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Forced Population Transfers

After the French Revolution the longing for an independent nation-state had gained ground in many parts of Europe. In Central and Eastern Europe especially, an ethnically defined concept of nation developed, based on the idea that origin by birth or descent be the decisive criterion for nationality. The 19th century saw a great reawakening of nationalism in Europe and the emergence of the concept of ethnic purity. While the idea of single nation-States gained strength, ethnic and religious minorities were persecuted and forced to leave areas where they were settled on a stable basis.

In Europe, however, only a few countries were ethnically homogenous nation-states. The Russian Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire housed many different peoples within their borders. For these large multicultural realms, the ideological striving for national homogeneity was dynamite. In the First World War the multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires fell apart. That was the beginning of the waves of forced expulsion that were to continue until the outbreak of the Cold War in 1947. Despite the fact that the expulsions did not generally aim at annihilating the groups as such, many people perished, being victims to death marches and massacres.

When the victorious allies drew new borders in Europe and in the Near East in Versailles 1919 they were convinced that this would guarantee peace in the future. That was an illusion. In the newly created states there were many national minorities cut off from kin state. That created new tensions, chauvinism flourished, many people became stateless. Europe was a minefield where the next catastrophe was pre-programmed.

For the totalitarian regimes, forced migration was a way of eliminating what were seen to be disagreeable ethnic or social groups. After the end of WW II forced migration was still seen as the best way to solve ethnic conflicts. Therefore the Allied decided to move the Polish borders westwards, regardless of the individual tragedies this implied both for the Polish and the German population being expelled from their ancestral homeland. As the Balkan wars in the 1990s have shown, forced migration and ethnic cleansing remained conspicuous features in Europe also after the end of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union, including the Baltic republics

In the 1930s forced population transfers took place in Stalin's Soviet Union. Entire populations were removed from their ancestral homeland as a punishment for their attributed political opinion. Among the populations who were forcibly displaced were Azeris, Chechens, Ingush, Karachi, Finns, Meskhetians, Crimean Tatars, Black Sea Greeks, Kurds, Koreans, Kalmucks, Germans from the Volga region and Ukraine and others. The Kulaks, owners of middle-size farms, were also deported and forcibly resettled in Siberia because considered 'enemy of the people'. The specificity of these movements was that they affected nationals, who were deported within the national borders.

In the following years, Stalin continued to use mass deportations as an instrument to punish potential political opponents, in particular in the Baltic countries. In the territory of present Latvia 15,000 people were deported in 1941, when the country fell under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union following an agreement with Germany (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, 23 August 1939). In 1949 a second mass deportation took place, affecting 42,000 people. This deportation was mainly directed against the farming population, who resisted forced collectivisation. Entire families were sent to resettlement areas such as Krasnoyarsk, Amur, Irkustsk, Omsk, Tomsk and Novosibirsk, for life. The number of deportees represented more than 2% of the pre-war population of Latvia. Among these were more than 10,990 children and youths under 16. Women and children under 16 constituted 73% of the deportees.

The years 1941 and 1949 marked mass deportations also from the other Baltic countries: in 1941, 10,000 people were deported from Estonia; men were separated from their families and sent to death camps in Siberia; women and children were resettled to the regions of Kirov and Novosibirsk. In 1949 a new deportation campaign uprooted 22,326 persons, representing 2.5% of the population of Estonia at the time. Similarly, successive mass deportation campaigns exiled 29,923 families from Lithuania to Siberia and other remote regions of the Soviet Union. Official statistics state that more than 120,000 people were deported from Lithuania during this period, while some sources estimate the number of political prisoners and deportees at 300,000.

In the 1940s, however, Lithuania was also a country of resettlement for approximately 20,000 Lithuanians, Belo-Russians and Russians who were living in territories occupied by Germany at the beginning of the war, under the terms of a resettlement agreement between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. This treaty allowed for an exchange of populations along ethnic lines, with 52,000 Germans leaving Lithuania16, most of whom to be resettled in occupied territories.

Nazi Germany

Nazi Germany concluded a number of bilateral agreements providing for the transfer of Germans to the Third Reich: an agreement with Italy established the compulsory transfer of expatriate German citizens (Reichsdeutsche) and the voluntary transfer of ethnic Germans (Volksdeutschen) to the Reich from the Sd Tirol, a territory ceded to Italy from Austria in 1919. German citizens in Italy were given three months to move while ethnic Germans were to 'opt freely and spontaneously' to emigrate and become German citizens by 31 December 1942, or to remain in Italy. Official German sources give the number of transferees as 237,802, including at most 10,000 German citizens. These numbers, however, are probably not reliable.

Agreements to repatriate Germans were concluded with Estonia and Latvia, too, by 1939. Some 62,144 German inhabitants of Latvia, including 56,441 of Latvian citizenship, and 16,000 of Estonia were concerned. The transfer was conducted in the three months following the agreement; very few opted to stay behind (some 3,000 in Estonia and 12,000 in Latvia). The bulk of the transferees were resettled in the Incorporated Territories of western Poland, Upper Silesia and East Prussia, while the Polish inhabitants of these areas were ruthlessly expelled. Ethnic Germans were also repatriated from Romania and other regions under Soviet influence (Bessarabia and northern Bukovina).

