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Displaced Persons

Erika Steinbach, the daughter of ethnic Germans evicted from Poland after World War II, was re-elected in Berlin 23 October 2010 as head of the main group representing the refugees. The Federation of Expellees [Bundes der Vertriebenen] is a non-profit organisation formed to represent the interests of an estimated 15 million ethnic Germans who were displaced from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe, mainly Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union, during the expulsion of Germans after WWII.

At the annual meeting of the Federation of Expellees in Berlin in April 2004, its president Erika Steinbach criticised the Czech and Polish governments for failing to revoke laws from the post-WWII period that sanctioned the expulsion and confiscation of property of ethnic Germans. The people expelled are not after their property, all they want is reconciliation, she said.

On 02 August 2004, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, addressing participants in ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Rising of 1944, in which the Nazis killed 200,000 people, said the German government opposed individual territorial and property claims made by its citizens, who before 1939 inhabited lands now belonging to Poland. Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka termed thestatement of Gerhard Schroeder a step in a proper direction. It was the first time that a German chancellor had been invited to take part in commemorative festivities to mark the Warsaw uprising. Polish leaders had expected the German chancellor to take a clear stance on such restitution claims, and amid the odd whistle and boo from the crowd he lived up to anticipations: "We Germans know full well who started the war and who were its first victims," Schrder said acknowledging the Nazi atrocities in Poland and added that because of German's blame there was no longer room left for discussing restitution claims which "turn history on its head."

"Property issues related to World War II are no longer a subject of controversy between our two governments. Neither the German government nor any other serious political force supports any restitution claims still being voiced. This is our position, and we won't hesitate to make this position clear before international courts, if need be," he stressed.

Gerhard Schrder's appearance, however, was overshadowed by renewed calls from Germans demanding the return of property which they were forced to leave behind in what is now Poland during the final stages of World War II. The president of the Federation of Expellees, Erika Steinbach, hopes for an improvement in relations between Berlin and Warsaw. Steinbach blamed the chancellor for leaving expellees in legal limbo by not changing German legislation.

Steinbach advocates setting up a Center Against Expulsion in Berlin -- a museum and documentary center in Berlin of 20th century forced departures-- despite strong objections from Poland. The center is part of the government program of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU). The SPD-Green Party coalition government rejected the Center Against Expulsion. Schrder used the 2004 ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Rising to reject the idea to build a memorial center in Berlin commemorating German expellees. He dismissed the plan as "unacceptable" because it would unilaterally spotlight German suffering and play down its origin in Nazi aggression. There's already an exhibition dedicated to the German expellees across the street in the German History Museum.

In mid-August 2004 the Prussian Claims Society, a nationalist organization of Germans whose prewar estates were annexed by Poland in 1945, announced it would sue the Polish government in the EU courts to get back its members'land. Polish papers and politicians erupted in predictable outrage. There was talk of countersuing Germany for 1 trillion euro in wartime reparations.

Population transfer is the forced movement of a large group of people from one region to another by state policy or international authority, most frequently on the basis of ethnicity or religion. The creation of homogeneous nation states in Central and Eastern Europe was a key reason for the decisions of the Potsdam and other Allied conferences. The principle of every nation inhabiting its own nation state gave rise to a series of expulsions and resettlements. The movement of Germans involved a total of at least 12 million people, and possibly as many as 14 million, the largest of the post-war expulsions in Central and Eastern Europe which displaced at least twenty million people in all.

One of the familiar human products of war is the refugee, the resident of a combat zone set adrift either by anticipated or actual destruction of his home and means of livelihood. An object of pity as an individual, in the mass he becomes a menace, clogs roads, imposes potentially ruinous burdens on already strained civilian services, and spreads panic. The British and French had some experience with refugees in the 1940 campaign, and it had become accepted Allied doctrine that the Germans were exceptionally adept at exploiting these unfortunates for tactical and even strategic advantage.

In 1942, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was established to provide humanitarian relief to the vast numbers of potential and existing refugees in areas facing Allied liberation. In 1947, it ceased operations in Europe, and in Asia in 1949, upon which it ceased to exist. In 1947 UNRRA was replaced in 1947 by the International Refugee Organization (IRO), which in turn evolved into United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1950.

To the traditional picture of the refugee, the war had by 1944 added another figure, the displaced person (DP). A refugee was almost always a citizen of the country in which he was encountered and usually no great distance from home. If he was a potential threat, he was at least a transitory one. In liberated territory the local authorities could be expected to take care of him, and in enemy territory they would be compelled to do so. The DP was a different and more complex species altogether. He and his fellows had only two characteristics in common: they would all be citizens of one of the United Nations (by definition, enemy aliens no matter where they were found could not qualify), and they would all be outside their national boundaries at the time of liberation. They were certain in large numbers to be Russians and Poles with some Yugoslavs and Greeks, and inside Germany would be French, Belgians, and Dutch. They were the result of the vast transfer of population that Germany had begun in early 1942 to provide labor for its war industry, farms, and military construction.

