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Forced Migrations in Europe, 1938-48

Escape and Expulsion of the German Population from Poland and East Prussia

Concerning the course of events, the escape and expulsion of the German population from the areas east of the Oder and Neisse rivers clearly differ from what happened in most other East and South East European countries. In the autumn of 1944, caused by what happened in the War, events began with a massive wave of refugees who tried to get themselves to safety under the most difficult of conditions. After German capitulation, so-called "wild expulsions" came first, finally followed by the state-organized bureaucratic forced resettlement of the overwhelming majority of the German population.

At least some of the affected areas had been part of the German Reich before the War. Thus, the forced resettlements were accompanied by the definition of new borders and the reestablishment of the Polish state, whose population structure and territory had very much changed after years of National Socialist terror and after the border shifts.

Evacuation and Escape

After 1943, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which had begun in the summer of 1941, turned into constant retreat. As the Red Army approached, the German authorities began conducting comprehensive evacuations of the local German population in some areas, such as Yugoslavia and Slovakia, from 1944 onwards.

In East Prussia and the occupied territories in Poland, however, the situation was different. When the front drew closer fast in the autumn of 1944, many Germans began to flee. Fear and panic were stirred up by Nazi propaganda of atrocities committed by the Red Army, which was supposed to boost the population's will to resist, and real acts of violence actually committed by Soviet soldiers alike. Since the national socialist commanders kept spreading appeals to hold out until the end and forbade evacuations, these escapes usually took place spontaneously, much too late, and under chaotic conditions. In East Prussia in particular, the civilian population was at the mercy of the National Socialist rulers and the senior Wehrmacht commanders who gave priority to military matters in spite of the hopless situation.

Thus, the escape occurred under the most difficult of circumstances, claiming a high death toll. It took place in an extremely cold winter, when temperatures reached minus 20 degrees centigrade and lower. Most refugees travelled on foot or in horse-drawn carts; in some places, they were only allowed to use snow-covered minor roads in order to keep the major roads free for the army. Trains were almost exclusively used for military purposes. Refugee treks were attacked, raided, or were caught between the fronts. The January 1945 sinking of the "Wilhelm Gustloff", a ship which carried evacuees, alone claimed more than 9,000 lives. In cities such as Kaliningrad and Wroclaw, which Hitler had declared to be "fortresses", capitulation was put off and the death of thousands of civilians was accepted. In March 1945, the catastrophe reached its climax with the Red Army's attack on the pocket around Gdánsk, which at the time was crowded with millions of refugees.

Germany finally capitulated on May 8th, 1945. In the weeks and months that followed, many of the refugees attempted to return to their homes. However, Polish militia and armed forces soon began keeping Germans from crossing the Oder and Neisse rivers in order to keep refugees from returning home.

The "Wild Expulsions"

After the German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line and occupied Poland had been conquered by the Soviet Union, acts of excessive violence against Germans were committed in many places by Soviet soldiers and the Polish civilian population. Pillaging, rape, murder, and expulsions occurred. Germans were deported both to Poland and to the Soviet Union for camp internment and forced labour purposes. On the part of both Poles and Soviet soldiers, the violence also was a release of their hatred and desire for retribution for the cruel German occupation rule in their countries.

On the other hand, many expulsions and outbreaks of violence were coordinated and conducted systematically to create a favourable initial position for the establishment of the postwar order. Since it was clear that the Soviet Union, as a victorious power, would claim the eastern Polish territories, the so-called "regained territories", which ran to the Oder-Neisse line, had to be cleared of the German population as much as possible. This territory was where the Poles from the East, who arrived as early as the Summer of 1945, were to be resettled. By closing the borders for the returnees and by expelling those who had stayed, realities were created for the final establishment of the German-Polish border.

The Potsdam Conference and Forced Resettlements (1946/47)

The expulsions finally were given a legal foundation at the victorious powers' conference held in Potsdam, which took place in July and August of 1945. This conference rang in the beginning of the major resettlements which the Allies had already agreed on in principle during the conferences of Teheran (1943) and Yalta (February 1945). The governments-in-exile of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other states had also taken the decision of expelling their German minorities in view of the German occupation and the fact that the War had become steadily more radical.

The Potsdam Agreement stipulated that the German population still in residence in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary was to be relocated to Germany in "an orderly and humane fashion". In the agreement, the Allies made explicit mention of the Treaty of Lausanne and the National Socialists' "Back to the Reich" programme, both of which served as models for population shifts on this order of magnitude.

