his nightmarish racial vision. Even the Holocaust, when it had finally been decided upon, was but a means to this larger end. But his fellow dictator Josef Stalin also had grand ambitions to redraw the ethnographic map of the continent. During the two years of their uneasy partnership under the Nazi-Soviet Pact, both men found it convenient to work together.

Neither was a newcomer to the task. Stalin especially had a notable record of moving potentially troublesome national minorities around his empire, both as a form of collective punishment and to ensure that vulnerable borderlands were inhabited by ethnic groups—principally Russians and Georgians—in whose loyalty he considered he could repose greater confidence. To be sure, the internal transfer of smaller nations falling within the Russian orbit already had a long and dishonorable history by the time Stalin assumed control. Tsar Alexander II, the ironically named “Tsar-Liberator,” displaced nearly half a million natives of the western Caucasus in 1863–64 to enhance the security of the border. His grandson, Nicholas II, would follow his example in the first months of the Great War, removing to the Russian interior the ethnic Germans of central Poland along with an even greater number of Polish Jews. With the front beginning to collapse in the face of Hindenburg’s counterattacks in January 1915, Army General Headquarters stepped up this purge of potentially disloyal German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish subjects, by the simple expedient of giving the expellees a short period to collect what goods they could and then setting fire to their houses and crops. As the displaced people fled east, without food or any semblance of an evacuation system in operation, they began to die in large numbers. In the central Asian regions and the Far East of the Russian Empire, Chinese, Korean, and Moslem populations were removed for similar reasons. But it was only after the Bolshevik Revolution that internal deportations of entire peoples became a regular instrument of state policy.

A youthful Stalin cut his teeth as an architect of forced removals when as “Commissar for Nationalities” he assisted his fellow Georgian, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, to clear out the Terek Cossacks from the northern Caucasus in 1920. In the second half of the 1930s, movements of this kind reached unprecedented levels. “Between 1935 and 1938,” as Terry Martin notes, “at least nine Soviet nationalities—Poles, Germans, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Koreans, Chinese, Kurds, Iranians—were all subjected to ethnic cleansing.” Most of these movements were connected to the Soviet leader’s paranoia over “spies” and “wreckers” within the country. In 1937, for example, 11,868 ethnic Germans living in the USSR were arrested as suspected Nazi agents; the following year no fewer than 27,432 were detained on similar charges. The number of Soviet Poles held for espionage was greater still. The majority of these detainees were executed; the peoples to which they belonged were internally exiled by police and NKVD units. During the years of Stalin’s “Great Terror,” a total of approximately 800,000 members of national minorities were victims of execution, arrest, or deportation—generally to the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which began to rival Siberia as convenient dumping grounds for peoples the government viewed with disfavor.

Although Hitler had less scope than his Soviet counterpart for large-scale transfers of population, he too worked energetically to convert Germany into an ethnically and racially homogeneous state even before the war. The persecution of the Jews since 1933 had the explicit intention of compelling them to leave the country: in its crudest form, this consisted of physically pushing those who held dual citizenship across the borders into the territory of neighboring countries. A further wave of coerced migrations, this time under international auspices, ensued as a result of the Munich Agreement, which provided a six-month window of opportunity for ethnic Czechs and Slovaks to move out of the Sudetenland (and Germans elsewhere in Czechoslovakia to transfer in) and established a German-Czechoslovak commission to “consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population.” In the spring of 1939, Germany browbeat neighboring Lithuania into ceding the largely German Memelland to the Reich, though tens of thousands of Volksdeutsche were left in the areas remaining under Lithuanian control. Lastly, at Mussolini’s behest, Heinrich Himmler opened negotiations with Italy in May 1939 to secure the removal of the 200,000 ethnic Germans of the Alto Adige region in the Italian Alps. Notwithstanding his “Pact of Steel” with Hitler concluded in the same month, the Duce had not been oblivious to the recent fate of countries bordering on the Reich that harbored German minority populations. After the Nazi state’s absorption of Austria in the Anschluss of 1938, Mussolini considered it wise to remove temptation, and his ethnic Germans, from his new partner’s field of vision. By July, an agreement in principle had been reached for the “voluntary” departure of the German-speaking population, though no decision was taken as to their ultimate destination. Although the pact supposedly required the ratification of the ethnic Germans themselves in a plebiscite, an affirmative vote was ensured by declaring that any who elected to remain ipso facto consented to be resettled anywhere within the Italian domains that Mussolini chose to send them. According to rumors deliberately spread to make certain that voters saw the matter in the correct light, this was to be Abyssinia.