An Allied agency estimated that as of October 1943 there were 21 million displaced persons in Europe, mainly in Germany or in territory annexed by the Reich. To the DPs could be added an indeterminate but large number of what would later come to be called RAMPS (recovered Allied military personnel): prisoners of war of all nationalities, many of whom had been held in Germany since the early campaigns of the war and, if they were soldiers of defeated nations, used as common labor.

Experts in the Foreign Office and the State Department urged limits on territorial compensation to Poland (initially only East Prussia, then maximally to the Oder River). They also advised limits on the concomitant resettlement of Germans (between 2 1/2 and 7 million), to be supervised by a so-called Population Transfers Commission, which would guarantee an orderly, step-by-step process and compensation for abandoned property. The diplomats cited the precedent of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey from 1923 to 1926 as justification, an exchange which was conducted under the supervision of the League of Nations and on the basis of the Lausanne Treaty.

After V-E Day, SHAEF G-5 reckoned the total number of displaced persons uncovered in SHAEF-held territory, including those already repatriated as well as liberated prisoners of war, to be 5.2 million. All but about a million were in the areas of the two US army groups. They were being cared for by 102 UNRRA teams, about an equal number of French MMLA teams, and, wherever necessary, by the local military government detachments. The western Europeans were leaving as fast as transportation could be provided. In April the repatriation rate had been 35,000 persons a week; in May it jumped to over 200,000 a week.

The relative harmony that had prevailed among the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union began to show strains at the Potsdam Conference, held from July 17 to August 2, 1945. In most instances, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was successful in getting the settlements he desired. One of his most far-reaching victories was securing the conference's approval of his decision to compensate Poland for the loss of territory in the east to the Soviet Union by awarding it administrative control over parts of Germany. Pending the negotiation of a peace treaty with Germany, Poland was to administer the German provinces of Pomerania, Silesia, and the southern portion of East Prussia. The forcible "transfer" to the west of Germans living in these provinces was likewise approved.

The movement westward of Germans living east of a line formed by the Oder and western Neisse rivers resulted in the death or disappearance of approximately 2 million Germans, while an estimated 12 million Germans lost their homes. The presence of these millions of refugees in what remained German territory in the west was a severe hardship for the local populations and the occupation authorities.

When the US declared the DP problem substantially solved at the end of September 1945, the Army expected that the 600,000 or so DPs left in the US zone would also be off its hands within the next few months. Some DPs, Poles chiefly, would want to return home; the others, the so-called stateless non-repatriables, Balts, Hungarians, some Poles, and some Jews, could be turned over to UNRRA.

The news in November 1945 that the US zone would receive two and a quarter million Germans expelled from eastern Europe between December 1945 and July 1946 deepened the despair in Germany. On instructions from the Potsdam Conference, the Control Council had worked out procedures for taking into the occupied territory 6,650,000 racial Germans who were to be expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria. The US zone's share was 1,750,000 from the Sudetenland and 500,000 from Hungary. They were scheduled to come at a rate of a quarter million a month in December, January, and February and in larger numbers in the spring.

An agreement to exchange refugees between the zones plunged the refugees into gloom without raising the spirits of the native residents of the US zone. The latter expected that relatively few refugees, particularly from the east, would go home-an opinion which later turned out to be correct. Housing and feeding those Germans expelled from other countries was going to be entirely a German affair.

Before World War II, some 30 percent of the population in the Czech lands had been Germans; in Slovakia, 17 percent had been Hungarians. In 1945, 700,000 Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia under an agreement which was sanctioned by the Allies and had been reached at the Potsdam Conference. This expulsion was, in some cases, accompanied by brutality against the Germans, which brought about protests by the Allied Powers. In the second and more organized wave of deportation in 1946, 1.3 million Germans were deported to the American zone (in what would become West Germany) and 800,000 to the Soviet zone (in what would become East Germany). Another 200,000 Germans had fled voluntarily before the end of the war to the American zone, and around 200,000 escaped to Austria.

As early as on September 9, 1944, Soviet leader Khrushchev and Polish communist Osobka-Morawski of the Polish Committee of National Liberation signed a treaty in Lublin on population exchanges of Ukrainians and Poles living on the "wrong" side of the Curzon line. Many of the 2.1 million Poles expelled from the Soviet-annexed Kresy, so-called 'repatriants', were resettled to former German territories, then dubbed 'Recovered Territories'.

By 1950 the newly established Federal Republic of Germany had a population of about 50 million, more than 9 million of whom were "expellees." The German Democratic Republic had about 4 million newcomers and 14 million natives. Most of the expellees came from East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, and the Sudetenland, all one-time German territories held by other countries at the end of World War II. The majority of the settlers in West Germany remained, found work in the rapidly recovering economy, and in time were successfully integrated into the society.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:30:18 ZULU