By the time the forced resettlements began according to a plan drawn up by the Allies, more than half a million people had already left the new Polish territory - more or less voluntarily. From February 1946 onwards, state-organized transports to Germany kicked off. Despite the Allies' efforts to at least maintain minimum humanitarian standards, the relocations were often marked by severe shortcomings in the fields of supply and hygiene, and sometimes even by violence, raids, and pillaging. The situation of the German population and the process of resettling differed from region to region. In some areas, travel restrictions were imposed, the German minority was forced to wear identification badges or was excluded from welfare benefits. Sometimes, the actual resettlement was preceded by internment and forced labour. The duress and pressure, for instance when it came to food provisioning, caused many to leave for Germany before they were actually forced to do so. Often, the expulsion was an opportunity for unpunished pillaging. In other areas, Germans were protected from attacks by their neighbours and even by Soviet soldiers.

Frequently, the decision who was to be expelled and who was allowed to stay was taken arbitrarily and inconsistently. Among other things, strong regional identities and a lack of national awareness - results of having lived in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural border territory for centuries - caused major problems when it came to determining ("verifying") Polish nationality, which in quite a number of cases led to discrimination against old-established non-German members of the population.

On the whole, circumstances slowly improved after the first months of violence and lawlessness once the situation stabilised and the Polish administration grew less and less tolerant of pillaging and retaliatory measures. Furthermore, public protests in the Western world exerted pressure on Poland to take action against the violence.

At some points in time, trains took several thousand people from the territories east of the Oder-Neisse line to the British or Soviet-occupied zones. Accomodating these thousands overtaxed the authorities in war-ravaged Germany at times, so that the resettlement activities had to be interrupted repeatedly.

The total number of Germans who either escaped, were evacuated, expelled, or relocated from the region east of the Oder-Neisse line probably amounted to some 10 million people. However, the true scope of the migration cannot be reliably reconstructed because of the multitude of resettlement, escape, and deportation activities since the beginning of the War, in view of the chaotic circumstances and also due to differing statistical data and collection methods - which fairly often were influenced by political interests.

The most important areas of origin were the territories which had belonged to the German Reich before but now had become part of Poland, such as West Prussia, Pomerania, Brandenburg's New March, and Silesia; areas which had already belonged to Poland before the War and had had German minorities, such as Upper Silesia; additionally the city of Gdánsk and the areas of East Prussia and the Baltic States which now were annexed to the Soviet Union. By 1947, the major part of the forced resettlements was completed, but some smaller transports occurred until 1949. However, some areas in Poland, especially Silesia, retained a considerable German minority of roughly 1 million people in total.

Forced Resettlement of the German Population from the area east of the Oder-Neisse Line

The forced resettlement of the German population from Poland and the former eastern Reich provinces was the forced migration activity conducted at the end of the war by which the largest number of people was affected. However, it was by no means the only activity of its kind in this region of Europe. Members of the Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities, totalling about half a million people, were relocated from Poland up to 1947. Resettled persons from the former Polish eastern territories and the area of Vilnius and former forced labourers who were displaced by the War were now taken to the areas from which the German population had been forcibly cleared. The formerly Polish, now Soviet territories in the East were mainly settled by Belarusians and Ukrainians sent there.

Besides the concept of exerting retribution for the suffering caused during the German occupation period and claiming reparation for material losses, one of the main causes for the expulsion of the Germans was the accusation that the German minorities had served as a pretext for invasion or had even co-operated with the invaders. This claim was also linked to the idea that ethnically homogeneous nation states constituted a more suitable basis for peace and stability. In the future, there were to be no further territorial claims derived from the mere existence of minorities. Therefore, the expulsions and forced resettlements were advocated and regarded as necessary by the majority of Poles and their leadership, but also by the Allied governments.

Thus, these events also follow the tradition of state-organized shifts of ethnically defined minorities which frequently occurred over the first half of the 20th century. The dimensions they assumed and the extent of violence and duress with which they were carried out, however, have their roots in the expansion and extermination policy and the experience of total war which National Socialist Germany had brought upon Eastern Europe and which had left a profound mark on the Poles who planned and implemented the expulsion and resettlement of the German population after the liberation.

Gerrit Schäfer