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Missing Migration History in Europe

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 1-3:

Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Allies carried out the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history. With the assistance of the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments, millions of German-speaking civilians living in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the parts of eastern Germany assigned to Poland were driven out of their homes and deposited amid the ruins of the Reich, to fend for themselves as best they could. Millions more, who had fled the advancing Red Army in the final months of the war, were prevented from returning to their places of origin, and became lifelong exiles. Others again were forcibly removed from Yugoslavia and Romania, although the Allies had never sanctioned deportations from those countries. Altogether, the expulsion operation permanently displaced at least 12 million people, and perhaps as many as 14 million. Most of these were women and children under the age of sixteen; the smallest cohort of those affected were adult males. These expulsions were accomplished with and accompanied by great violence. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands lost their lives through ill-treatment, starvation, and disease while detained in camps before their departure—often, like Auschwitz I, the same concentration camps used by the Germans during the Second World War. Many more perished on expulsion trains, locked in freight wagons without food, water, or heating during journeys to Germany that sometimes took weeks; or died by the roadside while being driven on foot to the borders. The death rate continued to mount in Germany itself, as homeless expellees succumbed to hypothermia, malnutrition, and other effects of their ordeal. Calculating the scale of the mortality remains a source of great controversy today, but estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present. Much more research will have to be carried out before this range can be narrowed to a figure that can be cited with reasonable confidence.

On the most optimistic interpretation, nonetheless, the expulsions were an immense manmade catastrophe, on a scale to put the suffering that occurred as a result of the “ethnic cleansings” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in the shade. They took place without any attempt at concealment, under the eyes of tens of thousands of journalists, diplomats, relief workers, and other observers with access to modern communications, in the middle of the world’s most crowded continent. Yet they aroused little attention at the time. Today, outside Germany, they are almost completely unknown. In most English-language histories of the period they are at best a footnote, and usually not even that. The most recent (2009) edition of Mary Fulbrook’s excellent History of Germany 1918–2008 disposes of the episode in a single uninformative paragraph; the antics of the tiny ultraleftist Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 1980s, in comparison, rate four. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany is typical in not according the expulsions even a single mention. What is true of German history textbooks is also the case with those dealing with the history of Europe as a whole, and even of the central European states most directly concerned. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield’s fine survey of the region in the postwar era, Return to Diversity—by far the most accessible and reliable one-volume treatment of the subject—takes a cumulative total of less than a page to explain the means by which Poland and Czechoslovakia, until 1939 among the most heterogeneous and multicultural countries in Europe, had just ten years later become ethnic monoliths. It is, then, entirely understandable why so many of my splendid and learned colleagues on the Colgate faculty should have expressed their confusion to me after reading in the newspapers in October 2009 that the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, had demanded that the other members of the European Union legally indemnify his country against compensation claims by ethnic German expellees, as the price of his country’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. None had been aware that anything had occurred after the war in respect of which the Czech Republic might require to be indemnified.

It would be incorrect, however, to attribute this pervasive ignorance of the expulsions, their context, and their consequences to any conspiracy of silence. What has occurred in the postwar era is something less calculated in nature, but more insidious in effect: the phenomenon of a historical episode of great significance that is hidden in plain sight. Certainly information, albeit of highly variable quality, on the expulsions is available—for those who possess the requisite language competence and are prepared to go looking for it. A 1989 bibliography lists almost five thousand works dealing with them to some degree in the German language alone. Even today, some sixty-five years later, living expellees are not hard to find; it has been calculated that a quarter of the current German population are expellees or their immediate descendants. What is denied, then, is not the fact of the expulsions but their significance. Relegated in textbooks to a single passing mention in a vaguely phrased sentence referring to the “chaos” existing in Germany in the immediate postwar era, or simply passed over in silence, the impression is effectively conveyed that they occupy a less important place in modern European history than the cultural meanings of football hooliganism or the relevance of the Trabant automobile as a metaphor for East German society.

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Elusive Property Rights in Eastern Europe

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 160-161:

My own experience of private property and that of people I know leads me to understand that both “private” and “property” are vague and very relative categories in my part of Europe. There are many reasons for this, ranging from political and economic changes through social ownership and war to ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust.

