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Forced Migrations in Europe, 1938-48

Adrian von Arburg
Karl University, Prague

Expulsion, Forced Resettlement, and Deportation of the Czechoslovak Germans (1945-1948)

The "Quiet Transfer" (Spring/Summer 1945)

"The Czech has no business being here, at the end of the day", declared Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's new governor in Prague, in a secret speech in October 1941. Even though Nazi policy took good care - mostly in the interests of its arms production - not to disclose its long-term targets for the Bohemian lands, several waves of terror, the resettlement of entire areas of land, a consistent Germanisation policy in all spheres of life and not least the ruthless exploitation of people, goods, and wealth caused pent-up feelings of retaliation and hatred against all things German unprecedented in history. The disruption of Czechoslovakia and the subsequent occupation period of more than six years doubtless were the main reason behind the Czech desire to live in a "nation state" without any German minority in future. That much older ideas of the Germans as alien "colonists and migrants" (a statement made in 1918 by the leading member of the Czech national movement and the first president of Czechoslovakia, TomᚠMasaryk, which he immediately took back) might have played a role is probable but cannot be conclusively proven and is therefore controversial.

Turning that desire into action was only partially the result of spontaneous public anger, as has often been stated. However, it was indeed that public anger which, mostly in May and June 1945, was responsible for the majority of acts of violence against Germans, indiscriminately branded as "nationally unreliable" due to their ethnicity. It should be noted that the looting, murdering and raping that went on was only rarely committed by the old-established Czechs of the Sudetenland, but that these usually were acts by mostly irregular armed units whose members had never lived together with Germans.

The highest-ranking political functionaries of newly established Czechoslovakia in particular bore significant indirect responsibility for the violence that broke out. Direct orders from government circles concerning the physical elimination of persons are not substantiated and therefore unlikely. The political leadership can, however, be reproached for not having done enough to curb the havoc that was wrought in the streets. On the third day after its arrival in Prague on May 12th, 1945, the cabinet decided to refrain from broadcasting a radio appeal to stop the lynch law, because the representatives of the Communist and the People's Socialist parties, competing with each other in terms of chauvinism, feared a loss of prestige among the population. Instead, on the very same day, President Edvard Beneš, who was worried about his popularity because of the concessions he had made after the Munich Agreement, announced in Brno that his programme was to "liquidate the German question in the Republic". Four days later, on Prague's Old Town Ring, he even demanded the "uncompromising liquidation of Germans in the Bohemian lands", though it should be noted that Beneš most certainly did not envision physical extermination. In Lidice, he stated that the entire German people was responsible for the crimes committed by the National Socialists. In mid-June, he visited Tábor, a former Hussite stronghold, where he called for the de-Germanisation of the Republic "everywhere and in all things". These appeals by Beneš and other high state officials, which served to inflame the public mood rather than to calm it down, were not in line with the programme announced by the government on April 5th in Košice. Out of international considerations, this official government programme had concealed the intention to forcibly resettle the largest part of Sudeten Germans, a decision which had already been taken. Rather, and in vague words, it had spoken of a differentiated approach concerning the Germans, saying that only the truly guilty were to be punished and only the truly guilty Germans were to be relocated out of the "old country".

As opposed to the excessive violence which were a danger to life and limb of Germans in Czechoslovakia, the expulsion activities beginning in parallel at the end of May were not just the indirect responsibility of the government, but were centrally ordered, co-ordinated by the army leadership and implemented by soldiers from the country's regular armed forces. Paramilitary "revolutionary guards" and partisan units, which in many cases were only created towards the end of the war, would not have been able to execute blanket resettlements in the first place and therefore only played a minor role in the activities. The intention expressed by communist leader, Klement Gottwald, to call upon the public immediately after the government's arrival in Prague and to call for a "cleansing from the Germans" was dismissed at the time, but as early as May 15th, the members of the government were informed by the Chief of Staff that the first army units had been sent to the "border regions" with the task of "pushing the Germans over the borders". On May 23rd, the entire government approved an army proposal to conduct a general "cleansing" of the area from Germans - a decision which can be interpreted as a deportation order. On June 6th, President Beneš gave the army leadership, who continuously updated him on the status of the expulsions, the go-ahead to continue the "evacuation", but pointed out that the Western Allies had not given their assent concerning the beginning of the resettlements yet. Therefore the only possible target area for the "quiet transfer" (as Gottwald put it) were the Soviet-occupied zone and Austria, because the Red Army units stationed there were willing to co-operate. The brief army orders, which hardly differentiated between individual Germans at all, were complemented by more detailed guidelines issued by the administrative bodies which, following instructions from Prague's State National Committee on June 12th, ordered the relocation of Germans from Bohemia, to be executed "with resolute determination".

