Forced Migrations in Europe, 1938-48
"Back to the Reich"
All over east and southeast Europe, there were German-speaking parts of the population, whose ancestors in some cases had lived there since the Middle Ages. The National Socialists' aim was to bring these ethnic Germans together in an ethnically homogeneous German Reich, or empire - a step towards their "re-ordering of Europe", and one further step in the National Socialists' racist conquest and Lebensraum ("space to live") policies. The long-term target, as formulated in the "General Plan East" of 1941, was a unified German settlement area to a line from Leningrad down to the Crimean peninsula - an objective which entailed the deportation or murder of millions of people.
Therefore, on the one hand, territories were annexed (Austria, Sudetenland) and later conquered from 1938 onwards. On the other hand, German minorities were to be taken "back to the Reich" from many countries. These "splinters of German national character" were regarded as "not acceptable" (Hitler on October 6th, 1939) and were to be returned to territories that were consistently settled by Germans.
At first, the relocations were based on treaties. A "population exchange" had been stipulated as early as the Munich agreement of 1938 in connection with the division of Czechoslovakia, which the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, considered inspired by the Treaty of Lausanne on the resettlement of Greeks and Turks. Treaties were concluded with many states in the east and southeast of Europe as well as Italy, with Germany often being able to dictate conditions, in particular after its quick military victory over Poland. The Hitler-Stalin Pact also provided for large-scale population shifts.
On the whole, more than 900,000 ethnic Germans were affected by the resettlement policy. The scheme involved enormous propagandistic effort. Dedicated bureaucratic machinery, headed by the "Reich commissioner for the determination of German national character", Heinrich Himmler, was set into place. At first, the people concerned were faced with the choice of either choosing German citizenship and thus opting for resettlement to the German Reich or to remain in their home countries and thus give up their German nationality and traditions. Bitter disputes developed over this issue, for instance among German South Tyrolians. After the outbreak of World War II, the resettlements became increasingly compulsory. In the German-occupied territories in particular, relocation operations were handled directly by the German administration.
Contrary to previous announcements, however, only a minority of ethnic Germans was actually settled on German Reich territory. Most were taken to the territories annexed to or conquered by the German Reich, particularly the formerly Polish "Warthegau" region, where they were supposed to advance "Germanisation". Once there, they often were given houses, shops or farms that had belonged to Poles or Czechs that had been expelled or Jews that had been deported. Thus, the "back to the Reich" resettlements were less a "return " by the German sections of the population from eastern Europe but constituted part of the National Socialists' aggressive, expansive "national" policy.
Many of the people resettled in eastern Europe were once more affected by forced migration after the end of the War and either became refugees or expellees.