Watching the Hungarian movie 1945, directed by Ferenc Török and released in 2017, is perhaps the best way to understand at least one aspect of this; good films sometimes make such things possible. It begins with two strangers, Orthodox Jews, disembarking from a train at a small railway station in the middle of nowhere. They have two big boxes with them, almost like coffins. The railway station worker takes his bicycle and departs for the village in a great hurry to deliver news of their arrival. Meanwhile, villagers prepare for the wedding of a son of a local businessman who took over the local shop after the Jewish owners were transported to a concentration camp. As the two new arrivals approach the village on foot, the news spreads and people panic. They are afraid that the two Jews are coming back to reclaim the property of their relatives, who had been deported a year or two before. In the meantime everything has been stolen by the villagers—the shop, the tavern, the houses. Why are these two returning? And what is in their big boxes? Maybe the goods they want to sell once they have taken back the shop? Everybody took part in the plundering, so everybody has reason to fear the two strangers approaching. . . .

This black-and-white movie, in a style close to that of a documentary, shows the collective fear of the return of rightful owners, and how it destroys a community built on lies, denunciations and theft.

But this happened all over Eastern Europe and not only to Jews. Some three million ethnic Germans were expelled or had to flee their homes during the aftermath of World War II from the part of Czechoslovakia annexed by Hitler in 1938. Of course, local people promptly moved into those vacated houses. When thirty years later, two strangers suddenly appeared in a local tavern in a small village there, they were met with an awkward silence and suspicion. Perhaps these two men came because they wanted their family’s property back? But they were only two journalists in search of a good story, who, as it happens, got a unique chance to experience firsthand the mistrust of those living in and from stolen property.

When do wars really end? It seems that wars continue to live on in property documents, in doubts, nightmares and fears for generations.

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Same Brand, Different Food Quality East and West

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 14-15:

In 2017, Slovakia’s consumer association tested a selection of food from supermarkets in eight EU member states: Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In some products they found small differences—in any case, the products were not identical—but there were much bigger differences in others. They tasted different and the content was different as well, from Knorr soup to Iglo fish sticks (the latter had 58 percent fish instead of 65 percent). Slovakia’s Ministry of Agriculture drew similar conclusions when comparing twenty-two same-brand products bought in Bratislava and in two Austrian towns across the border. Half of them tasted and looked different and had different compositions. For instance, a German orange drink purchased in Bratislava contained no actual juice, unlike the same product sold in Austria, which had some amount of juice.

When other countries followed suit, they found roughly the same differences. Hungary’s food safety authority examined twenty-four products sold in both Hungary and Austria. It found, among other things, that the domestic version of Manner wafers was less crunchy (and crunchiness is just about the most important “ingredient” they offer!), and the local Nutella not as creamy as the Austrian one….

In Poland, Leibniz biscuits contain 5 percent butter and some palm oil, while those sold in the company’s home market of Germany contain 12 percent butter and no palm oil, a cheap alternative to butter. The Slovene consumer association examined thirty-two products sold in Slovenia and Austria and identified ten where there was a difference in quality. The point is that the inferior version of the product was always placed in an Eastern European country and never in a Western country.

Drakulic doesn’t mention the different currencies still used in most of the Eastern European countries, nor the relative price differences between countries inside and outside the Eurozone.

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Gastarbeiter Legacy in Croatia

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 184-187:

After six decades and yet another world war, the late sixties and early seventies were a time for another wave of mass emigration. From the same territory but not the same state. Now citizens of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia departed for Sweden and Germany. Around a million people left on buses and trains to become temporary guest workers, or Gastarbeiter. This resulted from an extraordinary measure taken by the communist government to cover up the failure of the planned economy. The money these workers sent home kept their families and the whole country going for quite a while. In return, Yugoslavia opened up the country to German tourists—despite the fact that we had learned to hate Germans, because they were the enemy in World War II; there was even a town where they were forbidden to visit. But suddenly they were okay. Every summer more and more of them came to the fishing villages and beaches, and local kids were supposed to be nice to them and not laugh at their funny habit of walking in the sea with plastic shoes on. They brought money, deutsche marks, or DM. Soon DM became an informal local currency. If you wanted to buy a car, an apartment or land, you would pay in DM. How was that possible in the country where there was no legal way to exchange the local currency, the dinar, into DM? This was one of many mysteries of life under the specific Yugoslav type of communism.

Many children grew up largely without their fathers, who would visit only twice a year, for the Christmas and Easter holidays….