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis and their collaborators targeted Sinti and Roma on racial grounds. Across German-occupied Europe, Sinti and Roma were interned, killed or deported to camps in Germany or Eastern Europe. The unreliability of pre-Holocaust population figures for Sinti and Roma and the lack of research, especially on their fate outside Germany during the Holocaust, make it difficult to estimate the number and percentage who perished. Scholarly estimates of deaths in the Sinti and Roma genocide range from 220,000 to 500,000. After the war discrimination against Sinti and Roma in Europe continued. Today, with the rise of nationalism and unemployment throughout Europe, Sinti and Roma continue to face widespread prejudices and official discrimination.

Other population transfers during the Second World War

In 1940 Romania and Bulgaria agreed to the exchange of some 62,000 Bulgarians and 110,000 Romanians. In the same year, Nazi Germany dictated the terms of an agreement between Romania and Hungary on ethnically mixed Transylvania.. Approximately 130,000 Hungarians emigrated from Romanian Transylvania, and 202,233 Romanians immigrated there by April 1943. Some 17,614 Hungarians from Bukovina, Bosnia and Moldavia had emigrated to Hungary by the end of 1942.

The war period witnessed a proliferation of other minor bilateral treaties to solve the question of ethnic minorities, between Germany and Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria, Germany and Croatia, Yugoslavia and Italy, Bulgaria and Romania.

The aftermath of the Second World War

Even in the aftermath of the war, forced displacement continued. As the Allies decided to move Poland's borders westwards, the Germans living in the areas east of the rivers Oder and Neisse were expelled from their ancestral homeland now being Polish territory. Though figures vary widely it is estimated that around 14 million Germans were forcibly transferred from eastern and central Europe, most of whom settled within the borders of today's Germany. In addition, post-war settlements included the compulsory exchange of 200,000 ethnic Hungarians from Czechoslovakia and 200,000 Slovaks from Hungary in 1946; the exchange of 10,000 Hungarians from Yugoslavia with 40,000 Serbs and Croats; and additional exchanges of populations between the Soviet Union and Poland and the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

The eastern borders of Poland were also redefined, with the subsequent repatriation of Poles living in the territories beyond the Bug river, which were lost in favour of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania, at that time federate republics of the Soviet Union. In fact, the territorial settlement between Poland and the Soviet Union reflected on the one hand the territorial occupation by the Soviet army, on the other the agreements on population transfer already signed during the war (the so-called Republic Agreements of 1944). The Polish government estimates that from 1944 to 1953 some 1,240,000 Poles were 'repatriated' under the provisions of such agreements.

Very often people felt compelled to leave their homeland due to changes in state borders, because they do not want to live under a certain regime or because they fear being persecuted by the new government. The aftermath of the Second World War saw considerable migration movements of this kind, which can be considered as voluntary only very superficially. Hundreds of thousands left their countries as they fell under the influence of or were annexed by the Soviet Union including, amongst others, 420,000 Finns; between 300,000 and 350,000 Italians left Yugoslavia after the Treaty of Osimo (1954), which set the border between the two countries.

Numerically, Germans and Poles were the nationalities who were the most concerned by mass population movements in connection with war events. The phenomenon, however, affected all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltics and the Balkans as well as western European countries bordering the east European bloc, such as Italy and Finland.

Recent times

At least two regions in Europe have been ravaged by ethnic conflicts in recent years: the Balkans and the Caucasus.

The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia have provoked a massive displacement of civilians, forced to flee inside their country or abroad due to fear of persecution and ethnic cleansing. The humanitarian consequences of the displacement of population from the countries of the former Yugoslavia has been analysed by a number of reports prepared by the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population.

As regards Bosnia and Herzegovina, out of more than 2 million people forcibly displaced during the war, 1,000,473 people had returned by 1 July 2004. Of these, 440,147 were refugees who had fled Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 560,326 were forcibly displaced inside the country.28 Some 100,000 refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina remain displaced in the Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina is still hosting more than 25,000 refugees from Croatia and Kosovo, while some 325,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Bosnia still require a durable solution to their plight.

Serbia and Montenegro, on the other hand, counted 234,000 internally displaced persons in 2002, including 22,500 minority IDPs and 5,000 IDPs from southern Serbia. In the same year, IDPs in Croatia amounted to 17,486 and refugees, mainly from Bosnia and Herzegovina, to 7,3631 In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia there were 9,442 IDPs and a total of 2,942 refugees, mainly Kosovars.

Another region of ethnic strife in contemporary Europe is the South Caucasus. Although it is difficult to give precise figures, estimates indicate that the conflict in the region has provoked the displacement of more than one million people within the region, of whom still nearly 600,000 in Azerbaijan, some 235,000 in Armenia and around 240,000 in Georgia.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:27:47 ZULU