During the months of "wild" expulsions, which deserve this attribute only when compared to the better prepared and internationally agreed-on resettlement activities of the following year and considering the difficult attendant circumstances for the people affected, the border regions of Northern Bohemia, Southern Moravia, and the "linguistic enclaves" of Jihlava and Brno in particular were already rid of more than half their German population. From Silesia and Northern Moravia, only a fairly small percentage of the Germans living there were taken to Saxony, predominantly by means of rail transports. In their occupied zone in Western and Southern Bohemia, the Americans only permitted the "repatriation" of Germans from within the German Reich, ethnic Germans, and POWs.

In Article XIII of the agreement signed at the Potsdam Conference in early August 1945, the big Allied powers had agreed on a "transfer" of the German population from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary to Germany. This resettlement, now laid down under international law, was to be executed "in an orderly and humane fashion" and was only to begin once the Allied Control Council had drawn up a transfer plan together with the affected countries. Up and until that point, Prague was requested to refrain from conducting expulsions on its own. Instead, one day after the end of the Potsdam Conference the cabinet decided to continue with the expulsions as long as it was practically possible to do so, and had some flimsy excuses ready should the need to use them arise. One day before, President Beneš had signed a constitutional decree which had been passed by the government as early as spring and which withdrew Czechoslovak citizenship from the majority of the country's Germans.

The expulsions covered neither by international nor by national law only ended in September 1945. After evaluation of often contradictory sources, one may estimate that by the end of September, some 700,000 to 850,000 Germans left the Bohemian lands. About three quarters of them probably were forcibly expelled Sudeten Germans.

Internationally agreed-on Forced Resettlement

According to the Potsdam agreement, the forced resettlement rule only applied to ethnic Germans. Czechs or Slovaks, regardless of how heavy a burden of guilt they had incurred, were not subject to resettlement, for which the original Czech administrative term odsun (deportation) slowly became established in the country. Quite on purpose, there was no published legal norm which defined who was to be regarded as a German. The Ministry of the Interior in fact was fully aware that a definite, unambiguous determination of nationality would be quite impossible given the interconnected identity structures which had grown over a long time in the Bohemian lands. Admittedly, a catalogue of allegedly "objective" nationality criteria was assembled in internal directives. But in borderline cases, the Department of the Interior had no better solution than to drop the theory and to rely on the Herderian principle alone. Anyone who professed to be a Czech but was found not to speak the Czech language fluently was to be considered a German and thus to be deported. Thus it was in particular people from mixed linguistic regions and bi-national families, for whom the term "ethnicity" had been nothing but an abstract concept thus far in their lives who became embroiled in the turmoil that was expulsion.

The resettlement quota approved by the allies of 2.5 million Germans (1,750,000 to be sent to the American-occupied zone, 750,000 to go to the Soviet-occupied zone) was not fully exhausted during the year of "systematic" resettlement, 1946. From spring 1947 onwards, the U.S. side in particular made no secret of the fact that completing the "transfer" was out of the question for the time being given the strenuous supply situation in Germany. Growing reservations on the part of the Western Allies concerning the transfer concept as such and the spreading Cold War atmosphere were other reasons for the fact that some 100,000 persons who had been declared as "subject to deportation" by the Czechoslovak authorities were not taken to Germany as part of the international agreement. Including the expellees of the "wild" phase and the Slowak Germans ("Carpathian Germans"), an overall total of nearly three million Germans were relocated out of Czechoslovakia in the immediate postwar period.