None of my relatives left in the seventies. People from the islands or the Adriatic coast no longer left to find a job far away. They lived well as more and more tourists visited, not only Germans. First the locals would rent a room in their old house, then extend the old house, then build a new house, all the while offering not much more than sun and sea.

Then, because of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Croatia became an independent state in 1991. Two decades after independence, it was time for new emigrants, who were also migrants because they moved for economic reasons within the EU. This time they mostly left inland regions with rich soil that used to grow wheat and corn, and where there were farms with pigs and cows. But corrupt privatization schemes and the switch from public to private ownership meant that solid enterprises disappeared, while others had been destroyed in the war during the nineties, and private farming no longer paid off. There were fewer and fewer jobs and people in the region of Croatia stretching from Zagreb toward the east had to move either to towns or abroad in search of work. Ads for houses for sale give a realistic insight into the situation. For example, in the region of Slavonia one could find a house in good condition for seven thousand euros, the price of a secondhand car. In the last eight years, prices have dropped by 50 percent. Only old people remain there now and when they die, the property is usually sold for almost nothing.

The young are leaving because there are no jobs, and if you do not have a job you cannot afford a mortgage, not even for a cheap house. Young people in this part of the world, especially men, live with their parents for lack of money and the opportunity to earn it—no less than 84.6 percent of young people in Croatia. On average, they leave their parents’ home when they are thirty-three years old. “There is simply nothing to live on here,” says a real estate agent in Đakovo, a small town in Slavonia.

Bus stations in these towns are very crowded on Sunday evenings, especially after the holidays. Buses leave for Germany and Austria daily; there are special charter lines for migrants—or are they Gastarbeiter once again? Passengers hug and kiss the family they are about to leave behind; many people are crying. The tearful goodbyes distinguish them from ordinary passengers. The next time they will see each other is Easter.

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Filed under Austria, economics, Germany, labor, language, Mediterranean, migration, nationalism, Scandinavia, Yugoslavia

World War I Spreads, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 297-298:

By the end of 1917 most of the world’s population had entered a state of belligerency. Even during the Napoleonic Wars this situation had no precedent. Two impetuses to the process came from the unrestricted submarine campaign and from American entry. The first threatened death and destruction to almost every country; the second made neutrality less attractive and joining the Allies more so. Yet the new belligerents made their own decisions, which were frequently contested. In China intervention led to civil war, and in Greece to something close to it; in Brazil it prompted civil disorder and repression of the German-Brazilians. In China, the issue became embroiled with the contests between Duan and Li and between the northern Chinese warlords and the Guomindang. Intervention became a gambit in a domestic struggle, with Duan holding the advantage. Brazilian public opinion was always pro-Allied in tendency, but it took the submarine sinkings to create a Congress majority for belligerency. Finally, in Siam the government had no legislature to contend with, and once the king insisted on intervention his foreign minister assented.

None of the four countries envisaged an all-out struggle, which makes their interventions easier to comprehend. So does US entry, which made the Allies more likely to win. Indeed, America also initially envisaged a limited commitment, but unlike the other new arrivals it subsequently expanded it. China, Brazil, and Siam were remote from the Central Powers and therefore ran little risk. Greece ran a bigger one, as a fighting front ran through its northern territory, and of the four it made the biggest military contribution. But the costs and risks should be set against the prospective gains. For Brazil these were primarily economic. For Siam and China the additional incentive was gaining traction against the unequal treaties, the Chinese being particularly focused on the Shandong lease. In Greece Venizelos wanted Bulgarian and Turkish territories that might support a glittering future in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. The prize all sought was a voice in the peace settlement.

These objectives would be satisfied unequally and tardily; and in Greece’s case scarcely at all. But the widening of the war through new interventions weakened European pre-eminence. Siam and China challenged the unequal treaties in a manner impossible before 1914; Chinese nationalism strengthened and became more anti-Western; Brazil and other South American countries turned away from Europe. China’s intervention was determined more by Japan than by the European Allies or the United States. Moreover, the war’s prolongation undermined not only informal European dominance in East Asia but also formal control elsewhere. This was most evident in the August 1917 Montagu Declaration, promising ‘responsible government’ in India, the grandest empire’s biggest possession. But if European control was under challenge in Asia, it was still expanding in the Middle East, and 1917 was the decisive year for establishing British authority over Palestine and Iraq. These developments too would figure among the lasting consequences of these crowded months.

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Filed under Brazil, Britain, China, Eastern Europe, Europe, Japan, Mediterranean, Middle East, nationalism, South Asia, Southeast Asia, U.S., war