Internment and Deportation

In our modern day and age, organized mass migrations are hardly imaginable without making use of an extensive camp system. On the whole, an estimated 350,000 persons (mostly Germans, but also actual and alleged Czech "collaborators") were interned in camp-like places for an extended period of time. The number of facilities serving this purpose ran in the hundreds. Especially in the first year after the war, living conditions in the camps were appalling. According to Czech estimates, a minimum of 6,000 to 7,000 deaths occurred there in the entire period from 1945 to 1948. The total number of lives lost due to the anti-German persecution measures between 1945 and 1948 has been much disputed in the past. Certain circles in Germany and Austria still claim a number of casualties of more than 220,000. This figure, however, corresponds to statistic extrapolations using many variables and nowadays is considered highly exaggerated among historians. Czech research, which starts out from actually verifiable deaths, estimates that the number of German victims of expulsion, persecution, internment and forced labour runs to somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000.

After the early termination of the "transfer", more than 200,000 Germans still remained in the Bohemian lands at the end of 1946. The majority had been allowed to stay for economic reasons. The people tolerated because of their political loyalty only constituted a small part of the group. The overwhelming majority of Germans acknowledged as "anti-fascists" had "voluntarily" decided to let themselves be resettled because of the many and diverse types of social harassment that they had been subjected even though regulations concerning them read differently and because of intentionally drawn-out citizenship confirmation procedures. Quite a number of Hitler's opponents whose loyalty to the Czechoslovak state could not be doubted by anyone, still had their property confiscated or were never granted the status of anti-fascists due to the strict criteria imposed by the state and thus were transported to Germany in the usual cattle cars. For the German-speaking Jews who had survived the Holocaust, the situation was hardly any easier. Only as late as September 1946, when it was too late for many of them, were Jews generally excluded from the deportation rule. After that, the majority of those who still remained in the country emigrated voluntarily.

In 1947/48, Prague tried to solve the problem of the remaining Germans by some sort of "domestic deportation". In the medium term, all Germans remaining in the Sudeten region were to be "dispersed" by families in the traditionally Czech lands of Central Bohemia and Moravia and assimilated there. This intention was realized in up to 40,000 cases, but only for a minority of the relocated was the deportation within their own country a permanent move. The definite change of course concerning the nationality policy in the early 1950s, preceded by the creation of the "brother state", the GDR, meant that the principally repressive policy could not be continued any longer. The forced relocation of several thousand Sudeten German families to the uranium mining region near St. Joachimsthal in the Ore Mountains in 1948, however, was more permanent.

The Big Picture - Forced Resettlement and Loss of Homeland in Postwar Czechoslovakia

Not only Germans suffered the fate of forcibly losing their homes in re-established Czechoslovakia. Even after the end of the resettlement campaign, about one third of the newly structured society in the areas formerly settled by Germans was threatened by some forms of forced relocation within the country's borders. Besides the remaining Germans, this held true for other autochthonous minority groups. Among the people who came into the area, state security suspected practically everyone who did not belong to the majority of the Czech settlers from the interior of the country, i.e. old-established Czech inhabitants, Czech and Slowak "repatriates" from abroad, Magyars, Slovaks from Slovakia, Roma, or Rusyns from the Carpatho-Ukraine. In the winter of 1946/47, the Czechoslovak government had more than 44,000 Hungarians deported from Southern Slovakia to the Bohemian lands. This forced relocation, though disguised as a temporary work operation, was also meant to be permanent and intended to contribute a solution to Slovakia's "Hungarian problem". The tiny but densely settled Croat minority living in the Southern Moravian border region was mercilessly "dispersed" in the Moravian interior after the War and thus obliterated .

After the communists took total control of the country in February 1948, expulsions and repression activities with a national undertone slowly began to decline. The idea of rendering the members of undesirable groups "harmless" by resorting to forced resettlement, however, remained viable - not just in theory - until the mid-1950s and was combined with the newly dominating power policy and class motives. The forced concentration of priests and nuns, the resettlement of the so-called "kulaks" (wealthy peasants) in the course of collectivization of agriculture, the two attempts to proletarianise the country's large cities, the creation of forced labour camps for (supposed) opponents of the regime and "social misfits" as well as the plan to relocate their relatives to the countryside demonstrate obvious continuities which, compared to the expulsion of the Germans, have so far hardly been reflected upon on the part of the Czechs, let alone on the part of the Germans.